Quora consciousness

Quora Consciousness

In your opinion, is consciousness simply the result of a complex biological evolution that we are not yet able to understand, or is it more than that?

What do you mean by consciousness?

Who is the we you refer to?

What do you mean by understand?

This is a subject that has interested me for over 50 years, and I have devoted a lot of time, reading, experience and thought to it.

Evolution is a simple idea, the idea of differential survival of variants in different contexts, that rapidly gets very complex.

It pays to get a little bit of an idea just how complex we are.

If you think of all the people on earth, that is some 7 billion. If they were to run past you at 3 per second, that would take 70 years for them all to go past. We each have about 10,000 times as many cells in us as there are people on the planet, and each cell has about 5 times as many molecules as there are cells in our bodies. Just to see all the cells in our bodies, at 3 per second, would take a million years, 5 million to see all the molecules in any one cell. Within each cell are about 50,000 different sorts of molecules interacting in some very complex and subtle ways. If we were to somehow take a video of the action happening at one enzyme, and we took a 1 second video of that enzyme, and slowed it down to a speed that we could actually see the molecules of water moving (and not simply blurs) then it would take 30,000 years to watch 1 second’s worth of live action.

So what can it possibly mean to say we understand something that complex.

We can and do certainly understand many of the major biochemical pathways. I started second year biochemistry at university in 1973, and followed with courses in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, and have retained an interest. We have learned lots, and the amount of complexity present far exceeds the capacity of any human mind to know in detail, and we can be quite confident of many of the major themes.

So in this sense, of understanding major themes, some of us who have spent a few years looking at the details from multiple perspectives (biochemical, quantum mechanical, evolutionary, games theory, complexity theory, information theory, AI) have developed a good broad brush stroke sketch of what consciousness is, and it is far from simple.

At its simplest, the sort of languaging consciousness that I am using to generate these symbols and you are using to read them, seems to involve at least 15 levels of complex adaptive systems; with many instances of very complex systems at every level. There is nothing simple about human level consciousness, it is deeply, profoundly complex in ways that will likely still retain elements of mystery should we live for the remainder of eternity with exponentially increasing computational powers over that time.

Like many others here, it seems to me beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that our consciousness is a result of evolution by natural selection over some 4 billion years on this planet. And complex cooperative systems get very complex very quickly, and there appears to be no upper limit to the levels of complex systems possible.

So I am confident beyond reasonable doubt of this broad brush stroke sketch level of understanding, and also simultaneously confident, that even with all the mathematical tools of classes of strategy and convexivity of solution spaces etc, that the reality of being an embodied human consciousness will contain subtleties that defy prediction.

It is kind of like understanding Pi, getting that it is an irrational number, that has no repeating pattern, that may be computed indefinitely (the rest of eternity, without completion). Then getting that mathematics has already proven that the set of irrational numbers is greater than the infinite set of integers and other rational numbers. And irrational numbers like Pi and e seem to be fundamentally part of how this universe organises itself.

We can easily show mathematically that absolute accuracy and predictive certainty are not attributes available in this universe. Most minds still have profound difficulty in giving up the idea of certain truth, and accepting eternal uncertainty.

And we can certainly have useful heuristics, that work in particular contexts. That seems to be what evolution specialises in delivering – useful approximations that work in practice in some set of contexts – and in those contexts, those approximations survive. That seems to be an infinitely recursive concept. But the idea of Truth – that seems to be a simplistic hubristic illusion. We need a bit more humility than that.

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 www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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