PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.
PART TWO: LIFE, CONSCIOUSNESS AND HUMAN THOUGHT.
Domain 2. The necessary interaction of all living organisms with reality as it is (Reality) occurs through exquisitely precise biological mechanisms that themselves are part of and harness the intrinsic ‘physical’ processes of Reality. Real or ‘physical’ information is recognized, internalized and processed in organized, interdependent, ‘intelligent’ biological systems (organisms) that respond to the environment, grow and multiply. This primary response to the environment can be recognized in all organisms, i.e. they appear to be ‘conscious’ of their environment. Animals have added prodigiously to this basic template: nervous systems and sense organs allow for a representational awareness of the internal and external world.
Let us start with what we all know well, our minds, and work backwards.
Embedded in our conscious minds lies a deep contradiction: we know it intimately yet we know very little about it. Everyone is utterly familiar with the greatest show on earth, the Theater of The Mind, featuring true feeling, compelling narrative, cycloramic 3-D full color and stereophonic sound – even in our dreams as we sleep. Despite this intimacy, perhaps because of it, we have always been confused about what it is and what it all means. There are so many fanciful theories: an immaterial spirit, an accurate representation of the external and internal world, our governing faculty, the decider, or even a completely pointless and distracting epiphenomenon of unconscious brain processes. Actually, the objective answer is disarmingly simple: Consciousness is everything an organism does in response to its environment, whether that includes thinking about it or not. The mechanisms by which our subjective experiences are produced are still shrouded in mystery.
Human self-aware consciousness and thought are without doubt our most characteristic attribute. We incessantly think about our feelings and our interactions with both the environment and our fellow sapient creatures, with an almost limitless ability to talk and write about it. We are compelled by our inner experiences and social interactions; it is there that we feel we find the reasons for our existence. Many believe that this represents the essence of who and what we are. But in order to really understand what is going on we need to examine the process, the underlying mechanics. After all, one would be very confused about the workings of a TV by analyzing the content of the programs on its screen. Rather, by unlocking the secrets of human thought we may be able to extend our self-understanding greatly, in turn opening up large opportunities for social improvement.
Thus, if our consciousness is the essence of who and what we are, it would be critically important to understand it. That would be a great step toward understanding ourselves. A good place to start toward understanding consciousness, is to separate content from the underlying physicochemical and biological, including psychological, processes.
We are not alone. Clearly, many other animals have easily recognizable consciousness since they objectively exhibit behaviors associated with consciousness – eating, drinking, sleeping, seeing, hearing, caring for off-spring, etc. Mammals and primates have sense organs just like ours with large brains and behaviors that parallel ours for the most part. Many animals also exhibit on careful study what appears to be emotions, learning, memory, language and problem solving ability. The prior opinion that we were the only conscious creatures appears to have been based more on our prejudice and misunderstanding rather than a rigorous evaluation. In all likelihood, we will never fully know what it is like to be a bat, a lion, a dog, a dolphin or a bee. Each species represents their own very special case. We have already been stunned by how complex and intricate the lives of other creatures can be. The closer we look the more common threads there are between all living creatures.
All animals capture and process information from the environment in very similar ways. One of the major discoveries of evolutionary biology over the last 5 decades is the surprising degree to which all animals, down to the very simplest, share in a large set of common molecules that coordinate development and allow interaction with the environment. About 40% of the genes of a tiny worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, persist in humans. It has been possible to insert the human version back into the worm where it continued to perform its functions quite well. Outwardly, then, there is no similarity between this worm and a human being, but if one drills down on the molecular details, the correspondences are astounding. The similarities may even outweigh the differences. Human and worm have about the same number of protein coding genes, ~20,000, even though the human genome is about 30 times longer. By studying this little denizen of the dirt, we have learned a lot about ourselves. Certainly, we must accept the likely possibility that any creature with neurons shares the beginnings of consciousness with us in some essential but not yet clearly identified way. Anyway, it would be wrong to reject this possibility out of hand – a mistake we have been consistently guilty of in the past.
Let’s get to know this sightless little nematode a little better. C. elegans was first beautifully described by Emile Maupas in 1900. Then it was left mostly alone until 1960 when Sidney Brenner suggested that this humble, ~1 mm worm with no brain or respiratory and circulatory system would be ideal for intensive, collaborative study in the hope of understanding the mysteries of life. Brenner ultimately received a Nobel Prize in 2002. Today it is the best understood animal of all, including us. It was the first multi-cellular organism to have its genome sequenced. This little worm is also extremely predictable structurally: every one of 959 somatic cells of hermaphrodites has been mapped, including the structure and connections of each of its 302 neurons (males have 383):
“With only five olfactory neurons, C. elegans can dynamically respond to dozens of attractive and repellent odors. Thermosensory neurons enable the nematode to remember its cultivation temperature and to track narrow isotherms. Polymodal sensory neurons detect a wide range of nociceptive cues and signal robust escape responses. Pairing of sensory stimuli leads to long-lived changes in behavior consistent with associative learning. Worms exhibit social behaviors and complex ultradian rhythms driven by calcium ion oscillators with clock-like properties. Genetic analysis has identified gene products required for nervous system function and elucidated the molecular and neural bases of behaviors.” [De Bono, 2005.]
When describing the behavior of a 1 mm blind roundworm, dispassionate scientific observers cannot avoid using anthropomorphic terms because the objective similarities to human activities are undeniable. Memory, learning, smell, rhythms, tracking, escape and social behavior; these terms describe intelligence and consciousness, not necessarily of the human kind, but of an organism fully engaged according to its needs and abilities in its world, sensing it, evaluating it, applying memory and making choices, using all available tools to flourish and survive. Lacking eyes it does not see, without ears it can not listen, BUT like the retina it has photoreceptors and like the tympanic membrane this little worm has mechanoreceptors. It does have an extremely rudimentary ‘nose’, and it does feed on bacteria so we can wonder what it likes best. There is neural circuitry for navigation and exploration to satisfy a natural curiosity perhaps. Some populations of C. elegans feed in social groups (allocentric “lefties”), other populations consist of solitary individuals proceeding by themselves (idiocentric “righties”). This is all due to the presence of a variant of one gene that codes for neuropeptide-y receptor. A related receptor is found throughout the animal kingdom and affects food consumption, mood and anxiety. Interestingly, it may modulate our intake of alcohol.
A small worm with no brain thus appears to be highly intelligent and displays consciousness! (In fact, I am surprised by how much can be done with so little.) This kind of anthropomorphizing risks the introduction of confusing biases, but one has to start somewhere to gain insight and understanding of ourselves, others and the natural world. The complex and graceful interaction between a male C. elegans and an hermaphroditic partner is a choreography of multiple intricate steps that has to be perfectly sequenced for success: contact, reversing, finding the entrance, inserting spicules and ejaculation. This particular behavior (e-motion) is coordinated by oxytocin-like peptides (nematocin) without which the sequence becomes uncoordinated and ineffective, producing a paragon of impotence.
If a short oligopeptide hormone can do this for a tiny worm with 302 neurons, imagine what it could do for an animal with millions or billions of neurons: oxytocin is a peptide consisting of 9 amino acids – not big enough to be called a protein – and it contributes much to what makes us human. It affects sexual, social and maternal behavior, controls lactation and uterine contraction; it can also affect levels of anxiety and fear, even ethnocentric behavior; the list is long and the interactions are extremely complicated. The cellular and tissue distribution of receptors for these neuropeptides also varies widely among species and this has a profound effect on the many different types of behavior expressed by different animals, even amongst closely related species. It is complicated! With more basic information forthcoming, we are bound to learn much and our understanding of behavior should become even more nuanced. At this stage it seems that, while inputs and outputs are extremely variable, the internal tools with which responses are managed are surprisingly uniform. A stark, fundamental difference between worm and man is that the latter has a vast amount of DNA that is ‘non-functional’, i.e. DNA that we do not quite understand yet. [Bargmann, 2013. Wikipedia. Insel, 2010.]
Climbing down the phylogenetic ladder in our search for what might be deemed unconscious life, let us take a quick peek at Paramecium, a unicellular creature with multiple nuclei. However, this one extremely large cell has many specialized intracellular organelles. There is a mouth area where food vesicles are ingested and then passed through the cell as digestion takes place. Its cell membrane bears cilia, is excitable and, like a neuron, can maintain a surface electrical charge due to the presence of ion channels. One cell thus performs many specialized functions. Its genome codes for about 40,000 proteins, almost double that of Homo. This is also, therefore, not a candidate for simple, unintelligent life. It is very complex, coordinated and extremely good at what it does. It likely is more complex than any single mammalian cell with the possible exception of a neuron. It is ‘conscious’ of its environment and even has the ability to solve simple navigation problems by ‘choosing’ between a few ‘simple’ strategies. Memory appears to be involved.
Bacteria occupy the bottom rung of life on the complexity scale, so what can these minute unicellular creatures do? Most of them amount to almost nothing, up to a million or more could fit inside a single Paramecium. However, once methods were developed to study their behavior and correlating such behavior with molecular structure, there ensued shocked surprise: “Nearly all motile bacteria can sense and respond to their surroundings—finding food, avoiding poisons, and targeting cells to infect, for example—through a process called chemotaxis” which exhibits “exquisite sensitivity, extensive dynamic range and precise adaptation”. [PhysOrg, 2012. Hazelbauer, 2008.]
Rich systems of communication via chemical signals can exist between individuals of the same or different strain, sometimes communicating with a different species or even the host. Thus bacteria can sense their population density, and so judge whether conditions are favorable or adverse (quorum sensing). This allows bacteria to coordinate their gene expression and the behavior of their entire community to enhance collective survival and prosperity. This may even entail a life-style switch, from a nomadic individual existence to a strictly controlled community that is impervious to toxins, or perhaps to a virulent community attacking other organisms or their host.
There seems to be no limit to the strange behaviors of bacteria: community policing of ‘cheaters’ that benefit from collective efforts but do not contribute their part. In some situations, some cheating is tolerated, apparently because such diversity may improve chances of overall survival. Sometimes competing entities might try to disrupt the cooperative efforts of others by chemically interfering with their signals. Bacteria are actually engaged in a never-ending arms-race with intense and lethal competition for lebensraum and natural resources! (This benefits humans because bacteria are the major pathway for introducing non-carbon elements into the food chain.) There is thus a very impressive arsenal of toxins and weapons at their disposal, often leading to feasting on DNA released during the fray. A recent sensational headline warns “Killer Cholera Bacterium Stabs Others With Tiny Spear, Steals DNA” – some fragments of victims’ DNA may become incorporated in the genome of the victors in the hope of promoting fitness for survival. Sometimes fratricidal groups will kill off their non-aggressive brothers, but the opposite can also happen: virulent individuals commit suicide when exposed to the ‘love-hormones’ of their more peaceful kin. [Speaker Abstracts, 5th ASM Conference on cell-cell communication, 2014.]
Bacteria are the smallest free-living units of DNA – viruses exist at the borderline of life. While animals are infinitely more complex, bacteria are definitely not simple. It seems rather odd to call something simple when one is utterly unable to explain how it works. That almost everyone is guilty of ignoring this paradox raises interesting questions about the accuracy and precision of human thought. Now that we are able to study bacteria with more sophisticated tools we have been surprised at their level of complexity and exquisite interaction with their ecosystems. Already theoretical possibilities of bacterial memory and awareness of history are being considered.
(A common thread in human history seems to be that we always have been and continue to be surprised by Reality. Since oracles have been proven unreliable sources regarding the nature of reality, we should not be so surprised in the future.)
DNA is a very talented, purpose driven and intelligent molecule indeed. In its most basic bacterial form, it has managed to infiltrate and populate every nook and cranny where life could survive. Bacteria in no way think the way we do, that would be impossible. However, careful observation of them leads to the firm conclusion that they are ‘intelligent’, conscious in an operational and objective sense of the word, and that they react purposefully. It is apparently built into their DNA, or, more precisely, that is what DNA does. Understanding what exactly that purpose is and how it is pursued is still a deep but fascinating mystery. An intuitive understanding of what drives molecules would be very helpful.
From what we now know, it is clear that all of life exhibits a basic form of intelligence by directly responding to and interacting with its environment, its particular niche of Reality. We will term this biological consciousness. It has been stated that most animals also appear to exhibit phenomenal awareness which would be in addition to the various forms of basic biological consciousness. That is, most animals are also aware of the macroscopic structures and events in their environment. It seems almost certain that animals with eyes, ears, noses and tongues like ours would experience the world generally in the way we do, but with numerous differences. For example, most primates have trichromatic color vision like we do – they can see red. Most other mammals are dichromatic and can not see red. Shapes, sizes and movements seem to observed like we do, but we can not even imagine what their sense of smell or taste is like, or what they experience when threatened or in danger. Trying to imagine the world of other creatures like fish, worms and bacteria at this time is asking too much.
