19. The Evolution of Consciousness

     As brains evolve toward greater complexity, mind evolves toward two seemingly opposed capacities: relativity and objectivity. To relativize is to bring experience in relation to the perceiving subject. To objectify is to discern a reality independent of the subject. These two movements are united as the polarities of a dialectic, which is the motor of the evolution of mind. Relativization involves contextualizing the existing model for the sake of creating a more adequate and comprehensive one.

     To understand the role of consciousness in biological evolution, we must be clear what is meant by consciousness. We have an image of the experience of other creatures as an interior life, whether or not we imagine that they are also self-conscious. But this image is a product of our own self-consciousness, which is not the same as the simple awareness we picture as the interior domain of sentience. In other words, we subjective humans create this category of "simple awareness" in our subjective cognitive domain. The state we imagine as simple awareness is always, for us, some version of subjective consciousness. Self-consciousness of a system implies the emergence within it of a subjective point of view. Only a self-conscious system can ascribe to itself a point of view. This is the only solid meaning that can be given to having a point of view at all. Otherwise, the question of the sentience of a cognitive system remains indeterminate, for unless a system is self-conscious, any point of view ascribed to it is really that of another (self-conscious) system-- the observer. This is the basic problem involved in imagining the experience of other creatures (let alone machines). Clearly, the Mind-Body Problem can only arise in a self-conscious system-- and inevitably does! The contrast between subjective and objective (first and third) points of view is inescapable for us, simply because we can conceive the distinction. Therefore, as self-conscious observers, we continue to insist that there is a Mind-Body Problem, even though we may firmly believe in a naturalistic explanation of consciousness. We continue to puzzle over experience even if we are convinced that the properties of a system which render it conscious are specifiable behaviorally or structurally.

     Not every causal system is intentional. Probably not every intentional system is aware, and almost certainly not every awareness system is self-conscious. Subjective consciousness is a meta-awareness, which suggests that simple awareness itself could also be a meta-state in relation to some yet more primary mental activity. If this primary activity of a system is what we have been referring to as representation, intentionality, cognitive modelling, etc., then simple awareness would be some level of this system taking cognizance of events within itself. When information enters the system, simple awareness would be the registration or representation of the fact of this entry. In other words, it would be a monitor for incoming impressions. It is possible, of course, for input to be stored directly in memory, bypassing the monitor. There would be an advantage, however, for the system that knows what data has entered it. Simple awareness would acknowledge information at the point of entry. There is anatomical evidence supporting the idea of awareness as a monitoring system separate from a primary flow of information processing. The main pathway from the sensory surfaces to the cortex is not in itself associated with awareness, which depends rather on a separate structure, the Reticular Activating System.

     The effect of monitoring input is to call attention to the stimulus, which means to reiterate as significant the information which has entered the system. Since it is significant in relation to the system, there is an implicit self-reference. This is a subtle point, for it is certainly possible for a system to sort information into categories without engaging in self-reference. But the difference in effect is like the difference between the phrase "the green tree" and the statement "this tree is green". The former is purely extensional whereas, in the latter, the greenness of the tree becomes the object of an assertion. We may speculate that only when information becomes, so to speak, a grammatical object does it enter awareness. Awareness is a relationship to its object that is analogous to the relationship between grammatical subject and object, linked by the operation of a verb. Of course, ordinary statements, while implicitly intentional, are not self-referring in the ordinary sense. That explicit level of self-reference corresponds to subjective consciousness.

     The fact that humans can engage in functional acts of perception which do not involve awareness might appear to complicate the naturalistic explanation of consciousness. It is the basis for "zombie" arguments that a person (or machine) could-- without consciousness-- do all the things that a supposedly conscious person does. It obliges us to account for additional factors, besides intentionality, involved in conscious perception. This means showing why one organization rather than another should give rise to conscious experience-- the very heart of the Mind-Body Problem.

     It has been demonstrated, for example, in numerous experiments that information can be retained in memory without entering awareness. That is, a person can note some detail, not knowing that she has noted it, and yet be able to act on the basis of the information noted, recovering it with at least a statistical certainty. However, this certainty belongs to the cognitive domain of the testing observer, while the subject is merely guessing. In awareness, by contrast, the information not only is known, but the fact that it is known is also known-- and so belongs to the cognitive domain of the subject. The aware system has its own internal certainty, since it keeps track of its own contents. There is a clear advantage in precision and reliability of the information retained, as well as the ability to use it "at will" in the future, when the subject consciously knows the information-- when it is information for the subject rather than for the observer. Therefore, consciousness is functional. A zombie simply could not do all the things his conscious counterpart can do.

     Whether or not information becomes consciously represented is generally not a conscious decision. Contents pre-consciously screened out continue to be elaborated unconsciously and to maintain potential access to consciousness. The relation between conscious and unconscious is in constant flux, the actors coming and going from stage, waiting for their cues behind the curtain. The Unconscious is not a compartment of the mind, but a shifting relationship between potential and manifest.

