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Consciousness

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Purpose Consciousness as Dream Buddha
Definition Economic Decisions Pragmatic Approach
What Do We Know? Computer Consciousness Books
Human Consciousness Vanity Links
Other Consciousness Consciousness After Death
Animal Consciousness Research

Purpose

Consciousness is the only thing that truly matters, yet we know almost nothing about it. This essay is primarily to stimulate your thinking. Maybe someday there will be something substantial to say.

Definition

Consciousness is your internal experience, what you feel and see when you are awake and when your dream and what goes away when you are under anesthesia.

You could function perfectly well, doing all the thinking, choosing and reacting you do now, on automatic without consciousness and no one else could tell.

Consciousness is not your ability to reason or your common sense. It is much more than just the ability to react to your environment. It is your ability to appreciate your environment, to care what happens.

If you are conscious, there is somebody home, truly feeling, experiencing, worrying, not just going through the motions.

Another sort of definition: consciousness is an apprehension of the whole that emerges when a threshold of electro-chemical activity is reached.

What information do we have about consciousness?

This is really not much to go on. We also have puzzles like this to consider:

How Can You Tell If a Fellow Human is Conscious?

Strictly speaking, you can’t tell. The only human you know for sure is conscious is yourself. And even then you have little idea how your internal subjective experience compares with anyone else’s — how it feels to be you.

You presume, not that unreasonably, that fellow humans are also conscious when they are awake or dreaming.

But you don’t really know that much about their internal experience. For example, colour blind people experience red and green as very similar. Yet to your eyes, they likely appear very different. Some people could even experience green subjectively as red and red as green. They would be totally unaware of the switch. You could be one of them. There is no way anyone could tell. They would label all red and green objects correctly, just feel them differently inside. They might even experience the rainbow in some way that is unlike any internal colour experience you have, e.g. synthesesia.

It is obvious we experience colours differently, at least to some degree, or everyone would like the same colours. The way we experience a colour is partly as an emotion, partly as associations, partly as memories. Imagine a new colour unlike any you have ever seen before. Perhaps that is how others experience red.

Because there is so little genetic information in your DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid), only a million genes or so, there is no way the details of all the interconnections in the brain could be genetically determined. This leaves things open for much more variety than we might first expect to find.

We know that brain waves quiet down when you become unconscious, but as far as I know, no one has done experiments to correlate brain wave activity with subjective consciousness intensity. If there were, you might be able to compare two people and say person A is currently more conscious than person B.

People have been dead, with flatline brainscans and still have managed to hear and report what went on later, sometimes with an out of body experience or a near death experience.

I presume all humans are conscious unless they have been shown to have brain activity the same as someone under anaesthesis — impairment in function is not sufficient.

Other Types of Consciousness

Orgasm is a special form of consciousness. It is hard to objectively observe what is going on during it, but you know it when it happens.

We discover sages who seem more awake than usual. They tell us their internal experience is infinitely richer and more intense than ordinary waking consciousness.

Most people have at least a few experiences of cosmic consciousness in their lives.

How Can You Tell If an Animal is Conscious?

Since we have no clear way of telling, people just make up their minds and stick to their guns with ferocity. There seem to be four points of view:
  1. Some children were told that insects, fish or frogs feel no pain.
  2. Some children were told that insects, fish or frogs feel pain, but it is ok to torture them because they are not conscious. They just look like they are feeling pain. They are really just little machines going through the motions simulating pain.
  3. Some children were told that most creatures that appear to be feeling pain truly are feeling pain, however, these creatures are unimportant compared with humans, so it does not matter.
  4. Some children were told that all creatures that appear to be feeling pain truly are feeling pain, thus it is wrong to needlessly torment them.
But what about the larger animals, squirrels, cats, dogs, monkeys, dolphins whales?

We share a part of our brain (the brainstem) with the reptiles and fish. It handles basic survival such as breathing and movement.

We share a part of our brain (the hippocampus) with the other mammals from mice to whales. It handles emotions.

We share a part of our brain (the neocortex) with dolphins, whales and elephants. It handles logic and reasoning.

We assume that consciousness and some part of the brain are intimately linked, though in other times in history people associated the seat of their being with the heart or the liver.

We don’t know much about how consciousness and the various parts of the brain are linked. We do know that people can lose large chunks of their brains and still function normally, apparently conscious.

