Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Consciousness Is Not Mystical

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.”


  1. Couldn't agree more! I think this is one of the last things that otherwise rational people are reluctant to give up - it's just too painful to believe. The more time I spend with (other) animals, the more certain I am that almost all animals have consciousness, we just have a bit more of it.

  2. Another good way to visualize how consciousness does not require anything supernatural is the hive analogy.

    An ant hive acts as a single conscious organism in the way that it responds to and interacts with the environment. From our perspective, we can see that a hive is the product a lot of ants, each of whom robotically follows a few simple rules, and who individually don't have a clue about the complex actions of the hive as a whole.

    There is nothing mystical about it; no hive-spirit enters when a group of ants reaches a certain size, and no hive-spirit is necessary for the hive to move, gather food, attack, and do all the things that ant colonies do. We can figure out the simple rules that each individual ant is following, and see how in aggregate they produce the hive, which has motive and purpose way beyond that of a single ant.

    Our brain cells are the ants, and our consciousness is the hive. No ghost in the machine is necessary to explain anything. It's just difficult to see from the point of view of the hive, which doesn't know that it's just a bunch of ants.


  3. @RK

    Um, what?

    Okay, here's a question: what is it like to be an ant colony? Hm?

    Ok, what is it like to be a government? It consists of a bunch of people who may understand a lot, but still have no complete comprehension of the entire collective and never know the outcome, so it's basically like a new entity, comparable to the ant colony, right?
    So what's it like to be a society?

    We all get the "mechanism" part of life and the brain - when people invoke the "mystery" of consciousness, they obviously refer to the hard problem, which doesn't rely on animals having no consciousness.