The need for consciousness

An important tendency of life on earth is that it resides in individuals separated from each other. Therefore, in the hierarchy of nature, consciousness is found at the level of organisms where highly centralized nervous systems with a brain exist. It is not possible, however, to imagine consciousness without an existing memory. Awareness of every kind had to relate certain of its constituents to earlier, not too short, reminiscences. Experience stored in memory gives the possibility to evaluate new information without demanding it to be complete. In very simple terms, consciousness could be defined as the capacity of a system to respond to stimuli. To respond to stimuli is to adapt and adaption is a kind of learning which is the storing of knowledge. The evolution of  higher levels of consciousness with expression of will and decision-making appears to rest heavily on the pertinent accumulation of knowledge. Consiousness is not possible to image without the concept of time. Without experience of time we cannot perform a mental synthesis; without that synthesis we cannot handle the flow of information.

The benefit of a conscious mind has sometimes been questioned from a biological point of view and its existence has been interpreted as a secondary product of its own work with no special function per se. A different, but well-known point of view is the classic philosophical panpsychism which states that consciousness is like the force of gravity and the phenomenon of electricity, an inherent attribute of all matter, an omnipresent quality gradually manifesting itself when matter becomes alive. Consequently, human consciousness does not differ in nature from consciousness of elementary life forms or matter, only in degree and complexity.

Several quite reasonable perspectives nevertheless state that consciousness has a strong survival value. To define why it has that value is however very difficult if you compare human beings with early and primitive species such as ants and flies, which have survived for billions of years apparently without consciousness at all. Thus consciousness is not always necessary for survival. It has its costs and in many environments this is too high. In certain milieus where geographical placing and other environment-variables are important, the possibility of information processing within the individual lifespan brings about many advantages. There, a brain with consciousness has its justification. During other circumstances, slower information processing during many generations is more suited to its purpose.

It seems, however, reasonable that consciousness has its most important role in handling entirely new situations where no prior references exist and difficult judgements have to be made. Consciousness allows for greater flexibility of behaviour than is achieved by preprogramming for even a wide range of possibilities. The need for guesses, extrapolations and forcasts justificates the existence of a conscious mind. The precalculation of possible actions implies no risks compared with real trial-and-error and increases chances for survival tremendously. To let bad ideas die instead of ourselves seems to be the very point of consciousness. An important function of the consciousness mind is that reflecting on your own behaviour allows you to predict the behaviour of others. Such predictions in not easy because human behaviour has built into it certain random variations of temperament and pattern of reaction which can trigger a fit of rage over petty incivility. These sudden changes of temperament make us less predictable and more difficult to exploit. They create a healthy respect and sensitiveness of hearing in the environment. No doubt, the most dangerous and fraudulent creature in human environment has been other specimen of her own race.

The recognition of other thoughts to measure our own against, is a focal point of self-awareness. When starting to project into the minds of others we discover our own mental life.

Maybe one can emphasize the special biological necessity of consciousness in connection with an all-embracing global catastrophe. Human beings may attempt to save their species below the water surface or orbiting in space until better circumstances return, thanks to a superior conscious intelligence and prognostic capability.

One of the most popular philosophical arguments for the need of a consciousness is the antropic principle, presented by John Barrow and Frank Tipler in 1986. This says that the laws of nature seem surprisingly well suited to the existence of life. The very nature of the universe seems to be creative and to include the existence of conscious beings, fulfilling the basic need for the universe to be aware of itself. It is in the end through human eyes that nature has attained the possibility to examine itself. Mind is therefore a necessary social artefact in both the history of the species and the individual. The interpretation of the antropic principle that life should arise inevitably given Earthlike conditions is known as biological determinism. A consequence of this concept is that there is structure in the world and this structure is recognized by the brain. The researcher Steven Weinberg has expressed it in the following way: ‘The world is the way it is, at least in part, because otherwise there would be no one to ask why it is the way it is.’ Furthermore, without the existence of human beings, reality would have neither form nor function. Consequently, the natural laws are designed to allow for the existence of conscious beings and reality exists as it does in order to create the proper conditions for human evolution. Our existence thus tells us something about the properties of the universe but also that the entire evolution of the universe is reflected in the human brain. As such the brain has got a built-in moral system to ensure its survival.

