The growth of scientific knowledge during the past few centuries is staggering. Today we know more about galaxies which existed billions of years ago than people in the 17th century knew about the plants growing in their own back yards. Despite all of this, one subject remains shrouded in mystery: the mind of man.
This is the final frontier of human knowledge, but surprisingly few attempts have been made to explain the sentience of life on earth. Most study on the topic has fallen under one of two banners: neurology, which examines the mind’s underlying machinery (the brain); or psychology, the very general study of the human behavior produced by the mind.
Neurology, though by all means a very important area of research, can’t (at present anyway) provide an answer to the big questions like “What makes us sentient?” or “Why do we laugh?” because it studies the mind at such a low level. Trying to understand human behavior by studying neurons is like trying to understand traffic patterns in Los Angeles by studying fuel injectors.
Psychology treats the brain and body as a black box, where only the inputs and outputs are considered. Its purpose is to help people understand and manage their emotions, especially in the context of achieving their life goals. Clearly this is useful as well, but it is no better at answering the big “Why?” questions than neurology.
To me, the most interesting potential knowledge lies in the middle ground between these two. Memory, emotion, language, attention, pattern recognition - in a word, consciousness. This middle ground is so unexplored that there isn’t even really a name for it, although cognitive science is pretty close.
Theory of Consciousness
To my knowledge, the only comprehensive, scientific theory of consciousness ever advanced is the one documented in Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. The theory described by this book annihilates the “inner me” assumption found it most classic (usually philosophical rather than scientific) theories of the mind, and replaces it with a decentralized explanation. Copious supporting evidence is provided, such as behavioral studies exposing quirks in human perception, effects which are difficult to explain with any other theory.
For members of the audience who are loathe to crack this rather weighty tome, here’s the cliff notes. An individual mind - yours, say - is not a singular entity, as you might like to believe. Instead it is a aggregate of lesser entities, each of which shouts to be heard in the theater of the brain. Each of these entities within your mind is a bit dumber than you are, but together their collective intelligence sums up to be yours. And each of these entities, in turn, is made up of yet lesser entities, each of which is shouting to be heard within that theater. Repeat ad nauseum until you get down to the individual neuron, mindlessly firing in response to electrical signal inputs. In other words, it’s elephants all the way down.
(Aside: I just boiled a 500 page book down to one paragraph, so obviously this is a really simplified version of the theory. There’s a whole other section, for example, which explores the function of our minds as predictive machines for the short-term future. This explains a lot about our processing of sensory input as well as many idiosyncrasies of human nature. I found all of this absolutely fascinating. Read the book!)
The decentralized-shouting-entities part of theory can actually be a little bit disturbing when applied to oneself. We have a lot of emotional investment tied up in our ego identities, and in particular our belief in its singularity. It is an almost universal human affliction to assume that, although absolutely everything else in the universe is made up of smaller parts, our own minds (at least when boiled down to some central kernel) are an indivisible, unified whole.
Theory of Entity-Groups
One of the reasons I found Dennett’s theory so compelling is its neat tie-in with a theory of my own. This theory explains why groups of humans in any size (from a married couple right on up to an entire nation) often appear to be a single uber-entity. This entity may seem to have attitudes, feelings, and thoughts of its own, just like an individual person. There are countless such entity-groups in the world, but for a few examples: “America”, “sports fans”, “people who live on 3rd Street”, “Wal-Mart”, “Metallica”, “the audience”, “gays”, “scientists”, “those smokers out on the patio”, “Al Qaeda”, “Democrats”.
We often speak of these entities or treat them as if they had a single consciousness. My theory says that this is not just a metaphor: they actually do have a consciousness! But the mind of any one of these groups is more than just the sum of its parts. “Scientists” as a whole can produce more intelligent answers than any individual scientist, to take one very prominent example. (If you think that people are dumber in groups, read The Wisdom of the Crowds . I’ll probably do a separate entry on this one at some point.)
Strange as it may sound, I developed this theory when attending raves. I wanted to analyze what ravers meant by “the vibe,” because it was clearly a notable concept, yet an entirely elusive and intangible one. Whether or not you own a pacifier and glowsticks, the vibe is something everyone is intimately familiar with. You feel it the moment you walk into a room. The sounds, the smells, the decorations, the postures and clothing of the people - all of these cues give an immediate sense, a feeling of the prevailing attitude and whether you belong. The people, though, are really they key to the vibe. How comfortable we feel in a restaurant has a lot to do with the people that are sitting nearby, even though we may not know them, interact with them, or even look at them for the entire meal.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to go all new-agey on you here. I don’t believe that the vibe is transmitted by soul energy or psychic waves or any crap like that. The vibe is transmitted through perfectly ordinary (though very subtle) cues that humans broadcast through gesture, facial expression, stance, tone of voice, subtle glances, and so forth. We are finely attuned to pick up on these cues - and hence, the vibe - because our brains have evolved to operate in social settings.
Every time you even come near another human, you become part of an entity-group, though usually it is extremely fleeting and temporary. This means that every one of us is constantly part of many entity-groups, a great sifting sea of them, absolutely all the time. A vivid demonstration of this in its simplest form is a busy sidewalk, full of people each traveling to their individual destination. Despite the fact that most of these people have never met nor even exchange a single word, they all effortlessly coordinate their movements with one another. Watching such foot traffic from a distance, one could almost believe that the city street is a living entity.
But of course it is not one single entity-group, but a nearly infinite number of them, with extremely fuzzy borders and countless overlaps. This configuration matches the conceptual pool of entities inside our own heads, which collectively form what we consider to be singular entities we call “me” or “you.”
In the context of my entity-group theory, the previously atomic view of humans as individuals decays, leaving a murky boundary between oneself and everyone else. The demarcation of our physical bodies does provide a convenient place to draw the line, but the line is somewhat arbitrary. It’s not only elephants all the way down, but elephants all the way up, too.
This is a threatening concept to grasp, especially for a fierce individualist like myself. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is a truthful representation of reality. Science is the search for truth, and those that pursue it must sometimes challenge their most deeply-held convictions.