the function of Consciousness

Dec. 11-16,’16 ~QofDay~ Consciousness Function

Researchers have now discovered that many cognitive functions can take place in the absence of consciousness. We can perceive objects, make decisions, and even perform apparently voluntary actions without consciousness intervening.
So my question is “What is the function of consciousness?”

I know I differ from most others in my understanding of this question.

What does someone mean when they use the term “function” in a question like this?

The term “function”, in the sense being used, is usually associated with things that are designed.
The evidence is beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt in my mind that living things are not designed, they have evolved, and the difference between the two is profound.

When things are designed, the designer has a purpose, an intent, a planned outcome, in mind, and the mechanisms put in place are with the intention of contributing to the delivery of that outcome.
I get that most people still think that is how we got here, some god designed the system and we have a purpose in it.
In a sense, I can sorta see how that would make sense to someone with less knowledge of systems and biochemistry than I have.

But I do have the knowledge of systems and biochemistry and physics that I have, probabilistic as it is, and that leads me to a very different understanding of what is, and how it came to be, and how it is that we have consciousness.

Evolution is a process of selection between different systems based upon differential survival of individuals and groups in different conditions. Boundaries at all scales and across all domains are very important in evolution and in systems more generally. Without boundaries, everything would simply be an amorphous uniform mixture.

Boundaries come in many forms.
Gravity delivers many sets of boundaries.
Gravity is the tendency of matter to attract other matter, for things to clump together. It is a very weak force, but over long periods it can create suns and planets.

Once you have suns then gravity allows all sorts of other processes to start.

It seems clear that the first suns were massive things, very much larger than our sun, made exclusively from hydrogen, helium and tiny traces of lithium.
As stars pull more matter into them, the pressures and temperatures at their core get hotter and hotter until it gets hot enough to sustain nuclear fusion reactions. Once the process of fusion starts up, then as well as hydrogen turning to helium, some other heavier things get formed. That process is known as stellar nuclear-synthesis, and it seems clear that is how everything in this universe heavier than lithium was formed (in the core of stars under hellish conditions).

Eventually (over millions of years), most of the hydrogen in the core of those first huge stars got used up, and there wasn’t enough fusion going on to counter the force of gravity, so there was a collapse, and the shock of that collapse was enough to start a second and much more violent type of nuclear reaction that caused every one of that first generation of massive stars to explode, spewing some of the heavier elements they had formed out to leave the elements that would eventually evolve into planets and us, while compressing some of the rest into incredibly exotic forms of matter like neutron stars and black holes.
It now seems clear that the early universe was an incredibly violent place, unable to sustain the sort of stability required for what we would recognise as life.

Even now, the central areas of galaxies are still incredibly violent places, far too energetic for anything resembling life as we know it to evolve.

We (us, our sun, our planet) just happen to live in the outer reaches of a spiral arm of a galaxy, with a large cloud of dust and debris between us and the galactic core, that protects us from the worst of the energetic activities going on there (suns annihilating each other on a semi regular basis in spectacular fashion releasing more energy in seconds that our sun will emit in its lifetime).

So it now seems clear that only in little “galactic backwaters”, sheltering from the hell of ordinary galactic stellar activity, can the sort of carbon based organic life forms like us or bacteria have any chance of getting started.

It seems that life getting started on this planet required an even more improbable set of circumstances, involving a collision of two planetary masses at an oblique angle to simultaneously create a very rapid spin giving a very short day, kick start plate tectonics, and form a moon in close orbit giving very large tides.

It seems very likely that the combination of very large tides over hot rock every 3 hours or so provided the initial replicating conditions (the cycle of heating and cooling is used in labs today to power PCR {polymerase chain reaction} that we use to replicate DNA and RNA) that allowed some collections of independent RNA molecules to eventually evolve into cells.

Once cellular life got under way, life as we know it really got started.
Those initial conditions were hellish enough by our standards of today. There was no oxygen – our sort of life was impossible. Conditions were much more like those found in volcanic hot pools. It seems probable that most life was metabolising hydrogen sulfide to power its cellular replication.

And this is where evolution as it is commonly understood seems to have gotten under way – the process of differential survival of variations in different conditions.
Initially the sources of variation seem to have been entirely random.
It seems clear that it took many hundreds of millions of years before one group of what we now call cyanobacter developed the ability to use sunlight to split water, and get the hydrogen they needed from there, rather than from hydrogen sulphide.
The oxygen they released was poisonous to all other forms of life at the time, so that group rapidly took over any place that had both sunlight and water, and in the process changed the entire chemistry of our atmosphere and oceans, introducing oxygen where it never had been.
This oxygen going into the water had the effect of “rusting” the iron dissolved there, and causing it to fall out of solution. This is what seems to have caused the “banded iron sand deposits” we see in ancient rocks all over the planet.

