Today, psychologists, like all life and social scientists, are forced to speak out both sides of their mouths about what we living beings are, treating us as machines but not machines, trying, striving, caring, wanting in ways that no machine does.
That's because we've lacked a sound scientific theory that explains us. We know we're different from chemistry but all we find in us is chemistry. Nothing about us defies physical laws, and yet we don't act like inanimate physical objects.
So life and social scientists have had to skip over a central step in their explanation of our behavior. They detail our cause-and-effect chemical mechanisms and then leap over a gap to talk about our effort to get what we want.
It's like if scientists detailed a computer's circuitry and then said, "and that's why this computer tries so hard to do what matters to it."
We've gone so long without a way to explain us that we no longer even think to ask – not that the question doesn't eat at us. The conflict between religion and science is largely about it. Religion fills the gap with your supernatural soul. Science rejects the supernatural, and says, "You're just your chemical mechanisms. Get over yourself," which is funny since, after all, you don't have to tell a chemical process to get over itself.
So here you are saying "OK I don't buy that I'm some magical invisible thing, but I don't buy that I'm just chemistry either."
For 20 years, I've collaborated with Terry Deacon, a scientist first at Harvard, now at Berkeley who has a radically new yet thoroughly scientific and surprisingly intuitive new explanation for us. I've contributed to the theory but also to presenting it as intuitively as possible so anyone can understand it.
My work culminates in this short, accessible book coming out this October and available for pre-order now.
Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The emergence and nature of selves (Columbia University Press)
And why wait? Here's a video that summarizes this alternative explanation for us, why things matter to us when nothing matters to inanimate matter.
Everything I write for Psychology Today is informed by this new theory of what we are. And when I say new, I mean it. It's unlike anything I've seen from other researchers, and I read a lot of other researchers.
It's the kind of solution that makes people go, "Huh. Come to think of it, that makes total sense." A solution that's been staring us right in the face yet overlooked for millennia, which is what you'd expect from a solution to this mystery.
Ater all, there has to be a simple explanation. We're not quantum mechanics. We had to start simple since there were no engineers to start us fancy, and there wasn't even natural selection to evolve us fancy yet either. Evolution hones us, it doesn't explain us. Though evolutionary theory is well developed, the origins of life has remained a mystery. Here's you get a new, testable scientific theory that solves the mystery of you and why things matter to you when nothing matters to non-living things.