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Thread: Where does consciousness end / begin?

  1. #1 Where does consciousness end / begin? 
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    This might be subject to slightly differing definitions of the word consciousness. I think the definition I am going with is awareness of existence.

    I think consciousness is a fundamental property of matter. The more complex the arrangement of the matter, the more complex the consciousness. My thoughts on the matter are clearly biased, being what I am, a human that defines itself as conscious.

    Here is my line of reasoning / questioning:

    Is a human conscious?
    Is a cat conscious?
    Is a snake conscious?
    Is a mouse conscious?
    Is a praying mantis conscious?
    Is an ant conscious?
    Is a bacterium conscious?
    Is a virus conscious?
    Is a rock conscious?
    Is an atom conscious?
    And so on.

    Where do we draw the line? Why? Are each of the examples not simply varying levels of complexity on a scale of consciousness? Is a brain required? Why?

    So I think of dirt as conscious, but such a simple consciousness as to be (near?) unfathomable to something as complex as a human. I can't really call this scientifically rigorous, or even testable to my knowledge. But it's an interesting thought I had.


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    Forum Professor pyoko's Avatar
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    I went along the same philosophical lines trying to work out what consciousness is. Still no idea, although I guess neuroscience can give you the same tired definition and explanation. Now, I am not looking for anything supernatural, as I don't believe in that stuff.

    When I was in year 9 or 10 I did an essay on how a cockroach has a consciousness lol It's just all relative. A cockroach cannot fathom its reality, so it needs less reality to feel alive.

    But it's more philosophy than science.


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    mmm.

    Its a question about a primordial being yes?
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    Unless we're saying "what everyone else calls god I call the entire universe, and it has no plan because that would assume a higher, not lower consciousness", I uh, have no idea what you mean by primordial being. That was all a huge assumption on my part, because when I think primordial I think "early" and when I think being I think "creature". And I have a feeling that's not what you meant.
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    If you meant we are all fundamentally eddies and whorls in the the infinite expanse of time and space, so really we are all one, the universe, experiencing itself subjectively with no real purpose or meaning... then I agree.
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    What If we will never know, ever?
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    Ever know what? Also, who cares if we know or never know?
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  9. #8  
    Forum Masters Degree Implicate Order's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ninja Pancakes View Post
    This might be subject to slightly differing definitions of the word consciousness. I think the definition I am going with is awareness of existence.

    Where do we draw the line? Why? Are each of the examples not simply varying levels of complexity on a scale of consciousness? Is a brain required? Why?

    So I think of dirt as conscious, but such a simple consciousness as to be (near?) unfathomable to something as complex as a human. I can't really call this scientifically rigorous, or even testable to my knowledge. But it's an interesting thought I had.
    This is of course just a bit of musing from my part so don't take it to seriously as I really have nothing to back this up.

    I tend to define consciousness as being 'self aware'. In my definition, for 'something' to be self aware, that 'something' needs a basis for identifying themselves as being 'seperate' to their context. In my opinion 'consciousness' at the most rudimentary level is therefore derived from an assesment by a 'something' of its environmental context by virtue of measurements undertaken by that 'something'. Rudimentary measurements and analysis of the environment and at least the basis for a notion of 'self' by simple organisms are progressively magnified with evolutionary complexity to ultimately be manifested as 'fully fledged' conscious organisms.

    The notion then of what is 'conscious' therefore is restricted to life (including viruses) but does not extend to inanimate objects. At the most rudimentary level, say that of an amoeba, its measuring instruments are used to detect food, light etc. Incredibly primitive notions of measurement, but necessary to survive which leads to a notion of seperate existence.

    A Portugese Man of War is a more complex arrangement. Whilst defined as a colonial organism, the entire colony works to a common purpose creating a notion of 'self'. Some zooids take up different functions but the entire assemblage takes on a single purpose of enhancing survival. The collectives measuring instruments work to a common purpose for the benefit of the entire colony. The notion of 'self' is therefore magnified.

    As we progress up the evolutionary tree, the notion of self is progressively re-inforced and then significantly enhanced when rudimentary brains emerged further re-inforcing the notion of self. Importantly this IMO would provide a competetive advantage to the collective organism that would now be defined as a 'single' multicellular organism.

