Many of you, readers, know how interested I am in the human mind, consciousness and rational thought. The way our brains process information and our subconscious mind works has always enticed me. Recently I read an interview with the philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett in the New Humanist which reawakened this passion. In it Daniel attempted to throw some light on that strange, elusive and confusing phenomenon known as consciousness.
To Mr Dennett consciousness is not one thing but a combination of different elements. They are our thoughts and experiences. This group also includes our subconscious, that always hard-to-define region of our brain where we hold information we are not even aware of having.
I first came across Daniel’s theories a few years ago via Steven Rose, one of The Guardian’s book reviewers. He also happens to be one of Mr Dennett’s staunchest critics. One of the reasons for this antagonism is that Daniel uses computer-based language to describe the way the human brain operates. Personally, I, too, find this hard to accept. To me the human brain has an infinite capacity to generate ideas and thoughts. To compare it with a PC’s storage capability is to fall into the same old trap of seeing the human mind as mere RAM. However, where I do agree with Mr Dennett is in his view of the mind and body as a single entity. There is no miracle, in my view, in the way the mind is linked to the body. The evidence is in the fact that when one of those two elements is not functioning well, the other one suffers.
The extraordinary nature of the human mind can be explained through the way we transform social learning into norms and habits. Elements of culture, no matter how disparate, are drained through a collective-focused colander, leaving the more human-friendly (hopefully) parts and chucking out the flotsam and jetsam. And yet, this process is not without faults. For, no matter how carefully we sift these cultural, moral and social norms through, we will always be at the mercy of human unpredictability, otherwise known as… the human mind.
If we accept, as I believe, the notion that because of evolution human beings developed a collective/individual duality, we also have to accept that throughout our existence this duality has led to the need to communicate, cooperate and compete. The latter is not a word many would find attractive nowadays. Competition has been given a bad rap, especially in our current neoliberal, market-obsessed society. Yet, it is a reality that we compete with one another. What we cannot deny is that in order to communicate, cooperate and compete we have to engage our minds. We have to be able to think, organise, evaluate and learn.
Consciousness is, as I mentioned before, that elusive and confusing process whereby we cook up all these ideas and thoughts, intentionally or unintentionally. And although it might come across as an otherworldly, mysterious entity, it is as human as our hands, legs and feet.