There are so many theories of consciousness out there. Some say it's about a soul, some say there's a cosmic consciousness we're part of. Some say it must be all brain, etc. But we still haven't any real evidence for any of them and they are all complex. So, after 60 years of study, I'll give you a simple/complex logical alternative based on science and what we observe and know.
My theory is: Consciousness is the result of, and a complex version of, auto response.
So before I begin I want to define certain terms. I am using the term human style consciousness as in human style language based thought. When you think, you use language. So that to me this is the highest form we know of. Consciousness itself I see as what things with brains have. It's based on emotion and feeling as opposed to language based.
But there is another aspect: Awareness. To be aware, to me, doesn't require language based thought. The language of awareness is feelings/emotions/sensations as well, and we'll be discussing those as we go.
But some people see awareness as the highest state (self awareness) and consciousness as the lowest, (Awake). Really it's all just degrees of the same thing. Hence why I wanted to define the terms.
So let's start at the beginning with atoms/particles. There is one rule atoms follow that has always fascinated me. It's the key to this whole thing and will come up several times: Every atom must try to maintain/reach its lowest possible energy level. It's the bases of entropy. This isn't easy. Why? Because all interactions cause a rise in energy, and conflicts cause major rises in energy. And due to this rule, conflict demands resolution.
When atoms of different types interact there are several possible interactions. They can destroy each other, move/get pushed away, or merge. Once they merge they create new things/chemicals etc in the macro world, and find a new lowest possible energy level.
So how does all this happen? Auto response based on the nature of the atoms interacting. Many things can't merge, while carbon can merge with and facilitate mergers between many different types of atoms. Lucky us. After all, we and everything else are all just made of atoms. And if we look at it that way it seems more than reasonable that we should show the same traits, and we do: As below, so above.
So are atoms conscious? Not likely. They follow their nature. Are they aware? In a way, yes. . Tests show that atoms have a kind of quantum memory. Do they feel? What I mean is, how do they know another atom is near? And I don't mean know in a human sense. Can it feel/sense proximity? Well, if a stray electron binds to an atom, what does it do? It throws it at another atom and thus the two bond in a game of hot potato. Atoms/particles react to other atoms/particles in proximity as if they sense those atoms. What triggers that?
Quote from p.249 of Dyson's 1979 autobiography I recently found: "In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call "chance" (auto response) when they are made by electrons." Seems he agrees with me, to a certain extent. But I'd say awareness, or proto-awareness, not mind. .
In 2012 Jörg Schmiedmayer at the Vienna Center for Quantum Science found that atoms retain memory about their quantum mechanical origin for a long time. "If we split the atom cloud into two parts and recombine them after some time, a wave pattern forms that shows the atom clouds still contain information about having emerged from a highly ordered quantum physical state."
And think about it, can electro-magnetic waves carry and store information? You bet. That's how radio and TV used to be transmitted. How cell phones work. So obviously atoms have memory/data storage capability.
One thing we can say with certainty is: reaching its lowest possible energy level is an atoms basic need, and basic needs are very involved in consciousness and everything else, as we'll see.
Do you need a brain to be conscious? Yes. But do you need a brain to be aware? No. Bacteria, viruses, single cells are aware of their environment, use it, and can adapt to it. This has been shown clearly in several scientific studies. We know the very basics of biology have at least rudimentary awareness. No brain required.
What does adapting mean? When you have an experience/interaction, you have an auto response. If that response doesn't get you what you want, you learn from it, put it in memory and the subconscious, and next time your auto response will be altered. If it works, you've adapted. This goes at least for bacteria to humans.
And again, cells communicate with each other in several ways. Chemically is what we usually think. But now we've discovered they also communicate bio-electrically, like neurons. A virus enters a cell and reproduces. Often it produces bits and pieces. It's like producing a dozen heads, a dozen bodies, 24 arms and legs, etc. Then, all of a sudden, all the parts join together in the right sequences to make new individual viruses. All due to bio electric communication. Amazing. But that's not all.
There is a creature called a flat worm. You can cut them up into 100 pieces and each will regenerate and grow a new worm. So, usually we think their genes do this. Not always so. Their cells do it. Turns out the cells communicate with each other and decide which cell is going to become which part. And they do it bio-electrically, joined together like neurons.
So they did an experiment. They cut off the head and tail of a worm, then manipulated the electrical communication and produced two heads. Cool. Then they cut off both heads and let the worm regenerate without interference. They expected the DNA to take over and create a regular worm. But that didn't happen. It created another two headed worm. The group of cells remembered it's last form. No DNA had been altered.
Then we found out animal/human embryos do the same thing. Our DNA tells us the proteins needed for specific forms, but it's the cells that decide how. Much like some small sea creatures. Siphonophores made of zooids are deep-sea colonial animals made up of specialized individuals that work together as one, like the Portuguese man o war. They get together to often form very large creatures. Each individual taking on a specific form and function decided by the group mind. Great news for medicine.
So particles, molecules, and cells do seem to be aware, have basic memory, and some have said they have a form of intelligence. More research is always needed.
