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The filtering void of consciousness (1)
The function of consciousness (and self-consciousness).
Consciousness and coherence is the most philosophical of the essays in the Worshipping the Future series. As I am not satisfied with its presentation of the key ideas, this is the first of two posts that re-present the central ideas with stronger teasing out of the implications.
Consciousness is relatively easy to define. Everything else about it is harder.
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Many folk have, very understandably, various levels of prejudice against Philosophy. As I noted in my Zen and the art of flow companion post to Consciousness and coherence, I have become over time less and less impressed by Philosophy as a discipline.
Dealing with a high level of abstraction is genuinely difficult. The more grounded one’s thinking is, the more such abstraction is going to seem empty. Moreover, the more abstract the reasoning involved is, the easier it is to make mistakes in reasoning. A lot of Philosophy is either nonsense on stilts or too much wordage for too little gain.
As I note in the post on Helen Dale’s Substack on defining sex and the failings of Philosophy, Science and Law test against structure, Philosophy is stuck on the slippery slope of concepts, which makes it very easy to wander off into grandiose nonsense.
It also creates the temptation of striking a pose of profundity through unnecessary obscurity of language and using difficult language as a filter that generates a sense of knowing initiation, elevating folk who embrace such Theory from the uncomprehending masses. As Helen Pluckrose has pointed out, those parts of Critical Social Justice that descend from Philosophy are riddled with obscure and obscuring language, while the iterations that descend from Law are written in clear language, easily disseminated beyond the academy.
A former Philosophy teacher of mine expresses it thus:
Philosophers’ theories, then, are so exceedingly strange that we are obliged to postulate some non-rational cause, in order to explain the philosophers’ believing them. Indeed, to say they are ‘often’ so is to understate the case grievously. Berkeley, Plato, and Parmenides are paradigm-philosophers. That there are no physical objects, that no particular thing can really have any property, that nothing can move: it is impossible to deny (however embarrassing it may be to admit) that these are typical philosophical theories.
There is nothing, and never has been, anything else in the world like typical philosophical theories. In particular, and contrary to what is often supposed, there is nothing like them in the history of science. (David Stove, The Plato Cult, p.x)
What I call the Hegel mode of scientific illiteracy, power worship, delusions about knowing the direction of history and pseudo-profundity through linguistic obscurity, keeps manifesting in academe. After all, Hegel’s own career demonstrates that it can be an excellent path to academic status and intellectual discipleship.
The surprise is not how badly we often do highly abstract reasoning. The surprise is that we do it as well as we do. Without the constraints of reality-tests, of tests-against-structure, our abstract reasoning can go very wrong, very quickly.
We have clearly evolved the (very unevenly distributed) capacity to do highly abstract reasoning, but it is not a specific adaptation. Rather, the capacity developed as part of the cognitive flexibility which is our evolutionary strategy. A strategy of being able to shift between, and create new, ecological niches.
To get around the difficulties of abstract reasoning, the trick is to make it as concrete as possible. That is, connect to specific aspects of reality as clearly as possible.
One of the deep problems of Philosophy has been the weakness of its decision-mechanisms. The insufficiency of mechanisms within the discipline to decide what is, or is not, the case. What is, or is not, a correct claim. This is so because it about concepts rather than structure, so Philosophy has weak connections to any specific aspects of reality.
There is something of a paradox here, for if one is critiquing Philosophy as a discipline, one is engaging in philosophical reasoning. A certain amount of philosophising may be unavoidable.
Thus, Law has Jurisprudence and certain underlying methodological claims and presuppositions are basic to Science. That does not mean that Philosophy as a discipline does not have deep problems: it clearly does.
There is a pattern of difficult problems being left to Philosophy. The converse to that is, that as soon as we begin to get a decent handle on some area of study, it leaves Philosophy. Philosophy is the ante-room or foyer of useful thought. It may be where we start, but it is not where we usefully finish.
So, let’s start with the concrete. A living organism is something that uses information and resources to maintain itself. Information being:
what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.
Hormones are information mechanisms. So are genes.
There is a sense in which we, and all organisms, are the result of games genes play. An idea dramatically expressed in Richard Dawkins’s metaphor of the selfish gene. It is a very vivid metaphor but, as is often the case with vivid metaphors, it has emotional power due to being a bit misleading.
For selfish has moral and intent connotations. Genes are not moral agents and do not have intent.
It would be more accurate to talk of the strategic gene. For the great insight of evolutionary theory is that things that have patterns of feedback and response can be analysed as having strategies without them having any intent, or even cognition, at all.
Hormones, genes, etc. essentially operate inbuilt algorithms: if receive x information respond by doing y. As organisms became more complex, they evolved cells grouped into organs that are specifically information-gathering. Thus we have our senses of perception: touch, taste, hearing, sight, smell.
