The Human Condition Documentary Proposal—Part 3 Consciousness
What is Consciousness?
To respond to the question of ‘what is consciousness?’ we need to consider—with the need for denial put aside—whether consciousness, like integrative meaning, is actually a simple and obvious phenomenon to explain.
Humans can be distinguished from other animals by the fact we are fully conscious, sufficiently able to understand the relationships between cause and effect to manage events to our own chosen ends.
This consciousness is a product of the nerve-based learning system’s ability to remember, for it is memory that allows understanding of cause and effect to develop.
To elaborate, nerves were originally developed as connections for the coordination of movement in multicellular animals. An incidental by-product of the development of nerves was that of memory. Electric impulses that pass along a nerve pathway leave an imprint that can be accessed afterwards. This ability to store impressions formed the basis of memory and once you have memory you have the ability to develop understanding of cause and effect.
Nerves have the ability to remember past events, compare them with current events and identify regularly occurring experiences. This knowledge of, or insight into, what has commonly occurred in the past enables the mind to predict what is likely to occur in the future and to adjust behaviour accordingly. Thus, the nerve-based learning system, unlike the gene-based learning system, can associate information, reason how experiences are related, learn to understand and become conscious of the relationship of events that occur through time.
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Print Edition In the brain, nerve information recordings of experiences (memories) are examined for their relationship with each other. To understand how the brain makes these comparisons, think of the brain as a vast network of nerve pathways onto which incoming experiences are recorded or inscribed, each on a particular path within that network. Where different experiences share the same information, their pathways overlap. For example, long before we understood what the force of gravity was, we had learnt that if we let go of an object, it would invariably drop to the ground. The value of recording information as a pathway in a network is that it allows related aspects of experience to be physically related. In fact the area in our brain where information is related is called the ‘association cortex’. Where parts of an experience are the same they share the same pathway, and where they differ their pathways differ or diverge. All the nerve cells in the brain are interconnected, so with sufficient input of experiences onto a nerve network of sufficient size, similarities or consistencies in experience show up as well-used pathways, pathways that have become highways. (It has been found that in the vast convolutions of our cortex there are about 8 billion nerve cells with 10 times that number of interconnecting dendrites which, if laid end to end, would stretch at least from Earth to the Moon and back.)
An ‘idea’ describes the moment information is associated in the brain. Incoming information could reinforce a highway, slightly modify it or add an association (an idea) between two highways, dramatically simplifying that particular network of developing consistencies to create a new and simpler interpretation of that information. For example, the most important relationship between different types of fruit is their edibility. Elsewhere the brain has recognised that the main relationship connecting experiences with living things is that they appear to try to stay alive, at least for a period of time. Suddenly it ‘sees’ or deduces (‘tumbles’ to the idea or association or abstraction, as we say) a possible connection between eating and staying alive which, with further experience and thought, becomes reinforced as ‘seemingly’ correct. ‘Eating’ is now channelled onto the ‘staying alive’ highway. Subsequent thought would try to deduce the significance of ‘staying alive’ and, beyond that, compare the importance of selfishness and selflessness. Ultimately the brain would arrive at the truth of integrative meaning.
The process of forgetting would also play a part in understanding the relationship between experiences. Since duration of nerve memory is related to use, our strongest memories will be of those highways, those experiences of greatest relationship. Our experiences not only become related or associated in the brain, they also become concentrated because the brain gradually forgets or discards inconsistencies or irregularities between experiences. Forgetting serves to cleanse the network of less consistently occurring information, preventing it from becoming cluttered with meaningless (non-insightful) information.
Our language development took the same path as the development of understanding. Commonly occurring arrangements of matter and commonly occurring events were identified (became clear or stood out). Eventually all the main objects and events became identified and, as language emerged, named. For example, those regularly occurring arrangements of matter with wings we named ‘birds’ and what they did we termed ‘flying’.
Once insights into the nature of change are put into effect, the self-modified behaviour starts to provide feedback, refining the insights further. Predictions are compared with outcomes, leading all the way to the deduction of the meaning of all experience, which is to order or integrate matter.
Thus consciousness is the ability to understand the relationship of events sufficiently well to effectively manage and manipulate those events. For example, common chimpanzees demonstrate consciousness when they stack and then climb boxes in order to Page 52 of
Print Edition reach bananas tied to the roof of their cage. Consciousness is when the mind becomes effective, able to understand how experiences are related. It’s the point at which the confusion of incoming information clears, starts to fit together or make sense and the mind becomes master of change.
It should be pointed out that it is one thing to be able to stack boxes to reach bananas —to manage immediate events—but quite another to manage events over the long term, to be secure managers of the world. In fact, as mentioned in Part 2, infancy is when we discover conscious free will, the power to manage events. Childhood is when we revel in free will, ‘play’ or experiment with it, while adolescence is when we encounter the sobering responsibility of free will and, as will be described in Part 4, encounter the agonising identity crisis brought about by the dilemma of the human condition, the question of whether we are meaningful beings or not.
