While reading chapter 2 of the Synaptic Self in which LeDoux discusses what ‘the self’ might actually be by looking at many theories of personality and consciousness proposed over the years, two main thoughts jumped out at me. First, I had the thought, once again, that maybe neuroscience should not be concerning itself with questions of why we are conscious beings and how we define the self. It is a fascinating subject and I am interested in seeing what neuroscience could add to the debate, but since humans will never be satisfied with an answer, perhaps we should leave the debate to philosophers. This quote from Calvin and Hobbes sums it up nicely for me.
“I’m not going to do my math homework. Look at these unsolved problems. Here’s a number in mortal combat with another. One of them is going to get subtracted. But why? What will be left of him? If I answered these, it would kill the suspense. It would resolve the conflict and turn intriguing possibilities into boring old facts.’
‘I never really thought about the literary possibilities of maths.’
‘I prefer to savour the mystery.’ – Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson
My second thought was about how we divide humans from animals concerning consciousness . LeDoux writes that the existence of a personality does not mean that the pet is conscious in the human sense, which may be true. However, he also admits that it is impossible for us to know if animals have any type of human-like consciousness, since we cannot enter the mind of another animal. I guess, at the risk of sounding like a PETA member, I think that we are too quick to brush off the possibility that animals might have the ability to think and be conscious, even if the method of thinking is different from our own consciousness. In the New York Times Science section yesterday, there was an article about researchers conducting a study with wild dolphins. The goal of the project is to begin engaging in social interactions with dolphins – interactions which will involve the dolphins initiating communication with the human researchers. In some ways this idea seems far-fetched, but it may not be. It has been acknowledged that dolphins are one of the brightest species on the planet, and their brains have similar groove patterns to our own. It seems entirely possible to me that dolphins experience some kind of consciousness and self-awareness that would entitle them to a ‘self’ just as much as any given human. I suppose that if neuroscience does find a biological basis of consciousness, we will be able to look for its existence in other species… so here I am back at my first point, wondering if it is all worth it.
NYT dolphin article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/science/20dolphin.html?_r=1&ref=science