I think, therefore I am confused.

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.




15 comments on “I think, therefore I am confused.

  1. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, wow, that is some to chew on. For me it’s just easier to believe that consciousness came from divine creation. I’m just a simple guy that thinks simple things. I can understand what those deep thinking philosophers are trying to understand but I’d rather be blissfully ignorant and live in a peaceful state of mind. 🙂

    There’s no better way to celebrate Labor Day than to labor. My cousin needs some help with trimming down some bushes to a manageable height. So big Bertha (my chainsaw) will get work out today. After we are finished it’s to the Outback for a blooming onion and steak dinner. I have the best cousins ever.

    Be well, stay safe, and don’t let your brain explode on those deep thoughts. 🙂


  2. shoreacres says:

    I don’t know, and honestly don’t much care how consciousness emerged, but you’ve made me think about the way experience and reflection belong together.

    Without experience, thought becomes detached, precious, or irrelevant to the world surrounding the thinker. From the monastic traditions’ Ora et labora to Paulo Freire’s praxis, the most useful thought never has turned its back on the world. I suspect that’s why the stereotype of philosophers’ ivory towers has taken hold. Rightly or wrongly, those ivory towers represent a withdrawal from and/or rejection of the world.

    That’s why some stories about the flooding in Houston are so useless. People drawing conclusions without experience of the area — or even the most basic research — end up not knowing important facts that everyone who lives here is conscious of: for example: wind and tides often prevent flood waters from draining through Galveston Bay to the Gulf. Reporters who breeze into an area with their confirmation biases intact can’t reach any valid conclusions, no matter how many sentences they string together.

    Well, that took a turn, didn’t it? Just remember: don’t ever put Descartes before dey horse.


    • Bill says:

      Well you’re in good company. No one knows and very few care!

      All I’ve seen of the flooding are news stories on the internet. I’m sure nothing does justice to what it’s like to actually be there. Hoping life returns to normal as soon as possible for all y’all.

      If I recall correctly you are an admirer of Wittgenstein (I’ve never understood him). Whether you are or you aren’t, here’s something that may give you a good laugh. Wittgenstein is in it, although not in a starring role. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ur5fGSBsfq8


      • shoreacres says:

        That’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in some time. I was laughing by a minute in, and never stopped. In fact, I was laughing so hard I woke the cat.

        I’m not exactly a fan of Wittgenstein, but he said a few things that resonate, and he shows up in my posts in a supporting role now and then — kind of like Kirkegaard. That may be why he only had a supporting role on the soccer team. I have to go back and watch again. I think I caught that Luther was the team manager.

        I’ve favorited the video, and believe me — I intend to pass it on.


      • Bill says:

        I never get tired of watching it. Yes, Martin Luther is the German manager. Wittgenstein gets pulled for Karl Marx. I laugh just thinking about it.


  3. Laurie Graves says:

    Mental labors for Labor Day. I, too, like the simplest solution, although as we learn more, we might find that other animals have a sort of consciousness, too.


  4. Super fine to know that at least one farmer in VA is knee deep in the most mysterious, the most important, of questions.


  5. avwalters says:

    Then consciousness would be the second of the thinking gifts. The first was that big brain. Having done that, consciousness was necessary as a brake to that engine.


  6. Ah, my friend, but here’s the rub. It’s not entirely possible to step outside ourselves to understand ourselves. For example, we postulate that “I think, therefore I am” or ramp it up to define consciousness as stemming from language, but science continues to show us that consciousness exists in all sorts of life forms at levels formerly thought to be reserved for humans. Chickens relying on math, dolphins calling one another by name, honeybees suffering from pessimism, chimps ritualistically dancing around fire….. (More about this here: lauragraceweldon.com/2014/11/05/are-you-an-anthropocentrist )

    And what we call consciousness is now observed in plants (for example, Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate).

    Teilhard de Chardin believed that we are evolving toward a noosphere —-that God’s plan led from the Big Bang to ever greater complexification of matter, from initial life forms to human consciousness which advances through human interaction to a collective human consciousness. I think even so soul-drenched a being as de Chardin was only partway there. Why can’t we imagine that everything is a manifestation of and endowed with Divine intelligence? Living creatures, trees, water, the laws of physics, newly birthing stars? My sense of awe has ramped up a thousandfold as I dig into the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme in books like The Universe Story, and have worked with a study group around Swimme’s Powers of the Universe. Truly extraordinary stuff.


    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the great comment Laura. I discovered evolutionary spirituality earlier this year (from Steve McIntosh’s book The Presence of the Infinite ) and it rocked my world. He didn’t discuss de Chardin’s noosphere, and I didn’t connect the dots myself. That’s a great observation. I’ve added the books you mentioned to my reading list!


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