Consciousness . . . Expanded
In a previous essay, I went into some degree of detail discussing the difference between “Thinking” and “Consciousness,” as well as the apparent duality between the parts of the Soul that perform these two activities. However, despite offering examples of how the two things differ, and encouraging readers to verify the existence of these two “Soul components” for themselves, I did not really define either one. And for good reason.
“Thinking” is not a difficult thing to define. We engage in it so constantly that even the most incurious of self-psychoanalysts could offer some description of what Thinking entails. Thinking involves words and concepts, played back in a sequential narrative to the Self. This presentation may resemble an internal conversation, or in cases where imagery is included along with words, a sort of movie projected onto the walls of the mind. When Plato tried to describe the process for people of his own age, he described it in very similar terms (though back then, he had to make do with metaphors that predate the Hollywood flicker-show).
People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck. Thus they stay in the same place so that there is only one thing for them to look that: whatever appears in front of their faces. But because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around.
Some light, of course, is allowed them, namely from a fire that casts its glow toward them from behind. Between the fire and those who are shackled there runs a walkway at a certain height. Imagine that a low wall has been built the length of the walkway, like the low curtain that puppeteers put up, over which they show their puppets. So now imagine that all along this low wall people are carrying all sorts of things that reach up higher than the wall: statues and other carvings made of stone or wood and many other artifacts that people have made. As you would expect, some are talking to each other as they walk along.
From the beginning people like this have never managed, whether on their own or with the help by others, to see anything besides the shadows projected on the wall opposite them by the glow of the fire. Now if they were able to tell you about what they saw, would they not regard the shadows which they saw on the wall as beings? And whenever one of the people walking behind them would make a sound, would the prisoners not imagine that the source of this voice was the shadow passing in front of them?
Clearly Socrates (or rather, Plato, who put the words in his master’s mouth) had been doing a lot of internal contemplation about the way the Psyche (soul) worked, and what constituted “reality”. It was apparent to him that the categories and patterns that his mind presented to him, and the words that he heard in the darkness, were just a shadow or a reflection of what was REALLY going on. We can also tell that Socrates left the cave – How fully and for how long is anyone’s guess, but anyone who has taken a peek “outside” for themselves will recognize the landscape Socrates describes when he goes out into the sun of true Consciousness. But that discussion is for another essay…
Anyone who reads Plato’s description of Thinking understands it, and can grasp the definition he offers. We still use the same terminology. Thinking is the Ego. It presents and rearranges information based on words – ideas – concepts – patterns. We hear it echo off the walls of our cave and use the information provided to decide how to respond, or interact with, the outside world. Careful introspection suggests that this Thinking part of the Soul is not the true self – the thing that says *I*. It is much more comparable to some super-next-generation Siri or Alexa, so finely tuned to your needs that it not only searches for and displays a menu of tasty takeout options the second your belly starts to rumble, but it even can recite a carefully weighted analysis of the pros or cons of Indian curry, Chinese noodles or Italian pizza.
Hopefully we now have a clear working definition of the Soul-component that we call Thinking. While it isn’t too hard for humans to recognize the Ego for what it is, it will be much harder to pin down that elusive yet essential thing known as Consciousness.
The best definition of Consciousness I have ever heard was offered by Loren Eisely, a giant in the interdisciplinary sciences that – back in the 20th century – would earn you the designation “Naturalist.” Eisely was deeply intrerested in the way that living things behaved, WHY they did so, and what conclusions could be drawn about the way their "minds" worked. He investigated, researched and pondered the issue for decades, and after careful consideration he eventually managed to come up with the following:
Consciousness is something that - when you see it - you recognize it as Consciousness.
The first time I read that definition I chuckled out loud, assuming that he was being facetious. But nothing could be further from the truth. While it may not be much of a definition, it is unquestionably accurate. When you see something that is conscious – particularly if that Consciousness is active -- you somehow know that it is conscious. Is your dog conscious? What a silly question! Isnt that OBVIOUS? How about fish? How about insects? Anyone who has stared into the rainbow-bespeckled eyes of a dragonfly as it perches on your finger and cocks its head to inspect a strand of your hair can answer the question without even a moment’s hesitation. We may struggle to pin it down with mechanistic definitions, but we know it when we see it.
But how far down the scale of life does this characteristic extend? Surely it doesn’t extend beyond animals （K: Animalia）. Does it? Well, the only way to find out is to look at various examples, and apply the definition.
Dictostelium discoideum is a single-celled organism with the body type we generally describe as “an amoeba”. Non-biologists usually refer to the creature as a “slime mold”, though in doing so they describe an entire colony of the amoebae, rather than a single individual. Slime molds crawl (or rather… ooze) around on the forest floor, in a liquid film that they all cooperate to generate. They consume bacteria, help to break down leaf litter, and in crowds of millions of their fellows, they live out their amoeba-lives with little to indicate “Consciousness” beyond their habit of consuming anything they encounter that seems consumable.
