Science Column: We are the Final Frontier

In the world of twenty­-first century science, it’s easy to get a big head. We’ve unraveled many of the mysteries that baffled our ancestors, or at least made some impressive progress in understanding the seemingly incomprehensible. We’ve theorized evolution and atoms, the human genome and the big bang.  We can peer into the depths of infinity with our telescopes and the depths of the infinitesimal with our microscopes. We may be pink, little, hairless apes, but we’ve got this universe thing figured out (or so we like to think). But when we turn the lens around and peer inward, things get…hazy. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but if there’s one thing we just can’t wrap our minds around, it’s ourselves.

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy class, “I think therefore I am” will probably ring a bell. Descartes was a big fan of that one. But what does it even mean? What is this “self” that I claim as my identity? After all, we are made of a myriad of parts layered within each other like Russian matryoshka dolls; our bodies are made of systems made of organs made of molecules made of atoms. As Piero Scaruffi illuminates in his book “The Nature of Consciousness”, these parts are continually in a state of flux, with all of our atoms being regenerated within a span of seven years. Take into account the fact that we are constantly having new experiences that influence our patterns of thought and behavior, and it becomes hard to comprehend how there can be any sort of stable, underlying self. Yet, all of these changes, most of which pass under the radar of our awareness, are experienced through the constant, unchanging lens of our consciousness. Through it all we retain the conception that we exist as a single entity.

Scientists and philosophers alike have been grappling with the notion of consciousness for centuries, but between its utter immateriality and the fact that it’s not just imbedded in us, it is us, makes it pretty hard to pin down—maybe even impossible. British philosopher Colin McGinn thinks so; he believes that such an understanding likely falls outside of the “cognitive closure” of our minds. And maybe that’s a good thing. McGinn proposes that such a complete understanding of ourselves might depress us and even cause us to die out (a depressing idea in itself). We might even have evolved not to possess such an understanding for this very reason. Nonetheless, some scientists have taken a stab at it. German neurologist Christof Koch, for example, theorizes that a structure in our brains called the homunculus processes information below the surface of our consciousness, essentially doing the “thinking.” He believes that consciousness exists at an “intermediate level;” it isn’t aware of the homunculus, but produces representations of the structure’s work, resulting in what we perceive as our thoughts.

Picking apart our consciousness can be an extremely isolating experience. It makes me feel a division within myself that freaks me out and gives me a headache; and it gets worse when I consider just how little we can comprehend each other when we can’t even begin to fathom ourselves. But the really interesting thing is that we’re also eusocial creatures. As E.O. Wilson defines it, this means that we “live in multigenerational communities, practice division of labor, and behave altruistically, ready to sacrifice at least some of our personal interests to that of the group.” What’s more, technology is allowing us to take this eusociality to a whole new level. We’re becoming a superorganism, a “global brain” that transmits information en masse so rapidly that we can begin to think of the internet as a sort of global nervous system. We’re a pretty crazy paradox when you think about it; the nature of our consciousness forever barricades us from truly knowing each other or even ourselves, and yet we are evolving to function as one giant cohesive unit. We are so utterly alone in our existence, and yet, simultaneously, we are so very together.

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