The evidence from ancient rocks indicates that for over 2 billion years, this sort of cellular bacterial life dominated life on the planet. Then about a billion years ago, a new sort of cell type evolved, being a collection of other cell types within a single cell wall – the eukaryotic cell. This sort of cell developed mitochondria, oxygen metabolism, and sexual reproduction, and the combination of those three things allowed complex multi-cellular organisms to evolve and flourish.
One branch of such evolution has led to the plants, another to the animals.

Plants get their metabolic energy primarily from sunlight, which they turn into sugars and other more complex molecules by a vast range of metabolic processes.
Animals have to “eat” plants or other animal to get the energy they need to live.

The process of evolution works by the simple expedient of the variation that has the greatest probability of surviving in any particular environment contributes most to the next generation in that environment.

Physical reality delivers many different environments over many different scales of time. Plate tectonics shifts entire continents around the surface of the planet, building new mountains and continents as it does so, while the processes of erosion wear away at whatever sticks out of the ocean.
Local floods, wave action, glaciers, sea level change, storms, tides, seasons, volcanoes, earthquakes, etc…. all provide different variations on environments on different scales of time and space. Evolution, differential survival, sculpts populations of individuals as a result of all these different environments over vast amounts of time and space.

Animals, because they need to capture stuff to survive, have to have effective mechanisms to both find stuff to eat, and to avoid being eaten. That seems to have been the major driver for the selection for nervous systems, and the many levels of ability to respond to different contexts that are present in very complex organisms like ourselves.

There is one group of animals, the sea squirts (tunicates) that have nervous systems and brains when they are mobile larvae, but once they settle, and no longer need a brain to navigate, re-absorb their brains and live without them. Just one example amongst many that evolution can go in any direction of complexity (more or less) and that such a random walk, will, on average, over time, explore ever more complex “spaces” of possible systems. It gets far more complex, as we evolve sets of systems capable influencing the rate of evolution in different contexts, and these systems fold back on themselves delivering ever greater diversity and influence. Once one can see that from the systems perspective, new levels of complexity are usually the result of new levels of cooperation, and to be stable cooperation always requires effective sets of attendant strategies that prevent invasion by “cheats”, the picture of evolution, and our social levels of cooperation, changes.

So yes – we have many layers of unconscious (subconscious) systems that allow us to respond to many different levels of things in the environment that we don’t normally consciously concern ourselves with, like breathing, keeping the same temperature, actually coordinating all the different groups of muscles we use for movement, speech, and other forms of non-verbal signaling that we all use (both consciously and subconsciously) in social situations.

The evolution of our self aware consciousness seems to have been a relatively recent event, and it seems to be a result of many levels of very complex systems, both biological and social.

So in this sense, there isn’t a purpose to our consciousness, it just emerges, when complex brains like ours are immersed in complex multilevel social and cultural systems. And with about 20 levels of cooperative strategy present, each with its attendant sets of anti-cheating strategies, the strategic environment into which our self awareness emerges is extremely complex – we tend to call them “feelings” and “intuitions”, and they are a very significant part of the complex systems that allow our awareness to emerge as it does.

Once such awareness has emerged, it is capable of developing many capacities, including distinctions, abstractions and of choosing purposes with functions.

In this sense of function, consciousness seems (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt) to be an emergent property of complex biological and social/cultural systems – about 20 levels of such systems, each level having emerged as a possible property from the level below, and having been selected over time by differential survival).

The details of the many levels of process are hugely complex. I have boxes of books on the topic of quantum mechanics, biochemistry, systems, computational theory, complexity theory, behaviour, psychology, philosophy, history, cybernetics, evolution. Thousands of hours of reading and personal experimentation and experience and contemplation, that give me the specific set of understandings that I have. I know of no shortcuts to get to where I am.
In a sense, we are all like that.
We all have the life paths we have, the biochemistry, the choices, the experiences and contemplations that are the major influences in making us what we are.

I am a Ted life path.

So for me there are two very different senses of function that are not clearly separate in many minds.
One is the set of systems that produce a given outcome – the way in which something functions – and this sense applies universally to everything that can be distinguished.
The other is available only to intentional beings capable of conceiving of a not yet existent state, and directing activity towards the attainment of that state – which is the sense of function to a chosen purpose. To me, the evidence is clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the universe as a whole does not have function in this second sense, it only has existence.

