Redefining consciousness in order to solve the Big Question

Consciousness is an emergent property of evolution. Like all things that resulted from evolution, we can gather evidence to come up with theories and explanations.

We should avoid (or postpone) the problem of subjective experience (qualia); we should intentionally remove the question of personal experience and switch to scientifically observable evidence.

This idea was proposed by Stanislas Dehaene, in his book Consciousness and the Brain.

(image from http://www.brainfacts.org/neuroscience-in-society/supporting-research/2014/book-review-consciousness-and-the-brain)

A variation/interpretation of this idea is to redefine consciousness to be a property of living things or complex adaptive systems in general where certain common behaviors are exhibited. In the case of a wildcat hunting a rodent, with the implications of recognition, focus, attention, and other factors, we might be able to collect a set of markers of this kind of consciousness. There would not be a single marker, and we would not expect these markers to be consistent in all species, because consciousness could come in varying degrees, kinds, and loci.

In terms of degree, a snake probably has “less consciousness” than a fox. And a fox probably has “less consciousness” than a human. And all of these animals have “more consciousness” than a carrot.

But it may not be a matter of degree – perhaps it is more a matter of kind. (Is it possible to map raccoon-like consciousness to dolphin-like consciousness?)

Or it could be more a matter of locus (if there is anything like consciousness among ants – can it be found in a single ant’s brain? Or is it more likely to be distributed among a swarm of ants?)

Brain imaging has become a powerful tool for using evidence-based science to get at the problem.

(image from https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/x4n4jcoDP7xh5LWLq/book-summary-consciousness-and-the-brain)

There’s an old gem of wisdom: if a Big Question defies the Big Answer, you might need to change the Question. Consciousness may need to be unshackled from subjectivity in order to be redefined using scientific evidence. As a consequence, there may be new and better ways to understand subjective experience.

Our subjective experience causes us to resist the act of defining consciousness based on evidence, because subjective experience is precious and tied to the self, which wants to be immortal.

When the answer to the Big Question comes, it might have two possible effects: (1) It might be unsavory and counterintuitive – similar to the way quantum physics is counterintuitive – but nonetheless indisputable and scientifically verified; or (2) It might unleash an orchestra of language, mental tools, metaphors, and intuitions, forming a major advance in human knowledge and understanding – not unlike the theory of natural selection itself.

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Thoughts on Biological Chemistry and Emergence

My dog was licking my face this morning – as he often does in the morning. Many people refuse to let dogs lick their faces. Understandable. I am one of the apparently few people who allow it. There are a few exceptions when I don’t like it, such as right after my dog has eaten stinky dog food. Otherwise, he is a very healthy, tidy and gentle (and smallish) dog. His breath is barely noticeable.

Dog’s lick people’s faces for a number of possible reasons; these are nicely explained in several articles, such as:

https://pets.thenest.com/dogs-lick-humans-faces-5892.html

https://shopus.furbo.com/blogs/knowledge/why-does-dog-lick-my-face

But the proposed reason that most intrigues me is that it is a form of chemical communication. Dogs have such a sophisticated sense of smell that they can actually gather information (dog-like information) about people they are licking. Licking can also have a calming effect on licker and lickee (if you are not a fan of dogs licking your face you may disagree, so just pretend that you’re a dog for a moment).

According to this article:

“Scientists believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress. Research has shown that when humans interact with dogsoxytocin levels increase in both species.”

Even more fascinating is a study that indicates that interacting with dogs can have health benefits for humans:

Beneficial Dog Bacteria Up-Regulate Oxytocin and Lower Risk of Obesity

So, having a dog can reduce obesity? That is certainly new to me!

Chemical Ecology

While my dog was licking my face and kicking up his oxytocin, and consequently making me release the same chemical into my bloodstream, I was thinking about how social animals regulate chemistry within their pack. (Similar with the visible/audible dimension: when my dog sends growling signals, I will sometimes get up and check out the window for intruders. He is modulating my behavior). So, I began to see more clearly how chemical exchange might be important for the cohesion of a group of social animals. I suspect there are many more chemicals involved in regulating the behaviors of pack animals – including humans.

And I realized that the orchestration of chemicals – not only in a single animal body – but among a group of animals – is largely invisible to us. But of course: chemicals are too small to see. They are molecules made of atoms. We experience their signaling effects as behaviors and notions. And we humans may have evolved such complex societal structures that we can hardly even recognize the chemical foundations of so much of our social behavior. This is the nature of emergence.

When a new level of emergence takes shape (for instance, when chemistry becomes complex enough to enable replication and variation and therefore genetic-based biology), new, larger structures take on their own agency and begin to regulate their sub-components in turn. Ancient chemistry didn’t just allow an apparatus to emerge that conveys information for replication (genetics); it also allowed a complex network of signaling between organelles, cells, organs, organisms, ecosystems, and societies. Each level gives rise (and gives way) to larger structures.

Emergence and Top-Down Effects

Emergence is a fascinating subject – not only because of the beauty of imagining simple components coming together to make a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts – but because that whole can attain autonomy; it can actually reach down and regulate those components that allowed it to come into existence in the first place. It’s possible that this top-down influence is an innate and necessary property of emergence.

If you are a fan of emergence, like me, you enjoy spinning narratives about how various levels of reality came into existence:

physics
chemistry
biology
intelligence
technology
super intelligence

The name of this blog is “Nature->Brain->Technology” – which is a nod to three of the levels in that list.

Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene – triggered new insights on genetics – and some lively debates. Dawkins coined the term “meme”. And I suspect he may have had a sense that the title of the book itself could turn into a meme. It brought forth ideas about how genes are powerful agents that cause an upward cascade of effects, making us do what we do: from the perspective of the selfish gene, we humans are “lumbering robots” whose purpose is to simply ensure its replication. Everything else is an illusion of human purpose. But it may be more subtle than this. Are genes the only things that are “selfish”? Could there be a lower level of selfishness going on?

My new insight from building oxytocin with my dog is that there is another layer of emergence involved, which is more fundamental to genes, and which gave rise to genes. My insight was echoed by an article called “Forget the selfish gene — the evolution of life is driven by the selfish ribosome“, which states:

“The selfish ribosome model closes a big theoretical gap between, on the one hand, the simple biological molecules that can form on mud flats, oceanic thermal vents or via lightning, and on the other hand LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor, a single-celled organism.”

Anything that smells of Eve is suspect. It’s more likely that there was a sort of distributed “Eve Soup” with a lot of pseudo-replication happening over a very long period of time. It is possible that the origin of life cannot be pinpointed to a single time and space…specifically because it is emergent.

Besides face-licking, there are probably many more phenomena that we have low-dimensional explanations for. They may someday be revealed as the effects of various selfish agents operating on various levels. Emergence is a scientific tool – a conceptual framework – that helps reveal otherwise invisible forces in nature.

For instance: why do we yawn?

The physiological purpose of a yawn remains a mystery. “The real answer so far is we don’t really know why we yawn,”

It may be more productive to stop looking for “the purpose”, and to look at it through the wide lens of emergence.