Most books on consciousness, existentialism and epistemology drive me to distraction. Ruminations that all of existence may be just an invention of our minds, or of someone else’s mind, and why nothing is knowable, are enough to cause me to bash my head against the wall. I’m all for philosophy and learning, but there comes a point at which ideas need to be more than merely interesting, the subject of whimsical debate, and need to become useful. Consciousness is, above all, a capacity for self-initiated action, for doing something. The time for pondering is past — we need to know in order to act.
When we are all aware (or at least scientists, artists and philosophers are aware) that civilization is on a collision course with sustainability and the inexorable limits to growth, what can account for the fact that we continue to behave as if we weren’t aware of the horrific consequences of our current course? What madness has so gripped the collective psyche of the human species that we continue to charge headlong to our own demise and that of all (but the hardiest, which we are not) life on Earth? This is what I want to learn when I read about human consciousness: How could we have got this way and still be this way? Two books, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s 1997 Figments of Reality and Jay Ingram’s Theatre of the Mind, at least provide some insight into these questions, and hence are useful reads. In this, the first of a three part essay, I summarize the first half of Figments of Reality.
The thesis of Figments is laid out in its preface [definitions in square brackets are mine]:
Our minds co-evolve with everything that influences them. Minds are figments [fabrications, representations] of reality, processes going on inside structures made from ordinary matter whose behaviour evolved in order to mimic, model and manipulate natural processes. This explains why they are ‘unreasonably effective’ at perceiving and reorganizing the environment. The human condition is a complicit interaction between culture and individual minds, each shaping the other.
Culture depends upon communication, which we achieve with language. Language, the first step towards extelligence [collective intelligence] co-evolved with brains and made minds, complicit with hands and technology, and the discovery of patterns and laws. Mind can only think about mind once language equips it with a recursive, self-referential, feature-detection system. Once it has this, self-awareness ['consciousness'] is an immediate, essentially trivial property, because ‘self’ is a feature too. The existence of features [properties, attributes and characteristics] makes it possible to employ a mental map instead of the real territory.
Such original, lucid writing makes Figments a startling, challenging, and exhilarating read. The book begins with a history of the universe, and how it gave rise to consciousness and concludes with a delightful and imaginative re-telling of this history ‘translated’ to the lyrical, cognitive language of an intelligent alien species studying Earth — history as the inevitable, intentional realization of matter’s potential, as “the unreal ocean of possibilities collapsing into tiny puddles of actuality”. The authors are scientists and also sci-fi writers, and this unearthly epilogue is an entirely credible alternative theory of creation from the perspective of creatures who simply perceive very differently from the way we do, using a different ‘language’, and its plausibility is both entertaining and illuminating.
The authors start at the beginning, exploring various theories of random walk and emergence to explain the appearance of living organisms on Earth, and self-organization to explain evolution and symbiosis. The evolutionary adaptation of protecting a small number of ‘privileged’ young from predators instead of just producing a large number to sustain both their numbers and their predators’, could be, they argue, the justification for the emergence of mind, self-awareness, consciousness.
The authors chastise science for its passion for reductionist models and ’theories of everything’ and proffer instead contextual models, which do not produce the ‘reductionist nightmare’ of infinite complexity — so many variables that cannot be reduced by rules or formulae that descriptions become impossible and answers unknowable. They then introduce the ‘contextual’ concepts of ‘simplexity’ (perhaps what Dave Snowden refers to as ‘the simplicity on the far side of complexity’) — simple rule sets, like those of flying flocks of birds, that can explain but not predict infinitely complex outcomes; and ‘complicity’, the integral consequences of mutual interaction among two or more complex systems, consequences different from those that would come out of any of the complex systems alone. They argue that complicity is the driving force of evolution and that most natural systems are complicit — beyond complex. The consequence of complicity is emergence, not susceptible to reductionism. Simplicity and complexity are, of course, context-dependent concepts: Obeying the law of gravity is a simple concept between two bodies, but a complex one among two billion.
Imagine a game of billiards, the authors suggest, in which pockets appear and disappear, change size, move depending on which ball is potted in them, and spit balls out, and in which balls change colour, size and shape under different circumstances. This, they say, is how simplicity and complexity succeed each other, how simplexity has led to complicity, and how evolution has played out on Earth. The emergence of the protection of ‘privileged’ young was just one ‘move’ tried out in this complicit ‘game’, one that worked so well that it co-evolved consciousness to try out other ‘thoughtful’ moves.
Evolution is thus a “self-modifying game in which the rules depend upon the state of play” — perhaps, too (though the authors don’t say this) a self-perpetuating, self-regulating game that ejects unruly players. Its objective is to stay in the game — and perhaps (though the authors don’t say this either) to prolong the game by keeping as many players with different strategies in it as possible, as long as possible. The context of evolution is ecosystems (and in a broader sense, Gaia), and in different contexts the play of the game has evolved differently.
But the constant adaptation to ever-changing rules by successful creatures leads to a propensity for ever-increasing, astonishing complexity (so much so that doctors trying to understand our bodies will be forever playing catch-up) except in rare cases where a simple adaptation obviates the need for previous excessive complexity. Or as the authors put it humourously: “if it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it”.
They then introduce this general evolutionary principle, a Murphy’s Law variant:
If the potential is sufficiently accessible and the advantages that will accrue from realizing it are strong enough, then evolution will eventually come up with some form of the necessary trick.
Some ‘tricks’, like haemoglobin and flight, seem to have occurred often, in different circumstances and contexts; the authors call them universal evolutionary innovations and believe they are inevitable developments in the evolutionary process of life. Other, parochial evolutionary innovations like backbones and chlorophyll, seem to have occurred once uniquely; if evolution were to start over in the next century after some catastrophe, the authors say, these would be unlikely to occur.
This is the most contentious argument in the book, and it carries a huge burden: Stephen Jay Gould argued convincingly that all evolutionary adaptations were parochial, accidents of circumstance and trial and error, with next to zero probability of recurrence. The next evolution of life, here or elsewhere, would be so different from what we think of as life as to be probably unrecognizable. The authors not only disagree with this, but assert that intelligence and consciousness are universals, destined to recur in every evolutionary sequence sooner or later everywhere, every time around. Their support for this is that intelligence has evolved in different ways at different times in very different species at different times in Earth’s evolution.
I’m still deciding what I think of this. It’s awfully convenient to argue on the one hand that intelligence is everywhere but on the other that human intelligence is somehow ‘different’, unique.
I’ll have more to say on this in Part Two and Three, coming soon.
(Part Two of this essay will conclude my overview of Figments with an explanation of how and why human intelligence evolved, and how it got us into the mess we’re in now; Part Three will discuss Theatre of the Mind, a new book on consciousness, and integrate its theories with those in Figments)
Painting above by painter and environmentalist Sophie Sheppard, auctioned in 1999 at the Authors Unite in Defense of Mother Earth festival.