Regarding the antropic principle some followers prefer to interpret it in a more absolute way, thus coining the idea of a strong antropic principle. They proclaim that the existing state of the universe is inevitable and not a result of an accidental occurrence. It is impossible for us to consider another kind of universe as we could neither exist in it nor observe it (note the relationship with the interpretation of superdeterminism in Chapter 1). A corollary of the strong antropic principle is what has been called Tipler’s ‘beautiful postulate’, namely that life, having once come into being, will continue for ever.

It is possible to impose a hierarchy of consciousness among living organisms from unconsciousness via consciousness to selfconsciousness and omniconsciousness. In a broader context, these concepts are to be found in the higher existential levels which have been formulated by Ernst Schumacher (1978).

  • The kingdom of minerals
  • The kingdom of plants which compared with minerals have life
  • The kingdom of animals which in addition have consciousness
  • The kingdom of man which, in addition to minerals, life and consciousness, also possesses self-consciousness.

Another ingenious aspect of live and consciousness has been given by the philosopher of science, Karl Popper (1959). He states that the existence per se consists of three worlds; the physical world, the spiritual world with consciousness, and the world of ideas (the content of the consciousness).

Apparently, consciousness has to do with the physical complexity of the brain. A threshhold may exist above which consciousness sets in. That means that a species with one hundredth of the size and complexity of the human brain has not one per cent of our counscious- ness. Consciousness is arguably an all or nothing phenomenon emerging on a certain level of complexity (regarding critical mass in the brain, see p. 143). Some biologists state that brain size is related to the need for animal vision. A correlation exists between brain size and social group size. The demand for an extremely good visual system related to social needs initiated the growing of the brain. The vision plays a main role in social interaction. Recognition of faces and interpretation of expressions was many times a matter of life and death. As a group member, the animal had to process an enormous stream of information in order to be sucessful.

The possession of consciousness is positively correlated to an organism’s intelligence. This concept can be defined as the capability to change a pattern of instinctive behaviour through the use of experience. To do this, an aptitude to discern common elements of different situations is necessary, together with the ability to store this capacity for future use. Any intelligent organism processes information and has the capability to learn. The faster it learns, the smarter it is. An organism not able to learn cannot be considered intelligent. Learning itself is the enduring change in knowledge or behaviour resulting from experience.

Intelligence is close connected to an organism’s ability to perceive and analyze its environment. The capability to interpret what happens in the environment presupposes that the organism has an internal model of the world. Such mental representation is possible to change corresponding to external changes and furnish the capacity to predict the effects of alternative actions in the future. This reduces the need for costly trial and error, and enables man to undertake activities that pay off in the future like planting crops and breeding animals. To test alternative behaviours mentally is the basis of human ability to plan ahead, choose between alternatives, invent technology, and modify the external environment. If this works we have a definition of higher intelligence. As a matter of fact, the very sophistication and nature of an organism’s intelligence is determined by its environment. Therefore, it can be measured as a ratio of the organism’s ability to control its environment, versus its ability to be controlled by the environment. Consequently, it can also be measured as the amount of success with which the organism is able to create its own positive environment. Intelligence can only be measured in terms of intelligent behaviour and is an irrelevance for an organism in a static state. Characteristics associated with intelligence is thus connected with mobile organisms while immobile ones lack them.

Intelligence exists then among both animals and men. A real difference between animal and man is, however, very difficult to establish in spite of Schumacher’s definition. One concrete difference between human species and other organisms is, that humans are able to develop a useful collective memory. This has been done by development of an oral and written cultural tradition passing information from one generation to the next. Storing and retrieving of information has been possible across both space and time. Therefore cultural evolution with its creation of art, religion, and science become more important than biological evolution.

