The Little Man

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish, I wish he'd stay away.

--Hughes Mearns

In Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a teenaged boy in England sets out to solve the "murder" of a neighborhood dog who is skewered with a garden tool.  Like his role model, Sherlock Holmes, the boy Christopher is able to use his personality deficits to solve mysteries, albeit in a most eccentric fashion.  Christopher is a high-functioning autistic.  He is incapable of filtering out sensory stimuli and therefore sees everything -- a useful trait in a detective looking for clues.  He is also unburdened by the emotional bonds that tie us to other people and that can often lead us astray.

The same qualities that enable Christopher to unravel mysteries after his own fashion also give him a peculiar insight into one of the central problems confronting philosophers and cognitive scientists.  How is the human mind different from a computer?  Christopher has no problem distinguishing fact from fancy, since his brain is not wired for fanciful thinking.  He does not believe in God, ghosts or any notions we may have about a "little man" in our heads watching everything that goes on.  Having no sense of self, he can't picture someone in his head "like Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation sitting in his captain's seat looking at a big screen."  There is a screen there all right, just as there is a screen on a computer.  But no one is looking at it.

There is a long-standing debate in philosophical and scientific circles about the "homunculus" (Latin for "little man") theory of human consciousness.  Philosophers tend to dismiss the idea as a logical fallacy.  If there is a homunculus at the controls inside our heads, how do you account for its ability to exercise control, except by resorting to a still smaller homunculus inside its head, which sets up an infinite regression of homunculi.  Ultimately, they explain nothing.  Cognitive scientists are likewise dismissive of theories that rely on a homunculus to explain human consciousness, arguing that you don't need one to account for most human behavior.  Daniel Dennett states flatly that we are all zombies, meaning that our behavior is governed by unconscious mental processes that operate independently of any notions we may have about free will.

Something in us recoils at the thought there is no autonomous self guiding our destiny.  But this is not to say we are robots, either.  We have a tough time shaking the illusion that we exist apart from the source of thought and action.  So we wrongly conclude that if the self is not pulling the strings, someone else must be. Once we abandon the conceit that we exist in our own separate realm, we discover we are the source of thought and action, even if it is not given us to know how or why.  And it's not we alone who operate on autopilot, if that's what you want to call it; it's the entire universe.  Everything unfolds exactly as it should from moment to moment unto eternity, everything perfectly ordered without recourse or explanation.  For want of a better term, call it the will of God.

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