Furthermore, it is still a profound mystery as to how our utterly reliable and predictable subjective sensation of any color comes about – the qualium of color. It is another one of those ‘miracles’. Add to this the stunning variety of tastes, smells, sounds and feelings that we experience, pleasurable and otherwise, and we can not help but being cognitively overwhelmed. There apparently exists in our brains a system that monitors all of the central system neural activity and then secondarily constructs all these sensations of sight, smell and so forth. It is as if there is a neural network that looks at all the intracranial electrical activity and then produces a report to a separately experienced self.
Human consciousness is, therefore, an extraordinary complex incarnation of biological and phenomenological consciousness. Still, it is potentially explainable by the underlying biological processes. Human behavior seems limitless in its adaptability, its creativity and its unpredictability, but there are definite limits. There are many things that we want to do, yet can not. By comparison, it would be easy to dismiss less complex organisms as unconscious machines or automatons, as many scientists and philosophers still do. That clearly is a mistake and it appears to be a result of our prior ignorance. We have been blinded by the infinitely complex and utterly compelling nature of our subjective experiences; mythical narratives have also contributed to this prejudicial attitude. This represents a basic anthropocentric error which is still very prevalent in many schools of thought.
We have learned much about human consciousness by studying animals. With new technologies we are now also learning much by scientifically studying human subjects. Research over the last few decades in human consciousness has yielded very surprising results, leading to a complete rethinking of how it works and what its biological correlations are.
The almost universal assumption that what you see is what you get is not tenable anymore. The longstanding, still popular, common sense view that “the conscious self is fully in charge of behavior, sees the world generally as it is, and directs behavior as it sees fit” has been almost completely revised based on human psychological research. In essence, close observation of humans under controlled conditions has revealed that our mental processes may produce unreliable results unbeknownst to ourselves: our explanations of our own behavior are not very rigorous at all in many cases; rather, the most convenient or facile reason may be selected from a trove of stock explanations, especially if it is socially acceptable. Actions may already be underway before conscious thought joins in, although we might still think that we consciously initiated the process. Gaps in a narrative or pattern may be unconsciously filled in. Conscious thinking may not even be essential for complex planning; goals and social motives can be activated in the absence of a conscious decision. There are therefore multiple complex processes occurring while we are under the impression that a ‘simple’ conscious act is being undertaken.
Perhaps the most arresting feature of all the new information about consciousness is that we have historically neglected the role of affect, feelings, mood and emotions in our lives – swept under the rug, as it were, because, quite simply, emotions were beyond the reach of all rational understanding. They needed to be suppressed or controlled, certainly banished from intellectual, scientific and philosophical discourse. Unlike cognition, there is nothing clear and distinct about affect, yet there may lie another of our great stores of future discovery. Emotions provide the underpinnings of all our behavior, even ‘rational’ thought; they may in fact represent the bridge between our dark ‘unconscious’ core and the brilliance of our mental landscape. Intellectually we are utterly unique but in our essence we are intimately connected. There yet may be a realm in which all are almost as one – “I am you” (Kolak)
We know guilt, shame, fear, disgust, anger, hate, etc. These negative emotions tend to narrow the focus onto a problem to the exclusion of everything else. They often end in separation, loss, destruction or worse. Positive emotions may be less conspicuous, they broaden and build, bring growth, innovation with improvements in health, wealth and happiness. Given our state of ignorance, we do not know how to harness the powers within.
The adaptive value of human thinking and communication thus far appears centered primarily around the social goals of inclusion, cohesion, security and survival. Our interests in philosophy and science, i.e. a pursuit of truth, are rather recent and have been secondary, although very fascinating. These findings, accumulating now for a couple of decades, have been devastating to the classical conceit that consciousness controls input and output from the perspective of objective knowledge. The concept of humans as independent rational conscious executive agents is rarely true, if ever. [Baumeister et al, 2010. Panksepp, The affective brain and core consciousness, 2008.]
