Random Thoughts

What is it that gives rise to our sense of consciousness?

(a work in progress)

Over the billions of years that life has existed on our planet, many, many different strategies for survival have appeared and proved to be useful (in their time and environment). Mutations and variations in the genetic codes that produce these strategies occur all the time.

Most of these adaptations to the code take the form of "hard wired" instructions for certain types of physical structure or reactions to stimuli. The individual will display these traits or react in this fashion regardless of utility or appropriateness, since it has no choice. Some have no particular observable (or selectable) effects, some result in the death or sterility of the individual or its offspring (they are selected against and probably vanish) and some confer a survival or reproductive advantage on their bearer (they are selected for and become more common).

One very useful adaptation that has evolved is a certain amount of flexibility - some of a critters cells (probably central nervous system ones) became available for "learning" of some rudimentary sort. At the most basic level, this would be what we would call a behavioristic response, a learned response to a certain set of stimuli in the environment. It might compel all future behavior in similar situations, or be "rewriteable" if enough contrary occurrences take place. This is a very useful trait, since it allows a small range of adaptability in the individuals lifetime (as opposed to species adaptation which is very slow and depends on useful mutations in order to take place). This might improve a species' survival rate by increasing its territorial range, or its available food sources, or even breeding patterns.

At some vague point in time, long long ago, in the evolutionary pathways that have led to most vertebrates, including homo species and the primates in general, this adaptive learning capability started becoming such a useful advantage that it was selected for much more than simple hard wired physical traits. With the parallel development of the speech centers (complexes of mouths, throats, vocal cords, and associated brain structures to finely control them) and probably the opposable thumb and finely controlled hand coordination, this ability to adapt "on the fly" to some certain specific environment began to be rewarded and then selected for tremendously in some species. Instead of merely the ability to "learn" one or two responses to slightly varying circumstances, these organisms developed the capacity for a very large amount of complex of information to be processed into "rules for behavior."

    In the absence of the example of humans, it is likely the alien biologist would marvel at the complex social structures and learned behavior present in the other vertebrate and especially primate species. (I won't even dabble here in thoughts about whether or not certain social insect colonies might have consciousness... or whether the aliens will like them more!)

In humans, this process has dominated our evolution to the point where it has become virtually our only survival trait! We are born with incredibly little programming for life, and we are also very underendowed with physical weapons or defenses. We do come straight from The Factory, however, with an incredibly large and versatile organ for the absorption and manipulation of information. Our most important survival trait is that we come "out of the box" ready to learn. Whereas most species depend on the slow physical processes of genetic evolution to cope (or not cope) with changing environmental pressures, we are capable of developing short term solutions and passing them along from individual to individual and generation to generation. Much of these "knowledge" type adaptations take the form of what we often refer to as culture - the huge amount of information that is transmitted to our young in order for them to become "productive members" of our societies.

Some of this information takes the form of useful, valid survival skills - how to obtain and maintain shelter, how to access potential food supplies, how to avoid predators, etc. in the local conditions. Still more consists of various narratives about the world we live in, some still useful and some more aptly termed "mythology." There is a fascinating interplay with our organic, functional genetic code as if it were part of our environment, as well - for may of these learned behaviors are the ways which various cultures have adapted to the conflicts that arise when we try to live together in close quarters, as we must for the reproduction and survival of individuals and the species. These cultural attributes would be best exemplified by mating rituals, which temper our random, wilder urges and channel them with varying degrees of success so they do not destroy our communities.

But we are not limited in our apprehension to learning "all that which went before." We as individuals also learn specific things to cope with our individual environments and talents and weaknesses. At some point this begins to move beyond the simpler behavioristic compulsion to copy and repeat what we hear and see (that basic ape learning trait we need to "get the process started").

This is where the richness of how our memory functions starts to become useful. Slightly below our level of functioning, it would be fairly easy for all that we learn to become virtually hard wired in our brain, to be memorized without choice or the subtlety of recall. However, our memories have developed to store information without necessarily needing it, without acting on it, without being programmed by it.

We then are capable of recalling these past experiences in various level of detail and with varying emphasis on their content at a later time. We may find ourselves experiencing what we would call "similar" events for the third or fourth or fiftieth time in our life, and the other similar events may also be recalled at the same time - with a focus on what they have in common - and sometimes this can yield a very subtle decision making process - subtle because it is not a compulsory behavioristic repsonse. This is probably due to the complexity of the experiences making them difficult to absorb in that simplistic fashion, and perhaps due also to their not being clearly rewarded or punished by direct consequences.

Thus we might observe a "pattern." A range of responses or behavior that seems to be linked to general outcomes by a long complex series of causes and effects, that may influence our present and future behavior without compelling it.

