BROTHERS IN ADAPTATION

On the EDGE (The World Question Centre) 2005 website, I read from Nicholas Humphrey, Psychologist, London School of Economics and author of The Mind Made Flesh:

I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance—so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others’ lives.

If this is right, it provides a simple explanation for why we, as scientists or laymen, find the “hard problem” of consciousness just so hard. Nature has meant it to be hard. Indeed “mysterian” philosophers—from Colin McGinn to the Pope—who bow down before the apparent miracle and declare that it’s impossible in principle to understand how consciousness could arise in a material brain, are responding exactly as Nature hoped they would, with shock and awe.

Can I prove it? It’s difficult to prove any adaptationist account of why humans experience things the way they do. But here there is an added catch. The Catch-22 is that, just to the extent that Nature has succeeded in putting consciousness beyond the reach of rational explanation, she must have undermined the very possibility of showing that this is what she’s done.

There are a couple of more paragraphs if you want to read the rest. I was inspired to write Dr Humphrey—whom I don’t know—with my thoughts and queries. If I get a reply, and it’s all right with him, I’ll post it. This was my letter—which gave me great joy to write:

PETE:

Dear Nicholas…

I hope you are super well. I loved your idea in Edge 2005 that nature wants us to believe in the mystery, that we “are responding exactly as Nature hoped they would, with shock and awe.”

You go on to say:

Can I prove it? It’s difficult to prove any adaptationist account of why humans experience things the way they do. But here there is an added catch. The Catch-22 is that, just to the extent that Nature has succeeded in putting consciousness beyond the reach of rational explanation, she must have undermined the very possibility of showing that this is what she’s done.

It brought up all kinds of thoughts for me. I can’t help but ask, who is this wondrous “Nature?, and whence came Her ability to endow us with a false belief in mystery? I am not seeking the Divine when I ask this, I am just “awe-struck!” at the notion.

Is not the mystery and magic of life, life itself? Matter is far less compelling, as any honest human would admit. My guess is even Darwinian scientists who come home and say matter is all we are rarely have sex with a chair, or conversation even (although conversation is more likely).

I ask in utter humility: with our brains and minds, could “we? through evolution have become not so much aware of self, but aware of consciousness—that things live? And thus are we not, essentially, that? Could consciousness not have always been here, and matter, and they (still inexplicably) finally found a way to tango?

Given how I feel about the mystery of it all, I put my pleasure and my money on consciousness.

From one mystery to another, I wish you lots of conscious love and awe-struck moments, false or otherwise—and look forward to a very confident and conscious lambasting from one far more learned than I,

Sincerely, a brother in adaptation,

Pete

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One Response to “BROTHERS IN ADAPTATION”

  1. Pete McCormack says:

    Just for the record—and it may be Nicholas Humphrey never received the email or just casual oversight, busy, unintrigued, or whatever—but I hadn’t heard back as of Hallowe’en, 2006. We remain, nonetheless, brothers in adaptation.

    Pete

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