What makes humans special?

When both trendy authors and top psychologists claim that man should accept his ‘rightful position in the cosmos’ as ‘just another animal’, it pays to revisit George Herbert Mead’s humane attempts to explain human consciousness.

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Descartes believed that our ability to reason, our obvious free will and our capacity for language elevated humanity above the animals and the primitive hydraulic machines of his time (1). In his words, we are ‘little gods on earth’ with minds that don’t just sense but judge that they are sensing.

Uniquely amongst the animals, humans have the capacity to be conscious of what they are doing. In being conscious of our actions, we are able to question the nature of our existence, to seek the meaning of our lives and recognise the consequences of our actions. Being fully conscious of our actions provides control and a sense of control that can be exhilarating – though not at all times, as Raymond Tallis has argued (2). DH Lawrence reported his considerable joy from rubbing potatoes on the ground, presumably because he was fully aware of his motive, fully aware of his act, even if he was acting just for the sake of doing something (3).

Many have asked: how is it that we are like this, why are we so special? Notoriously, Descartes’ answer was that God did it; Descartes separated the stuff of the mind from the stuff of the body and handed mind over to God. In our more secular age, ‘God did it’ is not an acceptable answer and so God is stripped out. That should open the question again, ‘why are we so special?’, but it doesn’t, because we live in a more secular and more misanthropic age than Descartes. We no longer think we are special. Will Self, author of Great Apes, believes that ‘people are deceived by the phenomenon of consciousness’ into thinking humanity is distinct from the animal world. In his view, the advances of science have led inexorably ‘to get us back to our rightful position in the cosmos – as just another animal’ (4).

Self is not alone: contemporary life science in general and psychology in particular has adopted a distinctly negative outlook that justifies a diminished view of humanity as instinctual, machine-like creatures whose belief in free will is simply illusory (5). In outline, the argument is that human beings are the product of physical processes in the brain that are either innate or generated by environmental inputs, including family structure and culture. Every physical event has a cause and what goes on in the brain and body is caused by preceding states of the brain and body. Given that the brain and body are physical objects and all physical events are, in principle, fully predictable and determined, our behaviour is also fully predictable and determined. Although we may not fully understand all the factors that contribute to human behaviour, human behaviour is nevertheless fully accounted for by factors that we cannot change: brain chemistry and our personal history. Consequently there is no free will or agency, and consciousness is merely an illusory product of our brains.

We believe this view of humanity is profoundly incorrect – but understanding how it is incorrect is not easy. If we abandon religion (and we do) then we are seemingly left only with the physical; and the physical is, of course, determined. Luckily, we are not the first people to struggle with the problem of determinism. Here we return to a classic text that we think provides important contemporary lessons.

George Herbert Mead began his studies at Harvard before studying in Germany under Wilhelm Wundt in 1888. In 1894, he took a post at the University of Chicago where he taught a highly influential course on social psychology until his death in 1931. Mead was struggling with issues not dissimilar to what we are also struggling with. At the beginning of the twentieth century, two major theories dominated life science. The first was the theory of evolution and within it Darwin’s idea of emotions as biological vestiges of acts shared across the animal kingdom. Darwin saw the expression of disgust, for example, as the vestige of what was once the immediate act of vomiting something potentially poisonous. In this conception, emotion is just a biological readiness; the experience of emotion as a subjective event is missing.

Complementary to Darwin’s view of emotion as an expression of action was the Watsonian school of behaviourism, which also rejected subjectivity as an explanation for human behaviour. The behaviourists, who dominated psychology for much of the twentieth century, viewed the causes of human behaviour in associations that took place outside of any mind. Watson denied the existence of mind because he saw no need for it. All behaviour, according to Watson, could be fully explained as a consequence of past associations between the organism and the environment. Watson famously demonstrated that an infant could be made fearful of white rabbits by pairing the rabbit with a loud crashing sound. After a few pairings of the rabbit and the crashing sound, the infant would cry whenever the rabbit appeared. Watson claimed that there was no need to infer any subjective experience of fear or even to infer that a subjective conscious state played any role in what happened. For Watson, the very existence of the fear response was the beginning and the end of fear.

Mead was opposed to a psychology that rejected consciousness as being deeply unsatisfactory and evidently incomplete. A comprehensive psychology should go into the inner experience of the individual and recognise consciousness as playing a major role in experience, he believed. It is true that in infants and many animals an association can be created between two stimuli to create a novel response to one of the stimuli. But that is only a small part of human behaviour. In an intelligent response, the white rabbit might come to signal a loud noise but our fear can be separated from the rabbit just as a footprint can be separated from a bear. We do not fear the footprint as if it were the bear. Moreover, the footprint, the rabbit and so forth do not dictate our responses but merely indicate certain characteristics of the world that we can use in selecting our response. We use the available stimuli to make decisions, and we may hold on to different properties of the available stimuli in order to make those decisions, but our decisions do not lie directly within the stimuli. Thus we need consciousness to explain our reactions to stimuli.

At the same time, however, the whole process is not entirely mental. There is always a response to a ‘character’ in the stimuli, and stimuli do have an organising influence on the mind. ‘Mentality’ is the relationship between the organism and stimuli and is functional rather than substantive. Mead’s psychology was an attempt to provide traction between a substantive determinate world and a functional indeterminate mind.

