Thursday, June 10, 2004

Evolution and the Ubiquity of Consciousness

The theory of evolution could be the most powerful concept to come out of science. While the details are the subject of ongoing study, all of the remarkable features of living things are amenable to understanding through Darwin’s theory of natural selection, further extended by our modern understanding of genetics. Moreover, while the theory has been around for a long time, recently there seems to have been a deepening of appreciation for its significance in diverse areas. Psychologists and philosophers, for instance, are going back and rethinking their disciplines with an evolutionary mindset. This involves realizing that every human attribute needs to be informed by a view of how it may have emerged from natural selection. The strengths and weaknesses of humanity are shaped by how we evolved. I plan to pick up on this theme in a later post.

The power of evolutionary thinking can be extended beyond the life sciences to encompass phenomena throughout the physical universe. While the term evolution is not always used, scientists have analyzed many non-biological processes that have characteristics similar to evolution. What is common to these is that they are complex dynamic systems that exhibit a self-organizing character. Examples of this include crystal growth and star formation. One of the interesting things about these systems is that a reductionist approach has a hard time describing the large-scale character of the system: somehow, the parts “know” what the whole is doing and fulfill their role accordingly. It seems that as the universe has increased in complexity through time, new kinds of orderly structures and processes have arisen from this complexity. It isn’t magic; it is just something that naturally occurs.

So, here is a “big-picture” view of how evolution has proceeded in the universe. Starting from a set of conditions which prevailed a fraction of an instant after a “big bang”, the universe evolved in time to include a variety of complicated yet ordered systems, including galaxies and solar systems. Then conditions on earth fostered the evolution of the first living organisms within a billion years after its formation. After this, the somewhat more familiar story of the evolution of the variety of species unfolded.

Taking evolution seriously in its broadest applications reminds us that our origin is grounded in the most basic level of the universe. Many of us have been exposed to the idea that we are made of “star stuff”. This means that the atoms within us (specifically those heavier than hydrogen and helium) were created through nuclear fusion in the interior of an early generation of stars. These stars ended their lives, often explosively, and the atoms dispersed and later formed into our solar system. Our bodies, of course, are created on earth from these same atoms. But you can even take this story further. The subatomic particles trace themselves back to that time shortly after the big bang. We have a common link to every part of the universe which was formed in that early crucible.

The reason I’m going through this story is to help explain why I’m going to present a conclusion that at first glance may be hard to accept: consciousness is everywhere. Or, to soften it slightly: consciousness or at least its building blocks are ubiquitous in the universe.

There are just two steps which lead to this conclusion. The first, which I discussed in my last post, is to realize that consciousness must be a fundamental feature of the natural universe. The second step is the insight that, as a part of the natural world, consciousness could not have suddenly appeared out of nowhere. All of the fundamental particles and forces (or whatever else makes up the universe) have been with us since the beginning. Consciousness exists “all the way down”.

When this position is put forward in philosophical circles (often it is called panpsychism), it is controversial. Also, it is easy to make fun of or caricature: Am I saying that rocks can think? No, I’m not. Let me flesh out this picture a bit more and see if it seems more reasonable.

Our human abilities are unique in the world. Even our closest animal cousins cannot think the way we can. They can’t use language. They may not have much in the way of long term memory, etc. Reflective self-consciousness is newer on the scene and seems to be confined to humans. When I say consciousness is everywhere, remember I am using my limited definition of consciousness, which means a basic subjective awareness. Of course, even using this limited definition, I admit I have trouble conceiving what it could really be like the further away from the human version I get.

In the case of most animals, I think they have awareness in a sense we might relate to. One quality of our experience in particular most animals probably share is that they have feelings. Evolutionary scientists believe that emotions have an ancient lineage as internal markers of the instincts shaped by natural selection. Feelings and emotions are therefore more primordial than thinking and language.

In the case of primitive animals, plants, and all the way down to single-celled organisms, I may be able to stretch my imagination and picture that while they do not have the sense organs or nervous systems to replicate experience of our sort, it still is like something for them to exist and interact with their environment. Going to the inorganic world, things get even harder. I think there is something about the way living things are put together which elevates their consciousness. However, I do think elementary constituents of the universe must have at least a “proto-consciousness” which allows the increasingly robust version to emerge at higher levels of organization. As an aside, the importance of how something is organized is why a rock has no more impressive consciousness than its parts. A rock is basically a pile of molecules. A one-celled organism powerfully leverages its parts to operate at a higher level of consciousness. An organism further leverages its cells.

The shortfall of this theory is that we don’t know how this works (yet). We will need to solve the problem of how consciousness scales itself up when you go from an atom to a cell, or a cell to an organism. However, this is a problem that I believe can be solved.

Some people have speculated that structures going up the scale from ours could exhibit aspects of life or consciousness. The Gaia hypothesis considers the earth to be a kind of organism. Perhaps galaxies or other large organized structures have their own version of consciousness? I don’t know, but given my arguments I’m open to the possibilities.

If consciousness is somehow out there in the universe, why haven’t scientists seen it? Remember, consciousness is a first-person phenomenon, and our scientific view of the physical world is an outsider’s third-person perspective. At the sub-atomic level, for instance, physicists analyze the relations among particles and learn from how they impact each other. This is an assessment of their external qualities. If these particles have proto-consciousness, it is an internal quality. One limitation could even lie in the fact that the mathematics traditionally used in physics to model particles treats them as dimensionless points. These have no “inside” by definition. (I should note that recent ideas such as string theory are starting to move beyond points as fundamental units). It is my hope that revised thinking about the limits of traditional methods may lead to new scientific progress in understanding how consciousness operates in its various forms. We won’t be able to experience directly what it is to be like other things in the universe, but we may be able to learn about how their consciousness works once we start to look for it. I have some speculative ideas regarding how consciousness may fit in at the most fundamental level of the universe which I plan to post later on.

For now, I conclude that consciousness is a natural and ubiquitous feature of the universe. While the steps I took toward this conclusion are logical and rational, it gives us a picture which is very different from the materialist view. It’s a mistake to think the world is made of dead matter, and then struggle to reconcile this picture with the obvious evidence of our vibrant existence. Our lives fit squarely and seamlessly into this revised picture of a conscious universe: a universe that in time has evolved new ways of experiencing itself, including the human way.

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