Rediscovering the Mind

The idea that man’s consciousness is a uniquely distinct feature, present in humans and not in animals, a fundamental difference of kind rather than of simple degree of complexity of neurons in one’s brain, is one that has largely fallen out of fashion in modern sociobiological and physiological circles that tend to define human behavior as emergent, something that is simply a sum of its parts, that can be explained by reducing the components to an ever more fundamental level and reconstructing the system from first principles learned by the study of its smallest constituents.

In his essay Rediscovering the Mind, Harold J. Morowitz deconstructs the folly:

The strictly reductionist approach to human behavior so characteristic of sociobiology also runs into trouble on more narrowly biological grounds. For it includes an assumption of continuity in evolution from early mammals to man, which implies that the mind, or consciousness, was not a radical departure. Such an assumption is hardly justified when one considers the dramatic instances of discontinuity in evolution. The origin of the universe itself, the “big bang”, is a cosmic example of discontinuity. The beginning of life, while less cataclysmic, is certainly another example.

A number of contemporary biologists and psychologists believe that the origin of reflective thought that occurred during primate evolution is also a discontinuity that has changed the rules. Again, the new situation does not abrogate the underlying biological laws, but it adds a feature that necessitates novel ways of thinking about the problem … man cannot be understood by laws applicable to other mammals whose brains have a very similar physiology.

This emergent feature of man has, in one form or another, been discussed by numerous anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists. It is part of empirical data that cannot be shelved just to preserve reductionist purity. The discontinuity needs to be thoroughly studied and evaluated, but first it needs to be recognized. Primates are very different from other animals, and human beings are very different from other primates.

Read the full essay in the compilation The Mind’s I by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett.

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