At odd moments, often when I’m distracted, it occurs to me that a song or a piece of music has been repeatedly running through my head. It’s an experience nearly everyone has. Sometimes it’s invigorating to realize that you have been striding through the day to the chords of Beethoven, but it’s often quite irritating because you realize you’ve been moping about for hours to some saccharine drivel that you just can’t seem to get out of your head. But how did it get there? How did it escape from the neural cage where it is stored and begin to run loose through consciousness?
This experience is characteristic of lots of our mental activities. If we glance at ourselves out of the corner of our mind’s eye, we often catch sight of many things that are going on just at the edge of awareness: a distant voice repeating over and over to remember to pick up the kids, a snippet of a conversation that we had with someone earlier in the day, a worried thought about a distant loved one, a moment of lingering anger that suddenly burns bright for no good reason, and on and on. Our conscious and near conscious minds are crowded and often very confusing places, and it sometimes seems as if we are holding a small candle trying to make out what is going on in the vast darkness that surrounds us.
These experiences point toward the difficulties we have understanding the world in which we find ourselves. While we seem to live on what Lucretius called “the coasts of light,” in a world that is full of things, qualities and relationships, at least since the seventeenth century, we have come to doubt that this sensorium is reality, and instead have come to conceive of it as a merely mental construction that depends in part on sensation but also on memory, imagination, and language to give us a comprehensive view of the world. Moreover, we have strong evidence that there is a great deal more going on in those dark stretches beyond our immediate consciousness, in part because some of it occasionally wanders into our light: a word we were searching for yesterday is suddenly remembered; the source of some psychic agony that has troubled us since childhood now is surprisingly clear. It is apparent to us in moments like these that something has been going on for a long time that we were unaware of. And then, of course, the very fact that our heart continues to beat, our lungs to draw air, and our other bodily processes to function more or less successfully is an indication of activities of the brain that never come into the light.
Modern biological science is convinced that all of this is not the activity of a trans-substantial soul but the result of electrochemical processes playing out across the structure of our brains. To paraphrase Hobbes’ objection to Descartes’ assertion that humans are thinking things, “No body, no thinking.” Modern science or at least modern scientism (to use the term Alex Rosenberg urges on us in his essay, “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality“) goes a bit further: consciousness is not merely dependent on the motions of body, but these motions are completely independent of consciousness, which invariably misleads us when we try to understand ourselves. We may believe that we make choices or have goals and purposes, but everything we do is really only the result of dominos falling one after another according to an evolutionary logic that is independent of individual will or initiative. From this perspective we are left like Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow watching Toto pull aside the curtain beside the great and powerful Oz, but with the minor difference that what we discover is not a snake oil salesman from Kansas but, as Archibald MacLeish put it, “Nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.”
This view of things has rather dire consequences for humanists (as well as for theists) and all of the works they have produced over the last several thousand years in art, religion, philosophy, history, etc. Some of their activities from this “scientistic” perspective are relatively innocuous forms of pleasure, akin to masturbation, fun but slightly disreputable, and not truly productive or reproductive. Many of the products of human imagination, purpose, or intention, however, are characterized as misleading and, in the case of religion, as downright dangerous, akin to the instinctual call of lemmings to their final swimathon. Amid these illusions of consciousness, only one is excepted from this general critique, and that is science. Science alone is true. Why among all of our mental activities is science accorded this special status? Science is after all a construction within consciousness and like most other constructions is crucially dependent upon shared consciousness, i.e., language in all of its forms including mathematics (which itself exists only in imaginary time and space). Why does science have any different status than literature, to take just one example? Obviously, it seeks empirical verification and has a method that allows it to measure the likelihood that its constructions reflect reality, but isn’t that true for literature as well? Don’t we sometimes remark when reflecting on a book or a film, “That’s absurd, no one would act in that way.” Moreover, can any scientist give an even plausible (let alone demonstrable) account of what he or she does that does not include intentions or goals that motivate and guide his or her behavior? If science denies the reality of such intentionality, then it is difficult to see how science itself is anything other than a (highly unlikely) random walk through language and how civilization is anything more than the result of millions of monkeys pounding away on millions of typewriters (and lots of other things) producing all the works of art, literature, science, etc. not merely in the British Museum but everywhere else as well.
I don’t mean to suggest that science is false or to diminish its importance for our lives. Indeed, as a collective enterprise it is one of, if not the greatest of, all human achievements. What I want to suggest is that science is only possible within consciousness and that any scientific attempt to explain the universe must accept the reality of the conscious activity that makes science itself possible. This does not mean, of course, that science must accept all forms of conscious experience as true, but it does mean that science cannot reject them all out of hand as illusory or misleading.
