Going through a stack of unread magazines, I came across a Scientific American from September 2018 that was a special issue devoted to the subject "Humans: Why we're unlike any other species on the planet."
All of the articles are interesting, but I found Susan Blackmore's Decoding the Puzzle of Human Consciousness: The Hardest Problem to be especially so.
Blackmore has an affinity for Zen, which is reflected in the concluding excerpts from her article that I've shared below.
I resonate with her leaning toward the illusionist theory of consciousness. Meaning, we certainly do have subjective experience, but our sense of free will and being a separate conscious self is an illusion with evolutionary benefits.
I also feel that many other, if not most or all, animals are conscious. Anyone who lives with a dog or cat has a strong sense that they have an inner life just as we humans do -- which is one of the best moral arguments for vegetarianism.
Yet the more biology we learn, the more obvious it is that we share not only anatomy, physiology and genetics with other animals but also systems of vision, hearing, memory and emotional expression. Could it really be that we alone have an extra special something -- this marvelous inner world of subjective experience?
The question is hard because although your own consciousness may seem the most obvious thing in the world, it is perhaps the hardest to study. We do not even have a clear definition beyond appealing to a famous question asked by philosopher Thomas Nagel back in 1974: What is it like to be a bat?
...The crux here is this: If there is nothing it is like to be a bat, we can say it is not conscious. If there is something (anything) it is like for the bat, it is conscious. So is there?
...Even worse is the "hard problem" of consciousness: How does subjective experience arise from objective brain activity? How can physical neurons, with all their chemical and electrical communications, create the feeling of pain, the glorious red of the sunset or the taste of fine claret?
This is a problem of dualism: How can mind arise from matter? Indeed, does it?
The answer to this question divides consciousness researchers down the middle. On one side is the "B Team," as philosopher Daniel C. Bennett described them in a heated debate. Members of this team agonize about the hard problem and believe in the possibility of the philosopher's "zombie," an imagined creature that is indistinguishable from you or me but has no consciousness.
Believing in zombies means that other animals might conceivably be seeing, hearing, eating and mating "all in the dark" with no subjective experience at all. If that is so, consciousness must be a special additional capacity that we might have evolved either with or without and, many would say, are lucky to have.
On the other side is the A Team: scholars who reject the possibility of zombies and think the hard problem is, to quote philosopher Patricia Churchland, a "hornswoggle problem" that obfuscated the issue. Either consciousness just is the activity of bodies and brains, or it inevitably comes along with everything we so obviously share with other animals.
In the A team's view, there is no point in asking when or why "consciousness itself" evolved or what its function is because "consciousness itself" does not exist.
...This is the well-known, though much misunderstood, claim that consciousness is an illusion. This approach does not deny the existence of subjective experience but claims that neither consciousness nor the self are what they seem to be.
Illusionist theories include psychologist Nicholas Humphrey's idea of a "magical mystery show" being staged inside our heads. The brain concocts out of our ongoing experience, he posits, a story that serves an evolutionary purpose in that it gives us a reason for living.
...This illusory self, the complex of memes, is what I call the "selfplex." An illusion that we are a powerful self that has consciousness and free will -- which may not be so benign. Paradoxically, it may be our unique capacity for language, autobiographical memory and the false sense of being a continuing self that serves to increase our suffering.
Whereas other species may feel pain, they cannot make it worse by crying, "How long will this pain last? Will it get worse? Why me? Why now?" In this sense, our suffering may be unique.
For illusionists such as myself, the answer to our question is simple and obvious. We humans are unique because we alone are clever enough to be deluded into believing that there is a conscious "I."