“Are Humans the Only Conscious Animal?”*

*article by Susan Blackmore in the September 2018 edition of Scientific American.

“…Could humans be uniquely conscious because of their large brains? British pharmacologist Susan Greenfield proposes that ‘consciousness increases with brain size across the animal kingdom’. But if she is right, then African elephants and dusky dolphins are more conscious than you are, and Great Danes and Dalmatians are more conscious than Pekinese and Pomeranians, which makes no sense…

…’eliminative materialists’ such as philosophers Pat and Paul Churchland…argue that consciousness is just the firing of neurons and we will come to accept that just as we accept that light is just electromagnetic radiation. Integrated Information Theory also denies a separate function for consciousness because any system with sufficiently high phi must inevitably be conscious. Neither of these theories makes human consciousness unique but one final idea might.

This is the well-known, but much misunderstood, claim that consciousness is an illusion. This does not deny the existence of subjective experience but rejects most of our intuitions about what consciousness must be like. Illusionist theories include psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s idea of the magical mystery show staged inside our heads and Michael Graziano’s ‘attention schema theory’. But by far the best known is American philosopher Daniel Dennett’s ‘multiple drafts theory’: brains are massively parallel systems with no central ‘theatre’ in which ‘I’ sit viewing and controlling the world. Instead, multiple drafts of perceptions and thoughts are continually processed and none is either conscious or unconscious until the system is probed and elicits a response. Only then do we say the thought or action was conscious. He relates this to the theory of memes. Because humans are capable of widespread generalised imitation, we alone can copy, vary and choose between memes, giving rise to language and culture. ‘Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes’, says Dennett, and the self is a ‘benign user illusion’.

But perhaps this illusory self, this complex of memes I call a ‘selfplex’, is not so benign, benefitting the memes that make it up more than the person who carries them.

Perhaps paradoxically, our unique capacity for language, autobiographical memory and a sense of being a continuing self may increase our suffering. While other species may feel pain, they cannot make it worse by crying, ‘How long will this pain last? Will it get worse? Why me? Why now?’ In this sense our suffering may be unique. For illusionists the answer to our question is simple and obvious. We humans are unique because we alone are clever enough to be deluded.”

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