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Can Evolutionary Theory Explain Human Consciousness?

Discussion in 'theory, philosophy & history' started by Nikolai, Jan 12, 2008.

  1. littlebabyjesus

    littlebabyjesus one of Maxwell's demons

    This is a state my cat is in when he is in full hunt mode.

    Then he wavers and decides to lick his arse.
  2. weltweit

    weltweit Well-Known Member

    That is the state I am in when I ride my motorcycle fast.
  3. Jonti

    Jonti what the dormouse said


    But, of course, it can also be achieved thro' quiet meditation (altho' that is a lot harder).

    I think it's important to de-mystify these altered states of consciousness. We experience them all the time, there's nothing extraordinary about them at all, despite the efforts of pseuds and mystagogs to expropriate them for commercial reasons.
  4. nosos

    nosos Well-Known Member

    I like to think of consciousness as existing on a spectrum from disengagement (abstract reflection, a sense of being "inside ourselves") to the sort of extreme state of engagement described as Samadhi or flow. All animals are engaged with the world. The unique capacity humans have is disengagement. I've had the interesting argument made to me that Taoism is in my senses an attempt to revert back to animal life: that's what it would mean to live our lives in flow. I think the point is generalisable to some forms of Buddhism.
  5. Lord Hugh

    Lord Hugh Multiply and

    My answer

    I don't think that anyone has defined consciousness in terms of the question that was asked. The question is asked scientifically, and most definitions have come from the philosophical side of things. Which is grand if you try to link it, but it seems that there is no real link made here.

    In practical terms, the thing going on in our mind (what's a mind? Well maybe I'll get to that in a while, dunno, it's been ages since I've been on u75 so I'll see how my posting abilities/attention is!) which we tend to call consciousness is, as we have agreed, in fact a load of different states.

    Now I'd say statements like
    are a bit dualistic, which is going to go against what I am saying here. I will first try to give an explanation of consciousness, and then I hope that you will accept that gurrier's post is sufficient to explain that consciousness can be explained by evolution.

    I am going to define consciousness as the activity of the brain, perhaps in a certain area. What area that is, I'm unsure, but were I to speculate, it would be in / inclusive of the associatory cortex. This is the place in the brain where our sensory inputs get linked together. I believe that this would be the logical place for "consciousness" as we experience it to happen:

    What happens during consciousness? What is happening in your "mind" (I'll say that for practical purposes there's little difference here between "mind" and "consciousness") as you walk around your world every day? You are getting sensory input, yes? And from this sensory input, you are divining properties of objects (what is this thing? oh it is a car! a car is used for driving), and thinking about your associations with them. Or else you are thinking about events (I'm going to class an event as an object for simplicity, I'll work down to my point and then out again) and your reaction to them, were you angered or happified or disappointed. Maybe you are considering how to make them better next time, or planning your revenge on those who have wrong you.

    I will define consciousness in terms of the associations, which I don't think you will disagree we have and create.

    So we can consider that consciousness is made up of thoughts and perceptions. I hope that doesn't sound unreasonable.

    What is a perception? I would define a perception as a response to an external stimulus. Light coming in gives us vision, we perceive objects in our vision when photons bouncing off them come to our eyes with certain amounts of energy. These photons conversely bounce off or are absorbed by our eyes, and photosensitive cells in our optic nerve start a chain reaction of neural activity from the eyes through the brain as we process the information coming in through progressively higher-level, more abstracted brain structures. First the brain might distinguish where the lines in a perceived image lie. Then the contrast, which may lead to shadows, eventually discriminating different objects, and their relative positions.

    This concept can be applied to all the senses - sight, sound, smell, taste, touch (touch can also apply to both external contact sensation, and also internal, ie pain, proprioception (where different body parts are in relation to each other), balance). These are not static processes, they are all happening at the same time, and constantly throughout time too (for example the identification of an object may be dependent on a certain smell it has or sound it makes, or else what it looked like a second ago - "that is a person, is it a man or woman" (1 second later) "oh it is a man he took his trousers off")


    So all these perceptions go into our brain, yes? What do they do there? Well, they make us think!

    What is a thought? A thought is a string of associations, perhaps driven by a goal. As an example I'll apply to concept of associatory links to language:

    What is a word? A word is a sound which in common knowledge corresponds to an object or abstract idea. If we see a car a few times, and somebody says the sound "car", then we will pick out the common features between both scenes and associate these 2 things together, name this object which moves and this sound we hear. This principal can be seen when we're learning people's names, we meet a person and they tell us their name, and sometimes if we don't say their name a few times, it doesn't "stick" - we have not associated the person's face (or whatever distinguishing features you may use to discriminate between people) with the name.

