A Mind-Blowing Thought Concerning the Evolution of Animal Awareness

According to Discover magazine, the physicist Andrei Linde is reported to entertain a mind dependent cosmos:

[C]onsciousness may be a fundamental component of the universe, much like space and time. He [Linde] wonders whether the physical universe, its laws, and conscious observers might form an integrated whole. A complete description of reality, he says, could require all three of those components, which he posits emerged simultaneously.

If Linde is correct, what does this mean for our understanding of the evolution of mind in animals? If mind is not a fluke of matter, but something that has always been “in the air” from the beginning with space and time, then the evolution of animals with awareness may be akin to the evolution of land animals and migratory birds. Things that already exist–land, magnetic north, mind–are being discovered and exploited by life.

In other words, just as land-dwelling animals do not create land, and migratory birds do not create magnetic north, perhaps the human brain does not generate mind, but stumbles upon it–taps into it–and so makes use of its existence as a strategy for survival.

I’m being speculative here, but let’s flesh this out a bit by thinking about evolution.

Once a few amphibians stumbled upon the existence of dry land, a few birds magnetic north, and a few primates mind, we could say that natural selection kicked-in, favoring those among their offspring that could ever more successfully navigate these distinct territories.

It may thus be useful to think of animal and human awareness as a sixth sense–an ability to detect a pervasive awareness that is not in our heads only, but out there in the world–something larger than us and into which we tap (as migratory birds tap into the Earth’s magnetic field).

Many animals have only the barest sense of awareness. Others have quite a bit. Of all animals, humans have evolved the most acute sense of experiencing mind. If dogs trump us in the sense of smell, we trump dogs in our acute sense of self-awareness. Our “brain-radios” pick up the universal awareness signal more intensely than other species (certainly better than dogs do), and we put that general awareness to particular use.

And it’s the pervasive mind’s particular use that leads to our category mistake, for we misidentify the pervasive mind as “I” and “me.” We then build narratives around this “I” and “me,” conflating the general awareness with a very particular experience: “My body hurts, and I’m not happy now. This is the story I’m telling myself about who I am.” But it’s only when we mistake the general awareness with the contingencies of daily life that we start talking like this. Maybe we should keep them separate and see how we talk. “Noticing the body in pain. Noticing sadness. But I’ve got a bit of distance from the drama of these particular things because I know, to echo Whitman, that I partake of something larger, that I ‘contain multitudes.'”

This, at any rate, is one way of looking at things if Andre Linde is right that consciousness “may be a fundamental component of the universe, much like space and time.”

Such an idea also gives a shout-out to the experience of meditators, at least of the Hindu variety, who have claimed for millenia that humans can, in each moment, identify awareness with either one of two things: prakriti (the universe of transitive objects, including the transitive self) or perusha (the universal mind, Brahman). The great error, as envisioned in Hinduism, is to mistakenly identify your awareness with prakriti–the little self, the self that perishes–and not with perusha–the big Self, the universal Self.

Mind as an interdependent arising with matter from the beginning also goes rather nicely with Aristotle’s notion of God as the unmoved mover. This idea is laid out concisely in Vardy and Arliss’s, The Thinker’s Guide to God (O Books 2003, 2006, p. 16):

To explain Aristotle’s idea of God’s action, Fr. Gerry Hughes SJ uses the following example: Imagine that there is a room with a pink carpet and there is a cat at one side of the room. Now imagine that a bowl of milk is put into the room. The milk will cause the cat to cross the room–not by the milk doing anything, but just by its being there it will attract the cat. There is a real sense in which the milk causes the cat to move even though the milk does not act.

In other words, the milk just has to be present in the room, waiting for the cat’s eyes to stumble upon the sight of it, and the cat will begin to move toward it, naturally. This is like migratory birds in relation to magnetic north and Homo sapiens in relation to mind. Perhaps mind has always been “in the room” and humans have been evolving toward it.

But this notion could be wrong. So let’s absorb the larger question again: What is the ultimate cause of awareness? Is it:

  • a fluke of the brain’s neurons after they have reached a certain level of complexity–an epiphenomenon of blind matter; or
  • a “terrain” that has always been there, and that Homo sapiens and other animals have stumbled upon, its pervasive network signal being ever more accurately attuned to over time (by natural selection)?

