Deacon (Biological Anthropology and Neuroscience/Univ. of California, Berkeley; The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, 1997) takes up the challenge of giving a physical, scientific basis for our perception of agency and selfhood.
With the development of fMRI and other scanning devices, scientists are able to correlate the activation areas of the brain to stimulus/response patterns involved in decision making, which precede conscious thought (the subject of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink). While Deacon has no answer to the conundrum of the disappearing “I”—the inability of scientists to discover a neurological foundation for our subjective perception of our own agency—he believes that one does exist but requires a revolutionary shift in the present scientific paradigm. The author offers a prospectus for such a scientific revolution—“the qualitative outlines of a future science that is subtle enough to include us”—that would encompass a neurological basis for the emergence of creativity. He develops insights from complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics at extreme conditions to address the fundamental question of how cellular life emerged from the physical substrata as a precondition for evolution. “Life and sentience are deeply interrelated,” he writes. “Sentience is not just a product of biological evolution, but in many respects a micro-evolutionary process in action…the experience of being sentient is what it feels like to be evolution.
A dense but intriguing book that demands close reading; for dedicated readers, it’s well worth the effort.