Having said that we are embarking upon an evolutionary theory of consciousness, reality soon stares us in the face. Wading through all of biology would not only take time and space, but would veer us off the main road.
Darwin had the luxury of sticking evidence tags to his theories and used it appropriately. On the other hand, his collaborator and counterpart Wallace, with little time and resources at hand took the short cut, of writing down the primary arguments and trusting that present and future evidence would satisfy his thesis.
For now, we take the Wallacian road, stopping once in a while to take a dip of the real facts of evolution as opposed to our theorizing.
And rather than start with the complexity of the human system we prefer to start with a single cell.
Even here we do not want to be bogged down in biological detail, or get into arguments about life’s origins, so we begin with a premise that is simple to state but complex in its implications.
We presume that all living systems are learning systems, trying to stay alive, and at any cost.
That is a shortcut we have taken, because we do not want to be sandbagged with trying to define life. We would like to acknowledge that there are many who consider reproduction an essential attribute of life, however we beg to differ.
We propose that the most important characteristic of life is self perpetuity and that reproduction is just another mechanism towards attaining that goal. Life aims for immortality rather than begetting children, begetting being a poorer but more practical substitute.
It goes without saying that self perpetuity involves a cognizance of self if but as a sense of one’s boundaries, and thus we jump directly into sentience, and consciousness.
As mentioned earlier, we will forego the question of origins for now; both the biology and physics required for such an endeavor are just not available, at the time of writing.
If life’s defining attribute is self perpetuity, then it involves a knowledge of self, and the ability to work itself and its environment to the advantage of its self. This is where learning systems come in. Learning systems are not the aseptic learning systems we meet in computer classes, but active, and more importantly (as we will see later) proactive.
With such a working definition for life, we have something akin to a Mobius strip, if it is alive, it needs to be conscious, if it is conscious, then it is alive, they might look different, but are the same surface.
This is the point where the head nodding starts, in the negative.
We do admit that the thinking may be against the grain, against the whole structure of miracle randomness + organic soup based definitions of life, but then sometimes we need to do just that, to upset existing definitions so that new ones can be unearthed, and if satisfactory, let them live.
Once we impute consciousness to the most basic of life forms, we can then trace consciousnesses evolutionary path, where we will not only meet human style self consciousness but other forms too.
The consciousness we attribute to the basic living system is about as much as we would give a autonomous robot, sensors around the surface that tell a central controller, or a coordinated set of controllers an idea of its boundaries, where its boundaries end and the environment’s starts.
We will meet the monster in the next post.
Thankfully for us, the modern theories that are put forth to explain consciousness try to be devoid of wishful thinking and flights of fancy, tending to stick to an impersonal and non otherworldly explanation to whatever is I.
Many of them however treat the question of self consciousness as exclusive to humans. If the honor is bestowed on other species like the dolphins, some birds and other primates, it is done so grudgingly, they need to pass more tests to be in the league. The human brain is (somehow) unique!
This placement on a pedestal has meant all kinds of mentalist theories to be put forth, many of them as otherworldly as the speculations of the ancients. Moreover it is hardly explained how such a premise passes the tenets of evolutionary theory, our most successful but perhaps most misunderstood theory.
We tend to argue that all kinds of consciousness, including human self consciousness ought to have co-evolved with life itself. This is our primary argument. That human self consciousness need not be delinked from the consciousness of other life forms; that its singular looking growth path can be understood as an organic outcome of the evolutionary path it had taken or was forced to take.
And that there is nothing special or grandiose about its origins, it was just one of many possible paths, not the pinnacle as it is usually made out to be. Our idea is not to dethrone human self consciousness, but to understand it in its proper evolutionary light.
For biology based consciousness theorists looking for neural correlates of consciousness, this approach could mean a complete reboot.
To study consciousness we do not really need humans as subjects, simpler life forms would do, the simplest would be the best. And most importantly, the physical correlates of consciousness need not be neural at all. Nerves after all are only an organizing structure of life, not its basis.
We believe that taking such a path realigns the study of consciousness with its biological roots and moves it away from the current trend of mentalist argument that the subject usually provokes.
Theories of consciousness abound, and like established movie stars, each has its own legion of fan boys. One more theory to this line up would do no harm, as to whether the world needs another theory, the answer is moot.
More than another theory, what the world needs now and badly is evidence, not one but a trail of it, a trail that will lead to the ultimate prize, the understanding of what man is, and what he is capable of.
The question of human self consciousness is definitely not new, and must be older than what we modern humans tend to give credit for. It is definitely not a question devised by pastoral people of the last ten thousand years to pass their time.
This hypothesis supposes that it was a burning question, particularly for the pre humans and their derivatives as they slowly settled into the modern human lineage*. For these generations the rise of the “I” and its identification was probably more acute than it is for modern humans, most of us hardly bother with the question at all. It does not interfere with our daily lives as much it had the pre humans.
That might sound too audacious a claim, however interpreting the evidence properly would give us better insights.
Consider the fact that by the time of the Greeks and their concurrent Eastern civilizations, the question of the self was considered as one largely settled, and the solidified results deserving of being written across temples across much of the known world. Much as we write E=mc2 on all and sundry without much thought to the intricate physics behind it!
More importantly even cultures not exposed to the mainstream, or cultures like that of the Americas which remained isolated until their rediscovery in later centuries all seemed to have gravitated to a common answer to the question of the self.
Based on which we can claim that the search for the meaning and extent of the self was the progenitor behind much of the world’s spiritual practices, that almost all religions and cults from the beginning of time are variants of the “Consciousness for Dummies” theme**.
The situation remained thus, and remains thus, but for the efforts of some recent scientists and philosophers for a more scientific approach to the problem. Rather than ask “Who am I” or “Who is I” as the ancients were forced to, given the absence of the proper investigative tools, the moderns tend to ask, “What is I”
The question has been made more acute in recent years, since this is considered the last and greatest of the unsolved problems of science, even otherwise skeptical scientists have thrown their hat into the ring.
So do we…
It is a big enough question to attempt an answer for, and one where any approach has equal probability in arriving at the right answer. To fail is not a problem, not trying however is. Let us make a start….
*Having stumbled upon this and other conclusions a few years ago, I searched the literature for someone who had similar ideas. It looked like Julian Jaynes had at least some of the same ideas, he called it bicameralism. However both the source of his ideas and his interpretations derive from a different perspective, and do not share anything with the idea tree that will be presented here.
.** A discussion of the scripture based ideas would take an entire book, so we will do it later at some leisure point or as asides.