A Call To The Humanities To Reclaim Its Concious Self
- Written by Shaun Johnston Shaun Johnston
- Published: November 16, 2017 November 16, 2017
I’d like your help. For two and half decades I’ve been publishing books and websites promoting a revolutionary new way of looking at the world. But in all that time I’ve made no impact. I have to wonder, is it time to give up?
My new way of looking at the world involves consciousness and evolution. Here’s the train of thought that lead me to it:
1. I experience being conscious, having conscious experiences.
2. While I’m conscious I experience making decisions and then behaving physically to carry them out. Sometimes I make these decisions in order to enhance future conscious experiences. For example, I might order a book to refine my appreciation of something, such as architecture. What matters are the experiences; behaviors like buying books are no more than a way of bridging between one conscious experience and another. I experience consciousness as at least as "real" as matter.
3. I believe most people experience this. In fact I think it’s basic to the humanities in general: aren't they primarily about conscious experiences? Isn’t consciously wanting and deciding, and what happens as a result, the basis of nearly all fiction? Many of the social sciences are explicitly about what you need to be conscious of in the present and what to do about it so as to have better conscious experiences in the future.
4. This applies to the physical sciences too. Carrying out an experiment involves a series of conscious operations. These include arriving at a question, creating alternative possible answers, designing an experiment to tell which of these hypotheses is more likely right, judging which of them the results confirm, and empathizing with others--assessing who’d like to be told. Questioning, creating, designing, use of reason, judging other people’s reactions—these are just as much the foundation of the sciences as of the humanities. It's in terms of mental operations like these that we make sense of our own and other people’s conscious experiences and physical behaviors.
5. What's true of us must be true of the universe we live in, since it includes us. So we know that, in the universe as a whole, mental operations can interact with physical matter to bring about desired changes in other conscious experiences. If it can happen within us individually, it can happen in other instances outside us too. As part of the process of evolution, for example. Studying evolution could tell us the origin and greater potential of our mental capabilities.
That’s where my problem lies: this train of thought conflicts with our official origin story, today’s scientific theory of evolution. That story comes backed up by all the authority of science and is taught without challenge to children in school. Most people I talk to say, all they know about evolution is what they were taught in school: we evolved through our genes mutating followed by natural selection, both purely physical processes. Since mental operations aren't included in our official origin story they must be something to do with religion. They're not real, like matter. We can live without them.
I can't. I can’t live without those mental operations being real, to some extent at least independent of today's physics. And I want the humanities to insist that they can’t do without them either. I want to persuade the humanities to come up with an origin story that gives mind its due role. Only that is likely to tell us what it means we evolved. Helping make that happen is my mission.
Is that mission doomed? Show me to my satisfaction that it's misguided and I’ll be delighted to abandon this mission.
To me, the alternative is an ever-greater spread of a philosophy that’s hideously wrong about almost everything. And, obviously, in error:
A. Scientists insist that accounts of evolution must observe the limits set by today's physical laws. But if we accept that, then all living creatures must be purely physical. Could this be holding back our understanding of the natural world? And what about us? Our decision-making seems crucially different from that of purely physical things like volcano eruptions. A volcano can't apply reason, for example. It can't hold two hypotheses in mind while it plans an experiment to distinguish between them, as we can.
B. But scientists don't limit themselves to today's physics when it's their own mental operations they want to account for. Instead they invoke future progress that they assume will follow along the lines of science today. But sciences able to account for scientists' mental operations could well be capable of identifying similar operations in the processes of evolution. Why not? Those processes are clearly capable of making living creatures conscious. Aren't those scientists guilty of defying logic in applying one limit to accounting for evolution and a different limit to accounting for their own mental operations?
I’d appreciate your help in framing the issues, one way or the other. If science continues to claim that our conscious experiences are determined, could that have a negative impact on human nature over future generations that we should forestall? Is that a threat the humanities should respond to, and if so, how? On the other hand, if we all agreed on conscious experiences being as real as physical matter, shouldn't that demand we change our origin story? Note, the issue isn't dualism or creationism, it's how far science is from giving us an adequate understanding of both consciousness and what it means we evolved.
Please help me with your comments, below.