For neuroscience majors at Simmons College, Philosophy of Mind is a required course. Ever since I became aware of this, I have been apprehensive, since I have always believed philosophy would not be my cup of tea.
I can officially say that, halfway through a semester of this course, I have been proven completely wrong.
Not only do I find this class extremely enjoyable, I am slowly discovering ways that it is changing and enhancing my understanding of the world around me, especially in terms of what a mind is and how ours differ from our closest apes relatives.
In this course, we have read a excerpts from books written by some of the leading scientists and philosophers of our time. From Michael Tomasello to Patricia Churchland and Daniel Dennett, these writings have inspired in me new thoughts and ideas about the mind. One philosopher we have focused on a bit is Thomas Suddendorf, taking excerpts from his book The Gap. First off, I would like to say that when I have finished this class I am immediately ordering my own copy of this book.
Aside from having an amazing ease and conversational tone in his writing, Suddendorf has simply blown my mind with his final chapter of his book that we were assigned to read this week.
In an impossibly small number of pages, Suddendorf packs his final chapter with a history of language acquisition, questions regarding whether humans are the endpoint of evolution (an idea he quickly dismisses), the possibility of the decrease in brain size of humans, the opposite view that human brain size continues to increase, the observation that more successful and educated individuals breed less, and the future of “the gap” as humans and apes continue to evolve.
The future of “the gap” is what truly caught my attention, and Suddendorf’s rapid-fire statements of possible future scenarios involving the gap widening or narrowing really got me thinking.
Whether humans start depending more on the artificial world and less on our own cognitive resource and close the gap, wipe out the entirety of our ape ancestors and widen the gap, continue to use science to “play God” and enhance the minds of apes and close the gap, interfere in the genetic makeup of future generations to increase their cognitive abilities and widen the gap, or artificially select ourselves to become more and more docile and small-brained and close the gap, there are an unreal number of possibilities for the future of the human race.
With all of these scenarios, Suddendorf suggests that the gap is widening every day with the increasing amount of technology and connections that we have to both information and people around the world. With this, however, he returns to the idea that we could further widen the gap by driving our closest ancestors to extinction, which is currently happening as a direct result of human activity.
While we share an enormous amount of physiological, neurological, and cognitive capabilities with our ape relatives, there are distinct differences, such as the capacity for humans to plan and plot a path toward a desirable future. Here, Suddendorf says the words that made me want to share all of this: “Plan it for the apes.”
There are definitely differences in the minds of humans and nonhuman animals, and we need to use our abilities to not only make a better environment for ourselves, but for every other animal on this planet.
I am so happy that I have chosen a career path that led me to stumble upon this philosophy class during my studies. It is wonderful to be able to take a step back from all of the neuroscience and appreciate the similarities and differences between all of the entities on this earth and consider what we can do to be of help to them.