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What makes us human? The way we think is surely part of the answer. Among our thinking skills, self-awareness is a promising candidate for the cognitive capacity that sets us apart from the other animals on earth. The distinction is not absolute – evolutionary differences seldom are. We know that chimpanzees can recognise themselves in mirrors, and to that extent are self-conscious. But it is likely that we and only we have a really well-developed understanding of ourselves as subjects of experience — as animals with minds. We put this to work when we ponder our own and others' thoughts and feelings. Our self-awareness feeds our addiction to "mental time travel", by which we project ourselves into the past when we reminisce, and into the future in imaginative thought. These capacities, for "theory of mind" and mental time travel, together with our closely related talent for language, have been identified by many contemporary thinkers — in psychology, anthropology and elsewhere — as the intellectual hallmarks of adult humankind. But if we want to understand how we experience the world, listing capacities does only half the job, as it says little about the content of our self-understanding. This has changed radically in the course of human history. We believe that this content is in the midst of a revolution which originates in science but is destined for a much wider cultural expression. 

Of all the questions we can ask about ourselves and our world, among the most fundamental are those which concern our understanding of what matter is, what mind is, and their relation with one another. Two kinds of answer to these questions have been given, roughly successively. The first has been described by Charles Taylor as envisaging an "enchanted universe" in which matter is "porous" to mind, and mind to matter. This view is animistic — it takes the natural world to be richly populated with various kinds of mind — and anthropomorphic — it explains the workings of nature in human terms. It draws no sharp distinction between the "mental" and "physical" and assumes that the human meanings we find in the universe belong precisely there. There are "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks/Sermons in stones, and good in everything". Such a view lingers in some of our more ancient artefacts, practices and beliefs, especially those associated with art and religion, in the light cast by the scientific revolution, and have become the object of both fascination and perplexity. 

The porous view has been replaced by a very different conception of nature. From René Descartes and Isaac Newton to David Hume and Immanuel Kant, the material world has come to be seen as mindless, and the mind as set against it. Enchantment gives way to disenchantment, the porous interconnections between mind and matter are replaced by a sharp boundary that defines the "buffered self". The movements of the planets, the processes of life, indeed the workings of our own bodies are reconceived in terms of wonderfully intricate machinery. As the medical historian Charles Singer wrote: "The course of physiological advance may be described briefly as the expulsion of the mental element from process after process associated with vital activity." The mind became an anomaly in the material world: the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle described this ethereal being as "a kind of imprisoned angel". Inheriting this tradition, the great neurophysiologist Sir Charles Sherrington noted — with considerable frustration — "to man's understanding the world remain[s] obstinately double".

This dualistic tradition was bound, sooner or later, to confront its own incoherence. Charles Singer's words anticipate this moment-the process of "expulsion" he described had, eventually, to stop, as it became ever clearer that one set of vital processes, those occurring in the brain, were precisely the source of the "mental element" in our lives. This knowledge, was to some degree, ancient — Hippocrates had written 500 years before the Christian era that "from the brain and from the brain only arise all our pleasures, joys, laughters and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears". In the 17th century, Thomas Willis, the royalist physician, father of neurology and founder member of the Royal Society, had "addicted [himself] to the opening of heads" precisely to "unlock the secret places of man's mind". Paul Broca, the 19th century Parisian neurologist and anthropologist, wrote that "the great regions of the mind correspond to the great regions of the brain". These thinkers recognised that mind is the intimate, not the antithesis, of matter. 

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February 20th, 2014
11:02 AM
[The new scientific view of the human, which respects consciousness as an integral "feature of the world", is in fact surprisingly close to the metaphysical realism and theistic cosmologies of medieval Abrahamic religions, mutatis mutandis. Late medieval thinkers, such as Duns Scotus, anticipated many of the insights of the "embodied cognition" of our own age.] This reflects a really shocking unawareness of Indian philosophy, whose conception of consciousness as a universal element makes the much later speculations you mention look hopelessly primitive by comparison.

September 30th, 2013
9:09 AM
Jake: A appreciate your comment. To be conscious is to see, hear, feel, or otherwise experience things. That capacity must, according to Tononi, exist in the metabolic networks of our body on account of their respectable measure of "integrated information" (and he is quite explicit about this implication of his theory in his 2008 "Provisional manifesto"). Since that capacity does not make any difference to the functioning of those metabolic networks, why would nature equip them with it? Presumably nature equipped them with a high measure of integrated information for reasons other than to make them conscious. It does after all lend them efficiency, and that does make a functional difference. I suspect that the same is true for the neural networks of the brain that are structured for high information integration. Which would mean that the reason some neural networks equip us with consciousness, and how they need to be structured in order to do so, still remains to be accounted for. There too I suspect that nature went to the trouble of equipping us with them in order to make a functional difference, which also seems to be the case. How well would we function without the capacity to see, hear, feel or otherwise experience things?

