What Am I?

I suppose that ever since our ancestors became human, some of them at least have been puzzling over the mystery of consciousness. What is the real “me?” Is it nothing more than my material body? Isn’t there some kind of essence that is non-material? If not, how to explain consciousness, and thinking, and all the other aspects of mental activity? If so, how to describe that nonmaterial essence that gives meaning to the self?

A lot of the world’s religious and philosophical thought over the ages has grown out of efforts to reply to these questions. Until recently, neither the philosophers nor the religious pundits had the faintest idea what they were talking about, but there was a general demand for their views, and they rose to the occasion by fantasizing. Supporters took some of their more emotionally satisfying ramblings and constructed them into the central tenets of most of the traditional religions and schools of philosophy.

Recent explorations into the basic workings of the human brain have given us a more scientific basis for speculating about the nature of human thought than used to be available. By now, “Virtually all contemporary scientists and philosophers…agree that the mind, which comprises consciousness and rational process, is the brain at work.” (Edward O. Wilson, Consilience, p.107). This admirably concise statement doesn’t answer all our questions, but at least it gets us off to a good start.

For one thing, it helps us gain a fresh perspective on all that religious baggage we’ve inherited about spirits and souls and such like. It is now plausible, as I point out in “On Human Intelligence,” to believe that the human brain was created as a result of an evolutionary process, rather than as the conscious act of some superior intelligence or being. That is the explanation that fits the facts as we have come to know them. Evolutionary theory is it, for scientists and for everybody else who would prefer to operate on the basis of knowledge as opposed to wishful thinking. Creationism, the alternate theory, is for the wishful thinkers who hew to the ideas they were brought up to believe despite the known facts.

Well and good, the brain evolved. But what is the mind? How does a lump of gray custard inside somebody’s cranium produce a scenario, a sonnet, a symphony? What’s going on here, you ask the scientists? Here you are, making everything tangible and measurable, from electrons to galaxies, but how do you render my thoughts equally tangible?

In order to answer that question, you have to shift gears, get way back, and consider life as a phenomenon that could get started in the physical world only when some extremely unlikely conditions obtained. Most of the universe, as far as we can tell, is extremely inhospitable. Our planet was highly unusual in that there were oceans and temperatures and other factors that enabled certain chemical reactions to occur that led to increasingly complex molecules and eventually to something that was capable of replicating itself. Once replication started, the basis was laid for evolution, and life began to work its long and tortuous way up to the level of complexity we now see in the biological world around us–including the human brain.

The human brain evolved because it conferred enormous survival value on its owners, in the context of the environments in which those owners lived. A built-in tendency for socializing, reinforced by an extraordinary capacity for language, launched our ancestors on an unprecedentedly successful trajectory, one we are still following.

The unique human capacity for language made possible abstract thought. It also meant that people could exchange their thoughts. Ideas could be passed from one person to another, and from one generation to another. Information could be created, replicated, modified, retained, and reused.

The human brain created an environment in which ideas could flourish. There is a loose analogy here to the emergence on our planet of the preconditions for the start and the subsequent development of biological life. In each case, truly extraordinary circumstances created the essential preconditions for something spectacularly different to happen, involving replicating entities that could evolve and proliferate. When biological life began, something brand new in the solar system and perhaps even our galaxy was born. When the human brain evolved, something even more original, brand new in the solar system and probably even in our galaxy, was born. The world of the mind has produced some amazing fruit in the couple of hundred thousand years it has been in existence. And we ain’t seen nothing yet.

So Plato was right, in a sense. There are two worlds, two universes: the physical world around us, which includes biological life as well as the geophysical environment, and the world of the human mind. But he was wrong in saying the real one was the mental one. They are both real, equally real. They came about differently; the mental world had to wait a long time, since biological life began, for the right conditions to evolve. But then, biological life had to wait around even longer, for the right environmental conditions to occur before it could get started. We are the end result of a series of uncommon coincidences. Who says we aren’t special?

I still haven’t answered the question of how a “brain-at-work” can produce a symphony. I’m not going to try, at least in this essay. But if you look on ideas, the world of thoughts that exists inside the brains of all the people on the earth, now and in the past, and if you can discern a sort of evolutionary pattern, see how some kinds of ideas can evolve, then perhaps you can work it out. Or at least, you can begin to.

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