Consciousness and World Views

In 1637, Rene˙ Descartes set the modern study of the mind-brain relationship in motion. It was at this time he took his famous sojourn in a Dutch farmhouse to escape authority and contemplate humanity’s innate nature. In trying to distill philosophy back to only those things he felt he could be sure about, he wrote, “Cogito ergo sum.” (I think therefore I am). Whilst we could argue with this statement on a number of fronts, one issue which would certainly need clarification is an understanding of this concept of “I”.

Firstly, our “I-ness” (sense of self) is derived from our consciousness. This is the uniquely human characteristic that enables us to be “self-aware”. Our consciousness gives us access to the internal processing of our minds. As a result we are aware of our thoughts. Consequently we have a sense of an interior world. This interior world seems to be critical in creating a sense of self.

The interesting thing here is that this consciousness is only a relatively recent acquisition in evolutionary time. It seems to have been triggered by the burgeoning growth of the cerebral cortex (and in particular the frontal lobes) since our ancestors, the Australopithecines, came down from the trees and learnt to walk in the African savannah. From this point on brain size increased dramatically in our hominid ancestors. Yet there is strong evidence to suggest that consciousness did not feature in the prehuman history and that indeed it did not occur until relatively recent times.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that consciousness aided our survival during the dangerous period when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. But today, because of the fact that our environment is not so physically dangerous, consciousness has been diverted from assisting our physical survival to maintaining our psychic survival. That is our consciousness now seems more intent on maintaining our sense of self. Because many of us are not truly accepting of our selves this has meant that consciousness has been drafted to defend and bolster our egos.

This function of mind is so pervasive that we believe that it dominates our being. But pause a moment. Only a few hundred generations ago our ancestors were not conscious in the way we are. Yet they lived satisfactory lives – they survived, they formed social groups, manufactured fundamental tools and propagated – without conscious awareness. We have come to believe that we run our own lives through conscious rational processes, yet hidden from our conscious awareness are still the same basic unconscious sub-routines lodged in our minds that ran the lives of our ancestors. Robert Orstein, in his book “The Evolution of Consciousness”, refers to them as “squadrons of simpletons”. Much of our human behaviour is determined by these vestiges of our ancestral past, but our mind being rationalizing (not rational) provides as with good cogent reasons why we behave the way we do.

Without consciousness we have no sense of self. But we delude ourselves if we believe that we are capable of consciously determining our moment by moment behavioural responses to the world. Our “squadrons of simpletons” are an array of behaviours that we have socially learnt and/or acquired through our biological history. These subroutines dominate our brains and the brain only contributes a minute proportion of its capacity to that which is being aware and constructing a story for the benefit of self.

It would seem then, despite being conscious we still have little freedom in choosing how to respond to the world and yet the choice we do have is of immense importance. Our prime freedom is really how we interpret what happens to us – what meaning we give to it. This framework provides us with a filter through which we view the world. Our lives are hugely shaped by this filter and how accurate and useful is our worldview.

For example people with depression lead sad and diminished lives because of their dysfunctional world view. Dorothy Rowe, the renowned Australian psychologist, in her book Depression, the Way out of your Prison suggested that a depressed person’s world view was something like this:

· No matter how good and acceptable I appear to be, I am really bad, evil, valueless, unacceptable to myself and other people

· Other people are such that I must fear (and sometimes hate and envy) them

· Life is terrible and death is worse

· Only bad things have happened to me in the past and only bad things will happen to me in the future

· I must never forgive anyone, least of all myself.

You can imagine how dreadful life must be if we interpreted the world this way!

But, you might ask, surely there is only one world and we all should see it the same. There may be only one world but in fact we all see it (perhaps more correctly interpret it) differently.

If this is something that interests you, in my little book Augustus Finds Serenity there are two parables you might like to read illustrating this issue. They are chapters 2 and 16.