Psychiatrist Joseph LeDoux, author of The Deep History of Ourselves (2019), offers an extract at Aeon, musing on the mystery of consciousness. In a way, his approach typifies the problem with the wholly materialist approach to the mind and the brain:
Like all living things, humans are organisms, biological entities that function as physiological aggregates whose constituent parts operate with a high degree of cooperation and a low degree of conflict. But unlike other organisms, humans possess a rogue component – a brain network that can, at will, choose to defect and undermine the survival mission and purpose of the rest of the body. This is the network that underlies human consciousness, and especially our capacity for autonoetic, or reflective, self-awareness, the basis of the conceptions that underlie our greatest achievements as a species – art, music, architecture, literature, science – and our ability to appreciate them.Joseph LeDoux, “Can our self-conscious minds save us from our selfish selves?” at Aeon (September 4, 2019)
So what makes us explicitly human is merely a “rogue component”? Well, “rogue” according to whom?
LeDoux goes on to focus on suicide, working with the general assumption that only a human being would attempt to commit suicide. Indeed, that is probably true. In a surprisingly sane article on the topic in 2012, we read,
For an act to be classified as a suicide, the agent must know that what it is doing will end its life. That kind of abstract thinking is probably out of the range of animals — even advanced ones.Katharine Gammon, “Can Animals Commit Suicide?” at LiveScience (March 29, 2012)
But that’s not an aberration. Both death and suicide are abstractions. Yes, they are realities but they are also abstractions whenever we think about them apart from a current event. Animals don’t commit suicide because they don’t comprehend abstractions. What makes humans different is that we can comprehend abstractions.
We are told by Dr. LeDoux to worry about the internet:
The internet has indeed transformed life in ways worth celebrating but, like most good things, it comes at a cost. It has made it easier to be self-centred, facilitating realignments of interests that oppose the common good and challenge commonly accepted beliefs through hearsay and rumour, and even outright lies. False assertions gain credence simply through rapid repetition. Some use such tactics to undermine the value of science and its contributions to life and wellbeing, and to attack the foundations of our social structures, including our government, and its safety nets for those in need, and its checks and balances against tyranny.Joseph LeDoux, “Can our self-conscious minds save us from our selfish selves?” at Aeon (September 4, 2019)
Blaming the internet amounts to blaming ourselves. Fair enough but it goes nowhere. The rhetoric sounds like an invitation to government to take control of the internet to prevent “false assertions,” as if that would not, in reality, give government-sponsored false assertions much more strength.
Ending on a slightly less cheerful note, Dr. LeDoux says,
Pondering such issues, the philosopher Todd May recently asked: ‘Would human extinction be a tragedy?’ He concluded that the planet might well be better off without us, but that such an outcome would indeed be a trag-edy, as we have achieved remarkable things as a species. Autonoesis, I contend, has made these possible. But it also has a dark side. With self-consciousness comes selfishness, and narcissism, enabling our most troubling and base dispositions towards others – distrust, fear, hate, greed and avarice. According to the philosopher Christophe Menant, it is the root of evil.Joseph LeDoux, “Can our self-conscious minds save us from our selfish selves?” at Aeon (September 4, 2019)
Joseph LeDoux has encapsulated our problem beautifully. We are human and we have human consciousness. So we can do things, good or bad, that frogs do not. Doubtless, we need to keep being reminded of that. And the way forward?
This article is part of a series on great questions in human consciousness.
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