Telling Ourselves Stories

A philosopher and writer tries to account for the jump from animal to human by wholly natural means.

Philosopher and writer Keith Frankish, who has edited many books about consciousness and written a few as well, sets himself a formidable task: to explain how the human mind originated.

On his terms, consciousness must arise by wholly natural means. Behind the nature in which it arises, there is nothing, no consciousness, no mind that could play a role. There is nothing.

In his telling, for over 1.5 million years, human animals slowly diverged from great apes. We began humanizing (?) about 300,000 years ago. While he thinks that something must have happened between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, he wisely cautions against pointing to any specific event as the cause.

Frankish does, however, have a theory by which he hopes to account for many events: the development of hypothetical thinking, “the ability to detach one’s mind from the here and now, and consciously think about other possibilities.” That, he argues is “the key to sustained innovation and creativity, and to the development of art, science and technology.” Apart from such thinking, one would live merely in the present, as animals do, unable to contemplate new ideas.

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