According to the biologist Richard Dawkins (1989) the main concept behind the cultural evolution is the meme. This is the intellectual correspondence to the gene which lays behind all physical evolution. Memes are habits, skills, ideas, inventions or artistic expressions which are passed from person to person by imitation. They are the creators of our minds and also the cause of our big brains (serving to spread the memes). Human brain is the meme’s copying device and it evolved not to spread genes, but to spread memes. Like biological replicators as genes, memes follow the laws of heredity, variation and selection. Worth to note is that the idea of the meme itself has become a meme.

Memes are inherited when we copy the actions of others or when we pass on an idea. Some ideas are true and useful, others are copied despite being false. Variation (and also mutation) in memes takes place when we retell a story and small details get changed or something is forgotten. Selection exists when only certain parts of received information is passed on to anyone else. Memes which are clever to copy themselves, for whatever reason, would tend to spread. Memes which are copied stay with us — the rest die out. The size of memes can vary within very wide boundaries from some letters written on a paper to a whole book.

Human  language   must   be   considered   a   vast   system   for   the transmission of memes by speech communication. Used as a broad- casting phenomenon, sound can transfer memes to many people at once. By the invention of writing and use of the modern alphabet about 700 B.C., big scale storing of memes was possible. This invention cannot be overrated and constitutes the foundation for all progress of the human civilization. It

  • preserves the casual speech in an external lasting memory
  • separates the speech from the speaker
  • renders a formation of lasting concepts possible
  • promotes deductions and sequential thinking
  • facilitates order and objectivity
  • accepts delayed answers

Both animals and man are strongly influenced by their mental world of emotions and feelings — the ultimate protective invention of nature to guard the organism. What the brain decides with its intelligence is thus motivated by feelings such as disgust or fear. The charge of the feelings is to manage all the important processes of thought. A feeling is the mind’s way to summarize an extensive, unconscious mental process. Feelings sum up big all-embracing mental phenomena which reason and consciousness cannot access. In the necessary choice between different alternatives, feelings constitute the overarching framework which makes such a choice meaningful instead of irrational. Strong feelings are the prerequisite for value- based, emotional decisions. Different kind of emotions like joy, shame, astonishment thus has to be regarded as various aspects of the internal information processing. The feeling paves the way for the interpretation of sensations. If not, we would all, have been bitten by a hissing snake long ago. Emotional states are an integral part of higher biological intelligence and thus also of social intelligence.

Some people state that the real difference between man and animal is embedded in human morality, a purely human capability to differentiate between good and evil. This argument is not very strong if one considers what people do to each other in everyday life; dolphins therefore seem to be absolutely superior in morality (Karl Marx states that the real difference between animal and man is indicated by the manner of which man organizes his production). It is also possible to assert that man separates from animal by producings his own provisions. To discuss the true location of morality may, however, be outside the scope of this book. Its origin and function may only be commented on as one of the significant qualities of the self-conscious mind.

A new variation of our ancestors, called homo habilis, the skilled man, emerged 2 million years ago. At that time the global climate suffered a dramatic deterioration with a series of ice ages. A main strategy for survival in an ever harder environment was social organization. This demanded a better awareness to cope with a quite new kind of complexity.

There is a strong relation between the size of the cerebral cortex and the group size within the species. A big cortex is necessary to handle complex intrigues and conflicts within a large group. Human beings are innate mind readers. The skill at imagining other people’s mental states is a basic capability to avoid dangerous situations and remain in life. The language is not in the first hand used in communication, but to strengthen the social bond within the group. Its main function is to express feelings which are associated to social relations. Important is not what is told but how and to whom. The informative function belongs to a later part of the development. Time available for grooming is not sufficient for the big group whereas one can speak to more than one person at the same occasion.

An emerging morality became an intelligent adaptation to demands for an improved sensitivity: to know what was right or wrong in a new complex situation of agreements, co-ordination and mediation of knowledge. Ethical behaviour, therefore, is not a luxury but a necessity in social systems of high density and complexity.

Morality is founded on a capability for empathy, the comprehension of the inner world and feelings of other beings, the very prerequisite of civilizing (that is, sympathy is to feel for somebody, while empathy is to feel as somebody). The consequences of individual actions and their impact on other creatures may thereby be predicted reasonably well. What is good or destructive for others is thus related to what should be good or bad for oneself. Symbolic thinking and an explicit understanding of concepts such as me and you are, here, the prerequisites. The continuous training in handling this complicated world of symbols is believed to lie behind the development of the brain as well as all kinds of moral actions.

