Most of us who are reading this article pride ourselves in our fact-based understanding of objective reality. When it comes to most things that we experience in the external world, we hold fast to soundly scientific explanations. But when it comes to our inner world, to our consciousness and perception of self, we often exceed the limits of our rational capacity. We are far less able to accommodate having an insufficient explanation of the seeming miracle that is self-awareness. It is extremely common for even highly evidence-based thinkers to make some variation of the following assertion:
“But I do believe in a kind of soul. Not in the religious sense, but still something transcendent that mere anatomy and physiology cannot explain.”
Consciousness is one of the last hold-outs of mysticism. But it is no miracle, let alone even mystical. Certainly, it is not yet fully understood. Indeed, consciousness understanding itself may be one of the most difficult challenges of any self-aware species, but it is nevertheless clearly within the domain of natural phenomena and it is definitely knowable.
In fact, we already do have a much deeper understanding of consciousness than most people appreciate. While not yet as fully developed as we would all like, these puzzles always seem indecipherable and deceptively obscure until suddenly the last pieces fall into place.
One very notable model of consciousness was presented by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in his 2007 book “I am a Strange Loop.” In this important book, Dr. Hofstadter debunks one of the fundamental misconceptions of consciousness; that it “suddenly appeared” in humans. The typical inference is that the appearance of consciousness somehow defies an evolutionary explanation. Dr. Hofstadter places representative species on a continuum of consciousness – from bees, to chickens, dogs, and finally humans. As with other complex systems like eyes and wings, consciousness did not just suddenly appear. But rather it evolved in incremental, traceable steps, each of which provided an evolutionary advantage. We humans are not the sole bearers of consciousness. We merely have the most highly evolved consciousness.
And while most would acknowledge that our consciousness evolved, many would still insist that human self-awareness is such a huge leap that it defies scientific explanation. But Dr. Hofstadter’s work illustrates quite compellingly how that is not actually the case. Our human self-awareness was merely another incremental improvement in a gradually evolving consciousness. Make no mistake, self-awareness did have profound impact. But it nevertheless came about through only relatively small incremental changes built upon earlier consciousness.
Dr. Hofstadter came to this understanding by studying video feedback phenomena and it is best explained retaining that as a metaphor. Imagine that the perceptions of a bee are like a head-mounted camera pointing forward. It sees other things, but a bee cannot see itself. Although it does much of what we do, it has no self-awareness. Next imagine the chicken. Their chicken-cam has shifted to a shoulder mount that allows them to “see” their own beak and feet. Their consciousness may include some rudimentary self-awareness. The dog has a camera mounted on a nearby tripod so therefore it can see itself and is somewhat self-aware. Finally we get to humans. Our perceptual camera has merely tipped slightly off-angle. As in actual video feedback loops, this subtle change in angle creates the perception of an intensely powerful feedback effect, like mirrors shifting angle ever so slightly so that they suddenly reflect infinitely upon themselves. Thus, we are enraptured in awe of our own seemingly infinite perceptional feedback loop. We perceive it as something grand and mystical. And it is, yet it is also the result of very subtle and knowable evolutionary changes arising from relatively simple underlying mechanics.
If I were to learn that Dr. Hofstadter had read this explanation of his thesis, I would be mortified and embarrassed. But I intend it only as an extremely brief glimpse into his insights meant to give at least a sense of how consciousness can and will be modeled, understood, and explained by science. Self-awareness is amazing, but certainly not mystical. Just as with other physical phenomena, there is no need for us to invoke miracles or souls or any other metaphysical explanation to explain our profoundly powerful sense of self.
The admission that our self-aware consciousness emerged out of subtle but highly consequential evolutionary changes should not make us feel any more diminished than we feel knowing our bodies derived from those of apes or that the glorious stars above us are “merely” physical processes. Rather, it should excite us in anticipation of the wonders yet to be revealed through scientific exploration of this last rich bastion of mysticism.