A recent ‘long read’ in the Guardian discussed the issue of our internal sense of ‘I’ suggesting that our inability to explain consciousness was ironic given our ability to explain so much of our environment (not including gravity, dark matter and dark energy).
What was not discussed is an evolutionary and cultural approach as an explanation of consciousness. Modern human beings appear to have emerged about 50,000 years ago, smart apes, living in small groups. The history of the evolution of the brain suggests a ‘lower’ brain controlling the primary senses, touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight. It might be reasonably supposed that in our long pre-history skills were acquired and knowledge transmitted; how to build shelters, where sources of food were to be found, the control of fire, the use of weapons. In other words, for millennia, there has always been a degree of cultural knowledge transmitted and learned and therefore also a development of memory and imagination. We might add to that the ever present but difficult to define ‘emotions’; anger, love, desire and sexual practices and gratification.
Modernity in evolution was the growth of the upper brain bringing with it language: this transformed culture and learning and revolutionised our ability to bring new ‘objects’ into the world and exploit our environment. This was and always has been a collective process.
It is the suggestion of this piece that what evolved was our sense of ‘we’. That what happens to every individual is a learned experience within a culture of knowledge and practices and it is the subtle variation of ‘we’ that each of us has the sense of ‘I’.
To emphasise the point if it were possible for a human being to survive complete isolation (see The Enigma of Kasper Hauser), without language, and knowledge of cultural practices would that ‘person’ have any sense of being in the world as a conscious ‘I’?
Identity then is rooted in shared culturally mediated language and learning. It is only our upbringing within a ‘we’ that gives rise to the small differentiation we each call ‘I’ and to consciousness of being in the world.