     In some sense, the curtain or screen of consciousness is an interface between internal subsystems, or between levels of processing, just as a computer monitor displays an interface between parts within the total system comprised by human user and computer. An "image" in such a display is a way of organizing propositional information, an analog synthesis of digital processes, a global representation on which various specializing subsystems can perform their appropriate operations, and from which they can draw information contributed by the other subsystems.[21] An image is a synopsis of the work performed in various departments, under continuous internal redrafting. The great corporate bureaucracy does the bulk of the routine legwork, which includes preparing images, while the conscious system is reserved for novelty, for executive decisions it makes by reviewing such images. "Image", here, does not mean an optical display but what is read into of a pattern of information.

     Attention, as the volitional aspect of awareness, is the ability to control the flow of information through the awareness system. Attention is drawn by the unexpected, but may also create its own novelty through intentional focus. It seems that an important role of the awareness system is that it facilitates access to memory of events deemed novel enough to enter awareness. The mind knows where to look in memory for contents which once entered awareness, since it tags such contents for retrieval through the focus of attention.

     Awareness is a strategy to deal with the unexpected-- that is, with those situations not automatically covered by the existing algorithms of the system. Since reality is larger than any formalism, it is always presenting something unexpected. Routine situations, already mastered, do not require awareness, but new situations do. It is an advantage to a system to be open to ongoing modification through interaction with its environment. The hallmark of awareness is precisely that it is an open-ended response to the world.

     The cognitive system transcends its fixed algorithms by creating an awareness system meta to them-- a system that interprets aspects of its information flow as features of a real world. In turn, it transcends this fixation on a real world by creating subjective consciousness-- a system that reinterprets aspects of its real-izing capacity as processes within itself. In a sense these movements are opposed, but the essence and evolutionary advantage of each is the same. Both increase versatility and objectivity. If there is a need to relativize and subjectify experience and thought by disengaging its formal aspects, there is also a corresponding need to reengage on higher levels, to assert more adequate models, to reinvest in better metaphors and explore wider worlds. To leave a nest is to find oneself nested in a larger matrix of seeming reality, and the task of subjective consciousness is posed again on a new level. Neither creating nor dismantling worlds alone converges on objectivity. But these seemingly antithetical movements of mind participate together in a dialectical evolution.

     The limitation of a wired-in reaction pattern is its mechanical rigidity-- its stupidity. A global representation-- an image that is monitored by subsystems capable of variable responses-- is a synthesis upon which further analysis can be performed. Paradoxically, the greater flexibility it affords depends on the gap it creates between image and action, leaving indeterminate the basis for behavior implicit in the image. At the extreme, one would see the world dispassionately and have no response to it. Obviously, to be viable for an organism, detachment must be relative. The advantage of an image of the world is that it distances reaction, freeing it up to be more versatile and objective, but this is in fact a matter of reconnecting action to some higher domain or in some more effective way. Otherwise we are left with an organism that has no priorities, and is paralysed in its indifference. This problem appears in Eastern philosophy in the concept of Nirvana. When one frees oneself from all that has form and limit, being simply consumed in the Absolute, one leaves the cycle of existence never to return. The outer cosmic parallel is the collapse of the whole universe back into the dimensionless state of void before the Big Bang, as though the ultimate purpose of existence were simply to undo itself.

     The strategy of the evolution of mind is toward an increasingly looser relationship to the axioms of organic existence. But this relative freedom has evolved only because it serves all the better the purposes of the organism in the game of survival. The effective general strategy for survival lies in the ability to transcend or override any particular algorithm. This freedom has its dangers. There is a price to pay, not only in the overhead of complexity, but in the very laxness which is its essence. With our relatively free will, and enormous capabilities for transforming the environment, we humans are free to play havoc with the natural support for our very existence. From an evolutionary point of view, this freedom to play God exists only for the purpose of serving the mandate of life on a higher level than we may already recognize. To transcend a truth is to find a larger truth, to open to a greater, more objective reality that is binding on a higher level.

     We could say that the evolutionary purpose of subjective consciousness is to liberate the subject from the object. This means creating a subject that is utterly free from the dictates of the projected system of cognitive behaviors that is usually taken to be the self. The core of this self-- whether considered as the subject's experience or his cognitive behavior-- is belief or thought mistaken as reality. Before subjective consciousness, there is only the world, which is the unconscious projection of such thought and belief. In subjective consciousness, there is both world and self at odds. After subjective consciousness, there is no more distinction between world and self. The evolution of complex adaptive systems proceeds through sensitivity to awareness to self-consciousness. If the organism has transcended its programs once in creating awareness, twice in creating subjective consciousness, perhaps a third movement toward objectivity lies in abandoning the subject/object duality of subjective consciousness. Having played its role, perhaps the separate self with its imagined freedoms will ultimately be discarded as an expedient that has outlived its usefulness in the evolutionary quest for objectivity.