Plants are also definitely aware. Let a vine grow with nothing around to climb. A few weeks later place a pole a couple feet away, and watch the vine reach for the pole over the next couple days. It has no eyes, no brain. How does it know a pole is there? Yet it clearly does. Somewhat like atoms.
So brains are not required, but anything biological has basic needs for its survival. Those needs drive it to act and resolve them. Its auto response. Response to what? Needs? Yes. But how do they know they have needs? Needs in biology are felt, triggering an auto response, until a resolution is felt. Feeling or sensing in some way are key.
So as biology grew more complex and more and more cells merged it developed central control cells: a brain. The brain is needed in things that need to run or fly and navigate. But we say animals live on instinct/auto response. And that's true. Yet animals show feelings and emotions just like humans do, and the same ones. They have a much more complex form of awareness than plants or bacteria. Some even use tools. But only humans have a complex language, and that makes all the difference, along with billions more neurons.
So do humans use auto response? Yes. 95 percent of the time. A ball is heading toward your face. Depending on your experience with balls you might move out of the way or catch it. You do this automatically without thinking about it. Deliberate about it and it's already hit you in the eye. Conscious thought is way too slow, as I've shown in the brain chapter. This is the work of the amygdala.
When you learn to ride a bike you have to think about a lot of things like balance, breaks, pedals, steering etc. You usually fall off at least once. But the more you learn the less you think about it. Eventually it becomes second nature like an extension of self. Everything we do well, we do on auto. So what are we doing? We are storing what we learn in memory, but more interesting: we're modifying our auto response. We're adapting.
What do we call this part of the brain? The subconscious. Obviously the subconscious is highly aware and conscious. It triggers emotions/feelings that demand resolution. Then it tells consciousness what you're doing about it. This has also been proven scientifically by neurologists. The subconscious knows what you're going to do at times several seconds before it informs consciousness.
It will also always give an auto response answer. A test was done on several thousand university students. The simple question was: A ball and bat cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat by itself costs exactly one dollar more than the ball. How much is the ball?
They were told to give the first response that popped into their heads. 90 percent plus got it wrong, and most of them said ten cents. What was your first thought? Only one person I tried it on got it right instantly, and they taught math problem solving. They were able to catch the ball instantly without thinking about it because their auto response was trained for it.
Now, all animals live in the subconscious. But for them it's their form of consciousness. They can all learn and alter their auto response. They can show emotions like love and hate, happy, sad, depressed, etc. As mentioned, even cells and bacteria can communicate. Don't need human style consciousness for any of that.
Hence our consciousness is just highly complex awareness. And as I said: awareness is due to auto response from atoms to biology. Interactions cause conflicts, mergers, etc from the atom to the human. Conflict causes high energy states. Nothing more high energy than war. And such states demand resolution and a return to a more peaceful lower energy level. Entropy applies even to wars. And even to us. Play a game of hockey. It's high energy interaction. You have fun, but you can't play for ever. Eventually you get tired. You need to achieve a lower energy level or you'll damage yourself. Hence why games have specific play lengths. How many couch potatoes do you know? From atom to human.
Needs drive actions and interactions. Emotions/feelings are an indication of a need that demands to be resolved or a need fulfilled. They are a result of the sensor information we get. See a dragon? The emotion is: Run! Don't stand there thinking about it or it'll get me!
So what is consciousness for? It's main function is deliberation and teaching the subconscious. But I'm not saying they are different separate things. It's all us. A human is their genetic /biological predispositions set against our specific environments including experience, learning, parenting influences etc. That entire process manifests as our will. It's an auto response, and I'll talk more about it as we go.
Again, the subconscious throws emotions and auto responses at us. But not always the correct ones. So if there is time, the conscious mind can deliberate on the merits of that response and alter it. But contradictory emotions/auto responses can come from more than one place in the brain at a time, causing confusion.
All this happens before the information is fully processed. If you see something, the info comes into a way station and has to go through hundreds of synapses before it gets to the back of the brain to be properly processed and passed on to the Left and right lobe, and then to the frontal lobe. But from the way station to the amygdala, there's one synapse. So it gets the info first and from memory sends an initial signal/emotion strait to the left and right cortex. But it's usually incomplete. Other sections of the limbic system can also send their own emotions and auto responses directly. Again, usually causing confusion before things are properly processed.
All that said, from atom to human everything is auto response. Biology has basic needs and have a way to sense them/feel them , which triggers an auto response. This system is awareness. All biology has awareness from very basic to very complex. The more complex the biology the more complex its awareness to the point of consciousness , self consciousness, and human consciousness.
My contention is that consciousness is easy. Auto response to proto awareness to rudimentary awareness, to basic awareness to increasingly complex awareness to what we call consciousness, which relies on a brain and memory, and in the case of humans: the development of complex language which allowed for complex concepts like our search for the truth, and concept of self.
© 2020 Ron Hooft
Ron Hooft (author) from Ottawa on September 19, 2020:
Thank you for the amazing comments.
I'm with you on the animal thing. I have always thought that if a conscious being created this on purpose it must be cruel beyond belief. Everything must kill something else to survive. Animals suffer like we do. Even plants are aware and may well feel and hence suffer. .
