We Are Beast Machines

Anil Seth in Nautilus:

I have a childhood memory of looking in the bathroom mirror, and for the first time realizing that my experience at that precise moment—the experience of being me—would at some point come to an end, and that “I” would die. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old, and like all early memories this one too is unreliable. But perhaps it was at this moment that I also realized that if my consciousness could end, then it must depend in some way on the stuff I was made of—on the physical materiality of my body and my brain. It seems to me that I’ve been grappling with this mystery, in one way or another, ever since.

Consciousness won’t be solved in the same way that the human genome was decoded, or the reality of climate change established. Nor will its mysteries suddenly yield to a single Eureka-like insight—a pleasant but usually inaccurate myth about scientific progress. A science of consciousness should explain how the various properties of consciousness depend on, and relate to, the operations of the neuronal wetware inside our heads. I say wetware to underline brains are not just computers made of meat. They are chemical machines as much as they are electrical networks. Every brain that has ever existed has been part of a living body, embedded in and interacting with its environment—an environment which in many cases contains other embodied brains. Explaining the properties of consciousness in terms of biophysical mechanisms requires understanding brains—and conscious minds—as embodied and embedded systems.

This way of thinking leads us to a new conception of what it is to be a self—that aspect of consciousness which for each of us is probably the most meaningful. An influential tradition, dating back at least as far as Descartes, held that non-human animals lacked conscious selfhood because they did not have rational minds to guide their behavior. They were “beast machines”: flesh automatons without the ability to reflect on their own existence.

More here.