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Is Consciousness Everywhere?

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MIT Press has an article adapted from Christof Koch’s book The Feeling of Life Itself. Koch is chief scientist of the MindScope Program at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. It begins:

What is common among the delectable taste of a favorite food, the sharp sting of an infected tooth, the fullness after a heavy meal, the slow passage of time while waiting, the willing of a deliberate act, and the mixture of vitality, tinged with anxiety, just before a competitive event?

All are distinct experiences. What cuts across each is that all are subjective states, and all are consciously felt. Accounting for the nature of consciousness appears elusive, with many claiming that it cannot be defined at all, yet defining it is actually straightforward. Here goes: Consciousness is experience.

That’s it. Consciousness is any experience, from the most mundane to the most exalted. Some distinguish awareness from consciousness; I don’t find this distinction helpful and so I use these two words interchangeably. I also do not distinguish between feeling and experience, although in everyday use feeling is usually reserved for strong emotions, such as feeling angry or in love. As I use it, any feeling is an experience. Collectively taken, then, consciousness is lived reality. It is the feeling of life itself.

But who else, besides myself, has experiences? Because you are so similar to me, I abduce that you do. The same logic applies to other people. Apart from the occasional solitary solipsist this is uncontroversial. But how widespread is consciousness in the cosmos at large? How far consciousness extends its dominion within the tree of life becomes more difficult to abduce as species become more alien to us.

One line of argument takes the principles of integrated information theory (IIT) to their logical conclusion. Some level of experience can be found in all organisms, it says, including perhaps in Paramecium and other single-cell life forms. Indeed, according to IIT, which aims to precisely define both the quality and the quantity of any one conscious experience, experience may not even be restricted to biological entities but might extend to non-evolved physical systems previously assumed to be mindless — a pleasing and parsimonious conclusion about the makeup of the universe.

How Widespread Is Consciousness in the Tree of Life?

The evolutionary relationship among bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals is commonly visualized using the tree of life metaphor. All living species, whether fly, mouse, or person, lie somewhere on the periphery of the tree, all equally adapted to their particular ecological niches.

Every living organism descends in an unbroken lineage from the last universal common ancestor (abbreviated to a charming LUCA) of planetary life. This hypothetical species lived an unfathomable 3.5 billion years ago, smack at the center of the tree-of-life mandala. Evolution explains not only the makeup of our bodies but also the constitution of our minds — for they don’t get a special dispensation.

Given the similarities at the behavioral, physiological, anatomical, developmental, and genetic levels between Homo sapiens and other mammals, I have no reason to doubt that all of us experience the sounds and sights, the pains and pleasures of life, albeit not necessarily as richly as we do. All of us strive to eat and drink, to procreate, to avoid injury and death; we bask in the sun’s warming rays, we seek the company of conspecifics, we fear predators, we sleep, and we dream.

While mammalian consciousness depends on a functioning six-layered neocortex, this does not imply that animals without a neocortex do not feel. Again, the similarities between the structure, dynamics, and genetic specification of nervous systems of all tetrapods — mammals, amphibians, birds (in particular ravens, crows, magpies, parrots), and reptiles — allows me to abduce that they too experience the world. A similar inference can be made for other creatures with a backbone, such as fish.

But why be a vertebrate chauvinist?  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 4:01 pm

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