    With this viewpoint in mind you can see why I would view consciousness as being an emergent phenomenon (initially founded on the need to survive) associated with the progressive increasing amount of information received and the more complex analysis needed to be undertaken by a living organism in surviving in its local environment. :-))

    PS You could see from this viewpoint that I would subscribe to the view that artificial intelligence may ultimately create self awareness. When algorithms reach a level of complexity that machines can interrogate 'changing' environments and make rational decisions related to survival of their programme (self) ............. So maybe Skynet will become self aware in the future with the rise of the machines :-))
    Last edited by Implicate Order; November 29th, 2013 at 07:39 AM.
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    I find what IMPLICATE ORDER and NINJA PANCAKES are saying to be extremely fascinating. The philosophy of consciousness is something I've previously studied when I began researching whether dogs were rational agents and it led onto many interesting threads about personhood definitions, which of course include consciousness.

    On my other computer I have a thousand links you may find useful, but sadly I can't transfer them over today. Modern philosophy is very divided about whether consciousness even exists in humans, let alone in animals. The more you read about it and the more you think about it the way these two contributors have done so, the further towards a conclusion you arrive that either everything biological has some form of consciousness that is not even dependent upon a brain, because it seems to exist within the bioelectrical functioning of single cells; or otherwise, alternatively nothing has any consciousness, because the concept is an invention that can't be proven.
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    It's too early in the morning for this.
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    we provide answers to questions at what hour?
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    IMO, Conscious is label, its whatever we want to call it, but we should not base our understanding on the simplistic labels we use, I see it more as a spectrum of awareness, that is an extension of perception of the environment (of which it is a part of, hence eventual self-awareness).

    To me dirt is not concious, it may react like any inert substance but it doesnt perceive the world around it (and it doesnt compare the surroundings with a model/prior perception nor is such a model associated with properties).

    Simple life forms perception is very limited, and they may not have a complex and detailed representation of the world around them, therefore they are low on the awarness spectrum. Plants (those typical on earth) have a very limited mobility/diversity of actions to perform to reat to a change in the environment, without a brain or something that acts like a brain they do not have a mental representation that changes with changes in the environment, they also have limited awareness.
    Some small animals have a brain and sensory organs, that absorb characteristics from the environment, mental representations of the environment, and they can detect and process perceived changes and act accordingly. These have more awareness, even if their self-awareness may be not as developed/complex/detailed as our own since a human older child/adult know that the human in the mirror is themselves, and some animals dont recognize themselves to such a degree (they are nonetheless self-aware to some degree, but not in a way that is familiar for us).
    Humans are also not aware, initially, when we are a sperm and and egg with 2 cells divided into 4, we do not have perception, and later we have the organic tools to perceive and absorb but no developed models to compare the experience to something that can be associated to various properties. A new born is not a tiny adult, it has no reference and its awareness is quite different from a child, it sees things moving (its hands) and feels pain (when it grabs its own ear without realizing he is the cause of the pain by one part of the body pulling on another part of the body). The human infant learns to see, learns about itself, and eventually has its models develop it will look in the mirror and realize the other child is himself.

    The pounds of flesh and cells are not concious themselves, they have no clue they exist nor about our body (the way "we" perceive it) nor about the world we perceive (we are not the cells or our body per say, but we are the emergent property of our cells interaction with each other and the environment).
    If the interaction is disrupted/changed-in-a-way-that-no-longer-functions-as-it-does-when-conscious, even if all parts and all cells are there, there is no consciousness.

    Note that imo, for a long time there was no consciousness in the universe, everthing existed while nothing knew it existed. Now, the vast majority of the universe still doesnt know it exists, but a few areas where complex interactions between organisms that perceive their environment, are the few pockets (compared to intersellar space etc) of the universe where there is some awarness.

    Also Note that humans were conscious to some degree for thousands of generations, without knowing what they really were (not knowing about cells etc) and not aware of the parts(whose) whose interaction was creating the emergent property which is their conciousness. Its normal, they could not perceive cells, their awarness was limited to surface/superficial observations. Language/descriptions/drawings/models/theories/concepts, are in a way and extension of our sensory faculties, they allow us to increase the complexity and level of details of our representation of the world around us.
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    consciousness = self awareness?
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    If we consider a virus to be concious, what is one step below a virus? What about RNA, DNA?

    Is RNA/DNA a lowest common denominator in everything we view as conscious? What about the constituents of RNA/DNA? What makes this arrangement of molecules special beyond it's complexity? At what level of copmplexity so we decide that it is no longer conscious? Why?