September 27th, 2013
2:09 PM
This is just another nasty lesson of closed minded matherialism/nihilism/atheism.

M.G. Piety
September 26th, 2013
8:09 PM
This is a lovely article. It would not seem possible, however, to talk about an "integration" of mind and world without retaining some kind of mind-body/world dualism. If you don't have two substances, after all, then there is nothing to be integrated.

September 26th, 2013
7:09 PM
My god to you has no mercy, since god's kidneys flow and dribble through quarantine

September 26th, 2013
7:09 PM
"I see 'mind' as the word that refers to 'ideas'; all one's ideas constitute one's mind--and that's all she wrote." I have no problem with that, so far as it goes. But what, then, are ideas? It seems to me that you're attempting to avoid the difficulty of explaining mental experience by merely denying that there's anything to explain.

September 26th, 2013
4:09 PM
Saksin, Why do you assume that consciousness must 'make a difference' to the workings of the neural/biochemical networks that give rise to it? I agree that Tononi's integrated information theory does not really come close to Abrahamic cosmologies, various anticipated insights by sporadic medieval thinkers notwithstanding, I think that's an overstatement on the authors' part, I don't believe Tononi himself would make that claim. His theory, as I understand it, does, however, allow for the possibility of consciousness showing up in networks constructed of basically anything, i.e. computers could in theory be built with the requisite network structure and dynamics to be conscious. The authors' throw an undeserved bone to the Abrahamic religions. Tononi would point out that those structures are not in fact instantiated basically anywhere besides brains, and reject 'flirtation with' the Abrahamic faiths and probably describe pan-psychism as theoretically possible but not in fact the case at this time. My point is, the author's overreach does not invalidate Tononi's theory, nor does his theory's implication that consciousness arises from but does not then interact with neural (or other) networks.

September 26th, 2013
10:09 AM
When a theory of consciousness (Tononi's) ends up having to attribute consciousness to the biochemical metabolic networks of our body (which score respectably on measures of "integrated information") this would seem to be good grounds for concluding that the theory is wrong (given that such presumptive consciousness could make no difference in the workings of metabolic pathways - perfectly explained by the physical structures and kinetics involved - and therefore would be both unobservable and non-functional). Instead Zeman and Davies (in agreement with Tononi) conclude "that all of nature has a – sometimes – hidden potential for mentality." The need to thus flirt with pan-psychism is simply a symptom of not having solved the puzzle of how neural structures actually generate conscious experience. But attributing consciousness to non-neural nature allows the authors to see a kinship between their kind of neuroscience and "the metaphysical realism and theistic cosmologies of medieval Abrahamic religions" (where a kinship with pantheism would seem far less far-fetched). Are we really to believe that the conceptual structure of neuroscience, presumably one of the natural sciences, somehow accomodates the almighty personal creator god of Middle Eastern monotheism? This is but one example of the kind of facile analogizing by which the authors buttress their hope for a neuroscience-based new conception of human nature. Such a conception will no doubt ripen once neuroscience actually comes to understand how the brain works (which means delivering the coherent and comprehensive kind of systems neuroscience for which gaudy scan images do no more than pose questions). When that day comes there will be no need for the kind of premature syncretism promoted by Zeman and Davies.

September 25th, 2013
8:09 PM
Can you prove the opening statement about humans being the only self reflecting species.

Jon Jermey
September 25th, 2013
8:09 AM
"Under a dualist view, it was difficult to make sense of religious practices and embedded beliefs..' It has never been difficult to make sense of religion, under any view. The mental comfort to be obtained by believing that oneself and the people one loves will live forever, the relief from anxiety and frustration delivered by the belief that justice will prevail and the wicked will be punished -- these are plain and obvious benefits, quite strong enough to motivate people to hold them, and to encourage others to hold them, in order to shout down the nasty sceptics insisting that they may not be true. IF religious beliefs were true, then yes, some major rearrangement of our world view would be necessary were they to be disconfirmed; but as they are not, the one we have will continue to do nicely.

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