Discussions and reflections on science and life

The Alarming Hypothesis

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For reasons outlined yesterday this is going to be pretty short.

In 1994, Francis Crick published a book called The Astonishing Hypothesis. While I find this hypothesis a little less than astonishing (indeed, I feel that any serious reflection on neurobiology makes it apparent and wholly unsurprising), the book is a fantastic overview of evidence and experiment towards demonstrating this principle (and one I will write a proper review of as soon as I can find the time to finish reading it).

Let us accept this hypothesis. Consciousness is wholly rooted in biology. Now, we do the evobio thing, and things look less astonishing and more alarming. What causes selection for consciousness? And what could cause selection against it?

To understand why that is chilling, we need to first redefine the way we look at things. I often accuse humans of being anthropocentric, but if you limit the system to our own bodies, we are sapiocentric. We think of the “I that is I” as our minds more often than we think of it as our flesh. But in truth the conscious mind does incredibly little. You don’t need it to breathe, you don’t need it to pump your blood, you don’t need it to digest your food. On a lower level the conscious mind has absolutely no control over the cellular workings of the body, or say the immune system, or growth. Indeed repetitive tasks can be done without the conscious mind, take your daily commute or any routine chore. As another example walking does not require that we thoughtfully place each step. Tossing something onto your desk from across the room requires no kinematic calculation. The conscious mind does make some decisions, but it does not make, and indeed cannot make many more (and recent cognitive research even makes this suspect, it has been suggested that the impulse is sent to the muscles to move before the brain even decides to, this is something I should explore in more detail and with proper citation at a later date). Complicated ideas and even mathematical equations can work themselves out best when we are actively not thinking about them. And as for memory, the conscious mind hardly has any. It can only hold a very small number of variables  before shunting them off to the unconscious to be recalled later (with varying degrees of success). So it seems apparent that the conscious mind is not necessary for action, even so-called intelligent action.

Feeling it yet?

Now, it cannot be the case that there is no benefit to consciousness. If it were merely an anchor around the neck of our body it would (most likely) have been cast off long ago. Consciousness gives you up to the minute control over a certain limited subset of systems. And in a number of cases this could be useful. For instance it is unclear how well the unconscious can do foresight and preparation. Similarly making logical jumps and providing important feedback to what systems it has a say in (as a for instance realising through cues other than sense that an atmosphere is poisonous and taking respiration into conscious control). Moreover, there could be certain actions best performed by the union of conscious and unconscious into a unified whole: creativity and technology development come to mind as potential examples.

All of that said however, it does seem in some ways to be horribly detrimental. Let’s take paraphilia. The sex drive serves an evolutionary purpose to push us towards reproduction. A number of fetishes involve pleasure taken from something other than the actual sex act, this separate act cannot lead to the passing along of genes. The conscious mind has developed a hangup to the detriment of the body’s reproduction. Let it be clear I am not saying that sexual fetishes are bad (I personally have a few…dozen >_<). However, it seems absurd to argue that they stem from anywhere but the ‘self’ or have any evolutionary benefit. I use sexual fetish as an example because the line is very easy to draw, but one could say the same of any entertainment. There is no biological requirement for entertainment, or aesthetics, or indeed even philosophy. But the mind stagnates without them. Any way you slice it, from a biological standpoint this is a flaw. We can hypothesise that this flaw crept into the schema over time, or that it was there all along and consciousness was selected for anyway because the benefit outweighed the cost. For the sake of the “us that is  us” let us hope for the latter. because if not, it seems like there is a very troubling possibility, that the age of the “I that is I” will be a footnote in the history of life.

Okay, s I suck at being brief. Also, credit must go to Peter Watts and his novel Blindsight for planting this line of inquiry in my mind.


Written by Caudoviral

01/25/2011 at 16:22

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