Consciousness Everywhere? Or just lots of places…

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski

After years looking into the science of consciousness, it seems to me that consciousness is “everywhere” – or at least in all sorts of unexpected places.

When my father developed dementia many years ago, I became curious about his consciousness as he slipped deeper into an Alzheimer fog. Several years ago I went to a conference, The Science of Consciousness, and since then have read several books related to the topic. The most recent one is “Superminds” by Tom Malone.

Malone summarizes the work in consciousness well by stacking it in a kind of hierarchy from the most basic idea of being conscious to the most esoteric, without venturing into the mystical (or dualistic) level. In other words, there are many ways to define consciousness and we can examine them using the tools of science.

The surprising outcome is we are surrounded by consciousness. It might be more abundant than life itself.

Here are the categories (he summarizes others’ work including “Consciousness” which I’m looking forward to reading):

Awareness. We could define consciousness as simply responding to the world. This is a distinction between being asleep and awake or whether one is under the effect of anesthesia. It also allows for something like a burglar alarm to be defined as conscious. After all, it takes inputs from the world and responds. Recently we’ve found that bacterial masses communicate information among themselves. And we also know that human organizations of all sorts are aware of their world under this definition.

Self-awareness. You might say that awareness is not enough. Well, perhaps the more is needed for consciousness. That an entity needs to be aware of itself and can tell others about itself. You can say you are hungry or confused. Humans can do this. But other animals can as well. Their communications may not be easily understood by us, for example, when a baby bird opens its mouth to signal hunger. And non-living things like my laptop or a car are able to communicate their internal states (charge me up!). Organizations, too, have processes to understand their internal states and communicate them. Consider, for example, financial reporting, as a way to communicate whether a company needs more funding.

Goal-directed behavior. The idea that a baby bird or your laptop is conscious might give you pause. Perhaps you want to define consciousness as taking intention action to achieve a goal. That is the intervention that seems to happen in our heads when we want to change what can seem like being on autopilot. When driving I sometimes find myself driving to the wrong place because, for example, I always drive to the kids’ school in the morning on weekdays. That daily drive could almost be done by a robot. But when I decide I have to drive elsewhere – downtown for a meeting – perhaps that is consciousness? But can we really say that many animals do not have intention when they pursue food, sex, and the other vitals of life? And there is the problem of understanding the intentions of another entity. Can we ever know whether there is intent in the mind of a salmon wanting to swim up river to its spawning spot? For that matter, what happens when TurboTax tries to figure out your taxes? That “intent” was programmed by developers, which in turn was developed collaboratively with the humans inside Intuit, the company that makes TurboTax.

Integrated Information. The evidence from neuroscience is that there are lots of types of information that are integrated during mental states that we associate with consciousness. This fact figures prominently in the Global Workspace Theory of consciousness. We know this happens in mammal brains, but what happens with a plant? Doesn’t it integrate information about sunlight, air, nutrients, and water to grow? I’ve even seen demonstrations of signals passing through plants in response to touch. And of course organizations like Wikipedia integrate information from lots of individual human and software editors to create an article. Perhaps Wikipedia is conscious?

Experience. The experience of being “like” something has been the definition of consciousness that is most widely used by philosophers, especially those who propose that consciousness is a “hard problem, ” most famously framed by philosopher Thomas Nagel asking, “What is it like to be a bat?” Malone walks through an example of how Apple (and most organizations) could be conscious in this way.

The most intriguing direction, though, has been work on Integrated Information Theory. It posits a mathematical description of consciousness that I am still getting my head around. The net output is a quantity, phi, that predicts the degree of consciousness of an animal, a brain, an organization, a circuit, or any information-processing network. It has interesting predictions, including some that are non-intuitive. For example, that if you replayed the neural code of an experience in a brain (assuming you could do that), it would not be consciousness. But that an LED with one bit of memory (a flip flop) has a minimal amount of consciousness. I found these two lectures helpful in understanding the concepts.

So it seems there are lots of systems that can experience consciousness. That experience, though, is not necessarily one we can relate to. What is like to be a flip flop circuit? I don’t know if any human can ever know that experience. Like so many times in our human history, like when we discovered that we are not the center of the universe over and over, the study of consciousness seems to show that human consciousness is not the center of the universe either.