Some people, usually Christian, argue that only man is intelligent and only man is conscious. Therefore only man matters. Though other creatures may look like they are struggling and feeling, they are just going through the motions. They point to man’s large brain as proof. The only catch is that the brains of dolphins, elephants and whales, are considerably larger than human brains. Further, there is evidence these creatures too are intelligent, perhaps in some ways more intelligent that humans. So if large brains are an indicator of consciousness, it seems to me then surely dolphins, elephants and whales are also likely conscious.

Genetically humans are 98.6% identical with mountain gorillas. What is so different about us that would explain how the gorillas would not be conscious and we are? Were our ancestors the Cro Magnon and Neanderthals conscious? When did this consciousness thing that makes us so all fired important kick in during evolution?

You are also conscious when you dream. We know for example that dogs dream. Those that believe dogs are not conscious tell us that dogs just pretend to dream, just go through the motions, they don’t actually experience anything internally. Why postulate such elaborate pretense without any evidence for it?

Man has a sense of humour. Perhaps that is the key indicator of consciousness. So do elephants and dolphins.

Man is compassionate. Perhaps that is the key indicator of consciousness. Both dolphins and elephants care for the sick. Elephants adopt orphans.

The most obvious sign of human consciousness is awareness of the environment and reacting to it. By that criteria every living thing is likely conscious. You can even see microscopic animals probing their environments and reacting to what they find.

I assert that since we have no way of knowing what is conscious and what is not and since we have no direct measure of consciousness, I believe, that in the absence of precise information, you should err on the side of presuming consciousness exists. So I assume all fish, mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians are conscious.

Consciousness as Dream

Waking consciousness could be a considered a sort of guided dream or hallucination that takes input from the senses to update an internal model of reality. Perhaps animals that dream are conscious and ones that do not are automatons.

Economic Decisions

Most people make their decisions on what is conscious on pragmatic economics.

For example, in 1800 people argued that it was ok to mistreat slaves and horses because they had no eternal souls. This was their way of talking about consciousness. The soul (consciousness) was something that inhabited a body and survived after death. Once it became economically feasible to give up slavery and work horses, we decided that mistreatment was wrong.

Similarly, today people argue it is ok to torture chickens in the production of eggs, by wiring their feet to the bottoms of their cages to stop them from moving around and wasting calories and making it possible to pack many chickens into a small space. They argue that is ok to scald chickens to death. Anyone who has suffered even a small scald wound knows how painful they are. They tell us when chickens squawk, it does not matter. The pain is just simulated. There is really nothing home in the chicken.

My view is that we don’t know for sure one way or the other, so we should err on the side of humane treatment. I eat only free range eggs. To me, if a chicken squawks in pain, I’d think, that unless I have extremely strong proof otherwise, I should presume I am truly hurting it.

From my personal experience, chickens are not that bright, but they are protective of their young and show worry, pride, contentment and terror with different clucking sounds.

I would hope anyone contemplating torturing me because they doubted my consciousness would give me the same benefit of the doubt I give to chickens.

Computer Consciousness

Current computers costing  $1000.00 USD have the roughly the same computational power as a dragonfly. They are expected to reach human levels in 2030. Obviously, today’s computers and dragonflies think about different things. Dragonflies don’t play chess and computers can’t find and attack mosquitoes.

When computers start doing most of the things that humans can do, the question will come up, are they conscious? Like the android Data and the holographic Doctor on Star Trek, they may claim to be conscious, but how could we tell?

We may decide to treat them as conscious, on the pragmatic grounds that they have the power give us trouble if we hurt them or refuse them the rights of conscious beings.

To some people, the notion of computers being conscious is just as ludicrous as the notion that life could be created in the test tube was a decade ago. After all, life was something mystical requiring divine intervention. It turned out life was much more mundane than we thought. It may turn out that consciousness is no big deal either.

Vanity

Science keeps kicking human vanity in the ass over and over. Copernicus pointed out the universe does not revolve around earth. Darwin pointed out man is just an other animal. Watson and Crick discovered DNA which lead to creating life in a test tube.

Christians love to quote Genesis 1:26 : "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

They mistakenly think it gives them the right to destroy the planet and to enslave every other species. I look forward to the day when we have proof that consciousness is much more common than most imagine and man will feel mightily ashamed for all the past suffering he has brought on other species.

Consciousness After Death

What happens to consciousness after death? Can it survive without a body? The evidence we have for life after death is this: What are the alternatives to consciousness after death? Consciousness just shuts down, just as it appears to, or perhaps consciousness is in some way broken down and recycled, just like the body itself. Life after death seems to me too much like wishful thinking. Until I see some clear evidence to the contrary, I will just assume the dead are as they appear to be — unconscious.