No doubt, the emergence of human language was the most important reason for this development. By use of a language the internal, symbolic world could be conveyed to and understood by other individuals. The language which differ man from the animal has no limitations. It can describe things which is not here and now or that which does not exist. It can express the past as well as the future and communicate thoughts. Spoken language is an entirely new quality which is above body language. Contrary to body language it can express a negation, a denial of a kind that it is not raining. Sign language can express the concept of not but only as a recoding of spoken language. Animal which communicate by calls can only handle things which exist in the immediate environment. The capacity to imagine that which does not exist in the present is a main factor that differentiates man from animal.

A spoken language is governed by the will (Broca’s area). But disregarding this, it is impossible for man not to communicate. We communicate both with what we are doing and not doing. Silence is also communication. The calls and cries of animals are, however, unintentional and controlled by an evolutionary older part of the brain (below cortex). ‘Language may not be the source of the self, but it certainly is the source of the “I”‘ — to quote the British reseacher Damasio.

The quality of empathy has, however, an unavoidable complication in the possibility to exert intentional cruelty in order to reach one’s goals. Moral awareness based on deep emotions gives man the sophisticated power of both destruction and healing in relation to his fellow beings. Without these emotions, no values working as guidelines for action, should exist.

Returning now to consciousness, it is here defined as the ability to create an inner mental world, an abstract model of the reality by use of memory — inseparably connected to perception. This predictive model is used on the external environment and is constantly redefined and disregard tuned to the same with growing experience. Consciousness relates to basic feelings, e.g. pain, contentment, joy and sorrow. Vertebrates are in general conscious beings, albeit to varying degrees.

Self-consciousness is then the creation of active models of a reality wherein the individual self is included; these models serve for both explanation and prediction. A self-conscious mind produces alternative models, even of a non-existing future. Thus both interpretation and anticipation of a future built upon various activities is possible. Self- consciousness gives a freedom of choice and a capability to manifest one’s own will. Such an aptitude which offers the possibility to determine one’s own fate contributes to a tremendously increased pace of development. While the human brain is the most significant location of self-consciousness, this is also recognized among the more developed animals, e.g. chimpanzees and dolphins. Emergent properties of self- consciousness are the use of languages and artefacts and time- and death- awareness among human beings.

Although dwelling in a world surrounded by physical things created by themselves, human beings mainly exist in the world of symbols. A breakdown in this world of symbols can lead to mental disorder, serious mental diseases, and is often in the background when suicide is committed. Thus mental diseases and suicide are unknown among other animals.

The highest mode of awareness, omniconsciousness, is based on a superior understanding of reality and exemplifies a new stage of development. It is characterized by some authors and philosophers as all- embracing and genuinely ethical and representing the ultimate degree of consciousness achieved by few human beings. Famous religious personages, e.g. Buddha, are said to have achieved this kind of consciousness. While this level is difficult to describe adequately using a lower level language, it can be said to include unity with the environment without the loss of individuality.

The personal ego is understood to be part of an eternal, universal consciousness temporarily residing in the actual body. Persons approaching this level of consciousness see no reason to assert their ego. They are not dependent on the surroundings or its fluctuations and see their own misfortune, losses and criticism of self as real, but not crippling. To be in this state is to witness one’s own actions as if watching someone else. (The presented stages of consciousness is sometimes known as ego-centric, socio-centric and world-centric.)

Apparently, the expansion of consciousness leads to an expansion into space. The possible merging of individual consciousness into one single mind stretching from person to person all over the world has always fascinated both philosophy and science. The resulting global reservoir of information produced by all mankind is often called the Universal Mind. That simple forms of consciousness merge to produce higher forms is part of the evolutionary paradigm (see R. Fivaz 1989). This idea is also integrated in both the Gaia hypothesis and the noosphere of Teilhard de Chardin (see Chapter 3). The merging process itself has been the subject for several authors, among them the cyberpunk Rudy Rucker in his book Software from 1982.