These organs of perception are still algorithmic in their operation (take in x information and render it as y), but they reach much further out into the environment around the organism. Having a range of different senses gathering information about the external world makes identifying threats and opportunities, while having time to react to them, more likely.
Having a common set of perception-algorithms within our species makes it easier to cooperate. Having a sufficiently common set of perception-algorithms with other animal species makes it easier to domesticate them.
As specialised perception cells take resources, there is the normal tendency of biological organisms to economise on resource use. So, species that shift to living in circumstances where sight is not useful may lose their eyes. Conversely, raptors invest in very keen eyesight, as it is functional for them to see prey at a distance.
Each sense has the range of sensitivity in a species that has enabled the persistence of its lineages. Thus, canines have keen senses of smell because it makes it easier to track prey.
Our eyes only perceive a narrow part of the electro-magnetic spectrum, but it is enough to deal with what-is-persistently-evolutionarily-salient. It is application of resources efficient enough for the persistence of our genetic lineages. So, enough efficiency to be resilient.
The whites of our eyes make clearer what we are attending to, what we are focusing on. This makes it easier for us to cooperate. (And to domesticate wolves into dogs.)
So, with our perception mechanisms — and various cognitive and action mechanisms — we need an instrument of focus, of attention, of directed activation. Which is consciousness. Consciousness acts as a focus and activation system for cognition (and for systems and actions driven by cognition).
Consciousness is an instrument for managing and directing feedback. Consciousness responds to information and directs cognition, it is not required for thought, plenty of which is unconscious.
If an animal sleeps, it has consciousness (when awake). Consciousness is clearly energy-expensive, so sleep “powers down” the brain, economising on energy demands, and permits both cellular rest and maintenance, and perhaps cognitive maintenance. That consciousness is so energy expensive, and has to be managed by sleep, bespeaks to it being very useful to the survival and reproduction of complex organisms, otherwise organisms would have not evolved to expend so much resources on it.
As species become more complex and more social, more complex strategies have to adopted, requiring more complex cognition. Across a range of disciplines, and of areas within Psychology, theories of two cognitive systems have developed, nicely summarised as:
System 1 is old in evolutionary terms and shared with other animals: it comprises a set of autonomous subsystems that include both innate input modules and domain-speciﬁc knowledge acquired by a domain-general learning mechanism. System 2 is evolutionarily recent and distinctively human: it permits abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking, but is constrained by working memory capacity and correlated with measures of general intelligence. (Evans, 2003)
Though, as Evans (2008) notes, it may be more accurate think of the latter as uniquely developed, rather uniquely present, in humans. These systems may also be more modes of operation of the brain than seperate modules in it.
Sociality, language and self-consciousness
Social species — colonial invertebrates (such as corals), eusocial insects (ants, termites, bees, wasps), and social mammals — despite being phylogenetically rare, are fantastically successful. A very high percentage of the animal biomass on the planet is of social species.
Nor is it hard to work out why social species are so successful: cooperation multiplies capacity. Including capacity to search out opportunities, manage risks and adapt strategies. This is particularly so the more a species adopts those socially transmitted patterns of information we call culture.
As evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein express it in their Omega Principle:
Epigenetic regulators, such as culture, are superior to genes in that they are more flexible and can adapt more rapidly.
Epigenetic regulators, such as culture, evolve to serve the genome.
Social mammals (including us) rely on social signalling beyond pheromones. We Homo sapiens use that distinctive form of packaging, transmitting and receiving information that we call language.
In order to package, transmit and receive information through language, or any sufficiently complex social signalling, we need to do more than focus on the outside world. We have to be able to focus inwardly on the packaging, receiving and transmitting of information itself.
We do not merely have to think, we have to be able to think about what we are thinking: to be able to consider what we think, what we should say. We do not merely need cognition, we need metacognition: thinking about thinking. Having that sort of inward awareness is being self-conscious.
Consciousness manages feedback about the world around us, using emotions to generate responses. Self-consciousness manages feedback about receiving and packaging information. This then extends to consciousness of, and assessment of, our own mental states.
There is an easy test for self-consciousness: can an organism recognise itself in a mirror? If its reaction to its own image is “that’s me!” then it is self-conscious. If, however, it is freaked out by the “other” member of its own species that it can only see, but not smell or touch, then it lacks self-consciousness. (Failing the test, does not mean, however, the organism does not have some level of self-consciousness, merely that it does not extend to a strong enough version to recognise itself so readily.)
Emotions are largely default decision-programs. They provide attention-motivation and decision mechanisms for organisms that are conscious without requiring them to be self-conscious. Self-consciousness enables an awareness of one’s emotions, and others, that provides space for moral judgement.
So, just as consciousness operates as a focus and activation mechanism for our perception, cognitive functions and physical actions, so self-consciousness operates as a focus and activation mechanism for our cognition, for our thoughts. It gives us the capacity to deliberately consider that enables us to have, and use, language.
