A simple theory of consciousness

Darwinian panpsychism

Prepared for the 2001 Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference

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At this stage in the study of consciousness, any "theory" is pure speculation. What follows is pure speculation, but based on logic. I make very few assumptions about consciousness, mainly: 1. It exists; 2. It is hosted in a body; 3. It includes emotions.

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. Finally, I argue that a reductionist approach to consciousness is feasible.

I have been proposing this theory, in one form or another, since 1991.

A general property of matter

I am conscious. I am made of cells. Cells are made of molecules. Molecules are made of atoms, and atoms are 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? Many attempts have been made at explaining consciousness by reducing it to something else. No theory of the brain can explain why and how consciousness happens, if it assumes that consciousness is somehow created by some neural entity which is completely different in structure, function and behavior from the feelings we experience. So, how does consciousness arise in matter? I would like to suggest that, maybe, it does not arise: it is a feature of matter. From a logical standpoint, the only way out is to accept that consciousness must be a physical property.
When we try to explain consciousness by reducing it to electrochemical processes (the brain processes), we put ourselves in a situation similar to a scientist who decided to explain electrical phenomena by using gravity. 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".
If consciousness comes from a fundamental property of matter (from a property that is present in all matter starting from the most fundamental constituents), then, and only then, we can study why and how, under special circumstances, that property enables a particular configuration of matter (e.g., the brain) to exhibit "consciousness".
Any paradigm that tries to manufacture consciousness out of something else is doomed to failure. Ex nihilo nihil fit. Consciousness does not simply arise from the act of putting unconscious neurons together. It does not appear by magic. Conductivity seems to appear by magic in some configurations of matter (e.g. metallic objects), but there's no magic: just a fundamental property of matter, the electrical charge, which is present in every single particle of this universe, a property which is mostly useless but that under the proper circumstances yields the phenomenon known as conductivity.
Particles are not conductors by themselves, just like they are not conscious, 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, 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 (and other brain configurations as well, and possibly even things with no brain) yields consciousness.
Just like electricity and liquidity are macroscopic properties that are caused by microscopic properties of the constituents, so consciousness is a macroscopic property of our brain that is caused by a microscopic property of its constituents. Just like electrical phenomena can only be reduced to smaller-scale electrical phenomena (all the way down to the charge of each single constituent), so consciousness can only be reduced to smaller-scale conscious phenomena (all the way down to the C of each particle).
Property C has not been found by Physics for the simple reason that Physics was not built to find it: Physics is an offshoot of Descartes' dualism, which strictly separated mind and matter and assigned Physics to matter. Newton's Physics was built to explain the motion of unconscious objects, and that is what it explains. It did not find elementary particles and it did not find entropy. It was built to explain bodies. Relativity was built to explain the constant speed of light, electromagnetism and gravitation. And that is what it explains. It did not find quarks either, because it was not built to study atoms. Quantum Theory, on the other hand, found quarks, because it was built to study the atom. But it did not find black holes, because it was not built to study gravitation.


My theory is not dualistic and it is not materialistic. Like dualists, I admit the existence of consciousness as separate from the physical properties of matter as we know them; but at the same time, like materialists, I consider consciousness as arising from a physical property (that we have not discovered yet) that behaves in a fundamentally different way from the other physical properties. So in a sense it is not a "physical" property, but it is still a property of all matter. Mine is an identity theory, in that it holds that mental states correspond to neural states, but it goes beyond identity because I also think that the property yielding consciousness is common to all matter, whether it performs neural activity or not.
What made Descartes believe in dualism is the unity of consciousness. But electrical conductors also exhibit a unity of electricity, and still electrical phenomena can be reduced to a physical property of matter.
The Latin philosopher Lucretius once stated that "every creature with senses is made only of particles without senses". The paradox still stands. Descartes did not solve it by simply separating "sense" (mind) from "non-sense" (matter) and later philosophers did not solve it no matter how they looked at the relationship between mind and matter.
The solution to the paradox has always been around, and it only required accepting that our mind is nothing else but a natural phenomenon.
The British mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead believed that every particle in the universe is an event having both an objective aspect of matter and a subjective aspect of experience. Some material compounds, such as the brain, create the unity of experience that we call "mind". Most material compounds are limited in their experience to the experience of their constituents.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel reached a similar conclusion: that "proto-mental properties" must be present in all matter, and, suitably organized, become consciousness. He assumed one, common source for both the material and the mental aspects of the world. Mental and material are never separated: there is never the material without the mental, and there is never the mental without the material.
The Danish physicist Niels Bohr once suggested that the quantum wave function of matter represents its mental aspect, that the wave of the electron is the equivalent of the mind of matter. Bohr suggested that the duality of waves and particles could explain the duality of mind and matter. After all, the wave of probability could be interpreted as expressing a "free will" of the electron, a primitive "mental life" of its own. The dual aspect of body and mind within an organism would derive from the dual aspect of the particles composing an organism, from the dual aspect of wave and particle.
Modern theories of consciousness based on Quantum Physics inevitably place an emphasis on the "observer": matter is ultimately what the observer observes. What these physical theories of consciousness have in common is the logic: the easiest, and possibly only, way to bridge matter and mind is to posit that mind arises from matter in a natural way, from a property of matter.
By admitting that the mental is due to a fundamental property of matter, materialism, idealism and dualism become one. In a sense, a multitude of theories of mind can be finally reconciled.