But when faced with a threat, such as a sudden shortage of suitable food or a lack of moisture, they behave in a very remarkable way: Somewhere in the vast sea of SlimeMoldia, one little fella does his calorie calculations and determines that a shortage is about to hit – that the population has just run past the capability of that forest to feed them. The little fella goes on a flaming tirade . . . . OK, that may be overselling the anthropomorphism a bit. What actually happens is that (for reasons we cannot fully specify) when one amoeba senses impending starvation, it explosively emits a chemical called Cyclic Adenoside MonoPhosphate (CAMP).
Any other amoebae within sensing distance of the chemical respond by releasing their own CAMP-explosion, and then moving immediately in the direction of the original burst. The result is an expanding wave of chemical panic, and a headlong stream of amoebas headed for the same central point. Looked at from above, it appears to be a feathery lacework of mucus, streaming almost-imperceptibly towards a central point. After two or three hours, every amoeba in the vicinity has piled together into a sausage-shaped mass about two millimetres long.
This composite creature is so akin to a multi-celled animal that it has even been given a separate name: it is called a grex. The grex not only operates as a single “being”, but it even exhibits sensory capabilities that individual amoebae do not seem to possess. It is sensitive to heat and light, and once it has reached a critical mass it begins slithering along the forest floor like a tiny slug, towards a warm, dry spot.
When the grex reaches a spot that it considers suitable, another change takes place. The individual amoebae break up into separate work gangs which perform separate specific functions. Some devote their bodies to form tiny capsules, destined to become spore pods, sealing in a group of select individuals who will form the next generation. The rest of the colony builds a metropolis of towering spires, hundreds if not thousands of amoeba-bodies high, to hoist the spore pods high off the ground. The pods even seem to recognize the locations of other pods, and space themselves out evenly so that as many as possible can catch the wind and be transported to a new home.
If the anthropomorphic terms and descriptions used above seem to make the case a bit too passionately, you can put it down to my lifelong love of biology. Nevertheless, the question is whether or not the behavior of these creatures meet the definition of “Consciousness”. When you see it, do you recognize it as Consciousness?
Before you answer that question, be careful to consider the implications. Imagine an extraterrestrial observer looking down on Hong Kong, in July 2019, and noting a sudden rush of activity. Although thousands of independent little dots had been moving about more-or-less randomly for years, suddenly there was a burst of coordinated activity, which sent hundreds of thousands of the little fellas streaming together into a single mass. The grex . . . . Ok, lets use the term “mob” instead . . . suddenly began to act with coordinated energy, pouring through the streets to select locations, and joining their bodies together in order to barge their way into a location that seemed to be the source of the original panic.
Do slime molds exhibit Consciousness?
OK then . . . . do mobs exhibit Consciousness?
Perhaps most importantly of all: is their any way to identify or evaluate the LEVEL of Consciousness displayed in each of these cases?
From a biological perspective, Consciousness is a very powerful tool. It not only is capable of supplying an instruction set for actions and behaviours; it also contains an internal feedback mechanism that allows it to be adjusted and adapted continuously, in real-time [ie. Memory]. Think of it this way: Genes are the first big advance in life's effort to adjust and adapt. They contain information that tells cells (and groups of cells) how to act in order to best assure their survival. If the genes have the instructions for a successful pattern of life, then the organisms that contain the genes will thrive.
But genes have difficulty adapting and adjusting. They lack a source of fresh new ideas, or untried alternatives. If a particular instruction set suddenly loses its survival value, it might take hundreds of generations before the instruction set can be changed. There is no hope for the individual in such circumstances, and even the species may not be able to adjust in time.
Rudimentary feedback systems (nerve cells, hormones, enzymes, etc) are the next advance. They provide the first building blocks for adaptive behaviour. However, these are not much different from individual binary switches (they are capable of slightly more complex adjustment than the "on" or "off" states of a binary switch; but not MUCH more). By developing nerve cells, as well as hormones/enzymes that relay feedback, an organism can improve its playbook and add instructions that vary depending on the surrounding conditions.
At first, these instruction sets are very simple - for example, the instruction set that tells plant cells to grow in the direction of light, or the one that tells microorganisms to move toward food, away from heat or toxic substances. The organism is no longer constrained to a single instruction set. It can now create complex “programs” that offer binary choices. The capabilities of a simple feedback (nervous) system are not that different from a simple computer routine – lines of code in the Matrix.
The more nerves or glandular functions you develop, the more complex your behaviour can become. At some point, the continuum of Consciousness reaches another dividing line -- another exponential advance in the ability of the organism to adapt and adjust. Most people use the term “intelligence” to designate this next advance, though at its most basic level it is still pretty "un-intelligent". You could compare it to a computer program that includes a Learning capacity.