In trying to make sense of the human, we need to understand the ways in which we are part of the natural world but also the ways in which we are different from other natural beings. Modern biological science since the middle of the nineteenth century has called into question all notions of human superiority. In earlier times humans were imagined to stand somewhere between beasts and gods. With Darwin the distinction between humans and the beasts was effaced. Molecular biology and biochemistry erased the basic distinction between living and not-living things, leaving us like all other beings merely collections of fermions and bosons. While this may well be true, all “things” that make any difference are the result of different organizations of these particles. Life may be the continued development of self-replicating molecules within an environment, but the differences between these self-replicating structures are of considerable importance.
So what then distinguishes the human? Humans are distinct because we are not merely a part of an environment but exist in a world that is much greater than us and yet that is as it is only in and though our understanding of it. My two cats eat, sleep, and play, and are blithely unaware of global warming, the possibility of a catastrophic earth-asteroid collision, and the fact that millions of people (though still very few fellow felines) can hardly wait to know who will be the next American Idol. We humans are concerned (to differing degrees) with all of these things. We have a concept of ourselves existing in a world that is not just a collection of things but a whole (of some sort). It is only because of this that we have and are able to employ science as one of our possible ways of being. The world opens up to us in consciousness not just as the here and now that we sense but as a past that we remember and a future that we anticipate. Because we live in anticipation of a future, we formulate purposes. This process is aided immensely by language that allows us to represent and develop our projects in very complicated ways and to coordinate our efforts not just with proximate individuals but on a global scale. Science is one form of intentional activity within this world that aims at achieving purposes that we have constructed. It seeks to understand how things work in order to more effectively produce what we want and to protect us from what we fear.
Science, however, is not the only form of conscious activity through which we engage with the world. Art, literature, and history, to take just three examples, serve a similar function in giving us an image of the ways in which we exist in the world. The picture science gives us of the world may be extraordinarily powerful and useful to human life, but so is the Henry Fieldings’ portrayal of Tom Jones’ development as a human being or Van Gogh’s depiction of a pair of boots. And they are all products of the imagination and are represented in consciousness, although in quite different ways. Indeed, art and the imagination provide the ground on which science becomes possible, for without the first (poetic/imaginative) act of naming a thing or the relationship between things whether in images, words, or mathematical symbols, no science would be possible.
Science is also only useful to us because we have a conception of ends and purposes that is not derived from science. Bacon was undoubtedly correct in his claim that knowledge is power. While science tells us how things work and thus opens up the possibilities for manipulating our world in countless ways, it does not tell us what to do with this power. The question of purposes is not one that most other beings face. They respond to their circumstances instinctually and achieve lasting change (as a species) only through random variation or chance migration. We change the world intentionally (and also obviously unintentionally). Humans like beavers build dams but if the river dries up we build a different kind of power plant while the beavers can only migrate or die out. We have a notion of the good or goods (whether naturally given, imposed by the powerful, socially-constructed, the result of the belief in divine revelation, or in consequence of a utilitarian aggregation of preferences, etc.) and without such a notion we would have no idea at all of what to do with the power that science gives us.
Art, religion, philosophy, history, literature and the humanities in general are crucial to the determination of the nature of the good(s). This is sometimes a rhetorical process in which individuals attempt to convince others that their vision of the good(s) should be the good(s) for all. At other times individual artists or writers present a vision of the good in order to open up the possibility of conversation and a deliberative process to arrive at an understanding of our goals. The motivation behind these practices is not always conscious, but it is only when they are put in a conscious and communicable form that they become relevant to us.
This notion that we are distinctive because of consciousness does not mean that we are somehow above or free from the evolutionary process. Indeed, our form of consciousness and our concern with the good(s) may be the result of random variation, but it undoubtedly is very useful and helps explain our ability to dominate so many environmental niches. This debate about the good(s), however, is vitally important to what we are and what we will be. Each artist, writer, sculptor, historian, and scientist takes part in this debate in an attempt to shed some light into the darkness beyond the limits of our individual and shared consciousness. That we disagree about what is out there is not surprising. That our anxieties populate the unseen stretches of darkness with bogey men, ghouls, demons, (increasingly sexy) vampires and other such creatures is not surprising. We should not for that reason conclude that all of the products of the imagination are misleading or illusive. Indeed, it is only by means of the representations of the imagination that we have come to have any idea of what it means to be human and to engage in such practices as science.