    A word can also be a string of letters. What are letters? Letters are written symbols which we associate with sounds. We know that certain groups of letters together may have a certain sound, because we have heard someone say the word, and seen it written down, and we have associated this particular syllable or whatever with this particular group of letters.

    This description works pretty well for nouns of tangible objects, I hope.

    What about intangible, abstract ideas? Well the ideas behind the associationary mechanism works quite to explain this.

    An abstract idea is formed in the same way that a tangible object is "named" - like above, somebody says "car" every time we see a car, and we link the two. However with an abstract idea, somebody says "love" a few times, and we try to draw the similar features from each scene. It's not quite so easy! We will make some sort of link, usually. I think that we can all agree that people generally have differing views on abstract ideas - eg consciousness :p This is cause we have no definite object upon which to hang the idea, so we try to divine from all the times people have called something "consciousness" what it is that they mean by this sound / collection of letters.

    So we have thoughts and perceptions, what else do we associate (yes abstract ideas here!) with the concept of consciousness? Feeling emotions. Well emotions are a bit finicky, they are abstract ideas in themselves and everybody has their own meanings for them.

    However I would class them as a perception in a sense. As I classed perceptions above, they could be thought of as "input" to the brain, with associated organs linked through the nervous system to the brain, with their seperate processing areas coming together in the associatory cortex (for the purposes of this explanation, let's call that the "consciousness centre", which is bullshit cus I don't really believe consciousness is located in one central place, but hey it's convenient to consider it like that for the purposes of this (growing) post :p ).

    An emotion is another sort of input to the associatory cortex, which comes from the brain itself. It is usually a more primitive response to an external stimulus, ie fight-or-flight response invoking fear or anger/rage/bloodthirst. Disgust is usually an inbuilt response to a taste or activity/happening which we consider unhealthy or damaging. Here, the fact that it can come from an "activity", which means that it comes from information which has already been processed in the associatory cortex so that we can class it as "vomiting" or "eating live cockroaches" or whatever else disgusts you, shows that nothing is simple, there are of course 2 way links, associations create emotions, and emotions create associations, which feed back to the associatory cortex. This concept of 2 way links and loops can go a long way into explaining low level behaviour of system of neurons, etc (in fact I'm reading a book at the moment that is describing how feedback loops etc in the brain create synchronised activity on a global scale, between different systems etc - sort of the mechanisms of these associations I am talking about).

    So that was a dodgy half-description of emotion. There are other emotions, and often emotion is classed into lower and higher, where in short the lower emotions are more physical reactions to external stimuli which affect the current brainstate in a different way than simply perceiving / parsing the information coming in. Higher emotions are more of an "abstract idea", i.e. they have less physical significance and are more like our intangible concept as I described above.

    Ok well I've talked a lot about associations, I'm sure I've left bits unexplained here and there, but I think I've covered most of the ground on how associations of incoming stimuli build up our conscious world.

    Oh wait I'll tie in memory here, as it's basically the same thing:

    Memory is the replay of past happenings: past emotions and perceptual input, including words and abstract ideas, ie accessing the part of the brain where we "store" our associations of things. I use the word "store" in inverted commas as it's more like attaching two wires together than actually storing anything - the wires were already there as part of the neural pathway coming from and processing a particular sensory input, be it an external input or an internal one - and there is no need to "store" anything, just create a link between them. This means that for example if you have linked the neuron in your brain which finally decides that the thingy you are seeing is an M & M, with the neuron in your brain at the end of the processing chain that is registering the fact that an elephant is buggering you up the arse, you will likely think of that elephant buggering you up the arse next time you see an M & M (depending on how much you're focussing on the M & M to try and draw your attention away from the elephant).

    (continued next post)
  6. Lord Hugh

    Lord Hugh Multiply and

    This works particularly well for language. We create an abstract idea of language as I described above: there is a neuron (or system of neurons) at the centre linking the path which is seeing cars many times with the path which is hearing the person say "car" many times. If we link this in to an abstracted system of language somewhere else in the brain, then every time we think of the word "car" in an abstract sense (I don't propose to explain this system of language, this post is getting lengthy enough already), we have the concept of what a car is from these different cars we have seen - which fits in with reality, when you think of "a car", the general idea of a car, you likely don't see any one particular car, but an amalgam of different features which make up a prototypical car - these will be features we take from all the different cars we have seen. (Or else maybe you will think of your own car, in which case it is a very strong association which you are very familiar with that is shaping your idea of "a car").

