The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness

You exist, right? Prove it. How 100 billion jabbering neurons create the knowledge--or illusion--that you're here

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration for TIME by Istvan Orosz

(7 of 7)

MY OWN VIEW IS THAT THIS IS backward: the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It's not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings--the core of morality.

As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people's sentience becomes ludicrous. "Hath not a Jew eyes?" asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew--or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog--a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.

And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.

Think, too, about why we sometimes remind ourselves that "life is short." It is an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in a pointless dispute, to use time productively rather than squander it. I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard and the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. Next Page