This capacity we develop by the way our brains “wire” themselves as we grow up interacting with other humans. Human children raised without those human interactions, so called feral children, are hugely socially impaired, including regularly lacking the ability to learn normal human language.
The symptoms of feral children are compatible with them not developing much (or perhaps any) self-consciousness. They are conscious (they sleep) but their self-consciousness is hugely under-developed.
The human development of self-consciousness enabled the development of mutual identification and cooperation based on shared symbolic identifications marking in-groups. Folk naturally tend to identify with the people who speak my language; with whom I share rituals; who I have connections with.
Just as our normative capacity mobilised our emotions to enable greater cooperation, so symbolic identification mobilises both emotions and norms to enable greater cooperation at scale. This has proved sufficiently beneficial that human societies have regularly invested considerable resources in the structures, aka institutions, that do so. As two prominent evolutionary scholars have noted:
Hunting and gathering societies of the ethnographic record appear to expend considerable effort to maintain the ethnolinguistic tribe as an institution. (Richerson & Boyd, 1998).
Self-consciousness thus enabled us to be the species that can do non-kin cooperation on a grand scale. We have used language, rituals and other symbolic communication to develop both complex kin systems and non-kin cooperation.
Thus language is a technology and words are tools. We create them to better interact with others in the world. As everything social is emergent from the biological, our capacity to engage in language is an evolved biological capacity. We have evolved this capacity because it makes us (much) more effective in operating in the world.
Language is a creation of, and response to, structure. It is not some autonomous, entirely self-referential thing. Truth — the connection of use of language to the structures of reality — is a necessary feature of making language a useful technology, making words useful tools. Even attempts to mislead and misinform are parasitic on truth for, without truth, there would be no reason to pay attention to such. Use of language to signal intent also involves judgements, and inferences, about the truth of statements.
The next post explores the limits to conscious intelligibility and some implications thereof.
Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life, Swift, 2021.
Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell with Mind And Matter & Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, [1944, 1958, 1992] 2013.
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, Oxford University Press, 2018.
David Stove, The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies, Basil Blackwell, 1991.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
P. W. Anderson, ‘More is Different,’ Science, New Series, Vol. 177, No. 4047. (Aug. 4, 1972), 393-396.
Barry Bogin, Jared Bragg, Christopher Kuzawa, ‘Humans are not cooperative breeders but practice biocultural reproduction,’ Annals of Human Biology, 2014 Jul-Aug; 41(4): 368-80.
Jacobus J. Boomsma, ‘Lifetime monogamy and the evolution of eusociality,’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2009, 364, 3191–3207.
Jonathan St. B.T. Evans, ‘In two minds: dual-process accounts of reasoning,’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol.7, No.10, October 2003, 454-459.
Jonathan St. B.T. Evans, ‘Dual-Processing Accounts of Reasoning, Judgment, and Social Cognition,’ Annual Review of Psychology, 2008, 59, 255–78.
Keith Frankish, ‘Dual-Process and Dual-System Theories of Reasoning,’ Philosophy Compass, 2010, 5/10, 914–926.
Chris D. Frith, ‘The role of metacognition in human social interactions,’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2012, 367, 2213–2223.
F. A. Hayek, ‘Why I Am Not a Conservative,’ in The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1960,
Erik P. Hoel, Larissa Albantakis, and Giulio Tononi, ‘Quantifying causal emergence shows that macro can beat micro,’ PNAS, December 3, 2013, vol. 110, no. 49, 19790–19795.
C. O’Madagain, M. Tomasello, ‘Shared intentionality, reason-giving and the evolution of human culture,’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2021, 377: 20200320.
David A. Puts, ‘Beauty and the beast: mechanisms of sexual selection in humans,’ Evolution and Human Behavior, 31 (2010) 157–175.
Peter J. Richerson, and Robert Boyd, ‘The evolution of human ultra-sociality,’ in Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Frank K. Salter (eds.), Indoctrinability, ideology, and warfare: Evolutionary perspectives, Berghahn, 1998, 71-95.
R. Schacht and K.L. Kramer, ‘Are We Monogamous? A Review of the Evolution of Pair-Bonding in Humans and Its Contemporary Variation Cross-Culturally,’ Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 2019, 7:230.
Steven A. Sloman, ‘The Empirical Case for Two Systems of Reasoning,’ Psychological Bulletin, 1996, Vol. 119. No. I, 3-22.
Keith E. Stanovich, ‘Distinguishing the reflective, algorithmic, and autonomous minds: Is it time for a tri-process theory?’ in Keith Frankish & Jonathan St B. T. Evans (eds.), In Two Minds: Dual Processes and Beyond, Oxford University Press, 2009, 55-88.
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