The human mind as an evolution of emotions

The second question is: when, how and why did "conscious configurations of matter" arise? If life, ultimately, evolved from chemical compounds that have no mental life, when and how did these compounds and their descendants evolve into thinking matter? At which point in the evolution of life did feelings emerge?
Within the the Darwinian framework, every organ evolves from something primordial because it has a useful function for survival. The most primordial mind one can think of is a mind that has very basic emotions, possibly only pain and pleasure. There is mounting evidence that emotions have evolved, as much as any other organ. Emotions had an evolutionary value, as they helped bodies in their struggle for survival, and therefore were valuable, and therefore were absorbed into bodies and evolved.
If emotions are the basic constituent of consciousness and they have "evolved" over the millennia, a possible and plausible explanation of where our mind comes from goes like this.
Even the earliest unicellular organisms were capable of irritability and excitability. That is the basic survival tool. If consciousness (to some degree) is ubiquitous in nature, then one can assume that those "brain states" were 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 existed from the early stages of life, and that they evolved with life. They became more and more complex as organisms became more and more complex.
Emotion detects and identifies meaning in the outside world and directs attention to that meaning. A great evolutionary advantage.
Early hominids had feelings, although their feelings, while much more sophisticated than the ones of bacteria, were still rather basic, probably limited to fear, pain, pleasure, etc. In mammals and birds emotions were related to sounds (i.e., fear to screaming). Early hominids had a way to express through sounds their emotions of fear and pain and pleasure. This new feature made if easy to communicate emotions, and therefore exchange survival-related information.
Emotions were a factor, a skill, that helped in natural selection. Minds were always busy thinking in very basic terms about survival, about how to avoid danger and how to create opportunities for food.

Mind as the evolution of tools

The evolution of emotions into consciousness was accelerated and shaped by other factors.
It is unlikely that humans are the only species with emotions, but it is likely that humans are the species in which emotions evolved in the most spectacular way. The reason for this spectacular evolution may very well be that we developed more sophisticated tools than any other species. Tools relieved us of many daily chores. Our emotions had been invented to help cope with those chores, but tools made emotions obsolete: if I can build a house with walls, why should I still fear tigers at night anymore? 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.
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 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 followed a Darwinian evolution of their own.
This process continues today, and will continue for as long as tools allow more time for our minds to think. The software engineer son of a miner is "more" conscious than her father. And her father was more conscious than her ancestor who was a medieval slave.
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 cannot produce "our" set of complex sounds, but they could potentially develop sound systems based on their sounds. They do not need sound systems because they do not produce complex emotions. 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.
At the same time, language fostered an acceleration in consciousness, as it enabled a new level of organization of and of reflection on emotions.
Consciousness is a product of having nothing better to do with our brain.
As tools became more and more sophisticated, we also started using them for thinking. For example, language. For example, writing. For example, music. For example, painting, cinema and comics.