Yet all life is sacred? Oh, except anything that's not human?
So let's hope there's no god. If it's all natural cause and effect then it's just how it is. And it makes sense that if we loose energy and atoms throughout the day we have to replace them. But it's no less tragic, in my view, and hard to deny a thing/person the right to live, if they can.
Perhaps we'll eventually find more humanin/empathetic ways to survive and kill starvation for all at the same time. We can, in time, if enough of us want it.
Where does the "I" come from? In the brain it's located in the enhanced frontal lobe. In other words, our version comes from our language based consciousness.
Where it comes from is need. You feel a need, and you need to resolve it or suffer. Pain tells you you exist as a seperate thing and things happen to you.
An animal may not have a self identity like we do and recognize themselves in a mirror, but they feel both pain and emotions and have individual needs so they know who they are in the sense they know they are individuals.
Studies show that some animals, like chimps, have a very clear "theory of mind." That is to say they know that other animals may know something they don't, and that they may know something the other guy doesn't know. Human children develop that understanding by 4 years old.
If you have a theory of mind, you are definately self aware. And I've seen it in cats too.
To be clear, I hope I said a very young child's mind has the consciousness of an animal other than a human. Awareness is consciousness, but as I defined it in the article, we can define it as the highest form of awareness, probably (but not definately) requiring a brain. And human consciousness can be defined as the highest form of awareness we know of.
And the differance between animal and human consciousness is language. Every word we say has it's own complex built in concepts. Put together they can form even more complex concepts. Ideas you could never come up with let alone communicate to others, and more importantly yourself, without language.
The human brain has billions more neurons than any other animal and we have an enhanced frontal lobe. We slowely developed language. As our unified languages developed, we could do more.
As language and concepts developed so did another layer of mind. A layer that thinks in language, not feelings and emotions, though often based on those feelings telling you, the part that now thinks in words, that there's a problem.
So the language conscious part of the brain has come to see itself as "I" not understanding that it is only a small part of self, which includes the human subconscious, which is everything elses consciousness.
And they can think and learn through feeling and experience, just like you could in a meditative state, but not to our extent with complex language based thought.
Robert Sapulski once said that even though chimps understand relations, they could never figure out the relationships in A Mid Summer Night's Dream. And that's right. But why? Because as the show progresses we are told in words who knows what and who loves who, confusing as it is. And we understand the words said, their complexity, and their nuance. How can that be fully explained without language, even to yourself?
Thanks again for this discussion, and for your well wishes. I wish you and yours nothing but the best; in these trying times or otherwise.
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on September 18, 2020:
Thank You for the comment and the conversation.
I'm back because some thoughts came together just now, at half past eleven at night. One of those thoughts were about this article and your last comment.
"Consciousness" (I put it in quotations because I am not sure what it really is ... that awareness, or what I call the "Silence before time") is something that interests me and it came to my attention that I could not recall day one. I do not remember my birth, or anything even close to that time. So, I thought why do I not remember these things? I asked this question when I was at a very young age (as close as ten years old I think) so nobody can say that with time, I forgot.
At some point, I learned about this thing called "consciousness" but to this day (many years later) I still have not made good sense of it. To my question of: ""So, a child that cannot speak yet has no consciousness?" You said that a child has consciousness but it's more like the subconsciousness of an animal.
Now, the next thought is not very related to the topic here but it is. If your answer is right (and I have a slight feeling that it somewhat is) then when we go hunting and kill a deer, or when we run over a racoon on the street, it's like killing a young baby. Logic lead down this road and I am by no means a vegetarian, nor do I plan on becoming one. Either way, if a young baby has the same consciousness like that of a moose then, killing a moose is like killing a baby. Haha!! We're in trouble. Or, maybe You're a vegetarian and You're not in trouble.
Back to your article: when does this consciousness and or awareness of the "I" appear? I hear it takes some time before a child recognizes themselves in the mirror as well. So, is it just because the brain is not formed properly in some sort of way?
Anyway, just some flying thoughts approaching midnight.
I wish all is well on your end. Be safe and all the best!
Ron Hooft (author) from Ottawa on September 16, 2020:
"Magnets can attract to one another as well. It's not that impressive. Just saying."
Exactly. It's an auto response. The point is: is there a feeling associated with it? Probably not. But for a bacteria there probably is.
"So, a child that cannot speak yet has no consciousness? When/how does consciousness appear in a human?"
Of course it does, just not language based consciousness. It's living in the subconscious, which is probably every animal's consciousness. And again, consciousness is just complex awareness.
"Everything happens for a reason?" lol
Exactly so. Cause and effect.
Thank you so much for reading
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on September 15, 2020:
"Well, if a stray electron binds to an atom, what does it do? It throws it at another atom and thus the two bond in a game of hot potato." - Magnets can attract to one another as well. It's not that impressive. Just saying.
"See a dragon? The emotion is: Run!" - No, way. I love Dragons. Haha!!
"our form of consciousness developed from the process of developing complex language" - So, a child that cannot speak yet has no consciousness? When/how does consciousness appear in a human?
"All that said, from atom to human everything is auto response." - "Everything happens for a reason?" lol
Interesting read. Cheers!