The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The Takeover of the Mind

No doubt most people feel that their mind is more important than their body. People may be afraid of losing a limb in an accident, but would still prefer that to losing consciousness. A person who is lying in an irreversible coma is considered “technically dead” even if her body is still alive. We don't mind the transplant of an organ, even of the heart; but we would oppose a transplant of the brain: most people would interpret a heart transplant on them as "somebody is giving me her heart"; but they would interpret a brain transplant on them as "I am giving my body to someone else". We can envision a future in which minds will exist without bodies, but not a future in which we would be happy to be bodies without minds.  Ultimately, we are our minds, not our bodies.

It is likely that this was not always the case. There was probably a time when survival of the body was more important than survival of the mind. The preeminence of the mind is a recent phenomenon. The main goal of our ancestors was probably to protect their bodies from predators and from natural catastrophes. If the body dies, the individual (whatever an individual is) simply dies. Nature grants the body an obvious preeminence over the mind, a preeminence that we have forgotten but that was probably there for a long time during the evolution of the human species. For a long time, the human mind may have been simply a means to achieve the goal of protecting the human body. Nothing more than an evolutionary advantage over other species in protecting the body. Just like some animals have a fur to protect them from cold weather. Then, somehow, that evolutionary advantage became the predominant part of the individual. To the point that we declare “dead” somebody whose body is alive but whose mind is not. There has been steady progress towards turning the tables: the mind has slowly taken over the body, and now we think of an individual as her mind (whereas we still think of a dog as its body, regardless of whether it has a mind or not).

Historically, ancient civilizations don't seem to have appreciated how awesome the human mind is, and don't seem to have realized how "low" non-human things are. For example, the ancient Greeks believed that the rivers were children of a god. Today, it may sound strange to think of a river as a "living being", because we know that most of its water changes all the time and we know that its water comes from melting snow and rain, and so forth. But isn't that true of humans too? Don't we change cells all the time? Don't we take in energy and matter from outside (as food)? Doesn't a river have a personality? Other than the fact that rivers live far longer than us, it is not so obvious that having a mind makes humans all that different from rivers, as we today believe.

Historically speaking, the first part of the mystery is why and how minds became more important than bodies. The second part is, in a sense, proof that the mind is a recent accident: we ask ourselves what the mind is (a rather strange question: what am I?). When we ask what the mind is, we implicitly assume that the body is a given. The body is a given and we wonder what the mind is. We don’t take the mind for granted and wonder what the body is and why we have bodies. We are bodies that wonder about their minds, not minds that wonder about their bodies. At some point, minds happened to bodies.  And now bodies use their minds to wonder “How did that happen” and “What is my mind”.

At the same time the body is important in determining who else has a mind. We grant mentally insane and mentally disabled people rights that we don’t grant to animals even when those people behave just like animals when those people seem less intelligent than some animals. The main difference is that those people have human bodies. We don’t grant any rights to machines, no matter how “smart” they behave, because they don’t have human bodies.

The quest for a rational explanation of the human mind started with the task of defining the relationship between mind and matter: is our mind made of matter? Is it made of a different substance? What differentiates the mental from the non-mental? How do our mind and body relate? Is our mind inside our body? Is our mind born with the body? Will it die with the body? Does it grow with the body?  These days, having learned quite a bit about the brain and being reassured by countless psychological experiments that our brain is the main entity of the body responsible for our thinking, we are mostly interested in the specific relationship between brain (not “body” in general) and mind: what is the relationship between the neural and the mental? How does the mental originate from the neural?

And, finally, what is “in” the mind?


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