Mind as co-evolution of memes, language, tools, emotions, brains

So on one hand we had evolution of tools, on the other evolution of emotions. At the same time there was evolution of the body. Add evolution of language and evolution of memes. They all evolved together (co-evolved). It was evolution on several parallel tracks.
This is a story that involves (must involve) all the characteristics that define what a human being is: language, tools, ideas, emotions, and, of course, the brain itself. After all, these things had to happen for us to be what we are.
When life was created, whether by accident or by divine intervention, primitive cells started moving about their environment desperately seeking food. Those cells evolved into more and more complex organisms, which developed nervous systems to coordinate their movements and eventually a brain to control their nervous system. This is Darwin's piece of the story.

Life then started using the environment. We are not the only tool-making species. Tools are used by, and indispensable to the survival of, spiders (the spiderweb) and most birds (the nest), just to name two. In our hands tools took a life (evolutionarily speaking) of their won: they started evolving and getting more and more complex and more and more useful. This was a by-product of having a better brain. At the same time tools shaped what the brain does, i.e. our mind. Tools are an extension of our mind.
Emotions evolved as well as brains and tools. Emotions of pleasure and pain are present in every living organism we have observed. It is just that our emotions are, again, more complex. It is likely that the availability of tools "freed" our mind of its daily duties. Emotions that were meant to help us survive in the wild started flowing through our "inactive" mind and evolved into what we call "thought". They, again, took on a life of their own. Mind shaped emotions, emotions shaped mind; mind shaped tools, tools shaped mind.
"Memes", such as religions and ideologies, started populating minds, and spreading from mind to mind. They also evolved, and shaped the human mind.
Communication underwent a similar evolution, mutating from primitive forms of communication to William Shakespeare's sonnets.

A reductionist explanation of the self

The "I" is the central problem of consciousness. Even if we eventually explain how conscious experience arises from the electrochemical processes of the brain, even if we discovered some kind of "proto-consciousness" that gets combined to form emotions and feelings, we still need to show how and why that set of emotions and feelings becomes a "I". That matter can feel emotions is a mystery enough. But what we feel is even stranger: it is not that each part of our body, each molecules feels emotions. It is "I" that feel those emotions. A body is made of parts that interact, and each one has its own life. But a consciousness is an "I" that feels all of the emotions related to that body. My consciousness is not distributed the same way that matter is distributed in my body. Let us assume that everything is conscious to some degree. Every atom, every molecule, every tissue, every organ, every being is "conscious". And that "I" is just what I am conscious of. If I were born a finger, I would only be conscious of what a finger does. "I" happen to be born the part of the brain that is conscious of what I am conscious.
The "I" that is writing this sentence is not the conscious part of the foot or of the nail, it is the conscious part of a part of the brain. I am not conscious of my foot's consciousness, because "I" am the consciousness of something else (a part of the brain). And I am not conscious of the consciousness of any other parts of the brain because "I" (the one who is writing right now) am not those parts. "I" am the consciousness of a part of the brain, and it turns out "I" (this particular consciousness) receive information from several parts of the body and direct order to several parts of the body. For example, it is likely that the "consciousnesses" associated with my fingers are conscious of typing on the keyboard. They have to, because the brain tells them to. "I" (the consciousness of that part of the brain) am only aware of sending them the order to type. Because of the organization of the body, the brain controls other organs. Because each part is associated with a consciousness, each part is aware of what it is doing. But "I", the consciousness associated with this part of the brain, identify with the whole body.
"I" am actually not conscious of everything. There is a consciousness associated with my liver and one with my intestine and one with each of millions of minuscule parts. "I" am not aware any of those parts. I cannot feel that I because "I" am not that I. Evolution has decreed which parts are connected to the part of the brain that is associated with "I". "I" am aware only of those parts. The main difference between "I" and other "consciousnesses" inside this body is that "I" (or the brain part associated with that "I") can tell fingers to type this sentence, and can tell the mouth to utter words. Of course, there could be another consciousness (another I) that is conscious of parts of my body that I am not conscious of. Maybe there is a consciousness (another I) that is directing me to think what I am thinking and directing me to direct the fingers to type what they are typing. I cannot be conscious of this "super-consciousness" or of any other consciousness associated with my body, because "I" am not it or them.
The reason things don't get out of control is that the structure of "consciousnesses" must mirror the structure of the body, so that an order issued by a consciousness cannot conflict with the order issued by another consciousness.
Finally, it is not necessary that "consciousnesses" be truly directing anything. Each consciousness could simply be the "phenomenal" aspect of a physical process: any action by a body part also yields a conscious experience that presumes of being the cause of that action.
Whether it is consciousness that directs the body or viceversa is another issue. The basic point I am making is that the body is made of parts, each part being made of parts and so forth all the way down to elementary particles.
Each of those parts, all the way down to elementary particles, also has a phenomenal aspect that I call "consciousness".
The consciousness that is writing this sentence is "I". There are countless consciousnesses that share this body, each of them conscious of what one part of the body is doing. They may all be convinced of having free will, just like I am. There may be consciousnessed that share this body and direct "I" to do what "I" am doing.
"I" cannot feel any other consciousness than "I", because that is what "I" am.

