The brain is an electro-chemical entity, which in the case of humans is stated by one author to contain some 1011 self-organising neurones with some 1014 connections. Whatever the precise numbers, the human brain is of huge complexity, with a processing power dwarfing that of today’s most advanced silicon based computers. To deduce, from this undoubted fact, that the human brain is not a computer is, though, to make a deduction too far.
An animal obtains its data input from sensory organs genetically skewed to suit its environmental niche. Its brain (or whatever it has standing in for a brain) proceeds to evaluate the data by a complex referencing against the inbuilt programmes constituting its “knowledge” (part genetic and part acquired), and causes its associated motor nerves to take the best available action to meet the circumstances. Behaviour in animals other than humans is to a large degree predictable and in many cases can be modified by experience, a process which has to mean some degree of reorganisation within individual cells or neurones and their connections, however achieved. It is difficult to see how any informed person can seriously doubt an assessment that the brains of such animals are behaving like computers, whether or not they also contain a phantom presence which constitutes life.
The problem of extending this assessment to humans centres on the consideration that from direct personal experience we know humans to be self-conscious, that they can consciously experience their available data inputs, and that they identify personally with the resultant decisions and motor nerve actions. At the same time we have no reason to believe the PCs on our desks, or indeed any other man-made computer, to be any more self-conscious than a brick
If, however, we analyse human decisions and actions in detail we will be hard put to find cases where they are firmly ascribable to other than the interaction between our genetic inheritance at conception and the complexities of the particular external world, physical and cultural, in which we happen to find ourselves. Why, indeed, should we expect otherwise?
How, in fact, could any freedom from the inbuilt bonds express itself? By erratic “out-of-character” behaviour? Erratic behaviour can be adequately assessed as contingent on problems with our complex programming. Are not programming problems to be expected in the highly artificial world we humans have created since leaving the African savannah?
One aspect of human success is that we are all different. The human condition is further complicated by the consideration that although we perceive ourselves as differing self-conscious individuals we are in fact also communal animals. Armies follow orders, peer groups establish procedures, we individuals cling to our daily injection of news as to what the rest of our community is up to, we are bound in by multiple interwoven group loyalties.
All these activities are carried out with variants and interactions, but the general communal orientation of our programming is clear enough, together with the ability of the species to explore all avenues by incorporating variations including the disruptive features which serve to keep the pot on the boil. But for the tendency, particularly of the young male, to disrupt the status quo it is a safe bet that we would still be picking the fleas out of each other’s fur by some East African lakeside. It is partly because our view is obscured by an infinity of complex behaviours and misbehaviours that we have a problem in seeing the tramlines on which we are running.
Then there is religion. A sense of the numinous is so widespread that it is not unreasonable to assume its rudiments to be genetically inbuilt. Because an experience of the numinous involves a strong feeling of unity with the whole, it not surprisingly leads to procedures (ceremonies and codes of conduct) directed towards linkage of individuals to each other and to the whole.
In a complex world with conflicting imperatives, what do our 1011 neurones do when a decision is required? They balance the interlocking pros and cons as best they are able, and come up with an action plan, which we may then present to our conscious selves as an act of free will.
The nature of the self-conscious phantom snugly enclosed within the conveniently available biological machine is another topic altogether. Since we individually experience it, no one can credibly maintain the phantom is not there, albeit on a temporary basis. To say that it the phantom is an illusion is to beg the question. If it is an illusion, so be it – it is certainly as insubstantial as an illusion – but it remains perceived. By analogy we have to presume this perceived presence in some form not only within our cousins the great apes, but also within other vertebrates – and perhaps to a degree in all life forms. Why should we assume that the strength of their perception depends on their number of neurones, or even on the presence of specialised neurones?
There is, though, only one logical deduction to be made from the presence of the phantoms within ourselves, and it is that their elements are an attribute of matter, an attribute – illusory or otherwise – which becomes apparent only when matter is appropriately organised. The implication is that somewhere amongst the elementary particles of cosmic material lurk embryonic qualities of consciousness – an implication which neatly links our experience of our constituent matter with our experience of the numinous.
So. Where do we go from here, since the pointers seem to indicate that humans are self-conscious automatons derived from some yet-to-be-identified quality of matter which has been shaped by their individual inheritance and environment?
Firstly, this concept is not a signal that we have no responsibility and anything goes. Since humans are basically communal animals, part of the environmental conditioning of each automaton must be to make it unambiguously aware, starting with the juvenile with his genetic tendency to be disruptive, that the memes will do their best to control the genes in the interests of the species.
Secondly, the phantoms which inhabit our generation of automatons are highly privileged and have every reason to feel mildly self satisfied, even if they do have to abandon their illusion of possessing free will, or, indeed, of their perception being anything other than an illusion. They are promenaded around their, admittedly limited, environment and their brains are inputted with data far more comprehensive than their predecessors could hope to gather with their own unaided sensory systems. They have the good fortune to find themselves in an auto feed-back situation permitting continually more effective operation of the computers which are themselves.
And for this reason, as the current representatives of “something far more deeply interfused”, today’s phantoms have the capacity to begin – but only just begin – to think numinous without thinking childish.