“Everybody’s an expert on consciousness”, Dan Dennett
I’ve looked in the books, talked to the scholars, fought god and even watched the stars for clues. I am human. I know I am. But what makes me so? Like that guy in the story, I open a door and I’m not sure I should have done that. Can’t help to peek inside though.
Rama (short for Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran) has his back to me, when he tells me – as he carried on writing on a blackboard – that the human brain is a mass of jelly, 3 pounds in weight, and that I can hold it with just one of my hands. I imagine it… I look into my hand and I even squeeze it a little and by doing so – in my mind’s eye – it makes me human. “The human brain can contemplate the vastness of inter-stellar space, the meaning of infinity and it can contemplate itself contemplating the meaning of infinity”, tells me Rama and I nod. He is a neuroscientist so he should know about these things. “The human brain has this peculiar quality that we call self-awareness which is the holy grail of neuroscience. Hopefully, someday we will understand how it happens.” No help here then… But I think is trying to tell me that consciousness is what makes me human.
Dan Dennett is an acclaimed philosopher. Although he looks like someone’s benevolent grandpa, he’s very intransigent when he says that we don’t know anything about human consciousness and that is because for most of the time our own brain is fooling us. Sitting at his feet like a well-behaved girl, while he takes a large sip of tea, he informs me in all seriousness: “What we are (you, I and all of us) is approximately 100 trillion little cellular robots.” Hum?! “That’s what we are made of… We are just made of cells and not one single one of those is conscious, not a single one knows who you are or care.” I’m starting to get a bit upset now. It’s time to move… Well before I made it to the next door I could hear him carry on: “Somehow we have to explain how we get from teams, armies, battalions of little robotic unconscious cells, not so different from a bacterium, to something like what goes on in the human brain: memories, colors, ideas. How is that possible? Many people think it isn’t, there can’t be a natural explanation for that.” Something that we can’t explain would explain that! That makes perfect sense.
God isn’t happy. Since I didn’t turn to him for an answer in the first place… So he just stares. But I already know that I was made in his own image (and I never could see him clearly, anyway), so I stare back… I bow and I’m ready to take my leave through another passage, when I suddenly realize that I’ve seen that face before. Sitting on God’s right side: “A human being is part of the whole called by us “universe,” limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons close to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Funny to see you here Mr. Einstein. “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I think he even winked with that one.