Research

Physicist Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford, UK, and psychologist Stuart Hameroff of the University of Arizona in Tucson have proposed that consciousness might arise from wave-like quantum-mechanical effects involving protein filaments called microtubules in nerve cells. Other physicists pooh-pooh the idea saying the quantum decoherence has nothing whatever to do with human consciousness, that the idea got started when John Von Neumann speculated that the act of taking a measurement which collapsed the Schrödinger wave function, making concrete a nebulous possibility, may have something to do with consciousness.

Buddha

Gautama Buddha chewed on these same questions 2500 years ago. Here was his take:
Life is instantaneous and living is dying. Just as the chariot-wheel in rolling rolls only at one point on the tire and in resting rests at once point, in the same way the life a living being lasts for only the period of one thought. As soon as that thought has ceased the being is said to have ceased.

Paradoxical though it may seem: There is a path to walk on, these is walking being done, but there is no traveller. There are deeds being done, but there is no doer. There is a blowing of the air, but there is no wind that does the blowing. The thought of self is an error and all existences are as hollow as the plantain tree and as empty as twirling water bubbles.

Therefore there is no self, there is no transmigration of a self; but there are deeds and the continued effect of deeds.
~ Gautama Buddha (born:563 BC died:483 BC at age:80)

Buddhagroove

From his point of view, consciousness keeps spontaneously arising in thought quanta, but there is no permanent experiencer.

Pragmatic Approach

Newton did not get stuck on trying to figure out what gravity was. He studied how it behaves and how you can predict its effects on celestial bodies.

Quantum scientists did not drive themselves insane over the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. They stuck to the math and learned how matter on a small scale behaves in precise detail.

I could imagine an intelligent species bedazzled for millennia by their first contact with water, trying to understand its essential nature. Eventually they would simply accept that was different from anything else they had encountered and get on with studying how it behaves.

I suspect we are stuck studying consciousness because we want primarily to know what it is. We are not content to say it is its own thing, quite unlike anything else. It deserves its own category, just like space, time, matter, energy etc. We won’t make headway until we change our focus from what is consciousness? to questions such as:

Books

book cover recommend book⇒Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligenceto book home
by Hans P. Moravec 978-0-674-57618-6 paperback
birth 1948-11-30 age:68 978-0-674-57616-2 hardcover
publisher Harvard Univ Pres
published 1990-01-02
This book tackles the fundamental problem of identity in a quite accessible way. Am I my body, my pattern, my process, my consciousness? He points out the coming merger of man and machine will crack our age old notions of life and death.
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book cover recommend book⇒The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligenceto book home
by Ray Kurzweil 978-0-14-028202-3 paperback
birth 1948-02-12 age:68 978-0-670-88217-5 hardcover
publisher Penguin 978-1-101-07788-7 eBook
published 2000-01-01 978-0-14-086888-3 audio
  B002CIY8JW kindle
A fascinating book giving the evidence why computers exceeding human intelligence are imminent.
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book cover recommend book⇒How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealedto book home
by Ray Kurzweil 978-0-14-312404-7 paperback
birth 1948-02-12 age:68 978-0-670-02529-9 hardcover
publisher Viking Adult 978-1-101-60110-5 eBook
published 2012-11-13 978-1-4692-0386-7 audio
  B007V65UUG kindle
If you have ever wondered about how your mind works, read this book. Kurzweil’s insights reveal key secrets underlying human thought and our ability to recreate it. This is an eloquent and thought-provoking work.
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book cover recommend book⇒The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spiritualityto book home
by Dalai Lama, XIV 978-0-7679-2081-0 paperback
birth 1935-07-06 age:81 978-0-7679-2066-7 hardcover
publisher Broadway 978-0-7679-2291-3 eBook
published 2005-09-13 978-0-7393-2265-9 audio
  B000FCKCZQ kindle
The Dalai Lama brings a very interesting perspective to the consciousness debate. He gets himself invited to all kinds of scientific conferences and most of the great scientists of the world are happy to spend a few days acting as his tutor. At the same time he represents an ancient contemplative tradition. He is the exact opposite of dogmatic. Amusingly, he chides the religious fervour and certaintly often masqueranding as scientific objecitivity. He does not want debate prematurely closed on any issue. One of his most delightful characteristics is his complete honesty about what he knows and does not. It is so odd a person of his stature being so down to earth.
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