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Conscious Of Consciousness

I've been trying to write a post on consciousness for months but it's been elusive, my socially installed, "learnt" perception of its complexity was blocking my thinking about it. I was seeing it as too vast, too many factors and, whilst it is a puzzle, it made me wonder...
Is it only its complexity what has made it seem so unanswerable for so long?
If we lived on a planet that was not under occupation by the descendants of a millenniums old religious breeding program(1), would it still seem as unanswerable? There's definitely a repression about the discussion of consciousness; a feeling, even amongst some atheists, that consciousness is beyond comprehension, that it is somehow of a substance "other"; an insubstantial substance that's perceived as, shall we say, "superior" to the material in which grows.
But why is that?
I think much of the answer is in "Soul Trapped Spirit"; the widely accepted hypothesis that within the human body resides an "immortal soul" is an ancient, possibly now epigenetically embedded, misjudgement by our primitive ancestors. And out of that initial misjudgement grew fantastical fictions to explain the "dualism" we sensed, that what was termed the "immortal soul", now often compounded with the word "consciousness", was in some aspect "different" to the rest of existence. However, those fantastical scriptures mostly only detail what will happen to this "different" bit of ourselves after the "ordinary" bit of ourselves dies, there's very little, if any, detail of the substance of this insubstantial, will-o'-the-wisp, while it resides as a mortal.
So, without the ancient misjudgement and its supporting muses, does it still seem so "unanswerable"?
Why does humanity have "civilisation" and our animal cousins do not? I mean, that's really what we are talking about; the evidence that we are "somewhat different" is evident in our every endeavour, from our primitive ancestors scratching paintings onto a cave wall to "our" space travel but, as far as we are aware or can show evidence for, there is nothing "beyond" the abilities of the biology.

So what is going on?

Well, let's start at the top. It seems that there are no significant differences between human brains and our nearest mammal relative's thinking kit. Yeah, okay we've got some more actual mass, it's somewhat bigger, but the functions are not significantly different. If there are no "obvious" differences in brain components then we must look elsewhere for the reason for our conscious state but I'm not suggesting we look outside ourselves; as you might expect if you've read this blog before, I'm not suggesting we attribute it to pixie dust or some hairy-chinned eternal. I'm pointing only at the other components of our bodies that separate us from the "beasts".

Ideally we should be looking not at differences between us and our mammalian cousins but at the similarities. There's much work going on in this field of science and Laurie Santos is showing all kinds of interesting similarities between human behaviour and complex "monkey" interactions. However, as I'm not in a position to list all the uncatalogued, possibly unknown similarities, so as to exclude them, I'm going to shortcut to the two most obvious distinctions, which define us to be "apart" from the rest of the billions of different animals.
I'm sure you already know but for those that do not, these are our ability to touch each fingertip to the thumb of the same hand, our opposable thumbs, and our ability to form the complex sounds, our larynx and mouth structure which enable language.
You hear the shout and you come running to help. On your arrival someone shouts...
"Get buckets of water"
You run to fetch the same...
I'm sure u know the rest.
The point here is, without opposable thumbs no one would have been able to make a bucket. It's even likely that our opposable thumbs provided us with enough tooling skills to allow us to manipulate fire in the first place.
Opposable thumbs increase our range of movement and enable the development of skills required for fashioning tools, increasing thereby the complexity of our world view and, I suggest, for this reason must be counted as a factor in increasing the complexity of our thoughts; that opposable thumbs are part of the tools with which brain complexity is fashioned.

It's been reported(1) that a human brain is about 3.6 times the size of a chimpanzee's and while that means many areas within are somewhat enlarged in comparison, there are some areas, which, since our evolutionary divergence from our nearest cousin's path, have enlarged to a greater degree. The Broca's area (Brodmans 44,45) show enlargement of 6.6 times and 6 times respectively! The Broca's area is associated with language.
Now, to me, it seems irrational to assume that enlargement of areas of the brain associated with language could have developed without necessity, however, can we conversely, reasonably assume complex language led to enlargement of these areas?
I think so. So, the second key component of the "fire" example above is language.
Bearing in mind that Human language, of complex aural interaction, is constructed on top of natural body language, which all mammals display to some degree, consider these two events.
1. If a chimp holds out a banana, another chimp may, via body language, assume it is being offered and take it. If it was not being offered, there will likely be a scuffle.
2. If a human does the same, the banana is not taken until there is a communication and agreement, between Owner and Desirer, via body language, verbal language or a combination, that it's okay to take it.
Seems simple that, even obvious, however, there's an astronomical amount of complexity in the second exchange and complexity is all in the detail. Obvious, I know but it's exceedingly apt here. Language is partly/mostly about labelling objects.
And we're back to opposable thumbs; tools need labels to distinguish one from another and, for the teaching of skill with tools, labels for actions and skills are required.

Marge, where's that... metal deely... you use to... dig... food...

The label we give to what Homer Simpson might describe as a "Deely for digging food" is "Spoon". I know this is simplistic but the label "spoon" neatly encapsulates Homer's loose description. "Spoon" is not merely 5 squiggly symbols representing the sounds we can make; used in conjunction with each other these squiggles transmit an image, and not merely of the shape of the word but of the general shape and size of the tool, the function to which it is put most often and, contextually and indirectly, it conveys information about the materials from which it's constructed, its construction method, history, origins, other uses to which it may be put etc. All this can and is transmitted on a single utterance of "Spoon".

What I'm getting at here is words are their definitions; they label, categorise and define some component of our environment for us. These definitions, define the world in which we exist.
Now, take that word "definition" and apply it to optics. In this context it means an improvement of clarity, a refinement from blurred to focused. When one can see an object in more definition, one gains a greater comprehension of it.

Take a Gecko Lizard's feet for example. A gecko can climb "impossibly" well; up glass and across ceilings, yet it looks no different to other lizards, so what makes it possible?
When I was a kid, its ability to so easily defy gravity seemed magical.
On closer inspection, by diligent scientists scrutinising via high technology microscopes, it became clear that each Gecko toe is covered with "invisible" spatulas (of a width that is just below the wavelength of visible light) which facilitate their "miraculous" ability.
When I was a kid "invisible" meant "not at all visible", now "invisible" means "not visible to the naked human eye". A subtle change of definition that must be taken into account when stating that something is "invisible", one must now consider adding "by any means". Thanks to our greater comprehension, "invisible" is no longer a sufficient transmission of the properties of the object but now the word must be modified by an adjective such as "Fully" or "Totally" or a more scientific describer may detail the exact frequencies in which the object attains "visibility".

Now, to "meaning"; when we define an object it gains meaning to us, like with the gecko's feet, prior to modern inspection the Gecko's ability was mysterious, post inspection we comprehend their ability and the "mystery" label is expunged. When we comprehend in greater detail, the mental image we evoke when someone says "Gecko feet" is forever adapted to include the actual reason for their ability. A memory triggered by the phrase "Gecko feet" has been stored in greater definition; we see "lizard feet with spatula covered toes that help the lizard to defy gravity"; a definition upgrade on "standard lizard feet". The word's definition and the image it transmits, holds more inherent "meaning" or, we might say, is more "meaningful".
According to MD Hameroff's research our brains' micro-tubules give us 40 conscious moments per second or, to put it another way, 40 "environmental updates" via which greater definition or meaning may be gained. For an animal, which is without verbal skills, the memory engrammes of those 40 environmental updates have no labels, no definition of purpose, no defining meaning. For a human, with language, each and every conscious moment has extra clarity, definition and meaning. For a human each conscious moment is packed with exponentially more information, each snapshot of our "experience" is stored as a memory pattern that is vastly more detailed than a being without language can ever hope to store. Without language even "hope" is questionable concept.

