What is Consciousness? Where Does Consciousness Come From?
Consciousness is one of the most fascinating and intensely debated topics in human existence. After all, it’s what allows us to be aware of our surroundings and our own inner state.
Everything you ever experience in your life is made of consciousness — including sight, smell, taste, touch, and even this article.
But what exactly is it? Where did it come from? Are animals conscious too?
First, we’ll go over our best theory of where consciousness came from, and then in a future article, we’ll tackle some harder philosophical questions about it, like what philosophers call ‘the hard problem of consciousness,’ if there’s really such a thing as mind/body duality, can robots be conscious, and more.
I know this can be a rather complex and contentious topic, but I’ll break it down so it’s as easy to understand as possible.
Okay, so the origin of the modern concept of consciousness comes from John Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding,’ published in 1690. Locke defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.”
Today, we think of it as the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings and internal state.
Where does it come from?
Our most evidence-backed theory of what reality is, something called ‘ontological naturalism,’ states that everything we know is just nature and the laws of nature. Of course, we can’t really prove this beyond a doubt, but nothing has come out at this point to make us think that’s not the case. If you want to learn how I came to that conclusion, make sure to check out this article here first.
If that’s the case and everything is just nature and natural laws, it would mean that consciousness somehow manifests itself from our brain.
Scientific research does continue to point to the conclusion that mental processes such as consciousness are directly correlated to physical process events in the brain. Researchers like Anil Seth from the University of Sussex suggest that your brain basically hallucinates your consciousness. There are many different aspects and channels all working at once that come together from just cells and matter to give you a sense of self.
Of course, not all philosophers, neuroscientists, and researchers are fully on board with this idea. For example, the philosopher David Chalmers raised an interesting problem, now dubbed ‘the hard problem of consciousness.’
In his paper ‘Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness’ he writes,
“It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C?”
Basically, according to Chalmers, there are ‘easy problems’ of consciousness that explain things like the ability to focus attention, integrate information, report mental states, and other similar cognitive abilities.
These differ from ‘hard problems,’ or subjective experiences, like why we can taste food the way we do or feel the warmth of the sun against our skin instead of processing temperature like a toaster, for instance, that wouldn’t have that subjective experience.
Now, we’ll get into the ‘hard problem’ a bit more in another article but as far as where consciousness comes from, our best evidence suggests that, like most human behaviors, consciousness came about from evolution. That is, at least the parts that we would refer to as the ‘soft problems’ issues of consciousness.
Consciousness wasn’t a sudden event but took place tiny steps at a time according to researchers. It started with less complex lifeforms that could be said to have a very primitive state of consciousness, eventually evolving into more complex lifeforms with a more complex consciousness.
Think of it like a TV. An older, more primitive TV would have a scratchy black and white picture. A better TV would be in color but a little blurry, and a modern, huge Samsung TV would be in ultra HD color with a crisp picture.
Now, how exactly do researchers think consciousness came about?
Well, it started with primitive living things or clumps of atoms that could reproduce themselves and needed more free energy to do so. In other words, they were hungry and needed food.
Consciousness in the most primitive organisms is evidenced when they would be simply floating in the sea. They would move around faster when food or energy was present and then slow down again when it wasn’t, thus preserving energy. Then, over time, some of these organisms developed ways to move toward the food instead of just floating into it. This can be thought of as touch and sensation in a primitive form.
So here we have C.elegance, which is a little nematode. What’s cool about it is scientists have actually mapped its brain. They’ve mapped all the neurons and know what some of them can do.
What they found about one of these neurons is that it fires when something pokes the nematode, and that neuron helps it decide if it ran into something or if it poked itself by accident. This is a good example of the beginnings of self-awareness starting to form.
Next, early organisms started to develop a sense of smell to guide them toward food or energy. This led to a lot of running into harmful things, so they then started to evolve basic, primitive eyesight to see where they were going.
It’s hard to see in the water, so neuroscientists have proposed that’s why organisms started moving out of the water and onto land — because you can see much more clearly and it’s a better strategy for getting food.
So, you can see how this is gradually increasing to the more robust consciousness we associate with ourselves today. It wasn’t like our brains suddenly had so many neurons that consciousness sprung out of nowhere. It was a gradual process.
The next major step, according to researchers, happened within the brain because of a dilemma.
Even with a sense of smell, taste, and touch, and legs to propel you to your food, if your food runs out of view or disappears out of sight it becomes worthless because primitive animals didn’t have any memory. If your prey ran behind a bush and you couldn’t see it, it was as good as gone.
That’s why animals began creating inner worlds or memories — to help them to continue to pursue food and energy even when it disappears out of sight or is out of range.
We can see this present in animals today, like in some birds and more complex mammals like cats or dogs. It’s important to observe because it means that these creatures have a concept of time, just like we do. The animal has a history and can anticipate events in the future, just like us.
Also, it shows that some animals with bigger brains understand the difference between themselves and other selves out there. And they have their own thought processes, emotions, and social connections. You’ve probably seen this play out watching elephants interacting with each other or apes in communities at a zoo. Or perhaps you’ve even watched it happen with your own cats and dogs.
Some researchers believe that the only big difference between humans and other complex mammals is our creative ability to form more complex imagined realities, also called intersubjective fictions, and then share them with each other through language. I’m talking about things like the concept of money or the idea of a nation — ideas that we make up in order to communicate and exchange resources more efficiently.
Perhaps parts of consciousness did arise from evolution, but not everyone agrees that you can really explain the subjective part, our own experiences, in terms of just our current understanding of atoms and matter.
Why don’t we just process temperature like an oven that has no inner subjective experience of heat itself?
We’ll dive into some more complex questions like this one soon.
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