    Ok I hope that I have explained how association makes up a good bit of thought. I'm sure I've missed out bits and pieces here and there, but hopefully you can stretch the concept to fit these in.

    So maybe you are still asking how any of this is consciousness, that consciousness is some entirely different thingummy going on that needs a special explanation.

    Well I can't explain it any better than this (a metaphor(ish) - which is a method of high level association between large concepts, so I ask you to associate my explanation of colour perception with the concept of consciousness itself!):

    The idea of a "colour" is called a qualia. It is something which we can only experience in itself - we cannot share it with anybody else (how do you define "red"?), we cannot explain it. Only show people that which invokes this perception in us. This perception of colour is the interplay of light coming from an object on our eyeball and into our brain. We perceive it, and it doesn't need any outside forces or imperceptible mechanisms for us to accept it happens (I hope!). I extend this concept to the whole of consciousness. Consciousness is the perception of what happens as all of our brain is interplaying (I used the idea of the associationary cortex as the "consciousness centre" above, this is why I called it crap :p) with itself and with all our body. Consciousness is the information coming into, and already in our body being resolved, if you want to put it into a fancy pants sentence (I don't really but it's there if you want to use it :p). There are "default" patterns which sustain throughout it and get disturbed by input. I would consider these as what creates our feeling of "normality". Sickness, drugs, etc can affects the parts of our brain through which these patterns occur and disturb our sense of what's going on.

    I think that with this description of consciousness, and gurrier's explanation of how a nervous system can evolve, that it is entirely possible that consciousness, which is the "qualia" we feel from entire brain, nervous system, perhaps even body, can be explained by evolution.

    And as for zombies, just no :p
  7. CJohn

    CJohn somewhat estranged

    I think this is bang on phenomenologically speaking, however one can think of it from a psycho-structural point of view which has a slightly different emphasis. Here abstract reflection is a higher order cognitive process that of course requires a level of disengagement (or dissociation). Nevertheless at lower levels there has to be a degree of engagement (or pre-reflective associative processing) to be able to take this reflective stance. I think what I’m trying to get at is that consciousness requires both a degree of engagement and disengagement, at least for it to be an experience that has meaning. Put simply to be able to disengage at the level of self-reflection requires engagement on the part of the ego reflected upon. With this in mind I don’t think we can put disengagement-engagement together on one spectrum. However, I do think there is a spectrum from associative to dissociative psychological processes at different levels of the personality structure, whereby higher order processes of disengagement rely on this more elementary processes of engagement. You cannot have one without the other as disengagement (as I am using the term) at the elementary level would first cause a break down in the stream of consciousness such that reflection would not be possible.

    I think this can be illustrated with reference to trauma memories. Here the thinking is that due to the overwhelming nature of the experience the perceptual-sensory information is dissociatively processed at this elementary level. Crucially this means that it is not available for one to reflect upon and as such it does not become elaborated and contextualised into a meaningful personal narrative. Thus one is predisposed to the intrusion of partial and fragmentary trauma memories, where one believes they are reliving the trauma in the here and now. There would be no flashback if the incoming information had been associatvely processed and presented for higher order reflection, thus disengagement requires engagment at a different level of the persoanlity structure.
  8. Kizmet

    Kizmet Well-Known Member

    At any given moment in time the brain recieves information from a variety of senses. It reads this information and processes it.. this is awareness.

    There are things you are aware of right now that you don't even know you're aware of them. The level of light in the room.. the sounds of distant cars... dripping taps.. whatever.

    When you're in the zone you become hyper-aware of certain stimuli.. and less aware of others.

    However you are still aware of them.

    You will be conscious of a number of factors.. these may or may not be the specific stimuli.. but that means you possess consciousness. But you're a human.. so you always do.

    Post 7 -

  9. Jonti

    Jonti what the dormouse said

    The same can be said of my 'puter.

    Do you think it too has awareness?
  10. Jonti

    Jonti what the dormouse said

    So what you is saying is, you can't explain consciousness? Well, OK, it's a hard problem :).

