Consciousness and Evolution

December 1, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

My answer to Quora question

While human consciousness has certainly been shaped by evolution, that does not mean that consciousness itself could have evolved from non-consciousness. Whether we are talking about other species of animals or cells or organic molecules, the same issues which we run into in explaining human consciousness are still present at any scale. The issues of the hard problem of consciousness, explanatory gap, binding problem, and symbol grounding problem make the mind-body split just as relevant wither the ‘body’ is a brain, neuron, or subatomic particle. No matter what, you have to explain how an ‘interior world’ can ‘exist’ in a physical structure whose behavior is causally closed.

Whatever way you slice it, if we accept that T-cells can be effective in detecting and neutralizing threats on a cellular level without having consciousness, or that DNA can create cellular machines which build a brain without consciousness, then we are admitting that consciousness doesn’t make sense as a functional adaptation. The rest of the universe already works too well without it. There is nothing especially interesting about a hominid’s need for food and shelter which would demand rich awareness to develop out of blind reflex. Single celled organisms chase food, avoid danger, etc also.

We are then left with considering that either consciousness could somehow be an accident of evolution, or that consciousness may be intrinsic to all physical phenomena in some sense (panpsychism, panexperientialism) or even that consciousness is the universal substrate upon which all phenomena depends (idealism, idealist monism).

If consciousness is a mutation that has no functional role (a spandrel), we have to ask why it would even be a possibility. Remember that if consciousness is a mutation, we are assuming that there is a whole universe already in place which is overflowing with processes, biological and otherwise, which are perfectly capable of directing themselves effectively while being unconscious. It’s actually a radically anthropocentric cosmology since we are privileging our tiny piece of history in the universe as the only piece which is not devoid of experience. We are saying that everything that existed before humans was unconscious, therefore an invisible, intangible, silent void with no memory etc. If we are not intending that, and prefer to think that the universe looked, sounded, felt, and tasted just like it does for Homo sapiens since the dawn of time, then we would have to ask exactly what we think consciousness is adding to that kind of eternal-universal ‘unconsciousness’.

If consciousness is intrinsic to physical phenomena (as in Penrose-Hameroff’s microtubule-based Quantum Consciousness) or is intrinsic to information integration (as in Tononi-Koch’s IIT), we still have the same kind of mind-body problem. A ‘body’ which is a statistical function rather than a literal form in space is still falls short of explaining why and how there is any such thing as consciousness. In my view, only the idealist monist view, or what I call pansensitivity makes sense ultimately as the parent of both physics and information. Just as we learn to count on our fingers, all forms of information are representations of experiences which have an aesthetic foundation – a seeing, feeling, touching, thinking, etc. Without that sensory-motive context from the start, there would nothing to evolve; only abstractions in the dark (or not even dark). Once we can get over ourselves as a species and recognize that consciousness doesn’t begin and end with us, I think that awareness will be seen as the container of relativity itself, with quantum mechanics and evolutionary biology as a consequence of deeper stories rather than their originator.

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