It is only entities like ourselves, capable of choice, that can bring function in this second sense.

And I understand that few others currently have the experience and distinction sets for such a conclusion to be as intuitively obvious (beyond all reasonable doubt) to them as it is to me.

[followed by]

Hi Judi

I can kind of understand how it might appear to be that way to you (and to many others), and to me that appearance is the result of a set of misunderstandings.

And it is a really difficult set of notions, with many related ideas.

There is a sense where “cognition” is the process of knowing. In the sense that all things are interrelated, one can say that everything related to cognition has a history some 14 billion years old, and the degree of influence way back is very tiny, and events and systems closer in space and time tend to have exponentially greater impact on the instant of cognition than ones further away.

And I am clear that we, as self aware, self knowing systems, are emergent properties on top of many layers of complex systems which are at every layer capable of making complex responses to changes in their environment that do not involve “knowing”, but are much more like a thermostat, they just follow the rules that are present (which rules all seem to have aspects that are deterministic and aspects that are purely random).

In this sense, I am clear that our consciousness, our sense of self and sense of anything and everything else, is software.
So there is a sense in which consciousness (a software entity) does bring our perceptual field (which is a software construct, not reality itself) into existence. So in this sense, yes, consciousness is part of the system that contains the model of reality that is our experiential reality, but that does mean that consciousness brings reality itself into existence. There is an extra step in the process. And consciousness can certainly have a major impact on the model that is experiential reality, if not nearly necessarily as much influence over the reality that the model was ultimately based upon.

It seems clear that there is a reality out there, beyond the field of consciousness that holds the model of reality that we normally experience as reality, and that model is individually unique to each of us, and because of the degrees of biochemical, cultural, and experiential similarity, those individual models are very similar in most cases (but not all).

So it seems that there is a physical reality, which has the properties it has (whatever they actually are), but we have no direct access to that.

It seems that our bodies are part of the physical reality, and that those bodies have many layers of sets of complex systems.

It seems that one set of systems within all that complexity of body and brain creates a slightly predictive model of reality.

It seems that our experience of being is a software entity that is a construct of that very complex set of systems that emerges as a result of a declaration in language. Prior to that declaration there is existence and memory, but no self reflective consciousness knowing it.

So we can remember experiences prior to coming to awareness, because those experiences happened to our bodies, but at that time we weren’t there to experience them, but our bodies can’t make that distinction.

And it gets very complex, very quickly, with multiple levels of recursion.

What we think of as other people, isn’t.

It is now very clear that all we ever get to experience of another person is our own subconscious model of that person, which is never going to be anywhere near as complex as the real person, but it is all we are ever going to experience.

And one can spend a lot of time in that spiral, and get very giddy in the process.

Yes we can be conscious and ignorant, in a very real sense, that is all any of us can be. It seems the real delusion is the idea that we can ever know anything with certainty.

It really does seem to be the case, that the more we know (in a purely probabilistic sense of knowing), the more we know we don’t know, and the less certain we become of many things we were once very confident of.

And it seems entirely probable that the nature of infinity is such that the process above could continue indefinitely, should one remain in existence for the rest of eternity, with exponentially increasing capabilities and freedom for all of that time.

And that idea really is worth going back over a few times, the idea of eternally waking up to new levels of our profound ignorance as to the nature of reality. I find it strangely compelling and attractive.

[followed by]

Hi Judi

Yeah – we have been round this topic a few times.

It is kinda weird, and when you wrote “I know you’ve said that you have experienced this, Ted, but I would say you haven’t; otherwise, you would have no trouble understanding what I’m talking about” I just had to smile.

In my world, it looks something like the mirror image of that.

I experience those feelings, that knowing, and at the same time aspects of it appears as illusion in a very important sense, for all the power it has (which I value and use).

I have been round that loop of knowing so many times, that it is now clearly an illusion to me, in as much as it pretends to any sort of ultimate anything. In as much as it gives useful answers to difficult problems, I use it at many different levels.

Bypassing cognition takes the “reality check” out of the circuit, and allows complete disconnect from “reality” (whatever reality actually is). Been there a few times, had some rough rides.

I don’t do ultimates any more, not at any level.

The best I will allow is useful approximation to something, that seems to work reliably in the current environment.

I just see you not having the systems background to recognise the nature of the systems that deliver to you the experience of self as consciousness that doesn’t feel personal.

That is a profound feeling – very difficult to model with much accuracy.



About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
This entry was posted in Question of the Day, understanding and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comment and critique welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s