Moths fly towards a light regardless of whether it is a porch light (where they may find other moths of the opposite sex to mate with), or a bug zapper light (where they will be fried to an electrified crisp). They are still operating on a binary program, with no real "intelligence". Fish and amphibians, on the other hand will (if not killed on the first attempt) learn to distinguish "good" stimuli from "bad" stimuli, and build a new instruction set that includes this new information. The new instruction set is "contained in their Consciousness", so to speak. They can now create entirely new adaptive patterns within the course of their lifetime, and even abandon the patterns if they should stop working, for some reason. They have become “Intelligent”
While it may seem like I am getting off track, there is a reason for my digression into biology. Once you develop an advanced feedback system with enough conscious to "learn" behaviour, you begin to face decisions that could be described as "moral issues". These can be fairly simple - such as the question of whether to care for your young, or to eat them. But even at that simplistic stage, they take on an aspect that I think most readers will recognize as having a different character. The more advanced the consciousness, the more complex the issues of "right or wrong".
I point this out for one simple reason: we are now witnessing the birth and development of the most extensive (albeit not yet the most advanced) feedback system ever, on this planet. We can utilise this new form of "consciousness" in whatever way we choose. We can try to manipulate people’s emotions in ways that will affect elections, or we can exchange the information needed to coordinate a mass public protest that removes a corrupt Governor. Or we can just watch Pornhub, and share cat videos with our Facebook buddies.
This incredible new capacity to multiply Consciousness presents us with choices which we should recognize as "moral choices." If you get a new puppy, you can define its learned patterns of behaviour as you see fit. Whether you choose to teach it to sit, roll over, and catch a frisbee; teach it to be a seeing-eye dog; or teach it to take a dump on your next-door neighbor's front porch . . . that is up to you. You are helping to define its very consciousness.
Similarly, if you have children, you can teach them to be polite and respectful, teach them to think for themselves, or teach them to beat up other kids and steal cars. You can even teach them to wear uniforms, carry rifles and kill everyone who doesnt look like them. Parents, teachers and political leaders alike share the important, moral decision of what to teach young people, and entire societies are affected by those decisions.
The Internet is our latest development in creating complex feedback systems, and make no mistake, the way that we choose to use the Internet will have a huge impact on what sort of society emerges in the future. It already has had a huge impact, both for good and for "evil". At one extreme, a larger percentage of people in the world now can communicate in the same language than ever before, and people can obtain help with everything from self-healthcare or home repairs to gardening and small-scale electric power generation.
On the other hand, increasing percentages of kids are suffering from ADD, or have difficulty controlling mood swings. Anyone with a keyboard can find pornography or violent images, read up on the joys of Naziism and white supremacism, or post body-shaming comments on their schoolmates' social media profile. And of course, every 1 lrns 2 write txt msgs; yet kids r not able 2 rite a simple S-A 4 skule.
We are all taking part in a huge social experiment which has no precedent, and no predicted outcomes, but which will probably be impossible to reverse. Somehow I get the impression that nobody has taken much time to think through the implications of our increasing interconnectedness and the impact it will have on future society. While there is certainly hope that communication will bring people together, what I see happening is just the opposite.
The Internet has made it possible for people to spend their entire lives ensconced in a virtual bubble inhabited only by people who share their ideas, opinions and beliefs. Meanwhile, they receive an endless stream of "information" about the people outside of their bubble which focuses on (if not denigrates) the differences. People from my generation used to bewail the way that mainstream media employed clever buzzwords and euphemisms to influence the way that we view people from other countries and cultures. Today a child could easily grow to maturity without ever seeing (for example) a person from the Middle East portrayed as a human being. They are always "terrorists" or "insurgents" or at best, "the local population".
The first step in combating this regressive trend is to start providing an alternative to the memes of divisiveness and separation. We must not forget the achievements of past Giants of Consciousness, who transformed entire countries and reversed historical trends with even pre-Internet tools. The adroit use of simple memes – seeds of thought like “I have a dream”, and “Make love not war”; “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, or “Ask not what your country can do for you…”
The second step is to work together. Whether we are talking about amoeba cells or brain cells, political parties or termite colonies, experience tells us that the influence added by each new “member of the team” rises in an exponential way. At certain points, Consciousness reaches critical mass and triggers a CAMP-like leap to something more powerful . . . more intelligent.
Finally, we need to constantly remind ourselves that anything worthy of the term “global consciousness” or “Gaia-consciousness” or “Holistic Consciousness” must include anyone (and any THING) that contains Consciousness. We may never fully escape our biological disposition toward tribalism, but we need to at least TRY to pull the pieces of our fractured human family together, rather than driving them apart. We need to face up to the facts: we all are stuck here together on a fragile little lifeboat in the vast, cold emptiness of space . . . and that boat is starting to sink. Either we find SOME way to work together, or we will ALL go down with the ship.