Ok, a little side step here but it's pertinent so bear with it.
Some years ago, maybe a couple or three decades, I remember technologists making claims that went something like "If computer evolution follows the prediction of "Moore's law", computers will reach critical mass and become sentient within a few decades". It was these sorts of earnest predictions that added fuel to fictional works like the "Terminator" movies.
As you're likely aware, their computer "sentience" prediction did not happen and it now looks like it will take multiple lifetimes rather than one, as was suggested, for any computer to achieve "consciousness". In fact it's probable that you'd be hard pressed to find a technologist making the same claim today.
So, why was their genuinely made assessment so wrong? Moore's law has held up, so why are there no sentient/conscious computers?
I think it's because they were assessing the wrong dataset. While their prediction came to pass in terms of computer's electro-mechanical critical mass, computing power is there or thereabouts powerful enough to simulate a "consciousness", they were assessing the material qualities of the hardware; assessing and extrapolating the number of chips, computing speed and memory etc. They couldn't have been expected to realise it but maybe they should have been measuring the critical mass of the software's complexity and data quality.
Similarly with our brains, may we not assume that "consciousness" is an emergent property that does not emerge directly or solely from the critical mass of the physical components but from the the quality of the data management systems, the quality of the data, the internal interactions and links between physical components, and external interaction with other thinking beings who assist us in defining labels, for further internal correlations and parallels to be observed and catalogued. Can we not speculate that consciousness emerges from the need to survive in an environment that includes the requirement to interact "reasonably" with each other, our group, tribe or society?
Can we even begin to ask the question "how does consciousness come about?" by looking only at a single brain in isolation? I mean, our DNA was not formed in isolation; we are a group based organism. Should we maybe therefore look for part of the answer to the consciousness question in examining the contribution of the "group-think" from which it is spawned?
I think we should, however, I also think it would take a costly and lengthy study to discern any solid conclusions.
Instead then, as a little sociological, if ancient, clue consider "The Dreamtime", ancient Australian Aborigine legend. Seems to me that the Dreamtime "details" pre-modern human comprehension but I don't think it details human comprehension of "the world", rather I feel it displays the emergence, within that human collective, of modern human consciousness.
If we were without formal language, all our thoughts would be "imagery"; like that of a dream. Indeed, I suggest, to non-sentient, pre-sentient or cusp-sentient mammals, the waking world and dreaming world must seem fairly indistinguishable.
Remember, it would be impossible to think "No, that wasn't a memory, that was just a dream!" and not only because language is absent from one's experience but also because it's likely that there would be a similar sense of "reality" in the dreaming state as in the waking. It's likely the difference would only become clear between dream and reality when the beast that's chasing you catches you; if you were dreaming you'd wake, if you weren't you'd get eaten. In fact, if you think about it, dreams quite often seem real to us and it's only when a character in the dream says or does something that defies "reason" or would not fit with their "real life" abilities, philosophical or physical, that we are tipped off that it's a dream.
As it's quite clear from the art they've left behind the early aborigine had opposable thumbs, their tooling abilities, within their environment, can be said to be virtually indistinguishable from our own. Is it not therefore acceptable to conclude that the only difference between their Dreamtime and our current state is complex language? And maybe deduce from that, that it was a lack of labels with which to define and comprehend their world that prevented them sufficiently distinguishing it from dreaming? I think there's reason to consider the Dreamtime as an evolutionary footprint on our path to modern consciousness.

As tentative evidence for the hypothesis that consciousness emerges from a critical mass of definitions, think of any child you know; you were one once, think of then. Do you remember making any rational decisions before you were seven years old? I know I don't. I think this is because up until a child's about seven they are solely instinct driven; in my experience a child's "rational self" usually starts emerging between seven and ten years when the tantrums "to get their way" diminish in favour of reasoning or conniving.
To answer "why that is the case?" I feel we may look only to language. It's very tricky to "reason" with a tot, they're "listening" but not only does their instinct to "Want it!" override them hearing you, they also cannot fully comprehend "reasoning"; there faculties of reasoning are severely limited by their incomprehension of vocabulary, grammatical structure, inflection and body language etc.
So, as our experience shows, one can "reason" with a ten year old, could we not say that the child achieves "consciousness" only when it has assimilated sufficient definitions to enable the making of rational assessments?
I think that's fair but in support consider this...
A new school is built but then, because of government spending cuts, the governors cannot employ a full staff and the school must open without a Headmistress. For the first year of its working life, the school functions with whichever teacher is available, taking turns at being the Head. At the end of the year each teacher has tried out the Head's job but it's clear that one, Miss Esme Mee, listens very closely to the experts in her staff but also has the aptitudes and skills best suited to make the tough decisions required of a Headmistress and she takes up permanent residence in the Head's office.
Doesn't a child's development loosely mirror this model?

