Recently I've been blogging about Sam Harris' new book, "Waking Up," whose central thesis is that our sense of being a Self or Soul separate and distinct from the brain/body is an illusion.
Harris doesn't talk much, if at all, about how this sense came to be. It must have been an evolutionary advantage to early humans. Perhaps it is an add-on, so to speak, to our species' extraordinary ability to be not only aware, but self-aware.
Aware of our awareness in a way that other animals aren't, the brain seems to look upon itself as if from the outside, fostering a sense that someone is inside my head observing my experience.
As Harris notes, there is no sign of this someone, no "ghost in the machine," no non-physical blob of consciousness floating around inside the human cranium. Yet it feels like there is. And that feeling is a product of evolution.
Natural selection only "cares" (speaking loosely) about certain sorts of abilities to know the truth about reality.
Obviously having an accurate understanding of predators, threats, dangers, food sources, the physical environment, intentions of other humans, and such is a survival must. Early Homo sapiens' who were unaware of crucial facts didn't survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their genetic heritage.
But having an illusory sense of self not only didn't hurt one's chances of survival; almost certainly it aided it. "Oh, crap, if this happens, I could die! Must make sure it doesn't happen!" That's a positive sort of thought, even if there actually is no enduring "I" separate from the brain's goings-on.
Thus just because a trait exists in modern humans doesn't mean it points to a factual truth. It could be an illusion that has an evolutionary advantage.
Chris Mooney writes on the Mother Jones web site about how disbelief in evolution itself is a product of evolution in "7 Reasons Why It's Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution." Interesting stuff. Give his piece a read.
Here's excerpts that provide a summary of Mooney's seven reasons.
(1) Biological Essentialism. First, we seem to have a deep tendency to think about biology in a way that is "essentialist"—in other words, assuming that each separate kind of animal species has a fundamental, unique nature that unites all members of that species, and that is inviolate. Fish have gills, birds have wings, fish make more fish, birds make more birds, and that's how it all works.
(2) Teleological Thinking. Essentialism is just one basic cognitive trait, observed in young children, that seems to hinder evolutionary thinking. Another is "teleology," or the tendency to ascribe purposes to things and objects so as to assume they exist to serve some goal. Recent research suggests that 4 and 5 year old children are highly teleological in their thinking, tending to opine, for instance, that clouds are "for raining" and that the purpose of lions is "to go in the zoo."
(3) Overactive Agency Detection. Another trait, closely related to teleological thinking, is our tendency to treat any number of inanimate objects as if they have minds and intentions. Examples of faulty agency detection, explains University of British Columbia origins of religion scholar Ara Norenzayan, range from seeing "faces in the clouds" to "getting really angry at your computer when it starts to malfunction."
(4) Dualism. Yet another apparent feature of our cognitive architecture is the tendency to think that minds (or the "self" and the "soul") are somehow separate from brains. Once again, this inclination has been found in young children, suggesting that it emerges early in human development....Dualism is pretty clearly implicated in resistance to the idea that human beings could have developed from purely natural processes—for if they did, how could there ever be a soul or self beyond the body, to say nothing of an afterlife?
(5) Inability to Comprehend Vast Time Scales. According to Norenzayan, there's one more basic cognitive factor that prevents us from easily understanding evolution. Evolution occurred due to the accumulation of many small changes over vast time periods—which means that it is unlike anything we've experienced. So even thinking about it isn't very easy.
(6) Group Morality and Tribalism. All of these cognitive factors seem to make evolution hard to grasp, even as they render religion (or creationist ideas) simpler and more natural to us. But beyond these cognitive factors, there are also emotional reasons why a lot of people don't want to believe in evolution. When we see resistance to its teaching, after all, it is usually because a religious community fears that this body of science will undermine a belief system—in the US, usually fundamentalist Christianity—deemed to serve as the foundation for shared values and understanding. In other words, evolution is resisted because it is perceived as a threat to the group.
(7) Fear and the Need for Certainty. Finally, there appears to be something about fear and doubt that impels religiosity and dispels acceptance of evolution. "People seem to take more comfort from a stance that says, someone designed the world with good intentions, instead of that the world is just an intention-less, random place," says Norenzayan. "This is especially true when we feel a sense of threat, or a feeling of not being in control."