Merlin Donald
A Mind so Rare
W.W.Norton 2002

324 Coda
The human brain is the only brain in the biosphere whose potential cannot be realised on its own. It needs to become part of a network before its design features can be expressed. Since we are living beings, the networks we create are complex, fuzzy, and multilayered, rather than lean and mean, or driven solely by the needs of symbolic communication. This makes our networks radically different from those that have been invented for nonliving entities, such as computers.

The cognitive infrastructure of human culture includes many things that we do not normally call symbolic, such as patterns of public action, the built environment, and conventional expressions of emotion. These things are the cognitive purpose, because they convey a great deal about intention, bonding, affiliation, attachment, and hierarchy. They provide structure.

By eliminating the need for the explicit encoding of many
important parameters of collective cognition, and by embedding layer upon layer of tacit or implicit knowledge in a cultural network, they make it feasible to evolve in a distributed fashion the kinds of highly abstract symbolic systems that we now take for granted.

The result is that we are plugged-in, as no other species before us. We depend heavily on culture for our development as conscious beings. And by exploiting this connection to the full, we have outdistanced our mammalian ancestors. We have evolved a far more autonomous awareness, capable of incredible flights of imagination and invention. Consciousness has conquered the mechanical world of the automaton. It has triumphed.

But there has been a cost. Without culture, our world-models, those highly personal and idiosyncratic visions of current reality that define all conscious experience, will inevitably shrivel. If we line up the key features of the many different kinds of minds that coexist with us on Earth and rank the breadth and complexity of their world models, we can see how deeply we depend on our cultural hook-up.

325 …This is a graded scale in which the steps do not represent a true qualitative change, or progression of any kind, because there are so many species that are idiosyncratic in one way or another. One might reasonably ask, if consciousness has so many fine shadings, why deny into the organism was at the bottom of the hierarchy, the so-called pre-conscious organisms that are ruled by innate, automatic responses? Might they not have some kind of elemental awareness, passively induced modes of experience? I have no compelling answer to this, except to fall back on chapter 4, where we saw that there is an accepted convention that consciousness must have some autonomy from the physical world. Maybe that is an arbitrary stance, and consciousness should be attributed even to the most rudimentary nervous system. I cannot deny that possibility. But such an admission would not change much.

There is a more serious problem with the scale, however. It occurs at the other extreme of it, when we see the three levels of brain-culture interactions that are special to humanity. This ordering of the levels of consciousness seems to imply that an awareness capable of holding theoretic models is somehow the highest form of consciousness. I cannot emphasise too strongly that I intend no such meaning. This scale says nothing about such value judgements. While it is true that the theoretic model appear late in the chronology of consciousness, I am not interested in attributing value, intellectual or otherwise, to that fact.

Theoretic minds certainly have greater powers of abstraction than minds that are locked into a purely mythic stance - hardwon powers, bought at a great historical cost. But there are ways in which mythic knowledge representations reigns supreme over theoretic ones, just as there are realms were a mimetic stance does. Myths and mimesis rule politics and art, as well as the entire domain of interpersonal relationships. No mere theory can improve on good art, effective body language, or strong tribal identification (even the tribal identifications of logicians or theoreticians).

Nevertheless, a powerful theory can take the conscious mind on a voyage to Mount Olympus as no other kind of representation can. For that brief moment when we grasp an elegant theory fully, in all its implications, we are granted a glimpse of what it might have been like to be a God.

As our latest speculations about awareness pour onto the pages of more and more books and scientific papers, they will change some of our old ideas about awareness. But the ideas were not really our own in the first place; that is, they do not belong to any of us in a personal way. They are products of a collective process that defines the peaks and valleys of a virtual landscape of meaning.

Ideas are under constant revision by a collective process that often masquerades as a highly personal quest. If anything in this book can be construed as truly „my own“ or acknowledged in some way as „my“ achievement, it is only in the sense that I might have successfully become
a temporary vortex within the culture, a point of convergence whereby certain forces have become concentrated in my consciousness temporarily, before returning, transformed, to the collective matrices whence they came.

Boe: Antonio Machado
Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada mas.
Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. 
Al andar se hace camino
y al volver la vista atras
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar. 
Caminante, no hay camino sino estelas en el mar

Which is not to say that I would have it any other way. Fate has given us this hybrid nature, by which we are joined to communities of our own invention. We remain distinct from them but are never fully autonomous. The human brain is a poor thing on its own, an inarticulate, undifferentiated, metaphorising beast like any other. But joined to a community of its fellows, it has this remarkable capacity to to create a community of mind, acquires symbolising powers, and vastly expand the range of its own awareness, in proportion to the depth of its enculturation.

If this appears strange to us, this is surely only a reflection of our conventional notions of, among other things, strangeness. We have lived comfortably with the myth of the isolated mind throughout most of my history. We like to think of ourselves as self-complete little monads dwelling inside our sealed biological containers, peering out at the world from the safe haven of consciousness.

But we are edging closer to the truth. We are collective creatures, even to the texture of our awareness. That fact, the irrational beast that drives our cognitive enterprise will finally be able to see itself as it really is, as part of a collective process that has freed us from our solipsistic prison, if not from our materiality. The triumph of consciousness will be complete when it can finally reflect on the collective process itself and see only itself, in the mirror of its own reflection.

Donald - Mind

Merlin Donald