Mead explains, contrary to Descartes, that experience cannot be divorced from the world in which it exists. In the case of animals, this insight leads to fairly trivial conclusions, such as that cows experience grass as food because cows eats grass. Whatever it is that a cow experiences when it eats is set free by the chewing of grass and it is in the nature of cows to associate certain states initiated by the lack of food with a search for grass. Put colloquially, the cow seeks grass when it is hungry, but any deeper concern regarding cow psychology is unnecessary (and inappropriate) because the observed reason and order is contained by and attributable entirely to the explicit act. Cows eating grass is objective not subjective.

But Mead goes on to explain, contrary to Watson, that things are different for humanity. Our world does not merely determine our conduct but also creates experience and thereby allows for indeterminacy. Unlike the animal world, our world is social. Our behaviour and the order of our conscious existence is not developed against the physical determinants of an objective world, but against a transient world created by humans.

Mead argues that we are initiated into this social world through the recognition and use of ‘gestures’, which Wundt introduced to Mead during his time in Germany. But Mead significantly elaborated the term ‘gesture’ so as to emphasise its uniquely human and social nature. Human ‘gestures’ are not automatic reflex reactions, such as might be observed when animals interact, but are significant and meaningful exchanges because they are generally accepted as having particular meaning. A human gesture is meaningful precisely because it pulls out the same experience in the person gesturing as the person being gestured to. A person may be individually conscious of the meaning of a gesture but the gesture was not privately attained and is not their private property because it contains an expectation of the other’s behaviour. The ‘meaning’ of the gesture includes the reaction of the other, and the use of gestures, for humans, necessarily involves ‘taking the attitude of the other towards the self’. Mead describes the emergence of conscious experience as dependent upon the incorporation of gestures and the developing ability to adopt the attitude of the other.

When absorbing gestures and language, infants take on board ideas and attitudes that were not entirely theirs in the first instance and, in a sense, the infant becomes the world and the people around her. The infant is not lost to herself, however, because humans are able to gesture to themselves and thus objectify their own being as the other and bring their own selves under self-control. The taking of the attitude of the other towards the self or oneself is necessary for the existence of mind or consciousness. Responses that are guided by gestures are controlled and conscious and are dependent upon the activity of the organism in relation to stimuli outside the organism. Behaviourism, in contrast, locates the process of control always outside the organism while biological determinism locates the process of control prior to the gesture.

Whatever conscious experience is, it doesn’t feel like the firing of neurons and the action of genes and it cannot be described in those terms. We believe that a theory of consciousness ought, at least, to feel and sound like what it is and Mead provides an opportunity to do that. Biological determinism, by contrast, fails because it lacks the material necessary to account for experience. Consequently, the determinist mistakenly locates consciousness in the brain and misses entirely that consciousness is a functional phenomenon belonging in the field of social interaction. In this field, gestures, responses and meanings are all involved and provide a natural language for the explanation of consciousness.

Of course, the brain is necessary for consciousness and Mead identifies an important parallelism between what goes on in the brain, the sensory stimuli and what we experience. But the processes going on in the brain and the physical world are chemical, physical and mechanical, whereas what we experience is vision, hearing, touch, emotion, thought and so forth. Thus events in the brain are parallel with experience but not identical with it. Eyes and brains endow objects with colour only in the same way that a cow endows grass with the character of food, by being in a relation with the object that makes the appearance and existence of colour possible, as a quality of the object. Conscious awareness of colour resides in the ability of the organism to indicate to itself the presence of colour. In this way, humans are able to control their responses rather than fall into reflexive actions. Arguably, without an automatic perceptual sensitivity there would be no colour to experience. The indication, the self-gesture of colour, cannot be created ex nihilo by some act of fiat but must be auditable against a raw sentience. Stacking up sentience, however, will not provide conscious experience, and once we have gained conscious experience there is no return to a more innocent state of merely sentient being.

Having considered the behavioural and biological determinists of his time, Mead delivers a final warning against an equally flawed and problematic social determinism. Human society does not stamp the pattern of its organised social behaviour into individuals, making that pattern the individual self. Rather, the pattern of social organisation provides the means whereby he may converse with himself in terms of the social organisation that constitutes the structure of his self. In turn that conversation enables him to stamp the pattern of his further developing self upon the structure of his own mental activity in terms of which his self was originally constituted.

We recognise that Mead is not easy to understand and follow, but study of Mead is worthwhile because his insights begin a necessary challenge to a narrow determinism that characterises too much contemporary psychology. Perhaps more importantly, Mead began the effort to draw behaviourism and biological determinism into a more complete formulation of the psychological self. Continuing that project is as necessary today as it was when Mead began teaching over a hundred years ago.

Anand Raja is reading psychology at the University of Birmingham. Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, by George H Mead and Charles W Morris (ed) is published by Univeristy of Chicago Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, René Descartes, 1641, in Descartes Key Philosophical Writings, Translated by ES Haldane and GRT Ross, Wordsworth Classics, 1997

(2) See Art, Humanity and the Fourth Hunger, by Raymond Tallis, spiked review of books, November 2007

(3) The Collected Short Stories, DH Lawrence, Rupa & Co, 2000

(4) Will Self Quoted in the Times Higher Education, October 27, 2006

(5) Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World, Chris Frith, Blackwell Publishing, 2007; The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Francis Crick, Simon and Schuster, 1994; The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Drew Westen, Public Affairs, 2007; Marketing Public Health: Strategies to Promote Social Change, Michael Siegal and Lynne Lotenberg, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007.

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