Put another way, is your awareness born of a brain-computer with internet access–or without it? When it comes to mind, do you have a wireless connection to the cosmic mind, or are you all alone in there with just your face–your interface–to signal to others that, yes, you’re really in there?

Which explanation of awareness seems most sensible to you? Which one fits “Occam’s razor” best? Who are you? Where are you? With what does your awareness identify itself and why?




About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to A Mind-Blowing Thought Concerning the Evolution of Animal Awareness

  1. Reblogged this on red rabbit skills services | skills development consultancy and commented:
    Just a great and timely article. Thanks so much.

  2. Matt says:

    Hi Santi. I suspect mind is simply an emergent property of the brain, rather than something external.

    The reasoning behind this is my knowledge (admittedly limited to lay interest) of the state of neuroscience, for which that hypothesis (that mind is an emergent property of the brain) continually fails to be proven false.

    One can imagine that if “mind” were something external, then neuroscientists would be continually running into dead ends, theory-wise, when trying to explain brain development and behaviour. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

    In my opinion, the emergence of consciousness in this way makes for a much more Occam-friendly explanation.

    In terms if the survey, I’m a white early-middle-aged male living in a comfortable Western society. That may or may not influence my view. 🙂

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Of course, there is no locally experienced consciousness absent a brain (just as there are no local radio programs heard without a radio in the room).

      But we’re still flying blind on the matter of the origin of consciousness, so it’s hard to say which way Occam’s razor ultimately cuts here. How do three pounds of neural meat, however complexly wired, turn on as awareness? Our computers running complex algorithms don’t do this (so far as we know), yet they can play Jeopardy better than us. And it’s an open question whether we’ll ever be able to repeat in silicon or quantum computing the trick of turning on consciousness that biology has landed upon.

      And consciousness seems like an extravagant luxury. It’s logically possible that we could all be zombies–though we’re not–without the least harm to our survival as a species, running complex behavioral algorithms without being conscious of what we’re doing, as bees and ants and computers do. If free will is an illusion–if what’s really going on is just determinate atoms shifting positions from moment to moment–what’s consciousness doing, but hitching a ride?

      And from an evolutionary vantage, what could consciousness possibly be for if it has no pre-existing terrain of mind on which to adapt itself? (Perhaps I’m sounding too Platonic here.)

      Natural selection needs an environment for its organisms to adapt to. Wings need wind to adapt to, fins water, feet land, eyes light, etc. You don’t evolve wings in a vacuum, or feet absent land, or armor absent war. What terrain has awareness been adapting to in primates and becoming ever more acute in navigating (especially if, again, we don’t have contra-causal free will)?

      Awareness is not adapting to social interaction because if we have no free will all our social interactions are being orchestrated by algorithms beneath conscious awareness–prior to conscious acts of will. We become aware of conscious states and desires already worked out beneath awareness. Our bodies would thus act as they do whether consciousness existed or not. Consciousness is an apologist for what matter does, not its conductor. Again, we might just as well be zombies. And yet here we are. Consciousness evolved. Or perhaps it is a total fluke that consciousness emerged–a fluke of complexity–and that it is here absent natural selection, a stunning accident, a chance confluence.

      And how is it that physics deals with mind as a “quantum enigma” that seems to effect the outcome of material experiments (as in Schrodinger’s Cat-type experiments)? And why do we have what may be the illusion of free will, but which seems for all the world to us like our minds are moving material things around, that we are “wills in the world”?

      And, of course, there’s the issue of qualia. How on earth did the inner experience of red and blue evolve? Why would a configuration of atoms outside the skull and a configuration of atoms in the skull, on contacting one another, give you the conscious experience of the color green? Did natural selection do this slowly, or is it just in the nature of things to pop into existence (as water is experienced from H20 molecules in a particular concentration)?

      A determinate material universe with a mind popping out of it–any mind at all–is stunning. And a consciousness that is actually not doing anything that effects the course of living matter, and yet still exists, is more stunning still. The questions raised by it are difficult (to say the least).

      One author who explores a varient on the environmental awareness idea is Alva Noe (in his book, “Out of Our Heads”). http://www.amazon.com/Out-Our-Heads-Lessons-Consciousness/dp/0809016486/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1376293576&sr=8-1&keywords=out+of+our+heads

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