Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Ann Steeves & John Heavisides


Summary by Joshua Skersey

Consciousness – are we special?


P. Shaver "Cosmic Heritage" Ch. 15, 16
R. Holmes III. "Three Big Bangs", p. 89-92

This class focused on diving deeper into our understanding of what consciousness is, how it came to be, and what its purpose may be. The discussion began with simply, or not so simply, trying to define what consciousness is. Our text gave one definition, claiming that:

“Consciousness is the totality of our sensations, emotions, memories, values, tastes, curiosities, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, ideas, decisions, and of course self-awareness. The most amazing thing about it is its oneness: It is everything in one word.”

The importance of consciousness being a completely private thing was also brought up, meaning that no one else can experience ours, and we cannot experience someone else's. However, this definition of consciousness did not seem to be complete to many in the class. Professor Davis argued that consciousness is actually none of the things listed in the book definition, because we do not experience consciousness. Instead, he claimed that consciousness itself is the experience, and all the things listed above are things that we are conscious of. Of a different opinion, Professor deVries said that the definition is not a list of the contents of consciousness, but ways of being conscious of something. We engage our consciousness through these different aspects. With the different interpretations of consciousness, split through the class, the discussion moved on so that we would have time to discuss further ideas.

            The next topic of discussion centered around the origin of consciousness. Many belief systems claim that humans were given consciousness by a higher power, often connected to the idea of a “soul”. Another idea is that there exists a greater consciousness, and that our personal consciousness is only a piece of the whole. With this belief comes the idea of “oneness to life”. Coinciding with this idea, where consciousness may have come from, was the thought that our brains could be a kind of antenna, which is tuned to receiving a specific piece of consciousness that we experience. Professor deVries thought this idea seemed improbable. Since we would have to be receiving something, whether physical or not, it would have to have some sort of energy or momentum relationship, thus affecting the environment around it through conservation laws. There was also the thought that if this idea were true, we would be able to intercept each other’s consciousness, which does not seem possible as far as we know.

            A more popular thought in the class was that consciousness is an emergent property of complex systems, such as that of firing neurons in the brain. This makes it sound like consciousness is just a side-effect of other processes. A related experiment was brought up in which subjects were placed in an MRI, asked to make choices, and report when they had made their choice. It was found that the scientists were able to predict the choices that the subjects were going to make before they were conscious of making the choice themselves. This would mean that consciousness does not direct our decision-making processes, but is only aware of the choice after it has been made already. Professor Davis pointed out that this brings up several more questions, e.g. whether these processes would continue without consciousness. It seemed that a question like this was something we could not know with our present day knowledge of the brain. However, if consciousness is an emergent property of a complex system, then accurately modeling the human brain should create consciousness.

            One of the problems with this idea was that a few members of the class believed that we would never be able to model a brain accurately enough for this to happen. While we are able to model the trajectory of a rock, it was argued that a person's free will and choices come from something non-physical and thus we would never be able to model this. Professor Möbius pointed out that the experiment mentioned before showed that choices happen prior to any conscious thoughts about the choice, and thus we should be able, in principle, to model the process of decision making. He added that this could not be an exact model though. He made an analogy to models in physics, where a two-body system is easy to model, but once you start adding more objects to the system, we have to use approximations and statistics to describe what is happening and what will happen. In this view, since the brain is so complex, we will only be able to predict on an average basis and the model of the system would always be missing the fine, exact details of a real brain. In other words, there will always be uncertainty. To close the topic, it was mentioned that even if we were able to model the brain, this does not imply modeling consciousness. There may be a “jump” that is necessary to go from a functioning brain to a conscious one that a model does not account for.

