The myths that divide us from nature

(reading time: 8 mins)

The ancient idea that whatever enables human consciousness is a basic property of our material world is an elegantly simple philosophical standpoint. But few can conceive how it might work in practice without resorting to some sort of mysticism.

I believe a significant factor is the language we use to describing human consciousness, and in particular how we differentiate it from other animals’ awareness, revealing a long held assumption that our species is almost above nature. As a result, the more removed human consciousness appears to be from nature, the less plausible any suggestion of ‘awareness everywhere’ becomes.

Is consciousness a mystery or a hard problem?

So here’s a couple of phrases that I believe re-enforce the myth of human separateness. In writings and videos on human consciousness you will frequently encounter the phrase “the mystery of consciousness”.

In one sense mystery is a valid term because it can mean simply an unsolved problem – such as a murder mystery before the killer is unmasked. But the word has other connotations and is frequently invoked when the answer is considered beyond the rational mind, such as the mystery of the resurrection of Christ. The prevalence of this word in discussions of consciousness does I think suggest a certain reverence for human conscious experience.

It’s important to remember western science and philosophy developed in a largely Christian culture, which taught that our species is removed from the rest of the animal kingdom because only humans are in possession of a mortal soul. So isn’t the base assumption that humans belong in a fundamentally separate category a continuation of something inherited from monotheist religion, except now it is justified on philosophical and scientific, rather than theological grounds?

David Chalmers ‘hard problem’ of consciousness has a more recent historical context. It follows on from Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” in making the observation that scientific study alone will never fully account for conscious experience because science is essentially in the business of accumulating facts about how the brain operates.

Scientists often regard it as philosophical navel gazing, because core to materialism is the belief that you can understand everything by studying the physical world, so consciousness is not a hard problem, rather an unsolved one. Conversely those thinkers who passionately believe in the ‘hard problem’ may claim that those who don’t believe in its importance haven’t understood it! So not only is it hard to answer, it is hard to understand in the first place.

Assigning subjective consciousness the label ‘hard’ suggests it will only be figured out by a long hard slog of analysis, enquiry and examination. A hard problem could not, by definition, have a simple answer that a child would understand (e.g. awareness is inseparable from matter and energy). It probably requires a highly trained analytic mind, presumably in possession of a PhD from a prestigious university. This makes the solution to the hard problem – and therefore human consciousness itself – somewhat exclusive and remote.

Signs and mythologies

In the section above I used the slightly provocative phrase “a PhD from a prestigious university”. Here I’m following in the footsteps of cultural critics like Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and John Berger.

These late 20th century critics de-constructed our culture’s apparent neutrality to reveal its basic values. They showed how signifiers are used in the media, art, advertising and literature, which create ‘mythologies’, which in turn become accepted as basic truths. In so doing they revealed how culture often reinforces inherited power structures – the wealthy over the poor, the patriarchy over women, the coloniser over the colonised, etc.

But there is another important power structure that bears such semiotic analysis. That of the human species over other animals and nature.

In the same year as Thomas Nagel’s essay, came another of equal significance for understanding human consciousness, Peter Singer’s “All animals are equal”, in which Singer questioned the rational basis for the human race’s frequently appalling treatment of other species.

Dr Singer is himself a vegan, humanist and long-time animal rights advocate. But Singer’s essay has for me an additional significance beyond being a persuasive piece of moral philosophy. It deserves consideration in the wider metaphysical debates about human consciousness, because if on analysis our justification for placing ourselves above the other species is inherited and cultural rather than rational, surely we should avoid regarding human conscious experience itself as removed from the rest of the animal kingdom, and from nature?

Inherited wisdom says our place in the animal kingdom is rather like the pyramid diagram below. We occupy the peak, larger mammals below us, then birds, rodents, non-mammalian marine life, then insects and simple organisms. In 1974 the scientific consensus would have been that only our species has self-awareness, abstract thought, moral behaviour, forward planning etc, assuring our place at the top of the evolutionary tree.

However, in the intervening decades, scientists have found all of those supposedly unique human traits in at least one other species. The research now bears out Dr Singer’s reasoned view, and the scientific view of other animals’ cognitive abilities has shifted significantly. But I’m not sure the philosophers have taken on board the implications of such research.

