- There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an indifference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?
→ Jorge Luis Borges
- Science can often lead us in directions that are very counterintuitive. For example, the Ancients understandably expected that the common-sense “atoms” of Democritus would prove to be solid – that is, that they would epitomize the most obvious property of solid matter. Similarly, they expected that transformations of matter into gas or into liquid should presumably reflect, on the atomic level, the surface appearance of such transformations. Thus they expected that atoms should melt, flow, and rigidify and that when water evaporated or wood burned, the corresponding atoms should also vaporize or burst into flames.
- Of course, atoms do no such things. They are made up mostly of empty space. They are not the irreducible particles the Ancients expected. Rather, they are elaborate little universes in themselves, made up of even more microscopic, or subatomic, particles, some of which at the end of the day don’t look at all material. In fact, the line between matter and energy gets blurry at this level, leading to another counterintuitive conclusion: that matter and energy are interchangeable. Many people still have great difficulty accepting that matter itself is ultimately insubstantial and that the world’s appearance of solidity is more a reflection of how our sensory systems are constructed, and how brains do their work, than of anything else.
- The point is, theories that may appear absolutely crazy to common sense, or much too speculative, may turn out to be true. To discover such explanatory theories, scientists have always been willing to take risks – carefully argued risks, to be sure – but risks nonetheless. As the Nobel laureate Niels Bohr is supposed to have said to a colleague, “We all agree that your theory is crazy; where we disagree is whether it is crazy enough.”
- The same principle applies to the mind. Many of the so-called theories of psychology are really too common-sensical to be called theories. For instance, the Freudian notion of unconscious motivation, the Behavioristic idea that reward and punishment govern behavior, and the theory that old memories never really decay are just elaborations of common sense. They achieve little more than to hammer home what Granny probably suspected all along. We should really be asking deeper questions, such as how the brain could represent something as complex and subtle as a “reward” in the first place and how mere neurons could record a disposition as rich as a lasting grudge or a deep hostility toward authority. Or, more perplexing, we should wonder how a brain, built from proteins that last, at the most, a few days, can keep a memory fresh for eighty years. Even memories of unimaginable complexity, such as a double-bind relationship with one’s mother, can persist for a lifetime in a person whose body has not retained a single atom1 of its younger physical self. How is this possible? Common-sense theories will never tell us because they have avoided such questions in the first place.
- Commonsense theories of mind are, in a sense, failures of will. They are reassuring, but they demonstrate our avoidance of the fact of our own strangeness to ourselves. We don't like to confront what many scientists expect must be the case: that a deeper theory of how the human mind works may be just as alien to our common sense as our theories of the physical universe have turned out to be. But before we have theories of the mind that work, we may have to abandon some of our more comfortable homilies and categories. This sentiment has been stated often, but in spite of this, we have rarely taken the speculative risks with the mind that we have with matter. Where we have done so, we have sometimes had to encounter disturbing ideas, such as the notions that conscious awareness is merely an illusion and that our brains are ultimately as empty, and insubstantial, as the atoms from which they are constructed. Many people, including scientists, are terrified that the ethical, social, and political stakes are just too high to venture down such roads. But fear is no basis for rejecting reasoned ideas or important questions. Even though they encroach on forbidden territory, they deserve our consideration.
- One such question centers on our individuality. It is common sense to assume that the individual mind starts in the brain, with a set of innate capacities, sufficient to cope with the challenges of life. On this assumption, a baby comes fully equipped to learn about the world, acquiring its own special experiences and memories with the tools it has been given. Certainly, this idea seems to apply very well to most other species, and surely it applies to us as well.
- But this is where our common sense can mislead us. Unlike that of other species, the human mind has a collective counterpart: culture. We stubbornly adhere to the idea that we are distinct individuals, yet we are also highly cultural beings. Indeed, humanity might be defined as the only species on earth that combines individual with collective cognitive processes and in which the individual can identify with, and become part of, a group process. We can see this in our corporations and other institutions. The life of the human imagination oscillates between these two polar extremes, individual and corporate. In our most inward-looking moods, we have the impression that our minds are the only enduring reality for us and that the world “outside” is either an illusion or, at best, a source of experience. In our most outward-directed moods, such as in moments of war hysteria, while joined closely to a corporate process, we meld with the group, “losing ourselves” in whatever the group dictates.
- Importantly, the cognitive tools that we use to do much of our thinking seem to be dependent on our cultural institutions, and all our symbolic tools are imported from outside – that is, from culture. This raises questions about the sources of human awareness and the role of consciousness in a being that is capable of such intense collective identification. This book proposes that the human mind is unlike any other on this planet, not because of its biology, which is not qualitatively unique, but because of its ability to generate and assimilate culture. The human mind is thus a “hybrid” product of biology and culture. It is important to realize that I am referring to the mind itself, not merely particular experiences. The human mind cannot come into existence on its own. It is wedded to a collective process, and the very sources of its experience are filtered through culture. The generation of culture is thus a key question in human evolution2.
- The key to understanding the human intellect is not so much the design of the individual brain as the synergy of many brains. We have evolved an adaptation for living in culture, and our exceptional powers as a species derive from the curious fact that we have broken out of one of the most critical limitations of traditional nervous systems – their loneliness, or solipsism. From our earliest birth as a species, humanity has relied upon creating “distributed” systems of thought and memory, in which intellectual work is shared across many nervous systems. I articulated this idea in an earlier book on human cognitive evolution3, in which I said that the progress of the human mind could be adequately described only in terms of its cultural achievements, which in turn reflected an emerging cognitive-cultural symbiosis. I do not want to suggest, however, that there is a “group mind.” Our minds are still very much sealed into their biological containers. But they can do remarkably little on their own. They depend on culture for virtually everything that is unique to the human world, including our basic communicative and thought skills.
- The word “culture” usually connotes something other than its cognitive aspect. It usually refers to a set of shared habits, languages, or customs that define a population of people. It may be these things, but on a deeper level, any given culture is a gigantic cognitive web, defining and constraining the parameters of memory, knowledge, and thought in its members, both as individuals and as a group. Cultures can differ hugely in their power in this regard. Our cultures are thus our best friends and worst enemies, because we rely on them so completely for many of our most crucial mental powers while at the same time they threaten our intellectual autonomy. They can rob us of the freedom to think4 certain kinds of thoughts, and even in the most supposedly liberal of cultures, few of our ideas and experiences can really be called our own, so thoroughly have they been washed and filtered through the fine cloth of the culture itself.
- All very well, but how did our archaic ancestors escape the confines of their isolated nervous systems? Where could this ethereal cultural network, which lifted humanity out of the intellectual prison it previously inhabited, have come from? The answers I propose will surprise many. In this book I suggest that culture itself, as well as its two principal by-products, languages and symbols, are consequences of a radical change in the nature of consciousness. We are the species that invented culture, but the roots of that remarkable public invention lie, of all places, in our most private place, the conscious mind. Moreover, that place, as we shall see, is not at all what we usually think it is.
Footnote 1: Footnote 4:
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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