            The next topic in the presentation was the development and spectrum of consciousness. Darwin's mirror experiment showed that if a dot is placed on an ape or chimpanzee's forehead and they are then allowed to look in a mirror, they will become aware of the dot and try to get it off. This shows that these species at least have some form of self-awareness. It is important to note that an eighteen-month-old human baby will fail this test, but a four-year-old human child will pass. It was commonly thought in the class that a dog would fail this test, but many believed that a dog can still feel pleasure and pain. This brings up the idea of being able to develop consciousness over time, such as the case of the human child. Perhaps, this pertains to a gradient or spectrum of consciousness as well, comparing the dog to the ape and the child.

            It seems then that we determine consciousness based on similarities to ourselves, and the level of complexity in the organism. One trait we look for is behaviors and reactions in living creatures, but there is an important distinction to make. While plants will react to stimuli such as light and touch, the reactions to these stimuli are deemed to be purely mechanical processes by most. As such, most people do not include plants in their idea of what is conscious. It was argued in class that consciousness is usually defined as being conscious of something. If plants were to be considered conscious, what would they be conscious of? With the same argument, a group would not be any more conscious than the individual. A group of humans would just be a collection of conscious individuals, but there would be no greater conscious system formed.

            A question was asked whether consciousness would be the same if there were only one person around. It was agreed upon by most that we only use others to help us define consciousness. Therefore, even if our situation changed, we would at least have the same capability of consciousness as before. However, this led to a bigger question that consciousness may be expressed differently if in the presence of different environments. Professor deVries admitted that if a person were raised in the woods and never learned a language, he would consider him/her to not have a fully developed consciousness; e.g., though such an unfortunate creature might possess perceptual consciousness, it would be devoid of moral consciousness. This may mean that consciousness is a thing that is learned and developed through interaction with other conscious beings.

            Our conversation turned to the correlation of the complexity of organisms and their consciousness, and whether this implied causation. By the way humans classify conscious organisms, a correlation between consciousness and their biological complexity is implied. For example, we consider a human more complex and more conscious than a dog, and a dog more complex and more conscious than an ant. Professor Davis said that Darwinian evolution implies that it is small steps in our evolutionary past that led from one organism to the next. Thus, if we are assigning “levels” of consciousness to organisms, we need to be able to differentiate between two similar animals in terms of which one is more conscious. Professor Möbius asserted that measuring consciousness in terms of evolutionary steps is using complexity to compare consciousness, but we cannot do this because one is not necessarily a result of the other.

            The purpose of consciousness became the next topic of discussion. We had already established that consciousness does not seem to direct the choices we make, but what does it do then? One suggestion was that being conscious allows us to make mental notes and then reference past events and decisions. Using these references, we can make future decisions more effectively and then communicate to others what we observed and were conscious of. It would be a reflection tool for improvements in our behavior, and a way for us to communicate these improvements to others. The hole in this thought process comes from essentially saying that consciousness is just a way to communicate ideas. We have plenty of computers that communicate with each other efficiently, and consciousness plays no role. Perhaps consciousness is just us being aware of the processing of stimuli. As one student put it, it is only our mind “sensing our senses.” If this is true, then there may be no essential role of consciousness. Instead, it could just be an epiphenomenon; a consequence of other beneficial behaviors. It is not harmful, so it has not been weeded out, but there is no benefit to it either.

            Our discussion came to a close with a talk about how consciousness can give us a meaningful existence, which is perhaps the only thing we can say for certain. Without consciousness, life has no meaning. Meaningfulness is not an inherent property of the universe, it stems from personal experiences and thoughts. Next, it was argued that consciousness may be something that even hurts us, as invertebrate species have an average life span of 11 million years and mammals have only a 1 million year life span, which implies that living longer is somehow better. However, a shorter life span may imply that the species evolves quicker than others, and instead of dying out, becomes a new species. Regardless, there is no way to place value on the length of existence for a species, which makes it impossible to say whether longer or shorter life spans are better. In the end, consciousness was still difficult to define and the origin remained a mystery. Whether it is better to be at one end of the consciousness spectrum or the other is impossible to say, but because we are highly conscious organisms we are able to experience our life in ways most organisms cannot.