No, I don’t. It’s important to know. Isn’t it important for you to have some idea of what a human is so that you can make sure your actions are in line with what you believe? Suppose you believe that humans are just a little lower than the angels, as the Judaeo-Christian tradition says. If so, you should know how much lower, so you can be aspirational but not cocky.
In addition, there’s the issue of who you are and what you do. When you say things like “I love you,” or “I’m afraid,” how confident are you that you can use that powerful and mysterious word? There are a lot of people who think that “you” is just a bunch of chemicals in your brain. Does that answer make sense to you?
I think that when someone asks you what you are, you’d say that you’re human as part of your answer. It looks like we’re going back to the first thing.
All of these questions made me sick. I thought the best way to deal with them was to go back in time and act as if I were an archaeologist, stopping and immersing myself in three pivotal ages in the history of humanity. These were ages when major changes in human self-understanding took place. In the Upper Palaeolithic, we lived mostly as hunter-gatherers, even though we wore suits and sat slumped in front of laptops. In the Neolithic, we kept the natural world and ourselves in cages. In the Enlightenment, we learned about the world around us and how to live in it more (when the universe, previously seen as fizzing with consciousness, was declared to be merely a machine).
I wrote a book about this journey. This is what I did. It’s called being a person. I’m now a little less afraid of saying “I love you” than I used to be. There are still so many things I don’t know about you and me. I think I can figure out what kind of animal you are and what kind I am.
Books I took with me on my trip: Some were friendly, and some were very annoying.
The Matter With Things by Iain McGilchrist
A huge book and a huge accomplishment. In The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist looked at how our perception of the world and ourselves is affected by the conversation or stand-off between the two parts of our brains. This book is a follow-up to that book. The Matter With Things is a powerful attack on the idea that there is only matter (whatever that is), and that consciousness can come from a group of unconscious units.
Scatterlings by Martin Shaw
The wild isn’t in very many books about it. This is. How to be claimed by a place, and how we’re dying because we need good stories as much as clean air. We’re only given stories about material reductionism and the free market, which make us feel bad. Shaw knows how stories come from the ground. The earth, like everything else, has power. It wants us to audition for roles in its stories that are always changing. What is it like to be a person who is happy? A human body, as for Shaw and Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, is what this thing is. It defines its position in the world rather than itself, and it has a big part in the local story.
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
A lot of people have made fun of Jaynes, but he says that the voices of the gods that Homeric heroes heard in their heads were really the voices of one part of their minds that was overheard by another, and that true modern consciousness came when the wall between those parts of their minds broke down. There isn’t enough evidence from the archaeological record to make me believe this, but it’s still a fascinating idea, and Jaynes is a brave and swashbuckling writer.
The Hidden Spring by Mark Solms
A lot of books on the market are full of people who think that neuroscience is going to show us what consciousness is, why it’s there, and how it’s made, and they think that this will happen soon. Solms agrees with the majority of materialists that consciousness is caused by brain activity. I think it’s better to say that brains receive, process, and, if possible, send consciousness out into the world. But Solms’s book is different from the rest of the herd because it is filled with wonder and doubt.
Modern Man in Search of a Soul by Carl Jung
Our conscious mind isn’t very interesting or important compared to our unconscious mind. As it turns out, most of what “I” really am and what “I” really do is far below the surface. Jung is one of the best people who have looked into the dark but powerful subconscious. If you dream hard enough, run fast enough, or sit down in a winter wood and stare into the middle distance, you’ll see his types.
Nine-Headed Dragon River by Peter Matthiessen
A well-known Zen master named Matthiessen wrote the book “The Snow Leopard.” This book has some of his meditation journals in it. They’re full of vertiginous examples of how to watch your own mind work.
Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction by Susan Blackmore
Accessible overview of the subject written in a strong way. She thinks my ideas are naive and primitive, and she says so in a way that is both beautiful and convincing. Her question: “What were you aware of a moment ago?”
Breaking Convention: Essays on Psychedelic Consciousness
This is one of a set of papers from a biennial conference on the academic study of psychedelics and other topics, like shamanism, out of body, and near-death experiences. The papers were written by people who were at the conference. To make progress in tectonic science, you have to look at the outliers, the evidence that doesn’t fit with your old ideas. This is what these studies are for, and they do that.
Beyond Words by Carl Safina
Moving stories about why it’s possible to think that non-humans, like orcas, wolves, and elephants, have emotions and a kind of consciousness that’s similar to our own. It makes sense for them to be conscious, but why can’t stones be conscious too?
The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
The hallucinogen mescaline is based on what he has done. Huxley came to the conclusion that the brain acts like a reducing valve, slowing down the flow of information into our brains to a manageable level. We may be making decisions about the universe based on only a small amount of information. We could be reading it completely wrong. People’s brains have recently been shown to be able to process 11 dimensions. When we do this, we usually only use four of them. Wired for more than we think.