When discussing concepts of consciousness, the subconscious and the collective subconsciousness have to be mentioned. These terms were introduced by the early psychoanalysts such as Carl Gustav Jung and Alfred Adler and imply that only certain parts of the mind can be embraced consciously. We can recognize our consciousness as part of a wholeness. Most often our consciousness is partial, a phenomenon we can appreciate after the interruption of  a deep sleep with significant dreams. Collective subconsciousness is the realm of the archetypes, the inherited patterns for emotional and mental behaviour, shared by all human beings.

Jung and Adler were students of Siegmund Freud (1856-1939) and based their proposals of the collective subconscious on his psychoanalytical theories. Scientists have always called in question the content of Freud’s ideas although they must be considered one of the most famous existing models of human mind.

Freud’s model and the brain where it abides can be presented metaphorically like a three-floor, two-family building. It has its entrance in the middle and on both sides there are two apartments which are mirror images of each other (the two brain halves).

In the basement, in the brain-stem, we find the fundamental regulation and control mechanisms which sustain our physical existence and are inaccessible for the consciousness. There the Id exists and secure that we breathe, eat and are aware of physical pain. The blind, preprogrammed functions of the organism, exist here.

In the first floor, in the limbic part of the brain, we find the I or the Ego with all its feelings which constantly play off against each other. Here memory is stored, with its hierarchy of feelings. The Ego is dominated by the Libido, or the urge for sexual satisfaction. When the Libido is restrained to realize its urge, a surplus of energy is generated and canalized by cultural activities, art and sciences in the process of sublimation. All kinds of talents which are useful for society are often produced by sublimation.

In the upper floors, the Superego is lodged in the neocortex. The very thinking and the all-embracing and controlling reason with rational decisions exist here. The superego is specially governing the left half of the brain. The right half is more dominated by the I and its feelings. The Superego is influenced by two instincts complementing each other. That is Eros, the urge to live, and Thanatos, the death drive. Here, different incentives together with Eros and Thanatos constantly struggle for power in the human existence. The lost alternatives are subconsciously crowded down into lower levels where they establish different complexes. They get their symbolic expression in dreams which can be understood by dream interpretation. (Freud 1961).

Dreaming is common to all mammals and fine-tunes “hardwired” drives and pattern of behaviour with the circumstances of their local experiences. This takes place in a kind of off-line mode during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which may be considered a virtual reality simulation by the brain. When this take place, all motor movements are paralyzed in order to block physical action as fantasy must be separated from reality. Somnambulism therefore is a kind of malfunction and sometimes dangerous for the individual.

The sometimes surrealistic nature of dreams is necessary when hypothetical situations are to be simulated and kept separated from factual knowledge (real experiences and prototypical examples). The brain express itself most often by metaphors. Therefore, persons, objects, and images do not represent themselves. They are just metaphors, sometimes with the aim to disguise certain circumstances for the censor, the superego. Dream symbolism shows remarkable similarity with other kind of symbolism existing in art, mythology and religion.

It is evident that the Freudian model has certain similarities with MacLean’s “Truine Concept of the Brain” presented on page 283. Interesting is also that Freud’s concepts of the “unconscious” show that no single executive is in charge of the mind.

A very interesting and somewhat controversial theory regarding the origin of human self-consciousness has been introduced by the American psychologist, Julean Jaynes (1976). According to his bicameral mind theory, the birth of self-consciousness dates back 3000 years. Prior to that, humanity had no concept of an ego or a personal space of mind within the individual. Of course there were social structures, a culture, languages and diverse experiences. But in terms of this discussion man was schizophrenic, instructed in every movement by insistent voices which were named as gods. Human action was ordered by the gods, not by free-will; feelings and decisions were the result of divine intervention.

From a psychological point of view, man was bicameral, with brain chambers corresponding to the left and right hemisphere. Nonlinguistic activities emerging from the right chamber were transferred to the left by way of voices speaking within the head. Thus no individual decisions were taken and the responsibility belonged to the gods. According to Jaynes, the self-consciousness with its ego is a relatively new human quality, a product of historic evolution and therefore changing as time passes. Self-consciousness was not an essential for human survival; even today we perform the majority of our actions without being aware of them, e.g.  driving the car or entering the subway automatically. In fact we are very often without consciousness of our ego without being aware of it. We cannot be aware of that which we are not aware.