Experimental study of consciousness

Needless to say, what sets consciousness apart in the realm of scientific research is the fact that we cannot observe consciousness outside of ourselves. Most philosophers and scientists have concluded that the traditional scientific method would never work for consciousness. Traditionally, we employ a reductionist approach: we break down the system in components until we reach the atoms, then we explain the properties of the whole from the properties of its atoms.
What I propose is that the old reductionist approach will work also for consciousness. Consciousness is no more "magic" than electricity. We study electricity by studying the elementary particles that give rise to it. We can study consciousness if we can identify the particles and their properties that give rise to it.
The main problem is the lack of an empirical test for consciousness. We cannot know whether a being is conscious or not. We cannot "measure" its consciousness. We cannot rule out that every object in the universe, including each elementary particle, has consciousness: we just cannot detect it. Even when I accept that other human beings are conscious a) I base my assumption on similarity of behavior, not on an actual "observation" of their consciousness; and b) I somehow sense that some people (poets and philosophers, for example) may be more conscious than other people (lawyers and doctors, for example). The trouble is that our mind is capable only of observing conscious phenomena at its own level and within itself. Our mind is capable of observing only one conscious phenomenon: itself.
A good way to start is to analyze why (we think) consciousness is hosted in the brain. Why does consciousness apply only to the brain? What is special about the brain that cannot be found, say, in the foot? If the brain is made of common matter, of well-known constituents, what is it that turns that matter conscious when it is configured as a brain, but not when it is configured as a foot? And why does it stop being conscious if oxygen or blood are not supplied?
Ever more sophisticated devices allow us to analyze the activity of the brain. It is becoming technically possible to register the activity corresponding to conscious states. We have to trust that, when someone claims to be conscious, s/he really is conscious. If accept this premise, then it is possible to observe consciousness at the level of brain processes. It is possible to classify different kinds of conscious activity and map it to different kinds of brain activity. These observations will result in physical laws of conscious activity. Those physical laws, just like any other physical laws, can be explained by making assumptions on the structure and behavior of matter, just like the laws of gravitation can be explained by making the assumptions embodied by the Theory of Relativity. We have not found any evidence yet that a reductionist approach cannot work for consciousness. The fact that we do not have a physical theory of consciousness cannot be interpreted as evidence that a physical theory of consciousness is impossible.
As it becomes easier and easier to study neural activity, one can start measuring and mapping neural activity corresponding to a repertory of conscious states, including emotions and dreams. One can classify the neural activity related to conscious states and apply a reductionist approach to the classification, looking for a compositional law that explains the results.
I believe it is possible to deduce the "funda-mental" property of matter from observation of neural activity related to conscious states.
We will never be able to perceive it directly. But then we can never "see" a black hole. We can only see the effects of a black hole and speculate that a black hole is consistent with our theory of the world and with the observed behavior of the world. A similar level of evidence can be achieved for consciousness.

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MacPhail Euan: THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Maturana Humberto: AUTOPOIESIS AND COGNITION (Reidel, 1980)
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Pinker Steven: HOW THE MIND WORKS (Norton, 1997)
Searle John: THE REDISCOVERY OF THE MIND (MIT Press, 1992)
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Unger Peter: IDENTITY, CONSCIOUSNESS AND VALUE (Oxford Univ Press, 1991)
The 2001 Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference