The Big Question 52: What is Human Consciousness and Where Does it Come From?
Jun 11, 2020 1004
What is human consciousness and where does it come from?
You get up in the morning and look at your messy morning self in the mirror and decide that you are going to be a better human being today than you were yesterday.
That’s human consciousness at work. And where it comes from is one of the biggest problems in psychology, and particularly for evolutionary psychology.
In a sense, beyond the biology, it’s our human consciousness that makes us human. But the truth is that no-one has yet come up with a definition of consciousness that everyone can agree on.
Consciousness is commonly defined as the ability to self-reflect. This typically means being able to identify yourself as being distinct from others.
But human consciousness, for me, goes beyond this. For me, it also means being able to live in the world of abstract ideas. It means to be able to reflect on your choices based on values higher than just survival.
But let’s go back to where consciousness all begins: the basic idea of consciousness as the ability to self-reflect – the ability to think not just about the external world, but about ourselves and our fundamental nature and purpose.
Science has been able to explain much about the world around us, but nothing about the origins of consciousness. Ron Rosenbaum wrote in 2009:
Consider, for instance, the problem of the origin and nature of consciousness. The failure to solve it without resorting to religion or quasi-religious “intelligent design”… strikes many observers as dangerous. Dangerous because it threatens the foundation of scientific rationalism and materialism. Dangerous because it disrupts one’s sense of any order in the universe and opens the floodgates of chaos.
What he’s talking about is the failure of science to explain the nature and origin of consciousness. This quote comes from Rosenbaum’s book called “The Dangerous Mystery of Consciousness.” He called it “dangerous” because what he’s saying is that it’s not possible to explain the origin of consciousness without resorting to religion. And that threatens his world-view as an evolutionist.
You see, at some point in the evolutionary process, a clump of cells suddenly became aware of its’ own existence and decided to take control of its own life. At what point did that happen? How or why did it happen? And if this was indeed a random event, how could you ever trust that what that clump of cells thought about itself was actually correct?
I don’t have problems with these questions, because my view is that humanity was originally created by God in a very special way.
However, Rosenbaum admits what many non-believers are unwilling to face – that the ability of inanimate matter to acquire the ability to self-reflect is a really tricky problem with no easy solution. Unless, you see, you’re willing to admit that perhaps atheism isn’t the only answer.
Once you’re willing to take that stop, other possibilities open up that make a whole lot of sense to me.