GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 14, 2014

Reflections on reading Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind

Filed under: GA — Q @ 11:50 am

The basic problem addressed by Tallis, it seems to me, is how matter becomes subjectively conscious. I say “subjectively” because we can’t directly observe the consciousness of another living being, and as Tallis points out, even the most advanced brain scans do not help us to understand human consciousness.

There are two basic approaches to the problem of consciousness. First is to say that consciousness is only possible for soul or spirit. This approach may or may not rely on a creator God, and it may or may not insist on a sharp dualism between matter and spirit. They can also be understood as two aspects of one living being.

The second is evolutionary. Once life develops, organisms evolve nerve responses that allow them to find food and mates and avoid predators. These responses are programmed into the DNA and are comparable to computer programs. In the case of extremely simple organisms, the nerve responses involved are also simple. The responses of more advanced animals are more complicated but directed to the same goals.

For some animals, notably the hominid line, flexibility in behavior, presumably involving some choice between alternative ways of responding to events, is an adaptive strategy. Consciousness can be understood, in Darwinian terms, as the ability to evaluate alternatives and adapt one’s behavior to different circumstances. While the neuro-biological basis of ape and chimp consciousness is still not well understood, this is arguably a problem of complexity. The principles are well-known; and their behavior, while more flexible than other species, is still, arguably, wholly the product of their instincts, conditioning, and learning (by imitation); and as a result is very predictable. Some chimps are presumably smarter than others, and thus better able to evaluate alternatives or invent solutions to problems, but intelligence is a genetic variable within the scope of an evolutionary paradigm.

It’s not clear that chimps have what we call free will. Significantly, everyone, even animal rights activists, recognizes that we can’t hold animals morally responsible for their behavior.

Human consciousness is in many ways comparable to chimps’—subject to instinct, conditioning, and learning—but in addition we have the subjective experience of free will. And objectively, humans are much more unpredictable than any other species. So in addition to consciousness, we have the philosophical problem of how a material organism, whose atoms and molecules individually are subject to all the laws of physics, is capable of free will, acts which seemingly cannot be explained in terms of physical causation, even given the vast complexity of the human body.

Tallis and others observe that humans are conscious of other humans in ways that other animals are not of their fellows. Human consciousness is somehow tied up with our relations with other humans—relations which by definition are not contained within the brain. They are relations, not physical objects or neural events. This approach fits in well with Generative Anthropology and the Originary Hypothesis. But the question still remains: is the resistance of human consciousness to scientific explanation basically a problem of complexity? If so, then the mystery of human consciousness and free will are in principle capable of scientific explanation, and existing studies of human evolution and neuro-phenomena are at least on the right track, even if still largely unfruitful, as Tallis argues.

Even when the dimensions of social relations and language are added in, we are still dealing with beings composed of molecules subject to the law of physics. While this adds a layer of complexity, it doesn’t refute the proposition that human behavior and the subjective experience of consciousness are ultimately reducible to physics, in the form of evolutionary processes and the neuro-phenomena of individuals in groups. It doesn’t make sense to say that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, since the only place it’s found is with physical bodies. We should also remember that neuro-phenomena are already well-recognized as responsive to the environment, so the social nature of non-human consciousness is a given.

It’s also possible that the problem is somehow not ultimately reducible to physical processes. But if human consciousness is not so reducible, then the philosophical problem of explaining how material beings can experience consciousness and free will remains. Saying that human consciousness and free will are a function of our unique cultural/social “nature” may well be true, but it doesn’t seem to answer the philosophical problem of how exactly this is possible.

1 Comment »

  1. I’ve got a lot of issues with this analysis (and most others) on the question or explanation of free will. That said, I think consciousness a far bigger challenge – which I will skip. I suggest first that the vast complexity and capability of human intellect masks the rudimentary nature of free will. The will of humans in my view is an evolutionary expansion, by virtue of our expanded mental acuity, over the will of snails and other mollusks.
    My first epiphany came from observing, through the literature, feral children who through extreme neglect could never learn to walk or talk. Their young, plastic brains aged and congealed before those critical capabilities were learned. Walking upright and human language are far more complex tasks than may be apparent, and those skills must be developed beginning from a very young age if they are to be acquired. Further, there is nothing trivial in learning anything by imitation – something dismissed in this review with a flick of the keyboard. Imitation is a very willful process. We choose what to observe, what to try and imitate and then invent our own unique series of experiments and exercises to perfect this new capability. All learning is unique and experimental (each individual can ONLY learn for themselves – a mentor can at best accelerate the process). We learn from observation and related experience what is possible for other critters, and then may or may not conduct our own experiments to learn how to either mimic or counter what we observe as possible for others. Every other critter is a potential competitor on this earth and we need to survive them if we cannot best them.
    We can take our next lesson from physiology: every individual has unique elements to each feature of their anatomy. The size and weights of each body and each component within. The strength, stamina and fatigue states of every muscle. The phenomenal variations in the environment – terrain, weather, prey and predators to name a few. Everything must be adjusted for, modifications made to accommodate. No pre-programed brain could manage this adaptability. Dynamic, unique, individual by individual, second by second tailoring of decisions was necessary to evolve for locomotion and navigation to be effective survival strategies for even very primitive animals. The free will enjoyed by humans is simply the evolutionary product of ever more complex decision making – an expansion of the free will of snails. This whole debate is based, I suggest, on the false assumption that it is simpler or more ‘Darwinian’ to have locomotion and navigation controlled by our genes rather than learned by our neurons. Jerry Coyne, et. al., have it backwards.

    Comment by Alan — June 18, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

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