    But what does consciousness do? And how is what it does evolutionarily advantageous?
  11. Kizmet

    Kizmet Well-Known Member

    Of a sort.
  12. Johnny Canuck3

    Johnny Canuck3 Well-Known Member

    It does if you think that an adding machine can have consciousness.
  13. Kizmet

    Kizmet Well-Known Member

    That's why you need to define a difference between awareness and consciousness.. otherwise you'd end up talking to your calculator... ;)

  14. gorski

    gorski customised free radical

    Or yelling at your TV?:rolleyes:

    Well, sort of...:D
  15. Jonti

    Jonti what the dormouse said

    I guess that would have to include machines like the abacus, right? :D
  16. Jonti

    Jonti what the dormouse said

    What sort would that be, then?
    So an abacus has awareness of stimuli, according to you. How does that work then?

    And is astrology involved? :D
  17. Jonti

    Jonti what the dormouse said

    Yeah, a children of the right sort of age will effortlessly pick up a new (to them, of course) language, just by mixing with and being allowed to play with speakers of that language. Listening to radio or even watching TV programmes just doesn't do it for them.

    It seems one has to understand the intent of the speaker before one can divine the meaning in their verbal symbols.
  18. Jonti

    Jonti what the dormouse said

    All good stuff :) but you didn't mention human consciousness anywhere. As the OP said ...
    Why doesn't all that activity go on "in the dark"? What does consciousness do that gives a specifically conscious organism an evolutionary advantage??
  19. Fruitloop

    Fruitloop communism will win

    I took too many drugs and my qualia have disappeared.

    Fortunately nobody can tell.
  20. 8ball

    8ball ...I'm pretty sure it wasn't.

    When I was a kid I used to observe the stereotyped and repetitive behaviours of adults and worry that when I grew up my qualia would vanish.
  21. Fruitloop

    Fruitloop communism will win

    Consciousness doesn't need to have an evolutionary advantage for its existence to be explicable in terms of evolution.
  22. 8ball

    8ball ...I'm pretty sure it wasn't.

    Ooh! Good one! :)
  23. SpookyFrank

    SpookyFrank Somewhere under the raincloud

    Very true. Lots of things which are irrelevant to survival can arise either as a by-product of evolutionary adaptations or simply at random provided they do not actually reduce the chances of survival. I see consciousness as something of a happy accident, but many creationist types would argue (falsely) that it is evidence of divine intervention. As usual with creationist arguments, this one is meaningless to anyone with a genuine understanding of evolution.
  24. littlebabyjesus

    littlebabyjesus one of Maxwell's demons

    Changes can also arise that are detrimental to the chances of survival in the medium to long term, but not in the short term - consciousness could be an evolutionary dead-end.
  25. SpookyFrank

    SpookyFrank Somewhere under the raincloud

    Also true, and at the rate we're going it might well be an evolutionary dead end which is weeded out quicker than most :(
  26. Kizmet

    Kizmet Well-Known Member

    I didn't say your abacus had an awareness of sorts. I said your computer.

    Because it can be programmed to be aware of and focus on certain stimuli.

    So it can be said to have the property of awareness.

    Further from this were we able to invent/program a form of consciousness into it - an ability to be self-modifying and self-referential for example... then we would have something approaching an artificial intelligence.

    Heard that term before?



  27. Kizmet

    Kizmet Well-Known Member

    A dead-end doesn't mean dead.

    Our ability to change our environment/heal the sick means the effect of evolution is muted for us.

    We are outside it's realm now.

    We make our own rules.
  28. littlebabyjesus

    littlebabyjesus one of Maxwell's demons

    Evolution has rules?
  29. Kizmet

    Kizmet Well-Known Member

    Realm, then.

    Better word, anyway. :)
  30. Fruitloop

    Fruitloop communism will win

    IMO if you are going to talk about consciousness then it needs to be clearly separated from all the rest of the stuff that comprises intelligence/sentience/computation etc. A lot of what is being talked about here is just information processing, that can be explained computationally (computation is when a causal structure in the world corresponds with a logical structure, and is something that even a transistor does - it implements an 'AND'). 'Consciousness' is only the property of having 'something that it is like' to be that thing. This means that 99% of what we do can be explained ultimately by embodiedness (i.e. being embedded in the world with goals that are in their most basic sense pre-programmed; a baby doesn't need to learn that having pins stuck in it is a bad thing, for example) plus the processing of incoming information. The remaining 1% is the hard problem of consciousness, the 'what it is like' to have a pin stuck in you or whatever. There is no direct evolutionary need for there to be a 'what it's like', it is the outcome of a variety of a range of more directly selected-for characteristics.

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