The subject of human consciousness has long fascinated me. I’m not conscious of a reason for that.
Descartes famously said that our consciousness is the only fact about which we can be certain. Although the claim in increasingly controversial, many believe that consciousness is uniquely human.
Philosophers of the mind grapple with the so-called “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” How does a physical object responding to stimuli (a blob of tissue we call a brain) seemingly produce consciousness and subjectivity?
In John Locke’s cosmological argument for the existence of God, he argued that all effects have causes–therefore there had to be a first cause. And, he further reasoned, since matter cannot give rise to thought, there had to be a thinking first cause.
But leaving aside theological speculation, if consciousness emerged during human evolution, rather than as some divine gift, then matter did somehow give rise to thought. How might that have happened? And why?
Consciousness must have conferred some evolutionary advantage or it wouldn’t have evolved, most scientists and philosophers would argue. But what might that benefit be? Does consciousness serve any utilitarian function? Couldn’t humans exist and behave exactly as we do now, but without subjective consciousness?
One interesting hypothesis is that the ability to reflect/consider before acting, and to feel regret after acting, confers some evolutionary advantage favoring self consciousness members of the species over others, by improving decision-making. This advantage, the argument goes, explains why conscious humans prevailed in our evolutionary competition.
Another interesting argument is that consciousness confers the evolutionary benefit of a more ordered and manageable society, by giving us the illusion of free will. Tests have shown that after being shown evidence against the existence of free will, test subjects are more likely to behave selfishly and immorally. Social cohesion depends upon our belief that we have free will, and that people are morally accountable for their conduct. So, the argument goes, conscious early humans and their communities had an evolutionary advantage over those without consciousness.
The simplest explanation seems to me the most elegant–perhaps consciousness is simply a natural outgrowth of the development of language. After all, consciousness is in some sense just us talking to ourselves.
And maybe I’ve done enough of that this morning. Time to leave the keyboard and go to the garden.
Happy Labor Day to all.