For this essay I want to speculate on what might the consciousness of this new ‘Home Evolutis’ I discussed in part 1 be like? Of course, it is impossible to say with any specificity. The old utopian and dystopian stereotypes of either a completely brilliant and selfless society, or a world where a sinister elite controls everyone’s minds, are not helpful here. Although, I do think the next era of human consciousness, whatever ‘human consciousness’ may end up meaning at that time, would be disturbing to us in the present if we were given a look at it. This is simply because what people identify as their values in a future time, where consciousness has changed enough to be considered a new era for humans, will most certainly be different than ours. And of course looking at any society that has values that differ significantly from one’s own causes us to judge that community as inferior or corrupt. Imagine for a moment how people from past cultures like The Holy Roman Empire in the time of Charlemagne or the Mongolian warrior clans in the time of Genghis and Kublai Khan would feel about our modern values of the equality of all races, political authority coming from the common people through elections and women having the same rights as men. However, you do not have to go back in history to see how people from one era judge the values of another. Just think of the opinions of parents and grandparents regarding the values of their progenies’ generation. Lamenting the depravity of the younger generation is one of the oldest traditions humans have!
Of course, it is possible that a human culture in the future will line up perfectly with my values. However, normally the values we are most comfortable with are the ones shared by those who are the closest to us, most like ourselves and share the same interests. Given how people are often uncomfortable with the values of anyone in their neighborhood who is perceived to be different, let alone people who live in completely different cultures, it seems unlikely that those who inhabit a different culture in the future, with at least some significant differences in the nuts and bolts of cognition, are going to have values that line up with our own. A new book is out, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind by Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban, that addresses how political values are simply a function of self-interest. In addition to the book, they have created a ‘political calculator’ based on their research. This calculator lets you select various demographic information and shows the political views that correlate with the selected demographics. It was fun and interesting for me to select demographic data that correlated to myself or people I know, and see how accurately demographics correlated with the political values of my friends and acquaintances (and myself). This certainly was a strong demonstration of how a person’s values are a function of their specific circumstances.
One obvious place to start in considering where consciousness is headed would be to think about how our new reality of being constantly plugged in to some form of techno-media may eventually alter at least some of the fundamentals of consciousness. Naysayers feel that a human population that lives more and more in a virtual reality with everything one wants always at one’s fingertips is going to make us socially inept and self-absorbed. It is turning out that these critics may be on the right track. A 2011 meta-analysis by Sara Konrath, et al, has shown that indeed the current generation of young adults are less empathetic and more narcissistic than previous generations were at the same point in their lives.
So let us speculate for a moment that this trend will only continue and eventually we wind up with humans becoming much more self-centered, with limited social skills, who opt to communicate with others through some kind of technological interface mainly for self-serving purposes. In this case, we could imagine consciousness has become less a place to introspect on what is authentic, moral and meaningful. Rather, under these circumstances the point of ‘reflection’ could be simply for preforming utilitarian calculations for the purpose of meeting one’s own needs and preserving the system of social relationships and technical infrastructure that enables the stability of the system. In a world like this it may be that there is less introspective consciousness as it is less necessary. It is useful here to remember that Jaynes outlined how consciousness was unnecessary for many forms of higher cognition including reason and thinking. The narrowly defined reflective consciousness that Jaynes believed emerged only 3000 years ago could begin to fade from human experience as the importance of things like meaning, truth and long term intimacy are less the concern of people and pleasure, consumption and convenience become more of the focus.
This sounds like an Orwellian world to us. However, to those who occupy this imagined future it could make perfect sense as the logical outcome of a society founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It might seem that people who are less reflective and more limited in their ability to empathize would wind up in a never ending selfish battles with others for resources and commodities (even more than we are at present). As you may recall from part 1 of this post though, we are getting smarter with each generation. It very well may be that in the future our ability to reason will continue to improve even if our ability to reflect and empathize declines. And it is certainly reasonable that if you want a comfortable virtual world with no disruptions to your ability to consume and escape into your pleasures, it will be quite reasonable to make sure the system is set up so everyone else is content with their piece of the pie chart and therefore have no incentive to disrupt the system. Research on sociopaths has shown that often times they are quite good at understanding what other people want and need even though they lack empathy. And if fact, therapy with these people often entails, since their own self-interest is all they care about, helping them to understand that committing to prosocial behavior is actually in their interest. This helps us understand how it is perfectly plausible that people in the future we are imagining here could understand what others want and could use that information to create a stable society even if they had little capacity to actually care how others feel.
I certainly am not claiming that the brief sketch of the future I have created above is the probable direction we are headed, and I am actually rather skeptical regarding the pronouncements we regularly hear that Facebook and texting is ruining our youth. My point rather is to help us think about where we are headed in way that is less driven by science fiction versions of the future, and more based on where we are in the present. I also want us to realize that such speculations are not about some distant future. In light of the insights we have gotten from Julian Jaynes about how quickly culture and environment change our cognitive/conscious faculties, it appears the consciousness of the future will be upon us much sooner than we realize.