What have we learned about human consciousness? What is likely to be true? Well, as we already know, humans occupy a special place amongst the animals when it comes to thinking, language and culture. However, our consciousness, like all others, has evolved from basic biological ‘consciousness’ over billions of years. It is an attribute of our special biology. All animals with brains have what is referred to as phenomenal consciousness; awareness of the surroundings through the sense organs leading to highly intelligent responses, e.g. tracking a smell across an open field, identifying the prey and then capturing it. Humans can do much the same, except for the smell part, but what no other animal can do is to communally identify a goal, devise a specific strategy, communicate it amongst the group, assign different responsibilities and then execute based on the mutual understanding of the plan. Non-humans are at a deep existential disadvantage! Each human can mentally simulate what is being discussed as if it is really happening. No other animal can communicate in complex logical sentences because none can think in such sentences. So their powers of simulation have to be very limited. That, at least, is what the latest evidence suggests, but it is likely that animals will surprise us to the upside.
We have diverged from other animals by virtue of this ‘quantum leap’: our ability to simulate events and circumstances away from the here and now, to communicate what is in our mind, and attempt to emulate what someone else is simulating in their mind based on their words. Past or future events can be simulated, shared, discussed and analyzed, leading to vastly improved cooperation, execution and coexistence. Such advanced teamwork obviously has been of great adaptive and survival value – fitness.
Furthermore, notwithstanding the unreliabilities already mentioned, conscious thought has a creative ability of coming up with novel situations and ideas, including the ability to imagine, fantasize and speculate without limit or regard for practicality. There are, also, real strengths inherent in our thinking: many individuals are able to intensely focus on logic and evidence and achieve very impressive results in science, mathematics and philosophy. Our greatest creative achievements have been thus inspired, but also some of our greatest misadventures. This is the source of our celebrated faculty of so-called ‘free will’; it can lead to great good or bring untold misery. The true garden of good and evil is enclosed within the walls of our skull.
The evidence alluded to so far exposes numerous and large gaps in our understanding of human and animal consciousness. Interestingly, while human consciousness is still elevated on a pedestal, much of what we know is based on studies in animals, including primates, rodents, insects, worms and bacteria. The evidence so far does not support the popular but ancient concept of a specific supra-natural or extraneous human faculty. All of the vegetative, tropic and reflexive functions, as well as many of their molecular and genetic underpinnings, present in humans, can be found in other animals. Our unique aspects, such as complex language and culture, are very exceptional indeed but their primordial beginnings can be recognized in other animals. This correlates very well with our large neocortex, great number of neurons and possibly 100 trillion synapses that are further fine tuned by physiological factors. Therefore, no unbridgeable gap or irreducible mystery appears to exist – our biological equipment seems to be up to the task. Our perplexity and confusion is due to the extraordinary nature of our subjective experiences, which had led many to assume a specific supra-biological divine gift. However, it now seems likely that mammals also see, hear and taste like we do. They too have phenomenal consciousness, but, unlike us, they probably just don’t think or talk about it as much or as clearly as we do. Like many other mysteries, we can not explain phenomenal consciousness yet – it is extraordinarily complex. Evidence based theories are only now beginning to show up.
In summary, consciousness divides the universe of information into two: the little that we are aware of and the rest that we are not. Protagoras had said something similar, “Man is the measure of all things”. Consciousness is a fundamental feature of life, itself having been produced by the dynamic natural processes of a cosmic and microscopic Reality. All species have their unique qualities; human culture is our major distinguishing feature. Our unique human consciousness appears to be a culmination of the ancient processes of biological awareness and phenomenal consciousness. Most of our processing of vast amounts of information still occurs in the biological realm without involvement of phenomenal or conscious thought centers. Everything that we find interesting is addressed in the realm of thought and simulation, and it becomes part of our culture when it is socially shared in words, sounds, images, tastes and artifacts. Our responses to information that we acquire from environment and culture, however, are usually and mostly managed through automatic and semi-automatic processes residing in biological and phenomenal consciousness. Affect, emotions and feelings are central to our humanity, and, unsurprisingly, we understand even less about their role in our personal lives and society at large. It appears that conscious thought is very selective in its involvement in day to day operations, monitoring our activities and intruding when necessary. Intense focus and concentration on certain tasks is possible.