Now don’t get me wrong. Humans are certainly a unique species. The human race has thrived due to cognitive modules that afforded us the opportunity to shape and control nature, something no other species comes close to. However difference is not superiority. And our species has an interest in re-enforcing the narrative that we are, in some important way, a breed apart.

How difference becomes superiority

Here’s an example of difference potentially being equated with superiority. A major difference between humans and other mammals is our large pre-frontal cortex, associated with the most human of cognitive functions, reason, planning, language and so on. Chimpanzee brains contain around 17% PFC to our 29%. Some argue this extra volume indicates more than a continuous evolutionary cognitive improvement, because the extra PFC means significantly more neural connections, which led to the human brain (and therefore our conscious experience) being fundamentally different.

This brain evolution can be described with a ‘step’ function, represented by the graph below. It’s a step function because an apparently small difference in input, 29% not 17%, supposedly leads to a threshold being crossed, causing a dramatic change in output – in this case the resulting consciousness.

Graph representing a step function

Now, I am not questioning whether or not a count of neural connections should be represented with a step function. But we should be wary of taking the idea of a step function as representing the value of our consciousness relative to other species. If we were to do this, what myth, what story would be implied?

Let’s say we populate the step function graph as below. We see a steady evolution of intelligent consciousness, then a sudden leap up a sharp conceptual cliff, with us sitting at the top, suggesting ours is the most privileged, even enlightened viewpoint in the animal kingdom. Meanwhile other species are left quietly grazing on the lower slopes of awareness.

The step function as a representation of the human species

We are familiar with the idea that only our species made the conceptual leap to ‘true consciousness’. For example, near the start of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey, the enigmatic black obelisk sparks off something in one of our primate ancestors, who takes up a bone as a weapon for the first time, making possible the rest of the human story and technology.

When the film was made, tool use was another trait supposedly reserved only for our species. But tool use, like abstraction and understanding symbols, has since been found in other species. So does this scene reflect a real evolutionary leap of consciousness, or are we creating a mythology of difference and superiority because that suits us?

Hypnotised by abstraction

In a practical sense we use abstraction more than any other species. But more of something doesn’t always justify creating a different category. So for example, a dog has 300 million sensors in its nose compared to a human’s 50 million, which suggests smell makes up far more of its mental world than ours. Yet a dog’s sense of smell is simply considered a better version of what we have, rather than justifying a separate category.

Although abstract thinking has given the human race temporary dominance over this planet, it is becoming increasingly apparent it may also destroy us. For decades before the demise of the Eastern bloc, there was the constant danger of all out nuclear war, a war caused by the most abstract of human concepts, political ideologies.

Now environmental disaster threatens our survival, as we fill the oceans with plastic, cause mass species extinctions and fail to get a grip on climate change. All because the abstract concepts of GDP and economic growth have greater importance than the viability of a natural world we are completely dependent upon.

Humans can be hypnotised by the abstract worlds we create, even to the point of now endangering our own evolutionary purpose. So we ought to question whether abstraction and metaphor are really the pinnacle of intelligent consciousness, or an evolutionary accident that may yet backfire on us.

The intelligent aware universe

There is nothing wrong with regarding our consciousness as wondrous and mysterious. But it should be balanced with the recognition that the brain ‘fills in’ quite a bit, meaning our mental world is also quite approximate, quite rough and ready.

In other posts I’ve described the intelligence behaviour of no brained slime mold, Physarum Polycephalum. And this section of my video gives a less mythologised way to view of human consciousness, which has parallels in legacy computing.

So perhaps the energy intensive effort put in by the human brain is not about generating the most enlightened, top-of-the-mountain, point of view in the universe. Could the brain be instead mediating, filtering and slowing down the universe to allow the human body to function in a universe where intelligent and creative awareness is inseparable from matter and energy?

Continuing to mythologise human consciousness and asserting superiority over other animals clearly makes it harder to bridge the gap between our species and nature. It is then ever harder to bridge the gap between the basic stuff of the universe and our conscious experience.