The Feeling of Mattering to Oneself
We are still unable to say what consciousness is. It is a mysterious phenomenon, but according to Nicholas Humphrey it is precisely this elusive quality that is the whole point of consciousness. "It has to be like that, he says, because it evolved to give its possessors a sense of owning a ‘self worth having’." If something is worth having, it is worth preserving.
Yet consciousness is not actually necessary for self-preservation; indeed, it has no obvious function. A hypothetical robot could be programmed to react to threats and preserve itself, without having a sense of self-ownership or even consciousness. In primitive creatures there is no consciouness of self, merely perception of sensory data. Unconscious, automatic reflex responses preserve the organism from harm. Unconscious self-maintainance still occurs in humans. In the phenomenon known as ‘blindsight’ human test subjects perceive objects, and may react to them, without registering them consciously.
As organisms evolved through natural selection, and became better and better at self-preservation, they began to develop forethought and the ability to project an imaginary self into future hypothetical situations, the better to prepare for them and avoid threats. They began to identify with this imaginary self. Ego, or the sense of owning oneself, of mattering to oneself, is a byproduct of projection into the future which does not exist.
Is this identification with a fictional self necessary in order to function in a complex human environment, or is it just a vestigial institution to be discarded in the evolutionary process? Would a superfunctional, supersophisticated artificial intelligence understand the human need for the sense of self to be considered real or meaningful? Chris Nunn, in ‘New Scientist’, speculates that "even if consciousness evolved because it provided a sense that individuals matter, it could be the case that they do matter in some non-illusory sense. Maybe their mattering was a truth that provided the basis for evolution to work on."
Humphrey - along with other figures in consciousness studies, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet - holds the reductionist view that consciousness should probably seen as an illusionary property. Interestingly, the idea of an illusory human subject is also favoured by many theologians.