A simple theory of consciousness

Prepared for the 2001 Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference

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I argue that a simple theory of consciousness can be advanced by accepting that the mental is a property of matter. I argue that we can reconstruct how consciosness developed (evolved) from unconscious organisms. I argue that, rather than studying the evolution of the brain or the evolution of language or the evolution of tools, we need to study the "co-evolution" of memes, language, tools, emotions, brains. They influenced each other. Mind "is" the result of that co-evolution.
I am conscious. I am made of elementary particles. If elementary particles are not conscious, how is it possible that many of them, assembled in molecules and cells and organs, eventually yield a conscious being like me? I argue that consciousness is a feature of matter.
For example, electrical phenomena can easily be explained once one accepts that electricity comes from a fundamental property of matter (i.e. from a property that is present in all matter starting from the most fundamental constituents) a property that, under special circumstances, enables a particular configuration of matter to exhibit "electricity". Particles are not conductors by themselves, and most things made of particles (wood, plastic, glass) are not conductors, but each single particle in the universe has an electrical charge that explains why certain combinations of particles are conductors.
Similarly, I argue that each single particle in the universe has a property that allows our brain to be conscious. I am not claiming that each single particle is conscious or that each single piece of matter in the universe is conscious. I am only arguing that each single particle has this property C which, under the special circumstances of our brain configuration yields consciousness.
By admitting that the mental is due to a fundamental property of matter, materialism, idealism and dualism become one. A multitude of theories of mind can be naturally reconciled.
If we assume that protoconsciousness can arise even in simple forms of matter, we can reconstruct how consciousness evolved.
The earliest unicellular organisms were capable of irritability and excitability. That is the basic survival tool. I argue that those "brain states" were already associated with primitive emotions (eg, "pain/pleasure"). Those basic sensors may have evolved into more sophisticated sensors, capable of more than just binary "good/bad" discrimination: a range of "emotions" was born.
Emotions had survival value and evolved into more and more complex (and more and more useful) emotions, just like any other organ. A mind refers to the emotional life of an organism.
"Minds" were always busy thinking in very basic terms about survival, about how to avoid danger and how to create opportunities for food.
The evolution of emotions into consciousness was accelerated and shaped by tools. Tools relieved us of many daily chores. Our emotions had been invented to help cope with those chores, but tools made emotions obsolete. Our mind was nonetheless still producing emotions, just like the immune system is producing antibodies all the time. Those emotions flowing through our mind eventually got organized, and yielded thought. Thought eventually yielded a continuous flow of emotions and a concept of the self: consciousness was born. Consciousness was born because our mind had nothing to do most of the day, and that happened because we invented tools. Since tools were doing most of the job for us, our minds could afford the luxury of philosophizing, which is really mental gymnastics.
At the same time, language fostered an acceleration in consciousness. Add evolution of language and evolution of memes to the evolution of emotions. They all (language, memes, emotions, tools) evolved together (co-evolved).
The story of human consciousness is a story of evolution on several parallel tracks: language, tools, ideas, emotions, and, of course, the brain itself.
See my website for more details and bibliography.
The 2001 Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference