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The Invention of Consciousness

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Abstract: In English we use the word “invention” in two ways. First, to mean a new device or process developed by experimentation, and designed to fulfill a practical goal. Second, to mean a mental fabrication, especially a falsehood, developed by art, and designed to please or persuade. In this talk I’ll argue that human consciousness is an invention in both respects. First, it is a cognitive faculty, evolved by natural selection, designed to help us make sense of ourselves and our surroundings. But then, second, it is a fantasy, conjured up by the brain, designed to change the value we place on our existence.

Bio: Nick Humphrey is a theoretical psychologist who has migrated from neurophysiology, through animal behaviour to evolutionary psychology and the study of consciousness. He did research on mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda, he was the first to demonstrate the existence of “blindsight” after brain damage in monkeys, he proposed the celebrated theory of the “social function of intellect”, and he has recently explained the evolutionary basis of the placebo effect. His eight books include Consciousness Regained, A History of the Mind, Leaps of Faith and Soul Dust. He won the 2015 International Mind and Brain Prize.

This talk is part of the Zangwill Club series.

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