The child spends the first few years of it's life testing it's systems, trying out personalities, emotional states etc. We are all aware of tantrums, I think we can say they are instinct and emotion driven and we are all aware of the more sensible moments when the same child is responsive, interactive and even, occasionally, amenable. Over the period of about seven years the child stores up definitions, defines a focus for its environment, catalogues masses of detailed data and cultivates thereby "expert systems", which we could call personality traits, to cope with its varying environment. By seven-ish one of these expert systems has emerged as the "most useful", "best suited" or "most adaptable" etc and takes up permanent residence in the "Head's office". This expert system has one purpose, to assess the meaning of all the meanings, to make rational sense of what the still functioning but now subordinate, other "expert systems" have highlighted as "meaningful".

Could this "awakening" be said to be the time when we each start to harness our primitive animal instincts and begin our journey in full adult sentience where we are conscious of our consciousness?
I think it could.

I'm not suggesting the development of opposable thumbs and language are "the" answer to "why are we conscious?", or am I? Maybe I am; if opposable thumbs and complex language are the major differentiators between ourselves and our nearest animal cousin then maybe they are ALL that is required for consciousness.
If the first mouth-shape mutation that provided the ability to form sounds of modern complexity, possibly prompted by dietary differences between us and our nearest cousins, set the evolutionary vector of human mouth/larynx-shape, and enabled thereby, a greater use of speech, which in turn created an influx of new labels whose accommodation and assimilation necessitated the Broca's area expansion then, as with most beneficial mutations, ALL the social group's offspring, even those without the beneficial mutation, would begin to receive from their parents, and those peers who do have the mutation, new labels with clearer definition, and each new generation of children would receive a greater definition and clarity and, as a consequence, live in a more meaningful world.
Could it be that the excessive enlargement of the Broca's area, though classed as an evolutionary specialisation in itself, is actually the residual evidence of an evolutionary physical mutation?
I think that case could be made.
Could it be that a random beneficial mutation of our speech-furniture is the cause of our diversion from chimp-like society and ultimately, the root cause of consciousness?
As I have argued here, I think it reasonable to speculate so but I'm no expert so here's a poem summarising those thinks....

For want of a mutation a larynx modification was lost.
For want of the larynx modification the new mouth shape was lost.
For want of the new mouth shape the word was lost.
For want of a word the lexicon was was lost.
For want of a lexicon the brain enlargement was lost.
For want of a brain enlargement consciousness was lost.
And all for the want of a laryngeal mutation.

However, whether opposable thumbs and language are solely responsible or not, I feel they are at least important, if not vital scaffolding that allows a brain to become conscious. And if that IS the case then is it not safe to assume that without those physical properties consciousness cannot exist? If it is such, that the evolution of opposable thumbs and language is required to develop a consciousness, is it not ridiculous to claim an "immortal soul" can be formed without them as a substrate on which to grow?
And further, if a physical substrate is required for the development of a consciousness then must we not consider that claiming "a god can exist apart from the physical universe" is entirely opposite to our experience and thereby consider it to be merely the folly conjecture of the wishful?

Finally, if we can hypothesise that sentient consciousness can be explained as "emerging when a species with language achieves a critical mass of "quality" conscious moments", as I have attempted here, is it not proper to assume that those who guess our bodies are being driven about by something extra to the ordinary, the fabled immortal soul or spirit, like some "Casper the friendly chauffeur", are doing so solely to gain the dream prize of a death escape pod?
Seems likely to me.

More on consciousness.
Free will in a material universe - A Superposition Of Quantifiable Causality.
Conscious Of A Collision.

1.Chimp Study Offers New Clues to Language
Also pertinent...Neuroscience Online, the Open-Access Neuroscience Electronic Textbook. Chapter 8: Higher Cortical Functions: Language
This is one of the Too Many Questions
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If you enjoy what you read here
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21 days in May

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