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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Consciousness - an introduction

In my 10 June 2016 blog - What is the purpose of death? (2) - I mentioned the word consciousness. It's a topic well beyond my usual scope and one of which I hardly know anything. I think that I can feel the presence of my own consciousness somewhere inside my head, but the question remains on my mind: what is consciousness really??

"I think, therefore I am" is the English translation of the original phrase "je pense, donc je suis" by French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes. As Descartes explained, "[W]e cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt … ." or: "I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am" (Wiki). This phrase represents the heart of consciousness - from a philosophical point of view.

The Atlantic, June 2016: "Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?".

The Atlantic: "The Attention Schema Theory [by Professor Michael Graziano], [] suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species".

The Atlantic: "If AST is correct, 300 million years of reptilian, avian, and mammalian evolution have allowed the self-model and the social model to evolve in tandem, each influencing the other. We understand other people by projecting ourselves onto them. But we also understand ourselves by considering the way other people might see us".

The Atlantic: "Language is perhaps the most recent big leap in the evolution of consciousness. Nobody knows when human language first evolved. Certainly we had it by 70 thousand years ago when people began to disperse around the world, since all dispersed groups have a sophisticated language. The relationship between language and consciousness is often debated, but we can be sure of at least this much: once we developed language, we could talk about consciousness and compare notes". Also see my blogs on the origin of language (part 1 and part 2) and human evolution since several million years, including the Technological Revolution (1800-2100)

The consciousness in animals is well described in a recent Scientific American article on a study published in the journal Intelligence by British psychologists Rosalind Arden and Mark Adams on the general intelligence factor in dogs. Another (forthcoming) study in the Animal Behaviour journal revealed that dogs avoid people who behave negatively to their owner. Kazuo Fujita, a professor of comparative cognition at Kyoto University: “We discovered for the first time that dogs make social and emotional evaluations of people regardless of their direct interest.” (eg, Phys, TIME)

Telegraph, May 2016: "Marcus du Sautoy, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, said it's now possible to measure consciousness and, in the future, technology could be deemed to be ‘alive’. Most scientists believe that computers are close to getting to a point where they begin to develop their own intelligence and no longer need to be programmed, an event dubbed the ‘technological singularity.’ 

Telegraph: "Currently scientists conduct an experiment known as the ‘Turing Test’ to assess a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour which is indistinguishable from a human. If a human cannot tell the difference between a computer’s response and a person’s it is said to pass the test". Also see my 13 August 2015 blog on the SciFi movie Bicentennial Man (IMDb).

Telegraph: “Philosophers will say that doesn’t guarantee that that thing is really feeling anything and really has a sense of self. It might be just saying all the things that make us think it’s alive. But then even in humans we can’t know that what a person is saying is real".

Perhaps the ultimate difference is doubt. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

Twenty One Pilots - Doubt (2015) - artistslyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Scared of my own image, scared of my own immaturity,
Scared of my own ceiling, scared I'll die of uncertainty,
Fear might be the death of me, fear leads to anxiety,
Don't know what's inside of me.


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