Why Be Conscious: The Improbable Origins of Our Unique Mind

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Bob Holmes in the Feature Section of the 13 May 2017 Issue of the New Scientist.  Consciousness is an interesting topic.  There are philosophers and scientists who maintain that consciousness is epiphenomenal.  By that they do not mean that consciousness is not real, but that it is unnecessary.  They argue that everything takes place on an unconscious level and that conscious experience is an unnecessary artifact that we view.  Many readers will find this view preposterous, but there are people who make their living advancing this proposition.

The view of this blog is that consciousness is necessary.  It is what is used to decide upon courses of action.  We can consciously review the past and imagine the future and evaluate the risks and rewards of possible courses of action.

In 2012 the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was published.

It begins as follows:
“On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

The declaration concludes:
“The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

These scientists were basing their declaration on neuroscience.

The New Scientist article is asking what consciousness is for, and why it evolved so that we may get closer to understanding the nature of our own minds as well as those of other animals.  HM believes that we know why consciousness evolved and we all have a phenomenological awareness of consciousness. However, there is value in trying to understand the minds of other animals.

The philosopher Jesse Prinz argues that, especially in other species, consciousness is largely about perception and emotion.  Prinz asks us to consider “emotion as hedonic valuation.  Much conscious experience consists of perceptions with shades of feeling—objects are comforting or scary, sounds are pleasing or annoying.”  An organism’s interceptive network results in feelings of goodness or badness.

Evolutionary biologist Bjorn Grinde says “Behavior is about moving toward what is perceived as beneficial or moving away from what isn’t.  Feelings are meant to guide us by offering positive and negative rewards.  This makes hedonic valuation a useful evolutionary tool.”  Grinde believes that the sensation—the awareness that something is good (or bad) is happening may represent the dawn of consciousness.

The article lists of 10 signs of consciousness to assess whether an animal is conscious?
Recognizes itself in a mirror
Has insight into the minds of others
Displays regret having made a bad decision
Heart races in a stressful situation
Has many dopamine receptions in its brain to sense reward.
Highly flexible in making decisions
Has ability to focus attention (subjective experience)
Needs to sleep
Sensitive to anesthetics
Displays unlimited associative learning.

So consciousness can be viewed on a continuum.  The more items that can be checked off, the greater the degree of consciousness in the species.  Although egotism demands that humans be at the top of this hierarchy, humans vary regarding their degree of consciousness.  Meditation and mindfulness are practices with the goal of enhancing consciousness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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