We are starting this series on Consciousness and the Self by looking at some of the religious and secular foundations of the belief that humans are a dualist entity consisting of body and soul, and the associated belief that the two elements are best understood by different forms of inquiry — religion and the humanities for the soul, and science for the body. As we’ll see, current neuro-biological thinking defies these beliefs and threatens their ancient intellectual, cultural, and historical dominance.
“[Home sapiens] sits on top of the food chain, has extended its habitats to the entire planet, and in recent centuries, experienced an explosion of technological, societal, and artistic advancements.
“The very fact that we as human beings can write and read articles like this one and contemplate the unique nature of our mental abilities is awe-inspiring.
“Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran said it best: ‘Here is this three-pound mass of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand…it can contemplate the meaning of infinity, and it can contemplate itself contemplating the meaning of infinity.’
“Such self-reflective consciousness or ‘meta-wondering’ boosts our ability for self-transformation, both as individuals and as a species. It contributes to our abilities for self-monitoring, self-recognition and self-identification.”
The author of the following Biblical passage agrees, and affirms that his “soul knows it very well” — i.e., not only does he know he’s special, but he knows that he knows it:
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
Psalm 139: 13-16 (ESV)
Judging from worldwide religious practice, the “I” that is “fearfully and wonderfully made” is limited to the soul, not the body: the former feels the love, while the latter is assaulted with unrelenting, vicious, sometimes horrific verbal and physical abuse. “Mortification of the flesh” indeed –as if the body needs help being mortal.
Science apparently concurs with this dismal assessment. The following is from the book blurb for Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, by evolutionary biologist and psychologist David P. Barash (2018):
“In Through a Glass Brightly, noted scientist David P. Barash explores the process by which science has, throughout time, cut humanity ‘down to size,’ and how humanity has responded. A good paradigm is a tough thing to lose, especially when its replacement leaves us feeling more vulnerable and less special. And yet, as science has progressed, we find ourselves–like it or not–bereft of many of our most cherished beliefs, confronting an array of paradigms lost.
“Barash models his argument around a set of “old” and “new” paradigms that define humanity’s place in the universe. This new set of paradigms [includes] provocative revelations [such as] whether human beings are well designed… Rather than seeing ourselves through a glass darkly, science enables us to perceive our strengths and weaknesses brightly and accurately at last, so that paradigms lost becomes wisdom gained. The result is a bracing, remarkably hopeful view of who we really are.”
Barash’s old and new paradigms about the body are as follows:
“Old paradigm: The human body is a wonderfully well constructed thing, testimony to the wisdom of an intelligent designer.
“New paradigm: Although there is much in our anatomy and physiology to admire, we are in fact jerry-rigged and imperfect, testimony to the limitations of a process that is nothing but natural and that in no way reflects supernatural wisdom or benevolence.”
Okay, so maybe the body has issues, but the old paradigm belief that human-level consciousness justifies lording it over the rest of creation is as old as the first chapter of the Bible:
And God blessed them. And God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the heavens
and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Genesis 1:28 (ESV)
The Biblical mandate to “subdue” the earth explains a lot about how we approach the rest of creation — something people seem to be questioning more and more these days. Psychiatrist, essayist, and Oxford Fellow Neel Burton includes our superiority complex in his list of self-deceptions:
“Most people see themselves in a much more positive light than others do them, and possess an unduly rose-tinted perspective on their attributes, circumstances, and possibilities. Such positive illusions, as they are called, are of three broad kinds, an inflated sense of one’s qualities and abilities, an illusion of control over things that are mostly or entirely out of one’s control, and an unrealistic optimism about the future.” 
Humans as the apex of creation? More on that next time.