Not to put too fine a point on it, but

a few weeks ago Nicholas Humphrey’s latest book on consciousness, Soul Dust, was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. The reviewer, Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at U.C. Berkeley, clearly neither a physicist nor a behaviorist, made much of Humphrey’s alleged remark (I have not read the book, nor will I) that the appearance of the moon as larger when it is at the horizon than it is at the zenith is “an optical illusion” and therefore a question about human consciousness. I wrote a letter in response to this—to me—nonsense and pointed out that the perceived size of the moon was not a question about human consciousness at all but about elementary physics. To wit: the moon appears larger at the horizon because, for a given point on the earth’s surface, the degree of refraction when the light from the moon enters the Earth’s atmosphere is different from that when the moon is at its zenith. My letter was not published.

The question itself is a minor matter, of course, and can easily be resolved by Drs. Humphrey and  Gopnik’s taking a course in high school physics. The more important issue is that ALL questions, and not only “psychological” questions, can be phrased in terms of either human consciousness or in terms of physics or any of the other “hard” sciences (Helmer and Rescher, in their Epistemology of the Inexact Sciences called them the “exact” sciences).

This is akin to what Stephen Pepper was talking about in his World Hypotheses (1942). You could, for example, construe the actions of Pavlov’s dogs, Thorndike’s cats, or Skinner’s pigeons in terms of dog, cat, or pigeon consciousness. Indeed, some people do but, for the moment, we will leave them to their fantasies. The point I am making here is that to do so is to adopt the Animist world-view or zeitgeist (see, for example, Quinn’s The Story of B) and, a forteriori, to phrase any question in terms of human consciousness is likewise to impose the Animist zeitgeist on human action.

Cognitive psychology, or “Neuroscience” as so many now like to call it in an attempt to make what they do sound so much more “scientific,” is Animism with a little sprinkling of the Formist and the Mechanist world-views added to hide what kind of thinking (you should pardon the expression) is really going on.

What is really going on is the failure to recognize that framing questions in terms of human consciousness is not only Animistic, it is ultimately solipsistic—the position that the only thing we can be sure of is our own consciousness. Statements made about anyone else’s consciousness must be inferred from what that person is doing or saying. That is, we cannot have any direct contact with the supposed subject of our interest: the other person’s mind or consciousness.

The entire issue is put to rest, in my opinion, by the work of Daniel Wegner (The Illusion of Conscious Will) who pointed out that under experimental conditions people will say with some certainty what they have been doing when it is quite clear to observers that they have actually been doing something else entirely. B.F. Skinner said pretty much the same thing decades earlier when he noted that, regardless of what we believe about ourselves, we know less about ourselves, and not more, than we know about other people.