Humphrey attributes this illusory theater of self to evolution. Creatures that enjoy existing have a greater commitment to continuing existence than those driven by mere instinct to live. Consciousness, then, is evolution’s way of intensifying the attachment to life. Human beings, with the most highly developed feedback loops, are “connoisseurs of consciousness,” as Humphrey describes us, who take the most intense pleasures in their perceptions. The author supports this claim by drawing on his impressive knowledge of literature, as well as philosophy and the social and physical sciences.
Although I found the book interesting, I remain unconvinced by its claims. On the subject of consciousness, I think I will have to list myself among those that Colin McGinn has described as “mysterians,” who believe that the ultimate nature of the phenomenon will always remain mysterious and cannot be solved (or explained away). Most broadly, this is because I do not think that one can completely account for any system from inside of that system. Unable to move outside the boundaries of our own minds (at least in scientific terms), we can never trace the circumference of mind.
Humphrey does give some attention to anxiety, but largely writes it off as a side effect. His quotations of poetry and literary reflections, though, suggest that the view of humans as “connoisseurs of consciousness” might seem plausible to those of us in the enviable situation of modern middle class intellectuals, but it also might seem like a strange claim to many of our forebears in the long tragedy of history.