MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
HISTORY’S RIGID, ROCKY, AND GOOFY WAY OF THINKING ABOUT CONSCIOUSNESS
“Speak English!” said the Eaglet. “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
SIGMUND FREUD DIED the year I was born—1939. That year there were a lot of zany ideas being kicked around about the nature of our psychological lives, many of them dreamed up by Freud himself. He is not popularly remembered as such, but Freud was a biologist at heart, a reductionist. He was committed to the belief that the brain generated the mind in a deterministic way, a view shared by many of today’s neuroscientists. Now we recognize that many of his ideas were pure fantasy, but up until the 1950s they were so broadly accepted that they were the dominant testimony for psychological issues in a U.S. court of law!
It has been in my lifetime, not Freud’s, that humankind has learned the most about how the brain does its tricks. Wild speculation about the forces governing our mental lives has given way to specific knowledge about the molecular, cellular, and environmental influences that underlie our existence. Indeed, the past seventy-five years of research have provided a wealth of information about the brain, sometimes even yielding organizing principles. I am sure Freud would have reveled in our new world and would have gladly put his incredible imagination to work on the new science of the brain. Yet the deep puzzles that faced scientists of all stripes in the previous century, and indeed going back to the ancient Greeks, are still present today. How on earth does lifeless matter become the building blocks for living things? How do neurons turn into minds? What should be the vocabulary used to describe the interactions between the brain and its mind? When humankind finds some answers, will we be disheartened by what they are? Will our future understanding of “consciousness” simply not be fulfilling? Will it be simple yet cold and harsh?
Wading into the history of the study of consciousness is daunting. For one thing, it is littered with the complex and abstract writings of philosophers. Even John Searle, one of today’s leading philosophers of consciousness, has admitted: “I probably should read more philosophy than I do. But I think a lot of works of philosophy are like root-canal work, you just think you’ve got to get through that damn thing.”1 Add to that the view of the great philosopher David Hume, who provided strong arguments that most of the questions asked by philosophers simply couldn’t be answered using the methodologies of logic, mathematics, and pure reason. Nonetheless, philosophers got us thinking about the mind, the soul, and consciousness. From ancient times on, they have had a huge influence.
“Consciousness” is a relatively modern idea. The very word, as now broadly used in dozens of contexts (Marvin Minsky would call it a “suitcase word” because it is packed full of various meanings), was invented in its modern sense only in the mid-seventeenth century by René Descartes. It does have origins in the Greek word oida—“to have seen or perceived and hence to know”—and the Latin equivalent scio, “to know.” But the ancients did not have an explicit concept of consciousness. There was interest in how the mind worked, where thoughts came from, and even whether a purely physical process was involved, but most early thought wound up concluding that mental life was the product of an immaterial spirit. And when consciousness is framed as immaterial spirit, it’s hard to start thinking about underlying mechanisms!
Over the centuries, the concept of the mind and the concept of the soul have been involved in an on-again, off-again relationship. For most of written history, the very idea that personal psychological reality was a thing, a something to be studied, was largely nonexistent. Our brains, our thought structures, and our emotions presumably haven’t changed, so what were we humans thinking about? But, as will become evident, the concept of consciousness has radically changed over the past twenty-five hundred years. Its ethereal beginnings and its current meaning have little to do with each other.
We humans need a new way to think about the problem, and with luck, this book may offer some new beginnings. First, however, as is always the case, it’s best to look back before plunging forward.
Early Stirrings: Successes and Blunders
The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians were the Western world’s philosophical forebears. In their concept of the world, nature was not an opponent in life’s struggles. Rather, man and nature were in the same boat, companions in the same story. Man thought of the natural world in the same terms as he thought of himself and other men. The natural world had thoughts, desires, and emotions, just like humans. Thus, the realms of man and nature were indistinguishable and did not have to be understood in cognitively different ways. Natural phenomena were imagined in the same terms as human experience: generous or not so much, dependable or spiteful, and so on. These ancients of the Near East did recognize the relation of cause and effect, but when speculating about it they came from a “who” rather than a “what” perspective. When the Nile rose, it was because the river wanted to, not because it had rained. There was no science to suggest otherwise.
Not so with the ancient Greeks. The earliest Greek philosophers were not priests charged by their communities to consider spiritual matters, as they were in the Near East. They were not professional seers. They were a bunch of amateurs puttering around in their garages unconstrained by dogma, curious about the natural world, and happy to share their thoughts. When they started to ask about their origins, they did not ask “who” the progenitor was, they asked “what” the first cause was. This was a monumental change of viewpoint for humankind that the archaeologist and Egyptologist Henri Frankfort called “breathtaking”:
[T]hese men proceeded, with preposterous boldness, on an entirely unproved assumption. They held that the universe is an intelligible whole. In other words, they presumed that a single order underlies the chaos of our perceptions and, furthermore, that we are able to comprehend that order.2
Frankfort goes on to explain how the Greek philosophers were able to make this leap: “The fundamental difference between the attitudes of modern and ancient man as regards the surrounding world is this: for modern, scientific man the phenomenal world is primarily an ‘It’; for ancient—and also for primitive—man it is a ‘Thou.’”
A “Thou” is a someone with beliefs, thoughts, and desires, doing their thing, not necessarily stable or predictable. On the other hand, “It” is an object, not a friend. “It” can be related to other objects in whatever seems the most reasonable organization. One can build and expand on these relationships and seek universal laws that govern behavior and events under predictable, prescribed conditions. Seeking the identity of an object is an active process. On the contrary, understanding a “Thou” is a passive process in which one first receives an emotionally charged impression. A “Thou” is unique and unpredictable and known only insofar as it reveals itself. Each “Thou” experience is individual. You can coax a story or a myth from an interaction with a “Thou,” but you cannot draw a hypothesis. The transition away from “Thou” and toward “It” made scientific thinking possible.
The Greeks’ huge advance in perspective created an atmosphere that catapulted Aristotle into a scientific life. Aristotle’s stance was that the job of science was to account objectively for the “why” of things, which led to his doctrine of causality. For him, scientific knowledge about something (say, some X) included all the ways the “why” question could be answered: if X was caused by Y, or if Y was at least a necessary condition in order for X to happen, then this is the type of assertion that belongs to science. He postulated four causal categories: material, formal, efficient, and final. So if one were to ask “Aristotle, why a cart?,” he would tell you the material cause was wood, the formal cause was its blueprint, the efficient cause was its construction, and its final cause was … he just wanted one.
For Aristotle, the natural world was a web of what biological theorist Robert Rosen calls causal entailments: X comes with all its Ys. Rosen points out that Aristotle’s whole idea was to show that no one mode of explanation sufficed to understand anything, because the causal categories do not entail each other. For example, knowing how to build something does not entail understanding how it works; knowing how something works does not entail knowing how to build it. Also, for Aristotle, science was content-determined. It was independent of the method by which it was studied.
The scientific method as practiced today is a formal system in which a hypothesis produces its inferences, that is, its effects: the hypothesis entails its effects. Another way to say this is that the cause comes before the effect. This presents a problem when asking Aristotle’s final-causation “why” question. Let’s go back to “Why the cart, Aristotle?” Why did Aristotle have a cart parked in front of his home when hours earlier it had been parked at Acropolis Depot? He had seen the cart (which entailed the effects of the material, formal, and efficient causes) and wanted it. Here, the tables were turned and the effect came before the cause. This is a no-no in the Newtonian world, where a state can only entail subsequent states. Thus, Aristotle’s final causation, as a separate category, was lost to science. We will see later what harm this has done to biology.
Copyright © 2018 by Michael S. Gazzaniga