There is a time in life, which one might call “retirement,” when one is no longer willing or able to maintain one’s commitment to a “profession,” however defined, so that one can no longer communicate responsibly with the other members of that profession, and must consequently withdraw at least partially from the scene and limit oneself to such retrospective activities as writing memoirs or offering “quaint” reactions to the modern world from one who (like my old friend S) never learned to use a computer, or (like me) finds the very idea of “social media” an abomination.
I’m not sure if I’ve reached the retirement stage on all fronts, but I will admit that one aspect of GA is designed to limit the need for “professional” updating, not just for me personally, but for culture as a whole. A culture, or as Durkheim called it, a “society,” needs to have a sense of itself that does not depend on the latest discovery of the neurology lab. Does a society need an anthropological theory? Well, yes, in the sense that we must have some ideas in common about what we have become uncomfortable calling “human nature.” Because of the way professions operate in our culture, we expect that the “experts” on neurology, evolution, and related “life sciences” will provide new ideas about how our neurons and the rest function, and that it is exclusively in the development of these ideas that our fundamental self-understanding will be modified. Thus our background anthropology (BA) is designed to accommodate what might be called the Scientific American world of discovery in this area, just as it does, non-controversially, that of the discoveries of physics and chemistry and astronomy. The problem that GA poses is that it does not accept BA, in which it sees a systematic distortion of our self-understanding. The fact that all the “expert” discoveries of the past decades have only confirmed GA’s fundamental intuition: that the human is qualitatively different from other species, who can’t “learn language” in any meaningful sense, while their own “languages” are signal systems incomparable to human language, suggests at the very least that there is more to GA than BA seems to think.
In my talk at the forthcoming GASC, I will take up a recent attempt by a philosopher to rethink some of these questions, which I call anthropological but which he situates in the traditional metaphysical categories of “cognition” and “value.” In this Chronicle I would like to focus on the heart of my argument, which is not really new but which, before being at a stage of my career where I was obliged to think of “retirement,” I had not previously put in such sharp terms. And one might say that the sharpness of terms, when one is attempting to propose a “new way of thinking,” is of considerable importance.
One of the fundamental tenets (if such a word isn’t too rigorous in this context) of BA is the so-called mind-body (sometimes mind-brain) distinction: that there is something called “consciousness” that is different from material reality and that is therefore the basis of an informal dualism that “professional philosophers” argue about more rigorously, to wit, as to whether this naive dualism is “real” (dualism) or can through unspecified “scientific” operations be reduced to a single category (monism), generally speaking the material (materialism). The now all-but-forgotten Marxist “dialectical materialism” reflected the late-19th century atmosphere in which Marx operated, when Hippolyte Taine was famous for the phrase Le vice et la vertu sont des produits comme le vitriol et le sucre [Vice and virtue are products like sulfuric acid and sugar.] In reaction to this was born “phenomenology,” which tried to avoid the mind-body dichotomy by just talking about the “contents” (phenomena) of the mind.
Where does GA stand with respect to the mind-body dichotomy? As an old Girardian—as I get older I feel less and less obligation to distance myself from my teacher; history will measure our respective contributions, but as it progresses it seems to me that our branch of thinking is ever less “mainstream,” and that one important function of GA is to keep the “other” Girardians aware of the danger of backsliding into BA and its banalities—I have always had a healthy skepticism about the relevance of “philosophical” distinctions. But one can’t simply ignore them. Here then is a “sharper” statement of what I think GA’s position on the mind-body problem should be: that there isn’t one, that the real dichotomy is elsewhere, where I have for thirty years said it was, not between “mind” and “body” but between the world and language, or more broadly, representation.
Let me put this more provocatively. I see no reason to deny that animals have “consciousness.” Nor is it necessary to insist that animal consciousness lacks “qualia” or that it either does or does not differ essentially from the recursivity found in robots. But I see no problem in animal consciousness, any more than in the origin of life, for the usual Darwinian explanation of how it evolved. There is no mystery, and if Darwinian evolution is somehow inadequate to explain it (although I fail to see how it can be challenged without any semblance of a testable theory to oppose to it; and please don’t talk to me about “intelligent design”!), then it is not especially inadequate for “consciousness” as opposed to any other characteristic of living beings. If “qualia” is the problem, then any creature with some kind of brain poses a problem. How does an amoeba feel when you prick it? What is the quality of its pain? How does an earthworm feel pleasure? We find life too short to reflect on such questions. The only qualia that are of real interest to us are human qualia. And why, pray tell, is this? Might it not be because we, unlike our animal friends, have language, which is to say, we can talk about qualia?
Philosophers-metaphysicians deal with all such matters in terms of a human atomism where the only interaction of importance starts with a single human mind, who may then be forced to recognize “other minds,” but who is never theorized as once upon a time having been obliged to get together with these “other minds,” even before they were “minds” in the human sense, in a hypothesis about how they began to communicate via representations. If, instead, these philosophers accepted a form of originary hypothesis then… they would no longer be philosophers, that is, metaphysicians for whom language is an unproblematic given, but (generative) anthropologists. But no doubt it is a good thing that there not be too many generative anthropologists in the world.
All the problems associated with “consciousness” are reflections of the human propensity to use representations. But not because representations are a sign of the need for a new theory of cosmic evolution to replace Darwin’s, whose inadequacy to “explain” the human I have been talking about for some time without ever suggesting that we need to redo cosmology to allow for the possibility of “thinking beings” or whatever we are supposed to be. Good old Darwinian evolution is all we need, so long as we take into account that the human emerges in a different way from biological characteristics, and that there is no sense in seeking in mutations, as incredibly enough some philosophers still seem to do, the explanation of the origin of language (“Johnny has the language gene! He can talk! But the only other person around here with the gene is a girl in the next village, so we’re arranging for them to marry…”).
It is amazing both how easily the originary hypothesis simplifies these questions and how reluctant the BA-philosophizing world is to entertain it as a possibility. “Consciousness” is part of culture, but only at the level where we can communicate via shared representations, which are not first of all about the world, but about sharing sacred interdictions that prevent us from killing each other. But in the same way that we can share our sense of the object’s significance/desirability/danger/holiness, we can share information about it, situating it on the “other scene” of the declarative sentence or proposition. Here the philosopher feels at home; we are engaged in cognitive activity, and, as they say, about the rest we, or they, should shut up. Wittgenstein was indeed more aware than his successors of the limits of metaphysics, which he tested with his—essentially imperative—word-games, but he would never have thought to situate such games in a hypothetical history of human emergence.
But although we easily communicate about “objective” qualities, we cannot communicate “subjective” ones, and this leads to much agonizing over the “private” nature of consciousness. All it means, it seems to me, is that we are able to communicate “socially valuable” information, which consequently appears “objective” and independent of our internal scene of representation. “The cat is on the mat” is part of the world’s state of affairs, and its reproduction on our internal scene and in language seems therefore unproblematic. But when it comes to “qualia,” we have sensations that we discover we cannot communicate using language, since saying “I see red,” or “I feel pain” conveys no information to the hearer about the quality of these experiences. I want to somehow tell you how it feels to see red; I might try some kind of synesthesia: red is like the sound of a trumpet, or the smell of… God knows what. But clearly that just leads to infinite regress. Ergo, I declare that my “qualia” of seeing red or feeling pain are irreducible to the material reality of my nerve endings, which are in my body, whereas my mind, etc., etc.
But this “private” area of consciousness that seems so precious is obviously an artifact of language. Animals have internal scenes of a kind, but they do not permit of representation and therefore cannot lead to a prise de conscience of the existence of consciousness. Or in other words, you only know you’re conscious because your possession of language makes you aware of being aware of sensations that are not exhausted by the words that designate them, whether it be the sensations of pain, of perception, of pleasure… We realize we can talk about them and communicate them by analogy to others, but that their “personal” or “subjective” content cannot be transmitted by language—although the attempt to convey my “qualia” may inspire poetry, music, even, who knows, mathematics. It is this awareness that gives us the sense that our qualia are something other than “material” reality, although the very scene of consciousness is a derivative of the human scene. Animals are “conscious,” but they are not conscious that they’re conscious, since that would require them to represent their consciousness, that is, to have the equivalent of human language. Which, as GA has always known, they do not.
We may think of the scene of consciousness, which today is perhaps more easily figured as the screen of consciousness, as a means of combining one’s perceptions and knowledge of one’s environment in order to more efficiently make decisions about it necessary to life, or we might say, conducive to reproductive fitness. The problem of whether robots can be made/taught to “think” like humans is a deep one, and I am not ready to say that the robotic simulation of human thought is inconceivable, but as a believer in the necessity of an originary hypothesis, my point is that robots, lacking humanity’s originary scene, cannot “think like humans” unless they can acquire a history similar to that of humans. But I see no problem whatever with robots “thinking like animals,” which in many ways they do already.
The current debate about whether such things as “qualia” and “values” cast doubt on the materialist genesis of life and humanity only demonstrates the extraordinary poverty of “philosophical” thought in our era, a proposition I intend to defend more concretely in June. In my view, the specific nature of human genesis and development involves no contradiction with Darwinian evolution, merely an understanding that the human and its scene-event configuration is simply of a different nature, either an “emergent” one, or if you prefer, one that demonstrates the existence of a sacred coexistent with the human, whether transcendent or immanent but in any case constituent.
The point is not, as some on the “right” would like to think, that the weakness of the materialist Darwinian approach to human genesis “supports” the existence of God, any more than it supports creationism or intelligent design. These “God-of-the-gaps” arguments are pathetic. The “existence of God” in the mouths and minds of the philosophers is as impoverished a concept as that of the elephant that isn’t standing by the door or the collection of rabbit parts, far less rich than that of the cat on the mat. Once one realizes that the human can only come into existence not through genetic mutation but as a communal phenomenon, then one understands that such a thing as “values,” which Kant understood as essentially linked to human interaction, cannot even begin to be understood by the “introspection” of such ideas as, “Causing pain to a sentient being is wrong in itself…” One may well have such convictions, and I am the last to tell people to abandon them. But to make such introspection the basis of a “philosophical” discussion is a demonstration of the decline of this great enterprise since the pre-Socratics first thought of it as a discovery procedure for solutions to the ethical problems of the polis. If I have a conviction that something is wrong, and especially if I am not willing to “materialize” it by reducing it in terms of evolutionary psychology to an “adaptive” certitude that will somehow make my DNA more likely to survive, then I should be asking where such a conviction comes from, and how it is related to the fact that we express it in language and that creatures without language are unable to express such convictions.
Of course if “language” is just a convenient shorthand to use in “expressing” our inner truth-convictions that otherwise exist independently of language, then there’s no need to meditate on the curious fact that language and morality go together. Durkheim never quite says this, nor Girard either, but I submit that it is strongly implicit in their understanding of the human social order, and that GA’s distillation of this relationship in the originary hypothesis is the natural conclusion of the process.
And if the universe must indeed contain something other than matter/energy to give rise to my qualia and my values, why not remark on the fact that, yes, the universe does contain things other than matter: they are called signs. A bird can “see red,” but only humans can say, “red.” This is the new category of being that the universe has to be able to generate. But it seems to me that the originary hypothesis does that job quite simply, and although it no doubt presupposes that the universe from the beginning had the potential to generate signs, I fail to see in what sense this is a useful subject for speculation. I am a greater admirer than most of the difference between humans and the rest of the universe, but I’m not so infatuated that I think that the invention of the sign cannot be explained from within the world that already generated life. It is in my mind a terrible violation of parsimony to retrodict the capacity for language (“mind”) all the way back to the big bang, any more than the capacity for producing Justin Bieber.
And with that, I rest my case. See you in June!