There’s been a growing popularity in the discussion of consciousness, as it relates to things like religion and physics. Theists tell us that consciousness survives death and is eternal. The new age set assigns a mystical quality to human consciousness, to the point where, in books like The Secret, we are told that we can alter the course of objective events, with our minds alone. A fringe element in the physics community proposes an interpretation of quantum mechanics loosely called “consciousness causes collapse,” where the presence of consciousness in some unspecified way triggers potential quantum events to become actual events. Even Robert Lanza, the brilliant originator of one of my all-time favorite theories, the biocentric universe, has teamed up with Deepak Chopra and speaks of the foundational consciousness of the universe and how one’s own personal consciousness can never die, etc.
Whatever. It’s all hooey. There is nothing mystical, or even mysterious, about consciousness. Consciousness is amazing, like the diversity of life on Earth or like the entire universe — but as I have written, just because something is astonishing does not mean it is mystical or in any way supernatural. Merely because the human mind is limited in its ability to comprehend complex things, that does not mean the universe had to be designed by an intelligent God, or that biological evolution could not proceed on its own without a guiding hand, or that we humans, singled out as a species, have been given some unique gift to appreciate beauty and grandeur by the Creator that made it all happen.
Consciousness is a giant, tangled web of biological observations and self-observations, a system of information exchange and storage that goes on within an individual organism. That is all it is. Since all biological beings observe and respond to their external environment as well as their internal state (in the process called homeostasis), we can say that every living thing experiences consciousness, to some degree. Bacteria and blades of grass are conscious — not conscious like us, but conscious nonetheless. If you disagree with this statement, I’d say it’s because you buy into the ancient Western assumption that there’s something unique about human consciousness, that we exceed some kind of “consciousness threshold,” while other animals, and certainly plants, are deficient and inadequate in this regard. I find this opinion arrogant to the extreme.
The premise is that humans, with our language and our science, see the world the way it “really is,” while a dog or a deer does not. We appreciate the beauty of flowers and waterfalls and contemplate the order of things, while dogs, lacking these abilities, look for fire hydrants to pee on. They’re lovable but dumb. It’s not too surprising that the Bible instructs us — God’s chosen species — to act as the masters of the rest of the living and nonliving world; again, an arrogant position to take. We would not be here if the “lower” animals weren’t adapted to responding, with full adequacy, to their dynamic environments.
It’s certainly true that humans have an advanced consciousness, with our long, detailed memories of the past and profound visions of the future. But consciousness in the animal world is a continuum; there is no dividing line between conscious and non-conscious animals. People often say that humans are the only species that contemplate the future and their own mortality, but that isn’t completely true. When a mammal is faced with a choice, or is in a perilous situation, it is able (however crudely) to create mental images of various choices at once, along with their expected outcomes, and act accordingly. This cognitive ability offers a clear survival advantage, and generally the higher you go up the evolutionary tree, this more adept this ability becomes. Animals communicate and exchange information all the time; it may not qualify as intellectual discourse, but it is communication all the same. Among the more advanced functions, animals play and dream and experience emotion and seek out pleasure. There are, in fact, very few things that people do with their consciousness that other animals (at least other mammals) do not also do, in some crude form.
Earlier this year, on the TV show Jeopardy!, the IBM computer Watson crushed former champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day competition. A critical part of Watson’s software design involved determining the confidence level for each potential response; if the confidence exceeded a certain threshold, Watson would “ring in” and answer. In other words, in addition to interacting with the external environment, it was monitoring its own potential reactions and weighing their positive/negative consequences. Folks, this is consciousness! By machine standards, a highly advanced form, in fact. True, during the taping Watson probably wasn’t contemplating an escape from Sony Pictures Studios, but it was juggling external observations and internal self-observations in order to make choices regarding how to act and thus impact the outside world. I don’t see how this is any different from, say, a lab rat deciding whether to press the lever for the electric shock or the food pellet. Or, to use a lower-intelligence example, whether a person selects Donald Trump or Sarah Palin in the GOP straw poll.
Watson the computer is incredibly complex, but still nowhere near the complexity of the human brain. However, we can make an analogy. Consider a desk calculator, able to turn inputted information into physical action (numbers displayed on the screen). It uses the same digital format of one-or-zero, yes-and-no questions and answers to do its thing that Watson uses, only on a far simpler scale. The same can be said of the relationship between an amoeba and a human: Both rely on cascading electrochemical reactions to convey internal information from here to there. Watson has features that the calculator lacks (such as hard drives); likewise, humans have memory-storing neuronal synapses not found in one-celled animals. But all of the above rely on information from the external physical world to create actions that impact the physical world in turn. Regardless of the degree of complexity, in my book that means they’re all “conscious.”