On the Nature of Consciousness

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humankind Advancing Vol. 8, No. 2 (April 1997), p.11-13.

KEY TERMS: consciousness -- transcendentalism -- genetic-cultural co-evolution -- systems emergence -- evolutionary arms race

I was asked recently to provide an answer to a particularly illuminating question: one that had clearly been designed to distinguish naturalistic thinkers from those operating within other world views. The question was "Do you think that consciousness can exist outside of the living brain?" Because I believe that the question is almost the ultimately defining one in our current cultural context, I have decided to offer my answer to interested fellow humanists. I responded as follows. It is my considered opinion as a sociologist and educator that, unless the concept of "consciousness" is to be rendered totally meaningless, we must avoid all temptations to define it in other than organic, neurological and social-scientific terms. It simply cannot be stretched to include interactions at the sub-atomic or astronomical levels of existence without doing violence to the elementary rules of logic, the body of evidence built up through centuries of empirical inquiry, and ordinary language discourse. The currently popular search for purpose and meaning in the starry heavens and the nucleus of the atom amounts to a particularly pernicious form of reductionism: one which ignores the obvious implications of that emergence of systems of increasing complexity so apparent to neuroscientists and evolutionary theorists. It is but the latest version of an ancient project which itself can be explained in evolutionary terms. That project is the by-product of our inherited propensity to be tempted by imagined certainties beyond any possibility of experience -- rather than to be satisfied with the tentative and partial answers required by the fact of our origin and immersion within the very continuum of causal relations which we seek to understand.

How can we explain the seductiveness of that temptation -- the fact that a question about the possibility of "the existence of consciousness apart from a living brain" even needs to be asked of intellectuals in this day and age? The answer lies in the nature of that very human consciousness of which we speak; of its evolution within simple cultures as well as the somewhat isomorphic process of its individual growth within the lifetime of the individual. Human beings with the evolved capacity to perceive, remember and imagine tend to project on to their non-living surroundings their own innermost feelings, capacities, ideals and needs. This is as true of children in their earliest stages of intellectual development as it is of cultures in their primitive forms. Anthropologists and historians studying cultural change, and cognitive psychologists focusing on child development, have documented compelling evidence of this propensity. It is readily recognizable in the Animism that imagines spirits in the rocks and trees and prompts children to blame the wall for striking them; in the ready acceptance of pantheons of helpful/vengeful nature gods; and in the polytheisms defined in terms of human attributes. It is found, as well, in the modern culmination of the process in the form of a Creative Designer concerned with personal salvation -- and in the mystic's vision of a transcendental Mind. In fact, our cultural history is littered with the skeletons of archaic mythologies featuring supra- and subhuman forces clothed in human garb and involved in all-too-human conflicts and intrigues.

The scientific study of genetic-cultural co-evolution indicates that consciousness did not emerge fully formed from out the head of Zeus, the myth of Athena notwithstanding. We know that it evolved, along with the brain, from very rudimentary beginnings in organic life. Neuroscientists are now rapidly approaching the long-sought goal of being able to account for the phenomenon as a biological fact. That fact implies at least a modicum of animal sentience -- if not the fully developed purposive awareness of the human self as distinct from its surroundings in space and time. Explained in this way, the concept of consciousness is an essential tool in the evolutionist's arsenal. It is a form of self-awareness that both freed us from the imprisonment of momentary impulse and immediate environmental impact and enabled us to yearn fruitlessly for a source of meaning and purpose beyond that very organic interaction out of which it had originally emerged. A credible account of its evolution -- from the crude sensitivity felt by some primitive animal ancestor to the complex interplay of the imagination, memory and empathy operative within the adult human being -- is the key to any sound understanding of the evolutionary history and possible future role of our species in the scheme of things. We destroy the usefulness of that conceptual tool at our peril.

Let us not extend our past follies by granting legitimacy to a New-Age mythology based on the notion of a transcendental consciousness. It seems to me that the metaphysical idealisms and dualisms fuelling this myth are like viruses in the body of human culture. Throughout the history of our species those cultural viruses have been engaged in an "evolutionary arms race" in which they have adapted successfully by mutating in response to each advance in scientific knowledge which discredited their previous forms. But a virus cripples and ultimately destroys its host. Only by adopting the paradigm of evolutionary naturalism can we hope to comprehend the organic roots and natural selective processes that produced our distinctively human consciousness. Only tested knowledge from the life sciences -- and from those pioneering social sciences that are themselves built on evolutionary foundations -- can provide us with the adaptive capacity to guide cultural evolution in humanly fulfilling and life-enhancing directions. Let us begin the task by standing on solid ground.