Random Thoughts

Consciousness By Degrees

In a previous piece, I managed to write myself into an interesting perspective on the nature of consciousness.

It is this: Human consciousness is not an a priori thing, that any human infant (larva) will develop in a way we would recognize, but a thing that is mostly learned.

As human societies and knowledge have become more and more complex, developing children have been stimulated by ever increasing levels of abstraction in their environment, and even more importantly, more information about what it is to be. Every level of abstraction they absorb or learn from their culture makes their minds, their brains, more intricate in their interconnections. Every layer of information about the self, what it is to be a person, increases the subtlety of their self image, their consciousness, their "I."

Consider: It is a fact that over the last hundred years or so, standardized intelligence test scores have been steadily rising. Every decade or so, the "norm," or average score of "100," has to be readjusted by reaveraging the most recent results. Are children getting smarter? Well, brains are not growing larger. The modern human brain is pretty much the same hunk of meat that we've been working with for at least a few hundred thousand years.

What is happening, and has probably been happening for a long, long time, is that human beings are learning more and at a younger age with every passing generation - with every passing year in fact.

It might be said that we are "teaching to the test." But intelligence tests, as much as they can, try to measure relatively abstract learning - levels of complexity that the test taker's mind has absorbed and can display, respond to, and understand. So, yes, we are teaching this - but not so people will do better on the test - but because in our complex, industrialized, highly technical culture, people are exposed more and more, and younger and younger, to increasing levels of abstract stimulation.

In addition, since the advent of modern science, the information that has been available to learn is of a higher quality in the sense that it can be built on, thought about, challenged, and increased by this effort. While a primitive agricultural society may have in many ways been equally complex to ours, and had many things to teach its young (larvae) in order for them to attain adulthood, their knowledge base may also have in many ways been stagnant, or "closed." What I mean by this is that their religion, for instance, would be unlikely to provide a stimulating and useful range of abstraction and increase of information no matter how deeply it was studied.

In modern society, a young person, a teenager, can study comparative religion and come to understand human culture and spiritual needs in a far deeper way. In studying science and the scientific method, they learn to integrate the knowledge they can gain by their own direct experience, in a fashion such that it builds an ever greater base of learning, a foundation upon which ever more useful and relatively accurate learning can added.

So we are getting smarter, that is certain, and we are becoming more conscious as every life unfolds.

Enough of the present though. What this means (that is of any interest), is what it shows if we run it backwards.

Human consciousness is such a daunting subject to try to explain or understand because it seems so removed from the "next step down the ladder," as it were. Most traits of living organisms are only different from the versions of them exhibited by other species by small degrees. A dog can hear better than I, that is for sure - but only two or three times better at most. I am probably a hundred times smarter, a thousand times more conscious than it is. We do not seem to have any peers in this trait whatsoever.

But I'll venture this, and I'm sure any pet owner will back me up - the other complex mammals on this planet are conscious. It may only be a glimmer compared to our neurotic fixations on our selves, but it is there nonetheless. What do they lack to increase it? Language, communication (especially abstract communication and language), and the capability to use these to build ever increasing levels of complexity into their cultures.

I suspect the human being of five hundred thousand years ago was a crudely bright, inquisitive critter, but would not do very well on an abstract intelligence test (factoring out cultural bias, of course), and would not be very conscious of themself! They might be two or three times more so than the closest primate, but that is only a matter of degree, like the dogs hearing as compared to mine.

But as humans developed language, this small beginning snowballed. We might think it happened "slowly at first," but exponential curves always look like they are about to shoot off the graph next year. In reality, humans have probably been improving their abstract skills - their intelligence - and their level of consciousness about themselves, at an incredible rate ever since they first started using consistent symbols for objects in their world (those would be the first words).

How is it that we even consider these issues, after all? We talk about them, we think about them, and we do that thinking principally using words, consistent abstract symbols for things, events and eventually ideas in our world. Not to say that we don't use raw images in our understanding, but how do we pass that understanding along to others, to the next generation? Crudely, a few things could be gestured or drawn, but words are the tool of choice. Language has escalated our intelligence and understanding of ourselves and our world, and because we can do it, and it works so well, evolutionary survival pressure has encouraged adaptations that made it work better.

Somewhere ("once upon a time") in the mists of ancient prehistory, animals that were barely human began to do this, and rapidly outgrew their need for any crude physical survival traits. We lost our fur, our fangs, and most of our toughness - because they were rendered irrelevant, even obsolete, by the traits that made all the difference to our survival - organs capable of complex speech sounds, the brain structures devoted to creating and understanding spoken languages, and an unspecialized cerebral cortex capable of huge amounts of learning.

With language we move beyond "aping" or "miming" to share information. With a few hundred, or especially a few thousand, symbols for things in our world, we can communicate far more effectively than other animals ever could. While the adult-to-adult usefulness of this is fairly obvious, what really matters for the purposes of this essay is the adult-to-child communication. By teaching our young more and more (as we have more to teach), not only "facts" but the language skills that support the comunication itself, we produce individuals with more and more information and understanding at their disposal - at an ever earlier age.

This information is a vast and rich tapestry. It is more than simple data about how to find food, shelter from the elements, and avoid predators. It also includes, slowly at first, but in an ever increasing amount, information about living, about who and what we are (or might be), information about information... and this is what creates a complex consciousness from a simpler one. The more ideas we are exposed to, and, especially, the more ideas about ideas, the more elaborate our world view becomes. The more elaborate our world view becomes, the more elaborate and complex our understanding of ourselves as objects in that world becomes. And that is consciousness.

1/19/02 - 3 AM

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© Huw Powell

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