Of course these ancient ‘absent-minded’ people were as we are, apart from the lack of a continuous stream of thoughts, regarding something else, which characterizes modern man. When something extraordinary happens modern man becomes attentive; historic man listened for the internal voice and instructions from the gods. These gods were no figment of the imagination, they were the evolutionary side-effect of a language capacity and the real will of the ancient man.

Cultural and political revolution, together with the rising importance of written language, gradually paved the way for human self- consciousness, which appeared in the form of a metaphor T as a side- effect of a personal narrative, similar to that presented in the famous tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Noticeable experiences of the “I” are as follows:

  1. Intentionality
  2. Self-awareness
  3. Reflectivity
  4. Ego-experience
  5. Attention
  6. Choice and free will
  7. Experiences related to the unconscious

New and dramatic insights into the nature of consciousness  have been presented by the American neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet (1985). His starting point was the summation of the total information flow passing through our senses. The amount was imposing: the eyes alone transmit more than 10 million bits per second to the brain and all senses taken together more than 11 million bits. Experiments carried out by Libet demonstrated that a maximum of 40 bits per second was possible to perceive for a conscious mind and that the normal capacity was about 15 bits. In terms of communication, this channel capacity, or bandwidth is filtered down to 15 bits per second.

Such a tremendous reduction of the information flow entering the brain is analogous to that of switching from a floodlight to a  spotlight in a theatre. You begin by seeing one or two faces on the stage, the spotlight roams about and something in the background becomes visible as you become aware. The conscious mind is extremely flexible but in each distinct moment it is limited to a rather specific area. We perceive much more than we are immediately aware of, but we are able to focus attention on whatever we want. Furthermore, this awareness concerns one sense at a time — compare the reflex to close our eyes when we want to hear better. This mechanism allows us to be aware of surrounding impulses without becoming confused by them — a kind of survival strategy.

Periodically, the consciousness is shut off. Exactly when we do not know for you cannot be aware of your own unconsciousness and remember it afterwards. The consiousness is only something which is necessary to use when we meet a new situation demanding advanced thinking and planning. Alternatively it must be actualized to prevent our subconsious mind to lead us to destruction. Most of our actions are  in fact unconscious. Without a behaviour which generally is below the threshhold of consciousness, we should not survive. A constant, conscious reflecting mind is too slow in struggle for life.

Libet’s main findings reveal the readiness potential of the brain. He has shown that the conscious will to carry out something appears half a second after its initiation by the brain. The awareness of the action is delayed and projected backwards in time, making us believe that our will preceded it. The consciousness is delayed and conceals this fact for itself by preserving an illusion of instantaneous awareness. This self-delusion is very practical when it is highly important to act instantly or instinctively. To react more slowly has to be done consciously. In both cases we maintain the impression of being in command of ourselves. The conclusion is the iron rule of thinking before acting.

How then will the free-will relate to these findings? Hitherto it has been considered that the higher an organism climbs along the scale of evolution, the higher the degree of free-will and hence the ability to control and influence its own environment. According to Libet’s experiments, awareness arises after the activity in the brain has started. But it will take 0.2 seconds from the conscious experience of the decision to its actual execution. Nonetheless, a conscious mind can stop the action before its execution, i.e. the consciousness cannot start the action but it may decide that it should not be executed. This veto function of the consciousness works through selection or choice as well as control of outcome of the will, rejecting suggestions presented by the non- consciousness. .

The experienced feeling of self-command is the result of a sophisticated feedback of sensory data in time. We only cope with a small part of what we perceive — that part which gives meaning to the context. The delayed awareness enables us to present an adapted and coherent view of the world, an adjusted simulation which makes sense and which we are ready to perceive. Libet’s work leaves little doubt that we are all at the mercy of influences of which we are very often unaware and over which we have virtually no conscious control.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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