Oh, you're so special! Just about every parent has thought this about a child. Their child. Because in the realm of parenthood, as in Lake Woebegon, every child is above average.
Ditto for us humans as a whole.
Why, it's just so obvious that Homo sapiens is a unique species. Somewhat like other animals, of course. But on the whole we're so special.
Ditto for every religion humans have come up with.
Every religion, faith, spiritual belief system, mystical practice, and meditation approach considers that it is uniquely able to bring believers closer to truth, God, ultimate reality, enlightenment, whatever.
It isn't difficult for people to come up with reasons for why they're so special. There's a tougher question, though, that doesn't even get asked very often, much less answered.
What makes us believe that we are unique? Here's how neuroscientist Robert Burton looks at this question in his book, "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind."
Perhaps one of the major driving forces in modern neuroscience is the belief that we are uniqiue and that this uniqueness can be established through biological evidence. How ironic, given that our own sense of uniqueness is itself driven by our biology.
It is our sense of agency, ownership, and a unique sense of self that propels both our need to understand our uniqueness and the concurrent sense to make this determination. I am reminded of the myth of Sisyphus, where poor old Sisyphus is condemned for all eternity to push the rock up the hill, watch it roll down to the bottom, and then begins again.
If it is our fate to have evolved a brain that believes it can solve a problem it is instrumental in creating, aren't we better off recognizing this paradoxical aspect of our biology rather than continuing to draw far-reaching metaphysical conclusions about the nature of man based upon our inherent mental limitations?
Interesting. I think Burton is on to something here. Something that needs to be considered by everybody. Scientists, religious believers, everybody.
It relates to Burton's earlier book, "On Being Certain," which I blogged about here. When we have a feeling of knowing something, we don't know where that feeling comes from. However, the conscious sense of "I know" arises from unconscious mysterious depths.
Likewise, our feeling of uniqueness -- which just seems so damn obvious -- emanates from brain processes we have no awareness of. It is only through neuroscience that we can even get a glimpse of what we don't know.
It is hard to imagine how we might think of ourselves if we could step back from those involuntary mental sensations that steer our thoughts about the mind into a maze of blind alleys and inescapable paradoxes. Even so, such a vision must be our idealized albeit unobtainable goal.
Though we cannot step outside the cognitive constraints imposed by these involuntary mental sensations, we can at least acknowledge the profound role they play in generating our thoughts about our minds.
...If there is anything unique about the human condition, it is our biologically prompted feeling of uniqueness that drives much of contemporary thought about the human condition.