Reader Mike Roberts pointed us to a slew of articles on the so-called "mind-body" problem in a comment yesterday. So I started reading them. These posts were written by John Horgan for Scientific American. Horgan is a reasonable guy.
Those working on the mind-body problem seek the origins of consciousness in the physical brain. Horgan goes through the current theories, noting that this scientific endeavor is regressing. Many researchers have simply thrown up their hands, saying that the problem is unsolvable. And to my mind, the current theories, for lack of a better word, are ridiculous. So I won't comment on them.
The mind-body conundrum is a Flatland problem, as I will explain in part below. Instead, let's work on a couple of non-Flatland questions — what is consciousness good for? What are its limits? To my knowledge, nobody has examined both sides of that problem.
Let's explore the positive side. What does consciousness allow us to do? Alternatively, once it arose, why might evolution have selected for consciousness?
Straightforwardly, consciousness, along with language, allows us to hold things in the mind. Consciousness permits directed focus. All of culturally transmitted knowledge — I do mean all — depends on the ability of the brain (mind) to sustain directed focus. Thus do ideas and technologies get invented and transmitted over time from one generation to the next. It goes without saying that not only are we in thrall to those ideas and technologies, but our very survival depends on them, and has for a very long time now. That's the good news.
The bad news is that consciousness is utterly silent about the actual motivations underlying characteristic human behaviors arising from instincts, biases, defenses, etc. Let's work through this by asking some embarrassing questions which I've grappled with on DOTE, to wit—
Can consciousness help humans create a large, complex, egalitarian society? Apparently not.
Can consciousness prevent future wars and tribal conflicts? Apparently not.
- Can consciousness prevent ubiquitous predatory human behaviors, both toward other humans and other species? Apparently not.
Can consciousness allow us to effectively address global warming and other self-created existential threats? Apparently not.
Does consciousness give us the ability to know when we are bullshitting and when we are not? Apparently not.
And so on, ad nauseum. Consciousness seems impotent in these and many other cases.
In short, where important large-scale behaviors are concerned, consciousness lacks efficacy. It is weak and does not determine (or even influence) important outcomes. It seems that humans have no idea what they're actually doing or why, at least where these important behaviors are concerned. And when paramount life & death matters are at stake—existential threats, whether they are immediate or longer term—consciousness is pretty much useless. That much seems apparent. History and experience tell us so.
Moreover, consciousness has a very unfortunate property—consciousness is misleading, consciousness is a trickster in so far as consciousness has no insight into motivations arising in the physical brain, the workings of which are opaque to it. That is to say, consciousness is post-hoc in the sense I've discussed on this blog; it is the end point of behaviors, not the starting point. The starting point and final arbiter seems to lay in the inaccessible physical brain (i.e. what psychologists call the unconscious).
But consciousness tells us we are powerful. And our power derives from our endless cleverness, right? Behold the temples we have built! (But why did we build them?)
We have all these astonishing technologies, all these sophisticated economic and political theories. We can deploy those technologies and implement those ideas. We can talk about them all day long. We can tweak them if they don't serve our conscious purposes. We know what we're doing, right? And how do we know that? Because what appears in consciousness tells us so!
And yet, we can not get positive answers to the kind of important, nagging questions listed above. And so we understand (better, hypothesize) that consciousness is the tail wagging the dog. This is consciousness as trickster. We strive to avoid wars, but wars always come. We talk a good game about ending poverty once and for all, but the poor are always with us. We talk endlessly about addressing dangerous global warming, yet do virtually nothing to avoid it. We are actively destroying ocean ecosystems but can hardly bear to bring the subject up.
But if consciousness is a trick the brain plays on us, it sure is an amazing trick! Consciousness helps us to do all this really powerful, very effective stuff via cultural transmission (of technologies, social rules and arrangements, etc). Homo sapiens is a big success, right? This consciousness thing is really something! We humans are really hot stuff! Do we not live in the Anthropocene, a human-dominated world? Hah!
And that's pretty much where those studying the mind-body problem come down on the issue, one way or the other—consciousness makes humans really special! They are fooled by the apparent efficacy of consciousness, just like everybody else in Flatland.
As devastating human failures pile up in the 21st century, which may be the last for our benighted species, the inadequacy of human consciousness on this pale blue dot will become more and more obvious ... to a few people, or so I hope.