    Does a piece of dirt need to have the capacity to sense anything to be conscious? Does the idea consciousness require the ability to determine self from the piece of dirt next to you, which was you before erosion broke you apart? Everything is fundamentally constructed of the same energy, and thus the same at its very core. This is why I believe complexity makes apparent the idea of a fundamental feature such as consciousness. I do caution myself that this is somewhat flimsy ground, since I might make a similar argument for some other feature, what feature, I don't know, but I am sure there is something that could fit the same shoes.
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    Forum Cosmic Wizard icewendigo's Avatar
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    I dont consider a virus to be conscious (infinitesimally so at best)

    "Does a piece of dirt need to have the capacity to sense anything to be conscious?"
    Yes

    "Everything is fundamentally constructed of the same energy, and thus the same at its very core."
    The important thing to consider is how the parts are arranged, and organized, thus affecting how it interacts, which is a huge difference; a cloud of hydrogen gas and an artist may have the same subatomic particle, how they are organized and interact makes all the difference in the world, even air, if it is organized/interacts in a way that forms a tornado, you will run away from the emergent properties of that air because it's not the same even if it's made up of the exact same air as a mild windless morning.
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  17. #16  
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    Quote Originally Posted by sculptor View Post
    consciousness = self awareness?
    That was my thinking as well. The line somewhere between closing my eyes and my wife nudging me because I'm snoring.
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  18. #17  
    Forum Masters Degree Implicate Order's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ninja Pancakes View Post
    Is RNA/DNA a lowest common denominator in everything we view as conscious? What about the constituents of RNA/DNA? What makes this arrangement of molecules special beyond it's complexity? At what level of copmplexity so we decide that it is no longer conscious? Why? Does a piece of dirt need to have the capacity to sense anything to be conscious? Does the idea consciousness require the ability to determine self from the piece of dirt next to you, which was you before erosion broke you apart? Everything is fundamentally constructed of the same energy, and thus the same at its very core. This is why I believe complexity makes apparent the idea of a fundamental feature such as consciousness..
    In my opinion it is the cell itself and it's constituent parts including the code (the software) and its self-sustaining hardware. What is 'living'. In my opinion it is not simply 'all in the code'. Many would disagree but I think we need to be pretty careful stepping into this territory (thinks epigenetics etc.)

    If I was to draw a definition for what does it mean to be alive, then embedded in that notion is a fundamental property called consciousness. The self-organisation and complexity of a living cell runs counter to overriding entropic laws trending towards disorder. One of life's quirks is it's tendency to run counter to this trend.

    If we ever happen upon being able to construct life from ground up (we have got close with viruses but no cigar yet as we currently cheat using organic componentry), then the recipe applied in my opinion would provide a foundation for rudimentary consciousness to emerge.

    When you closely look at the inner workings of a cell you can't help but draw parrallells to incredibly complicated machines . It's individual working parts all chugging away collectively for the benefit of the cell. Strong parrallells can be drawn between autonomous machines.

    What is common to these living machines is information processing. This is what literaly blows me away with 'life'. I don't think we fully fathom this complexity and we are light years away from ever being able to replicate this with our current machines. Living cells however, unlike modern machines, are incredibly robust. For something as complex as a cell to be extremely resistant to external deleterious imacts is a wonder to behold. I just need to sneeze at my computer and it shuts down. This robustness in my opinion is fascilated by the organised complexity of the cell that can powerfully respond to external threats. I personally believe that the cell is a majestic measuring instrument that is continuosuly assessing its environment for threats to its survival. Yes the code programmes this behaviour but as Dawkins put's it, the code is all about survival.

    The concept of 'self awareness', 'self preservation' etc. would be a significant competetive advantage for an organism seeking to survive in its environment.

    This complexity of information processing going on at the cellullar level is so complex and so emcompassing and as a result I don't conceptually have a long way to leap in construing that a cell may actually be conscious. Many others would stridently disagree but when you use the cell as a basis and then extend this principle and magnify this result throughout an entire multi-cellular organism, it's not hard to see how 'fully fledged' consciousness may emerge.


    Anyway, these type of philosophical musings is and have always been fascinating to me. Thanks for starting the thread Ninja. :-))
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    My pleasure. I absolutely love that video. No matter how many times I have seen it in the past, watching it evokes within me a profound sense of awe, similar to looking up into the sky, seeing the moon and stars, and realizing them for what they are. In the vein of life running counter to entropy, crystalline formations also run counter to entropy. Stable atoms as well. I feel like the universe is fractal to its very core, and the concept of "as above, so below" is very real (and I don't mean that in any kind of religious sense).
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