Monday, June 7, 2010

'The society of selves' by Nicholas Humphrey

Quotation from

The society of selves
by Nicholas Humphrey

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2007) 362, 745-754

Available at:

The thought that your consciousness (or 'the true you', if you like) is inaccessible by anybody else than you may be depressing. You may feel you're so isolated that nobody understands you really.

But what if other people know that they themselves are inaccessible by you or anybody else than themselves? What if we, human beings, mutually know that our consciousness is only private? (In fact, we usually think we do!)

What our consciousness is about is private and not shared, but that our consciousness is private is not private but shared. This shared knowledge (actually assumption, to be exact) grants the sense of awe from your private perspective in every single human being, a carrier of consciousness.

Private use of your consciousness is one thing; your consciousness is (in many cases) only known to yourself; you can lie or cheat to defeat others.

Public use of the private nature of consciousness is another. It may give rise to a society in which every member is treated with greater dignity than the one a member receives in a society with no shared assumption of consciousness.

Human being is "we-being with separate Is."

If you didn't assume that other person's consciousness is private, you'd probably behave like an omniscient being. You'd be a dictator or a final judge, interfere with other persons too much and make yourself unhappy as a result.

If, on the other hand, you believed that while other people's consciousness is inaccessible, yours alone is accessible, you'd behave as if people around you are all predators. You'd be so scared as to attack others in your 'self-defense.'

The sense of "we-being with separate Is" makes our society as sane and reasonable as it is now.

Here's what Humphrey says:

If I myself have this astonishing phenomenon, known only to me, at the centre of my existence, and if (it is, of course, a big if ) I can assume that you do too, then what does this say about the kind of people that we are? It is not just me. Each of us is a creative hub of consciousness, each has a soul, no one has more than one. All men have been endowed by the creator with an inalienable and inviolable mind-space of their own.

We are a society of selves. The idea that everyone is equally special in this way is extraordinarily potent -- psychologically, ethically and politically. And I dare say it would be and is highly adaptive. I believe it is likely to have arisen within the human community as a direct response to reflecting on the remarkable properties of the conscious mind. And from the beginning, it will have transformed human relationships, encouraging new levels of mutual respect, and greatly increasing the value each person puts on their own and others’ lives. (p. 753)

Human beings need relationships. But the deepest and best relationships are going to be those between people who recognize the existence in others of a conscious self that is as strange and precious --and private--as their own. (p. 754)

'Otherness of other people' may make you feel lonely in relationship, but it makes you respect other people, which I believe in turn makes you happy.

The conviction that our consciousness is categorically inaccessible and only contingently inferable by others forms a basis of our civilication.


Go to Questia Online Library

No comments: