Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Finale: what does it all mean?
(These are excerpts from, or extensions to, the material published in my book "The Nature of Consciousness")
Epilogue: Piero Scaruffiís theory of consciousness
I hope that this book is going to be useful, first and foremost, as a survey, so that many more people can be informed about research programs underway the world over. My own ideas, as presented mostly at the end of each chapter, can be summarized as follows.
First of all, two fundamental principles.
I believe in the existence of a common underlying principle that governs inanimate matter (the one studied by Physics), living matter (the one studied by Biology) and consciousness (studied by Cognitive Science).
We know that the world of living beings is a "Darwinian" system: competition, survival of the fittest, evolution and all that stuff. We know that the immune system is a Darwinian system. We are learning that the brain is also a Darwinian system, where the principles of natural selection apply to neural connections. It is intuitive that memory is a Darwinian system: we remember the things that we use frequently, we forget things we never use. I think that the mind is a Darwinian system as well: competition, survival of the fittest and evolution work among thoughts as well. The Darwinian system recurs at different levels of organization, and one of them happens to be our thought system, i.e. our mind.
Biology and Physics offer us different theories of Nature. Physics' view is "reductionist": the universe is made of galaxies, which are made of stars, which are made of particles. By studying the forces that operate on particles, one can understand the universe. Biology's view is Darwinist: systems evolve. Reconciling the two views is the great scientific challenge of the next century.
The main addition to the Darwinian paradigm that I advocate is a crucial role for endosymbiosis: I believe that new organisms can be created by "merging" two existing organisms. If each organism is made of smaller organisms, then it is not surprising that a Darwinian law governs each level of organization: each component organism "was" a living organism, and, like all living things, was designed to live and die and evolve according to the rules Darwinian evolution. The organism that eventually arose through the progressive accretion of simpler organisms is a complex interplay of Darwinian systems. It is not surprising that muscles, memory, the immune system and the brain itself all exhibit Darwinian behavior (get stronger when used, weaker when not used).
A second fundamental principle is "ex nihilo nihil fit": nothing comes from nothing. Life does not arise by magic: it must come from properties of matter. Ditto for cognition. Ditto for consciousness. Many schemes have been proposed to explain how life or consciousness may be "created" from inanimate and unconscious matter, how a completely new property can arise from other properties. I don't believe this is the case. Both life and consciousness are ultimately natural phenomena that originate from other natural phenomena, just like television programs and the motion of stars.
I believe that the substance of the brain and the substance of consciousness are the same. Brain processes and thoughts arise from different properties of the same matter, just like a piece of matter exhibits both gravitational and electrical features. The feature that gives rise to consciousness is therefore present in every particle of the universe, just like the features that give rise to electricity and gravity.
Cognition is a feature of all matter, whether living or not: degrees of remembering, learning, etc. are ubiquitous in all natural systems. If you bend a piece of paper several times, it will tend to stay bent. That is equivalent to our memory memorizing something. If you leave it alone, the piece of paper will tend to resume its flat position. That is equivalent to our memory forgetting some information that is no longer used.
The issue, therefore, is not of what is conscious and what is not, of what is cognitive and what is not: the issue is the "degree" to which a system is conscious or cognitive. My degree of consciousness and of cognition are different from those of a stone, of a cat, of a tomato plant.
The explanation of consciousness does require a conceptual revolution in Science, specifically the introduction of a new feature of matter, which must be present even in the most fundamental building blocks of the universe. I believe that proto-consciousness is pervasive. Every piece of matter, down to the elementary constituents, is proto-conscious. The reason we "feel" is that each atom of our body "feels" (to some extent). Consciousness was there from the beginning. It is not created inside the brain by some magic process. Each neuron, and each atom of each neuron, is "proto-conscious". And each atom of every object is proto-conscious. The reason we are conscious is similar to the reason that some bodies are electrical conductors: each single particle of the universe has an electrical charge, and in some configurations that property yields conductivity. By the same token, each single particle of the universe has a proto-conscious quality, and in some configurations (for example, the human brain) that property yields consciousness.
My explanation of where our mind comes from goes like this. If consciousness is ubiquitous in nature, then it is not difficult to accept the idea that it was there, in some primitive form, since the very beginnings of life, and that it evolved with life. It became more and more complex as organisms became more and more complex. Early hominids were conscious, and their consciousness, while much more sophisticated than the consciousness of bacteria, was still rather basic, probably limited to fear, pain, pleasure, etc. Early hominids had a way to express through sounds their emotions of fear and pain and pleasure.
Consciousness was a skill that helped in natural selection. Minds were always busy thinking in very basic terms about survival, e.g. about how to avoid danger and how to create opportunities for food.
What set hominids apart from other mammals was the ability to manufacture tools. We can walk and we can use our hands in ways that no other animal can. The use of tools (weapons, clothes, houses, fire) relieved us from a lot of the daily processing that animals use their minds for. Our minds could afford to be "lazy". Instead of constantly monitoring the environment for preys and predators, our minds could afford to become "lazy". Out of that laziness modern consciousness was born. As the human mind had fewer and fewer practical chores, it could afford to do its own "gymnastics", rehearsing emotions, and constructing more and more complex ones. As more complex emotions helped cope with life, individuals who could generate and deal with them were rewarded by natural selection. Emotions underwent a Darwinian evolution of their own. That process is still occurring today.
Most animals cannot afford to spend much time philosophizing: their minds are constantly working to help them survive in their environment. Since tools were doing most of the job for us, our minds could afford the luxury of philosophizing, which is really mental gymnastics (to keep the mind in good shape).
In turn, this led to more and more efficient tools, to more and more mental gymnastics. As emotions grew more complex, sounds to express them grew more complex. It is not true that other animals cannot produce complex sounds. They have the sounds that express the emotions they feel. Human language developed to express more and more complex emotions. The quantity and quality of sounds kept increasing. Language trailed consciousness.
Ideas, or "memes", also underwent Darwinian evolution, spreading like viruses from mind to mind, and continuously changing to adapt to new degrees of consciousness.
The history of consciousness is the history of the parallel and interacting evolution of: tools, language, memes, emotions and the brain itself. Each evolved and fostered the evolution of the others. The co-evolution of these "components" led to our current mental life.
This process continues today, and will continue for as long as tools allow more time for our minds to think. The software engineer daughter of a miner is "more" conscious than her father. And her father was more conscious than her ancestor who was, say, a medieval slave.
Consciousness is a product of having nothing better to do with our brain.
I also believe that the solution to the mystery of consciousness lies in a fundamental flaw of Physics. The two great theories of the universe that we have today, Quantum Physics and Relativity Theory, are incompatible. They both have an impressive record of achievements, but they are incompatible. One or both must go. I believe that once we replace them with one unified theory that is equally successful in explaining the cosmological realm and the subatomic realm, consciousness will be revealed to be a trivial consequence of the nature of the world. And I believe that this unified theory will be a "Theory of the Observer", not a theory of matter (as Physics has traditionally been). But thatís material for another book.
Alas, in order to understand how I reached these conclusions you have to read the whole book. Once you have all the facts and all the theories, you can decide by yourself.
And let me clarify one more time: the vast majority of the book is not about my personal beliefs, but about the findings and the theories of specialists who know a lot more than me. In a sense, the goal of this book is to educate the reader to the point that the reader can work out her own theory of consciousness, cognition and life.
What do you think is the meaning of matter?
Summarizing what is summarizable
We don't really know why that particular piece of matter, the brain, yields consciousness. After all, the physical substance of the brain is made of the same elements found in all animals (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, nitrogen, phosphorous, iron, calcium, potassium).
I have proposed a way out of this dilemma: to assume that a fundamental property of matter, of all matter, allows for the rise of consciousness when matter is organized in a particular manner. If consciousness is somehow present in each particle of the universe, then we donít need to explain the gap: there is no gap, just like there is no gap between electricity and gravity, they are simply different aspects of matter, which originate from different properties of fundamental particles.
During our long excursion in the maze of unsolved scientific problems, we progressively reduced much of our behavior (from common sense to emotions, from dreams to intelligence) and even life itself to a more and more mechanical process of interaction with the universe. The "Darwinian" theme kept coming back over and over again: we are the way we are not because somebody designed us that way but because a fundamental "force" of the universe allows for the survival of only those things that "fit" with the rest of the universe. The behavior of body and "mind" is actually very similar, once one takes this "Darwinian" perspective: both bodily organs and mental phenomena are bound to be what they are because they are useful for our survival, and both were shaped by external forces.
We are but small cogs in the gigantic machine of the universe. We donít live, we survive.
Ultimately, we donít live, we are lived.
Even worse: we donít think, we are thought.
We had to go through a cathartic reassessment of our role in the world (the Earth is not the center of the universe; man was not created by God; man is not the dominant species; the brain is just an organ; experience molds the brain) before being in a position to find what is truly unique about the human experience.
The final mystery is what this is all about. If we are but cogs in a huge machine, if our "minds" and bodies are but small machines that are part of a much bigger machine, what is this huge machine for?
The very meaning of life, the fundamental "why" of Science, can be rephrased as follows. Both the mind and the universe are machines that are computing something.
A Word on Miracles
When I discuss Einstein's theory of Relativity with people who have no scientific background, my words are invariably met with a degree of skepticism, notwithstanding Hiroshima and all the other tangible proofs of its validity. On the other hand, mention a "miracle" to the same folks, and they will believe in it (to some degree) on the spot. By "miracle" I mean anything that eludes scientific proof, from telepathy to religious beliefs.
What is it that makes miracles so convincing, even if, over and over again, "miraculous" events and phenomena of the past have been explained rationally by science and proved nothing outside of the ordinary?
Miracles tend to occur only in places where there are no reliable news agencies and never in front of a video-camera. And they cannot be performed in front of scientists, but only in front of audiences that know little about Physics and Chemistry.
Not a single case of telepathy or levitation has been documented scientifically (the way one documents a flue outbreak or a car accident). Yet, most people believe they occur. The same people are often skeptic about Einstein's Relativity, no matter how many experiments have confirmed it.
Why does the human mind prefer miracles over science?
Human brains do not like scientific formulas, they like legends, stories, metaphors. The moment a scientist produces a rational explanation for a purported miracle, people need a new myth to replace it. Newton's and Einstein's brains were working unlike the brains of most people in that they were looking for rational theories to supplant myths.
The ordinary brain needs miracles. Those are the hallucinations, the random hallucinations, that fed it since ancient times. Most brains don't know how to work without those hallucinations. Most brains cannot work our of pure logic, most brains need that irrational element.
Our brain is still very much dependent on the hallucinating voices that come from nowhere, have no explanation and prompt us to experience new behavior.
The Newtons and Einsteins were geniuses because they achieved a higher level of consciousness in which every miracle is questioned and no myth is ever generated. In those brains, the hallucinating voices have been reduced to only one, which expresses their quest for rationality. The chaotic noise of the hallucinating voices has been replaced by the ordered quiet of logical thinking.
Not an epilogue
People often ask me: "Do you believe in God?"
I reply: "Do you believe in zestykistirism?"
They say: "What's that?"
Precisely: "What is God?"
First of all, people should define what they mean by "God". As people struggle to define it, they often end up with such a vague definition that pretty much anything in the cosmos qualifies. The moment they try to be more specific, they fall into all sorts of traps that negate the very essence of the "God" that they are trying to define.
Sometimes, in order to avoid the logic around their own definitions, people claim that our minds cannot grasp the concept of God: if our minds cannot grasp the concept of the divine, then we have no clue what this God expects from us, thus the question is pointless.
The gods we worship (the Christian god, the Jewish god, the Islamic god, etc.) were invented by humans. They are reflections of humanity. They are as "human" as us. We assign them the moral values that we "value", the values that our mind can grasp. If superbeings exist, they are unlikely to be like anything we can envision, and such a superbeing could even be upset that we worship all these "human" gods.
(I also confess a deep antipathy for monotheism: I have always found the ancient polytheistic religions to be much more "civilized", i.e. tolerant and rational, than the tyrannical and dogmatic monotheistic religions of the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. Mecca before Mohammed, where all "idols" were worshiped, is my ideal. Mecca after Mohammed, when all "other" idols became taboo, is my nightmare).
Thus the question about our "souls" and what happens to them after death is also meaningless. For the sake of arguing, one could ask what qualifies as a "soul" and what does not. The majority of religious people would probably reply that only humans qualify. They would claim that dogs have no soul, and worms have no soul, and spiders have no soul: these species do not go to paradise or hell, they simply disintegrate in the soil. Ditto for all the species that preceded Homo Sapiens Sapiens. The evidence? They canít speak, build cities, write books. One could ask: what about superior species? What if a new species appeared, that looks like a turtle but that is capable of doing everything we humans do (writing books, building cities and so forth) plus many other things that we humans canít do (reading minds or seeing in four dimensions or levitating). Would this species qualify for eternal life in paradise? If yes, then we reach the rather unpleasant conclusion that the human species is the "lowest" form of soul: anything inferior to a human being does not have a soul, while anything superior to a human being has a soul. If not, we reach the rather bizarre conclusion that, in order to have a soul, a being must be exactly like a human being, no less and no more: give or take a cognitive faculty and the being becomes a soul-less being. Either answer is unconvincing. The logical answer would be that every form of life is just that: a form of life. There are degrees of consciousness, emotion, feelings, and even of being alive. Some living beings are capable of things that are living beings are not capable of. And in the future new forms of life may appear, capable of actions that we are not capable of.
A word on mysticism
Sometimes the final proof of the existence of some divine force is ascribed to states of ecstasy, whether achieved via collective hysteria or some kind of drugs. What collective hysteria and hallucinogenic drugs have in common is that they, basically, paralyze parts of the brain, so that your perception is reduced (ironically, the opposite of what some psychedelic gurus used to claim) and your ability to perform reasoning is even further reduced. In other words, they make you dumber. As you become dumber, you have visions of God. Somehow the fact that one has to surrender her/his brain in order to grasp the existence of God makes me thing that God is a remnant of a pre-human state of existence, one in which humans were not "sapiens", i.e. did not think the way they think today. I get the feeling that one can grasp the sense of God only if s/he returns to the state of mind of primitive hominids. Perhaps all apes believe in God, because their brain is permanently in the state in which religions and psychedelic gurus wants our brains to be. Perhaps all lower mammals, that do not have the neo-cortex and our cognitive faculties, "feel" God. Religion could simply be an evolutionary leftover, governed by the older part of the brain and superseded by reason whenever we let the newer part of the brain take over.
What is unique about humans is the elaborate rituals (involving dancing, chanting, drumming, funeral processions, masses for the dead, decorated tombs, etc) that they built around their ecstatic experiences. And the way that humans rationalized their ecstatic experiences into three fundamental "religious" beliefs: 1. That gods created the universe; 2. That humans are entitled to an afterlife; 3. That pleasing the gods will make the afterlife more pleasant and even eternal. Is this due to the interaction of the new rational brain with the older irrational brain? Is this the rational brain trying to make sense of the irrational brain?
Humans seem to live under the control of two genetic programs that operate in different directions. The newer genetic program, implemented as the neocortex, wants humans to be rational, while the older genetic program, implemented as the lower brain functions, wants humans to be irrational. The entire human civilization seems to be the outcome of this interplay between the rational and the irrational brain. Humans are maybe just a transitional species, between the irrational brain that has ruled the planet for millions of years and a new category of rational species, that will rule the planet for the next million years.
If I am right, and emotions are due to the older genetic program, this new species will be a species of pure reasoning and no emotions, a species that may or may not have consciousness but will have no feelings about it.
Emotions are very ancient and they are progressively disappearing.
The real appeal of studying religion for a scholar might be that it represents an earlier form of "thinking" in evolution.
What does it all mean?
What does it all mean? Is there an afterlife? I have a feeling that a) we cannot comprehend it, and b) the questions are not framed correctly. We cannot comprehend it because some things are beyond our cognitive closure, just like a snake cannot see in three dimensions and we canít see some colors of the spectrum. And the questions are not framed correctly because they refer to objects that are either not defined or improperly defined. Sometimes the logic is also odd: we are concerned about the afterlife, but seem indifferent to the "pre-life". We are scared that we will never exist again, but we are not scared that we never existed before. The eternity "after" our death terrifies us, but the eternity "before" our birth does not terrify us. Inevitably, one feels that our terror is programmed in our instinct for survival. When I wonder about the afterlife, I am just a machine programmed to avoid death.
It gets even worse if I meditate. When I meditate, I do not find peace at all: the fear of death increases, not decreases. But the more I meditate the more I realize that I also fear eternal life. It would be equally terrifying to live forever and ever and ever. In other words, I fear any non-human condition. I am a human being, programmed to live the life, and to desire the life, of a human being.
I do not envy Godís eternal static life. I do not envy God because I am not controlled by Godís genome. I am controlled by the human genome.
Is there extraterrestrial life? We first have to agree on what "life" means. If we mean "Earthly life" (the thing we call "life" here on Earth), then how much of it is enough to qualify as "life"? What thing between the fundamental constituents of life and a human being is enough to be considered "life"? Depending where one places the border, the chances of "life" existing somewhere else change dramatically. Do the constituents of Earthly life exist somewhere else? Absolutely. Do humans exist somewhere else? I do not think so, because it takes a very similar planet located near a very similar star at a very similar distance with a very similar geological history and a very similar history of astral encounters for billions of years to lead to human beings. (Calculations of the probability of Earthly life occurring on other planets routinely overlook the billions of cosmic events that shape the history of a planet).
If "life" does not have to be the kind that we find on this planet, then the question is what qualifies as "life" that is not made of the constituents of Earthly life (aminoacids and proteins). Since just about everything in the universe grows and decays to some extent (from rocks to Earthly life), just about everything can be squeezed into a broad definition of "life". Is a rock alive? Why not? It does change over time by interacting with the environment. It does multiply when it breaks into many pieces. It is just that Earthly animals do the same thing in a way that to us, Earthly animals, appears more complex.
The behaviorist approach is to define "life" as something that we would recognize as life because we can communicate with it to some extent. We cannot speak to a cat, but the cat reacts to our actions. That reaction tells us that the cat is "alive" (as opposed to a rock, that does not react and therefore we don't consider alive without any need for a biological definition of "life").
The problem is that communication too is a vague concept. Everything, ultimately, interacts with everything else. What degree of interaction is enough to qualify as communication?
My feeling is that we are using an Earthly term for non-Earthly processes when we should simply use a different name. Earthly life is just one of the many processes that can be found on planet Earth. There are many other processes, most of which have no name because we are not interested in naming them. For example, the way rocks decay on planet Earth is probably unique, but we have no name for the process of rock decay on planet Earth. You and I are not rocks, so we have no interest in giving this process a name.
Other planets simply host different kinds of processes. I feel that it is misleading to try to impose the term "life" (a term invented for an Earthly process) on whatever non-Earthly process. Why not just give it a different name?
How will it end? The future evolution of humans Ė Part I
I am frequently asked about the future, about what is going to happen to humans in the future. Most futurologists simply reply that humans will self-destroy and will be replaced by a better race. That is a nice way to avoid figuring out what our civilization will be like millions of years from now. I do not believe that we will self-destroy, but I do believe that we will be replaced by newer and newer "races", descendants of our race (or, better, species).
In the short term I believe that humans will evolve into more and more conscious beings. I see this as a consequence of interaction with other humans and with the cultural specimen that other humans leave behind. The more we think the moreÖ we think. It is a vicious loop that started when humans had the first philosophical conversation. We are more and more conscious of the human condition, of our (minuscule) role in the universe and of death. I see this trend continuing to degrees that today we canít even imagine. Homo Conscious is the successor of Homo Sapiens.
At the same time, I believe that some kind of regression in civilization will occur as a consequence of the stabilization and possible reduction of human population. Basically, I think that civilization was a result of population explosion, a self-sustaining positive feedback: as humans multiplied, each individual had to content herself with a smaller and smaller territory. Civilization was the art of making more of less. As an individualís territory shrank, he had to come up with more efficient means to provide for himself and his family. I believe that this is what civilization is all about. This process has been going for thousands of years, as the territory of an individual shrank from entire forests to an apartment in a high-rise building (mostly not even owned, but only rented). People work because they can no longer rely on a natural profusion of food and materials: competition with other humans has been making those resources scarcer and scarcer. This has triggered human creativity, and caused the advent of science and technology, and everything else that we call "civilization".
Once this process is reversed, I believe that civilization will reverse too. An abundance of natural resources would automatically defuse human creativity.
Thus I foresee a near-term future (a few centuries from now) in which humans will become more and more conscious while being more and more "savage".
How will it end? The future evolution of humans Ė Part II
In a few centuries or millennia, I think that humans will have to face another "intelligent" species. I am not referring to extraterrestrial life (if it exists, it is just so unlikely to interact with Earthly life until we start traveling very long distances). I am referring to descendants of species that exist right now on Earth. I believe that some of them will eventually become "intelligent" enough that humans will have to consider them as equal as, say, very dumb people (ubiquitous in every continent, and often even elected to office). I believe that other animal species will eventually evolve the ability to create civilizations, more or less similar to the ones created by humans (minus human language, of course, which will remain a human peculiarity). I have a hunch that birds (rather than mammals) are the best candidates for such a breakthrough: they live in large societies and they travel long distances. Somehow, I feel that these are prerequisites to the emergence of a higher form of consciousness.
I donít think humans will ever have to share their world with aliens, but I do think that humans will eventually have to share their world with other Earthly species as capable as humans of building civilizations.
How will it end? The future evolution of humans Ė Part III
We can argue forever what happened during the evolution of the human brain, but it seems clear what happened to the human body: it got bigger, and it is still getting bigger, generation after generation. Of course, diet matters. But diet mattered also millions of years ago. It is part of the story of evolution.
We tend to focus on the evolution of the brain, not on the evolution of the body, but I think that the brain evolves to serve the body. Therefore I am interested in finding out the ways in which the human body can evolve.
At the same time, I have always been intrigued by the fact that this human race, so good at expanding beyond its original environment, has scant chances of expanding beyond our neighborhood (the Solar System), of ever exploring the universe: we are too small and our lives are too short for us to conquer unlimited space and time. It is difficult to believe that any kind of scientific progress will allow such small and brief beings to reach any other galaxy.
One day I finally realized the simplest way that humans could colonize the universe: if they evolved into bigger beings, their task of explorers would be much easier, just like an elephant can more easily travel long distances than an ant can. It is not a question of brains, it is simply a matter of size. If humans evolve into a race of giants (giants the size of planets), then they will be able to explore space by simply "taking a walk". These giants, who will eat planets and drink comets (and live millions of years), will be able to "hike" from galaxy to galaxy. If they invent their own transportation system, they might be able to cover distances of billions of light years. (Is this impossible according to Relativity? It is difficult to tell if Relativity, and any other human science, is a true representation of the universe as it is, or just the best representation of the universe as todayís humans see it). Of course, this is not something likely to happen in the next few millennia.
But I do think that the problem of space exploration will be solved by biological evolution, not by technological evolution. I think the former has higher chances of succeeding than the latter. Technology will reach a point where improvement will come at a slower and slower pace, unless it is matched by significant biological evolution. On the other hand, biological evolution may speed up in response to climate change or some galactic event, and the current trend towards bigger bodies may get amplified ten-fold. Over millions of generations, I can visualize descendants of the human race that managed to survive all possible catastrophes and got so big (millions of times bigger) that they have become cosmic objects and roam the universe the same way that we roam the Earth.
They will know about us, the same way we know about the fossils of species that preceded us. They will know of our civilizations, or, better, the fossils of civilizations that preceded theirs. They will study us the same way we study a fossil. No matter how much information we produce in no matter how many different media, our fossils will look devoid of crucial information that is relevant to them for the simple reason that we cannot conceive of the information that will be relevant millions of years from now.
But all of this is a big "if": if our form of life survives long enough. Unfortunately, it is also likely that life on Earth will eventually be destroyed by a galactic catastrophe and nobody will ever know that we existed.
I also envision another possible future, but it is harder to explain it.
If we are part of the universe that we study, and we are becoming more and more conscious of what the universe is and does, and more and more of the universe is becoming "us", then maybe the "what" is a process of self-discovery: the universe is going through a pain-staking process of self-discovery. As conscious life triumphs over unconscious matter, the entire universe will become conscious, aware of itself.
In a sense, we are just waking up, as if after a long sleep, and slowly beginning to realize where we are and who we are.