One pattern which we all eventually encounter is that there is a world "out there" and something "in here" which apprehends it and learns from it and sorts it out and feels pain and pleasure as a result.

genetics. behaviorism, memory and association, pattern recognition

This pattern recognition becomes a learned structure, or superstructure even, in our brain - it is a skill we hone as necessary, not directly related to any particular environmental or cultural pressure, but of varying use when responding to any series of situations which have something in common.

This "something in common" is where the power of our brain really starts to kick in. It gets beyond the crude level of "yellow insects sting" and into more abstract concepts, like "people grow old and die" ....

abstract symbol creation and manipulation (general rules drawn from repeated similar situations)

These abstractions can be described at their component level as symbols - in language terms, words - representing no individual specific event or situation but useful to refer to classes of similar events or things.

Once this process of abstraction has gained a foothold in the brain, it starts to feed upon itself! Classes of simple events to which we have given a name may be grouped together with each other and given a broader name. Classes of experience likewise will begin to be described by their vague common themes. Entire patterns of life, kinds of individual temperaments, and observations of strange phenomena will acquire their own level of symbolic representation as we expand our repertoire. A set of unique observations (useful or not) may come to be ritualized and shared, and some will prove to be survival benefits to the individual or group, some will not.

And of course all of this is always readily transmittable to other individuals and generations! It does not require the passage of many, many generations in order to spread throughout the species: if the idea is readily communicable and especially if it has immediate practical use, it can become common to almost all individuals within geographic boundaries in just a few years, if there is enough nomadic behavior to spread it.

These increasing levels of abstraction lead me to the idea of "meta levels" of understanding. We are all familiar with the stereotypes and generalizations we use in "people watching" and in following the narrative in fictional or mythic accounts. Contrast these with the much different level of symbol manipulation we go through in the process of getting to know one of those individuals in one way, or in extracting the "meaning" behind a story or fable in the other.

That our brain is capable of functioning in this way is amazing. We can hop around these meta levels almost at will - for example while making a decision, considering its immediate outcome, its possible complex long term results, even its moral (conflict or agreement with cultural rules of behavior) or ethical (more personal, accessible and mutable) shadings.

At the most basic, we still operate much as our distant ancestors, making immediate decisions about food, shelter, mating, etc. based on what we have learned, whether genetically or culturally. At the most sublime, we contemplate the entire universe as if it were one thing... our own special private thing.

Consider the range of intellectual space between these two statements: "This apple is edible" and "God is love." (Feel free to substitute the supernatural explanation of your choice for "God" of course)

This apple may be eaten
Apples from this tree are edible
All apple tress produce food
Many fruit trees give us food
The world is full of many types of good food
The world is a good and bounteous place
We feel joy and love at living in such bounty
In contrast to our suffering, this bounty is a good thing
We sit in wonder at these good and bad things
All good things are alike
Good things are a godsend
God is love

This is but a very crude (unedited) series of possible levels of abstraction separating the two statements, each one a different meta level which is accessible almost instantaneously to the human mind.

Taking a slightly different route, which only requires a slightly harsher cultural history to make sense, one can get from the apple to "God is a cruel and unforgiving master," or even "There is no God and life is meaningless and hopeless." I'll leave it to the reader to play with how many levels can be expressed along the way and what the slight twists and turns are on those paths.

no hard wired "program" except for a couple of hormonal responses - allows "open mind" at birth to cope with any cultural/environmental conditions that arise

"map" of the environment

curiosity (the need for more information to fill the "generalizing machine" requirements for creation of symbols and rules)

a symbol for the self - the thing doing the symbolizing - the 'reflexive object'

meta levels of understanding - leading to the unconscious - method of handling huge amounts of raw data

the open mind combined with the curiosity (and spare time) leads to the ability to form nonsense or fantastical statements and questions, some of which are powerful memes (they readily leap from mind ot mind) and also lead to meditational states due to their unanswerability.

so how do we become "conscious" from all this?

The "I" symbol becomes a subject of symbolic "sentences" and is associated with one or more meta levels of abstraction. It becomes isolated due to the perceived difference between "I" and "everything else." The problem is the simple fact of referring to it (the "I") does not make it a "real thing," which is why the self is so intangible.

We might "describe" ourselves by relating many propositions utilizing "I" as the subject... "I like rice," "I am tall," "I think I am happy," and soon and so forth - and yet what these are is simple observations about the world. We are the only ones to have access to them, but nonetheless they are just that.

In other words, the very process of thinking and pondering, invoking the "I" at the most intimate level, is not a special kind of act at all (just as the earth is not a special planet and homo sapiens is not a special species), it is just one of the many complex occurrences of life on this planet, of chemical combinations that perpetuate themselves.

6/7/01, finally!

typos? comments? mail me here

© Huw Powell

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