As has been argued, consciousness has been a difficult subject for humans to investigate, not because of the practical difficulties involved in understanding how our brain works, as we’re often told, but because we did not want to know how it worked. We have had to avoid admitting too clearly how the brain worked because admitting information could be associated and simplified—admitting to insight—was only a short step away from realising the ultimate insight, integrative meaning, immediately confronting ourselves with our inconsistency with that meaning. Better to evade the existence of purpose in the first place by avoiding the possibility that information could be associated. It is for the same reason we sidestepped the term ‘genetic refinement’, preferring instead the more vague term, ‘genetics’. We had to evade the possibility of the refinement of information in all its forms because admitting that information could be simplified or refined was admitting to an ultimate refinement or law, again confronting us with our inconsistency with that law.
In fact we have avoided not only the idea of meaningfulness but also any deep, meaningful thinking that might lead to confrontation with integrative meaning, against which we had no defence. Ensuring deeper insights remained elusive saved us from exposure but in the process buried the truth. As a result we became extremely superficial in our thinking, masters of not thinking—in short, alienated beings.
Demonstrating our masterful evasion of the nature of consciousness we used words like ‘conscious’, ‘intelligent’, ‘understanding’, ‘reason’ and ‘insight’ regularly without ever actually identifying what we are conscious of, being intelligent about, understanding, reasoning or having an insight into, which is how events or experiences are related. The conventional obscure, evasive definition of intelligence is ‘the ability to think abstractly’. It was a slip of our evasive guard to name the area of the brain that associates and simplifies information as the ‘association cortex’. Of course when we weren’t ‘on our guard’ against exposure few would deny that information can be associated, simplified and meaning found. In fact, most of us would say we do it every day of our lives. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a word for ‘insight’. That is the amazing aspect about our denial of anything that brings the dilemma of the human condition into focus. It is not unusual for humans to accept an idea up to a point and then as soon as it starts to lead to a confronting conclusion, pretend it doesn’t exist—and do so without ‘batting an eyelid’.
To illustrate how we evaded acknowledging the fundamental ability of the brain to associate and reduce information to essentials (and thus be forced to deduce the meaning or theme or purpose in experience), take the following case of a cover story for Newsweek magazine (7 Feb. 1987). While the title and subject of the nine-page article posed the crucial question of ‘How the brain works’, the author referred to the association capability of the brain in such a garbled way that it was effectively buried: ‘Productive thought requires not just the rules of logic but a wealth of experience and background information, plus the ability to Page 53 of
Print Edition generalise and interpret new experiences using that information’. The ‘ability to generalise’ is the ability to associate information but the meaning is all but lost in the sentence.
In case it is thought this ‘garbled’ description may have been due to poor expression rather than deliberate evasion on the part of the article’s author, it should be pointed out that apart from a mention of ‘chunking or grouping of similar memories together’ and one unavoidable mention of the ‘association cortex’, there is no other reference to the brain’s fundamental ability to associate information. The entire article, on how the brain works, hangs on this one inept description. If we are not intending to be evasive then it is not difficult to clearly describe the mind’s ability to associate information, as is demonstrated in the next paragraph.
Our ability to evade the truth—to use Plato’s imagery, block out all the ‘searing light’ —has never been completely successful. If we looked long and hard enough the truth would always slip under our guard somewhere. For instance, in a one-page Newsweek article (9 Aug. 1982) that dealt with a slightly less sensitive (less exposing) subject than the human brain and was possibly not written as carefully as the aforementioned cover story, the guard was dropped and the truth exposed. Referring to the development of a ‘superbrain’ mechanical computer (sometimes referred to as the fifth generation computer), the article stated: ‘We’ll be trying to set up in the machine an associative memory like the one in the human brain…Instead of giving each piece of information a numerical address in the computer’s memory, the new system would tag it with an equation that shows its relationship to other pieces of information…The objective is a machine that can memorise images and store them by association…Our ideal…is to create a computer that programs itself…that will have the capacity to “learn” on its own…to organise that knowledge for its own use [like the human brain can].’
Incidentally, should such an information-relating computer be developed, it would soon deduce the theme of integration in changing events. Indeed, its operation would be based upon integration and the development of order. If the biological understanding of the human condition was not found before this occurred humans would have been left dangerously exposed to criticism of our divisive state. To quote another Newsweek story on computers: ‘Mankind has long been…frightened by the prospect of creating machines that think’ (4 July 1983).
Our evasion and denial is often obviously false and yet we believed it, because we had to. For instance, consider our evasion of integrative meaning. We are surrounded by examples of integration everywhere—every object we look at is a hierarchy of ordered matter, testament to the development of order of matter—and yet we deny it. In another example, mechanistic science doesn’t even have a definition for two of humanity’s most commonly used and important words/concepts, ‘love’ and ‘soul’. The hypocrisy is palpable yet understandable.
In summation, ‘insight’ was the term given to the nerve highways, the correlation our brain made of the consistencies or regularities it found between events through time. Once humans could deduce these insights—these laws governing events in time past—we were in a position to predict or anticipate the likely turn of events. We could learn to understand what happened through time. Our intellect could deduce or distil the purpose to existence or the design inherent in change in information; it could learn the predictable regularities or common features in experience.