The "evolution of consciousness" game

I launched this site 12 years ago to help the humanities inject meaning into our new origin story—that we evolved. Why did I think the humanities should be concerned? Because an overriding complaint today is the absence of meaning in modern life. For that we look to the humanities, not the sciences.

Through the writing of over 100 articles for the site since, I've narrowed my focus down to two issues.

  • First, the humanities’ main concern must be not just with evolution itself but with the evolution of consciousness. Keywords are both “evolution” and “consciousness.” We must equip ourselves to define both, and how they relate.
  • Second, if we are to define consciousness in terms of evolution, do we have concepts up to the task? If not, how could we come up with the concepts we need?

Problem: how can we identify the concepts we need but haven’t yet come up with? I propose to identify ways our current definitions of consciousness and evolution fail us, and make up something to fill the gap. My solutions aren’t likely to be scientifically valid but they might encourage progress in coming up with better candidates.

Want to play this game? I’ve already developed two resources, available at Amazon, to help you.

Triadism 5. What evolution means

If updating Stoicism was all it took to come up with ways mind could evolve, why does it seem a novelty? I think partly because of ideas left behind by Christendom, and how science dealt with them. According to the Christian story our free will and consciousness were special gifts from God. Once science took over and wanted to tell a different story it dismissed those gifts, along with angels and devils, for being supernatural. So scientists felt no need to account for how those gifts evolved.

But for most people today those gifts—consciousness, creativity and free will—do need accounting for. Then, does that make my triadism a new religion? I say, no. As far as we know genomes have existed for only a few billion years and only here on Earth, so they aren’t infinite or eternal. Living creatures keep going extinct so genomes don’t appear to be omnipotent and all-knowing. And they’d make a poor personal god—they seem quite happy for most of the creatures they code for to serve as fodder for creatures coded for by other genomes. So, not a religion. More of a natural philosophy. 

That’s nothing to sneeze at. A new natural philosophy can offer benefits. It can spin off new concepts.

Let's try that.

The three branches of my triadism correspond to three distinct realities: matter, life, mind. We have different ways of accessing each one: matter through science, life through study of evolution, mind through consciousness. All three realities can interact with the others. That's how the world looks to me, overall. 

Each way we access what's real in the world can inform us differently. Physical sciences can show us ways it manifests itself as matter and energy. Consciousness we all experience directly, so we each know what that can tell us. The big unknown is what we can learn about what’s real from evolution.

Let’s compare what’s evolved with what’s purely physical. In something purely physical, a crystal say, the relatively simple molecules it consists of line up in a regular grid that repeats no matter how large the crystal grows. It’s quite homogenous. A living creature is entirely different, it consists of relatively large and complex molecules, then as we go up in scale those molecules come to constitute entirely different but still complex structures, all the way up to the individual creature and even entire populations (the ant colony). Study of the physical world and the study of life act as two different kinds of probes into what’s real, offer us two entirely different ways of learning about it. Just as we can learn about ourselves by studying matter scientifically we can learn about ourselves by studying how evolution works.

Existing concepts: creativity and free will, physical determinism and closed causation—what can evolution tell us about them? Earlier I insisted that evolution was creative, as we observe ourselves being. But now I want to turn that around. I want to redefine creativity in terms of the appearance on Earth of radically new kinds of living creatures. Let’s call that novelty-creation. How living creatures differ, that’s something physical, something open to public scrutiny. Evolution may not be able to do what physics tells us is impossible, but physics can’t tell us what evolution’s going to do next. Because of that you can’t claim causation is closed. If we follow the Stoics in seeing our creativity as a small portion of the creativity of nature, or of the genome as I suggest then, while our creativity will be limited as evolution is, it will also be free of strict physical determinism, as evolution is. This pulls the rug out from under what’s called “theory of mind” where strict physical determinism is the default; you have to declare your theory compatible or incompatible with determinism.

But on the other hand we can’t claim to have absolute free will--evolution must operate within an envelope of possibilities all its own. Instead of the extremes of free will or physical reductionism I suggest we talk of “volition”— the ability to employ “volition” to create novelty, to choose to do something. So retire free will and physical determinism in favor of some freedom to act of our own volition. That I propose be made theory of mind’s default that you declare your theory compatible or incompatible with.

How is it possible for one event to be followed by something novel? Recall I supposed some of our own thinking could involve our thoughts evolving, one into another. And, since such thinking in us invariably comes with consciousness I proposed we say that’s true of genomes too, that they can be conscious—that of course is where we would have got it from. Then we can see all novelty-creation, both in us and in the genome, as a property of consciousness. Then we can explore what’s real through consciousness, both through how we experience it and in the form of living creatures evolving.

How can we explore consciousness from the inside? Through art and culture of course, science and technology. But most of all, as meanings, the rails our minds run on.

Are meanings real? They have very little physical presence. Genomes do have to build physical accommodations for them in creatures’ brains but then in these lodgings the genome can embed a basic set of meanings needed to carry on a life. An orb spider comes into the world knowing how to spin a web, how to devour prey, how to mate, and much else. That all originates as code in the genome, translates into growth of brain tissue in the egg or embryo and meanings in mind in the adult. Spiders are real, and their behavior is real. So surely meanings, though not physical, are real. I’ve devoted one branch of my triadism to them.

In connection with the spider I’m saying “meanings” where we used to say “instincts.” I choose to refer to them as meanings because that’s how they appear in us. Just as our genome, of its own conscious volition, built meanings into us so we of our own conscious volition extend those meanings into entire libraries. I demonstrated that with mother and father becoming motherland and fatherland. As we create and name new meanings we expand the mother tongue that we inherited. Spoken or written, words take on physical form. As patterns of connection in mind they can be accessed by the autonomic system. At the same time they can be real in consciousness. They are real, as real as the code written along the genome of a spider for how to spin its web.

How exceptional does my triad make us? It frees us from possession of a soul that separates us from the rest of creation. But, in addition to an upright posture that gives us hands for making tools, it points to us alone having enough consciousness to create meanings, and associate them with behaviors and words. We can consciously create novelties, to a greater degree than any other living creature can.

But still we are just living creatures. I take it for granted that consciousness ends with our death. We have just our lifetime to make as much sense of the world as we want. The form of consciousness we inherit through our language is likely a creation of just the past 3000 years, say 100 generations. So we may expect to create in our lifetimes another two or three percent of our culture’s consciousness. Quite possibly that will result from ways we find wisdom in knowing we evolved.

Remember how I said living creatures evolved by genomes simply thinking them into existence but, before living creatures could evolve, their genomes had to evolve first? Genomes may evolve through entirely different mechanisms from those they employ to create us. Discovering these mechanisms might introduce us to even more powerful mental tools. Studying how genomes themselves evolved could lead to us enriching our own thinking with nature’s ultimate powers.


Triadism 2. Mind, a world of meanings

My triad’s first branch is matter, pretty much as science describes it. My second triad concerns mind. In this chapter I’ll describe mind as I experience it (for that see Triadism 1) and how it differs from matter.

Imagine being suspended in space above the surface of Mars. You have a camera, it’s facing down towards that surface; every so often it takes a photo. So far, all very physical. On the retina of your eyes, as you too face down towards the surface, there is an image, that closely resembles the image gathered by the camera; at some point you reach out and press a button. Again, all very physical. But unlike the camera you have a mind and, between seeing the planet and pressing that button your mind establishes a connection between your glance at the planet’s surface and what happens when you press that button. In both cases there’s a chain of causation. What I want to account for is the difference between those two chains of causation, between the mechanical linkage of camera viewfinder and shutter and what in you connects visual sensation and muscular actuation.

From the previous chapter (Triadism 1) recall that some people aren’t aware of anything linking sensation and muscular actuation, they can’t monitor how it happens and aren’t likely to be curious about what makes it happen. It’s simply whatever does connect sensation to muscular actuation, for them probably by default a physical connection similar to the workings of the automated camera. That’s one answer to what mind is--there’s nothing to account for. I mean, really. End of story.

If the rest of us do have something we want to account for, I suggest first of all it concerns meaning. I visualize our minds as equipped with huge libraries of meanings. First, a sensation such as an image gets tagged with one or two meanings, these meanings then engage a blizzard of other meanings, sometimes leading to a final meaning that triggers some muscular actuation. I suggest a chain of causation in mind is a pattern of connections between meanings.

This pattern of connections can operate independently of consciousness. It can operate autonomically as in changes in the beating of our hearts or our ability to drive while being conscious of something else--we can know our minds are working without that knowledge contributing to the direction of our behavior. That was how it felt to be an epiphenomenalist, my purely physical body seemed not to have access to my mind, what I was thinking, I just assumed my behavior was driven entirely by autonomic processes. To understand my behavior I’d have needed only an account of the successive meanings leading up to it. And that’s what this chapter is limited to. Consciousness, and how it contributes to any causal chain, I leave to a final chapter.

What do meanings consist of? I conceive of them as quite similar to what Plato referred to as ideas, so refer to him for what they’re made of. I can only give you examples. Looking down at the surface of Mars and referring to “ground” and “atmosphere” is relating how it looks to ideas, imposing meanings on it. “Returning” and “re-entering” would be meanings. “Deciding” and “doubting” are meanings. “The” has a different meaning from “a.” All words correspond to meanings. Many bodily reactions correspond to meanings, such as blushing or fleeing in panic. Rationality and spirituality consist of meanings.

Some we come with at birth, such as several dozen cells in our brains that label things around us with directions and distances of them from us. Others came as machinerry for memory, sensation, prediction, decision-making, doubt. Meanings can be linked by association and contradiction, by reason and logic, by being answers to questions, by being causes and their effects. Here’s an example: “Mother” and “Father” may be among the first meanings we form. But from these we can construct “Motherland” and Fatherland,” the former the country where our mothers nurtured us, the latter the territory our fathers call on us to defend. And so on. As long as we live our stock of meanings continues to grow.

Neuroscientists like to identify meanings with circuits in our brains. But meanings can do things matter can’t. Look down once again at the surface of Mars, can you see meanings down there? Anything that can want something, or expect something? If you’re like me, you can’t. Mars consists of rock and gas with no agents able to distinguish “if… then” from “while… do” as living creatures can. Only what’s alive, or is made by a creature like us, can do that, can attach meanings to what's purely physical.

Science itself couldn’t exist without trafficking in meanings. Just to carry out any experiment a scientist has to employ meanings: noticing a discrepancy in how matter presents itself, conceiving of hypotheses to account for that discrepancy, reasoning to a procedure that could distinguish between them, designing apparatus able to make that distinction, pursuing in rational order the steps in the experiment, recording results, coming to a conclusion, publishing the results and reporting on them at a conference. Think of the physical world as a box; to practice science on something physical you have to think outside that box, you have to employ meanings that lie in mind. The machinery in our brains that supports our mind’s employment of meanings may observe the laws of physics but the meanings themselves belong to a world apart from the physical.

A remaining mystery is, how did we come by the equipment needed to generate and accommodate meanings? Apart from machinery we’ve built and use to mimic our own mental processes, such as our computers, we won’t find any such equipment in non-living matter. Volcanos can’t decide when to erupt for example, as we can decide when to urinate. How did equipment supporting meanings get built into us? To answer that I call on traditional wisdom for help in figuring out how this equipment evolved in us.


Triadism 1: Who should decide how mind evolved?

For most of us, homo sapiens having evolved into existence has become our shared origin story. Quite a few versions of that story have been proposed over time. But in today’s school science classroom only one version may be taught, what I refer to as “Darwinism,” a purely physical process impervious to the operation of mind. Why is that? Why must mind be denied representation in the “official” story of how we evolved?  

I suggest this lies in people having different opinions about what needs accounting for—life and mind. Even my slight awareness of philosophy of mind confirms we differ about that, which could explain why different people are likely to favor different mechanisms for how evolution works. But if that’s so, if we differ about mind, why is a purely physical mechanism the only one that may be taught to school children? Who made that mechanism the default? Who among us is most likely to favor evolution being accounted for in purely physical terms?

To explore that I recalled ways I’ve read and observed people’s attitudes to mind to differ, and for each one I identified what kind of evolutionary theory I thought it implied. Note: while this is a purely personal and off-the-cuff exercise, what matters is not the listings themselves but what such a listing suggests. To me it suggests that the mechanism of evolution taught in school does indeed favor one cognitive style.

Here’s my list:

1: Degree of aphantasia. Phantasia is being able to bring images to mind, or having a mind’s eye. At one extreme, entirely unable to bring images to mind, are aphants, at the other extreme are hyperphants whose imagined images can be as vivid as vision itself. Most of us lie somewhere in between. Instead of storing visual experiences as mental images aphants seem to store it as something like data in a spreadsheet. They can report accurately on what they’ve seen but they can’t turn it back into mind’s-eye images. Because they can’t turn written descriptions into images they’re left cold by written descriptions of landscapes or something scary. If I experienced this flattening of experience I’d probably experience myself as somewhat robotic. But I would experience being able, through conscious choices, to establish new habits so I’d probably opt for Lamarckism. If I experienced no visual imagery at all but had vivid dreams, as some aphants report, I’d probably be a mysterian. On the other hand, as a hyperphant, able to summon up vivid visual imagery at will along with the frequently accompanying synesthesia, I might vote for solipsism.

2: Contradictory evidence for what’s real, when what you’re conscious of conflicts with what you see and hear your body doing. Which will you trust? If you trust your behavior more then you’re likely to distrust consciousness. With a mild case you’d probably simply dismiss conscious experiences as distracting illusions. That would make me an illusionist, effectively a physicalist with reservations. As an evolutionist I’d be confused; how could creatures with wonky minds evolve at all? I suspect a extreme case of this was the Wittgenstein who wrote “Tractatus.” Later, reconciled to how differently other people related consciousness to reality, he spoke of arriving at that relationship as a game for which different people chose different rules. I’ve no idea how he’d have conceived of how we evolved.

3: Internal voices narrating conscious experience. Extremes vary from a complete absence of internal chat to a voice that never stops. Some people experience multiple voices, but more common I think is experiencing the voice as one’s own, of a conscious self that one recognizes as persisting largely unchanged from one experience, one day, to the next. Experiencing that amounts to what I call a bank-account dualist: coins and notes you feed into a bank account become something with no apparent substance or location you can point to, that yet remains associated with the same identity over time.

4. Tendency to personify actors and objects, oneself, other people, parts of the physical world, and endow them with free will, in. One may be particularly aware of agency in other people and feel called on to devote oneself to them, selflessly, or one may project agency onto physical objects like trees or mountains. If I experienced matter as having agency, even down to the atom, I’d probably reason my way into becoming a panpsychist. Then my mechanism of evolution would probably have life emerging from matter through successive stages of self-organization.

5: How much of mind your consciousness has access to. Some people are conscious only of sense impressions coming in and their behaviors going out. They’re not aware of their minds working, it seems to operate behind a curtain, what’s going on back there they can know about only by what they see themselves doing or by speaking or writing. If this was my experience everything would appears to be physical so I’d be a physicalist. For evolution I’d settle for a purely physical theory, Darwinism.

Another version of this, which I’ve observed becoming more common over my lifetime, is people experiencing having no executive control over their mental faculties. In the movie “Inside Out” a young girl experiences her feelings and behavior being entirely controlled by competing mental modules: joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. One critic exulted that everyday conscious experience was finally being acknowledged! Until I was 30 I experienced another limitation in cognition, epiphenomenalism—I had no awareness my behavior could influence my conscious thinking at all. I opted for physicalism. I remained a committed Darwinist up into my fifties.

From compiling this list I concluded that today’s purely physical origin story corresponds to cognitive styles favoring physicalism. Yet this appears to reflect how only a minority of us experience consciousness. Could this be confusing for children with other cognitive styles? Should we supplement that story with others able to account for mind? Should we each be entitled to adopt whichever theory of mind best suits our cognitive style?

Take me, for example. I do have mind’s eye, I do experience an internal voice narrating my thinking for me, I do recognize agency in other people and in such material phenomena as computers and machines, though not down to the level of atoms. I observe little contradiction between how my body reports on the world outside me and how I see my body responding to it. I experience being able to consciously direct my attention (free will?). I experience remaining the same person over time. I experience my self having executive control over most of the mental faculties it’s aware of. I can for short periods during medication consciously monitor and subdue my thinking. I am conscious of being conscious, of how my experience is more vivid at some times than others for example. I’m going to claim this makes me a representative sample of the general population and in the following chapters I arrive at a mechanism of evolution I think corresponds better to such a mentality than Darwinism does.

The kind of natural philosophy I could feel at home in takes the form of a triad. First leg of this triad is a world of purely physical matter. The second is a world of mind running on meanings. The third is a world of conscious experiences. The nature of each is unlike the others, yet each can interact with both the others. Whether these are three faces into the same noumena or three separate worlds I lack the means to resolve.  


Triadism 3. Thinking like a Stoic

If you’re a panpsychist, if you believe human minds result from mere aggregations of mini-minds associated with elementary particles, shouldn’t you expect to find minds on Mars? Mars and Earth are similar aggregations of such particles.

But I think we’d all agree that, apart from the rovers we’ve planted on the planet, there isn’t any mind on Mars as there is on Earth. What accounts for the difference?

Exploring the origin of mind has a long history. The Ancient Greeks and Romans wrestled with it for over a thousand years until Christianity branded their musing as paganism and suppressed it. But suppose ancient Roman wisdom had grown directly into modern science without Christianity coming along and separating them. We might be a lot wiser. That’s the prospect I pursue in this chapter.

By ancient Roman wisdom I mean Stoicism. Like us, the Stoics of Ancient Rome were materialists, for them a few simple physical elements mixing together could account for everything material. To account for what wasn’t material, that they couldn’t make these elements account for— nature being so well ordered and creative for example—they came up with an extra element coexisting with and permeating all those others. They called this extra element an “essence” or a “World Spirit.” And to account for what made us humans special they imagined their World Spirit embedding into each one of us some of its own powers, some of this essence. As a result, for us to know ourselves better and grow in wisdom we had only to learn more about this special element, and we could do that by studying how that element manifested itself within us, and around us in nature.

By modern science I mean particularly the genome. That’s the molecule or set of molecules in the nucleus of every cell of every living creature’s body that in creatures like us directs our growth from a single cell into an adult, maintains us alive, and equips us to reproduce. For us, it’s the genome that accounts for nature being so well ordered. So to modernize ancient Stoicism I replace its special element or World Spirit with the genome. To understand ourselves we may study the genome, and we may do that by both looking within our selves and at how genomes manifest themselves in the living world around us.

How different is this from how we’re used to thinking? One way is, it’s neither entirely scientific nor entirely spiritual. But if that’s true, how can we study it? I suggest we start with the part of it we know best, that each of us comes with but that science can’t yet account for. Take decision-making. Many animals such as monkeys can’t control urination. But we can. We can decide whether to urinate now or put it off to a later time.

Where do we get mental equipment like this from? We can’t make it ourselves, it appears in us automatically as we grow. It must have originated in the single-celled embryo we started out as, in the part of it that codes for everything else to do with our development, our genome.

If that’s so, if that’s where we get our meaning-managing equipment from, what does that say about the genome? It says the genome can transact, in some way, in terms of meanings. Here we run into a basic limitation in our library of concepts: we’ve few ways of talking about how other kinds of minds might think. Does saying “Transact, in some way, in terms of…” mean the genome itself has a mind, like us? Well, not exactly like us, but in its own way? I'll have more to say about our library of concepts in Triadism 5. For now I’m simply going to resort to saying that us having evolved minds means that, over the lifetime of the Earth, genomes had to have evolved some kind of mind first before they could figure out how to build our minds into us.

Is that even possible? Is it possible for molecules like genomes to have minds and be able to think? What we know about ourselves I think says, yes, they could. We know we get at least some of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors from our genome—in each of us at puberty emerge the feelings and urges readying us for sex. We don’t have to be taught how to generate and navigate those feelings and urges, they develop in us naturally, as a complex and coordinated program of feelings and behaviors. Given that for us to have those feelings they must first exist as code written along our genome, I don’t see how logically we can deny feelings like those to genomes themselves, as part of what corresponds, in us, to mind. If the genome can embed those mental abilities in us, I don’t see why it shouldn’t possess them itself.

I know at first the idea of a molecule having a mind and being able to think can be hard to accept. But it needn’t be. What gives us those abilities is our brains, yet they consist only of molecules. And the genome is by far the most complex molecule we know of, much more complex than any molecule in our brains. In us the genome is written out in three billion units of code. Translate that into a necklace, strung eight beads to an inch, one bead for each of those three billion units of code, and that necklace, three billion beads long, would stretch from New York to Tokyo. 6000 miles. That’s a vast amount of information. Yet at the same time it’s alive. Over thousands of millions of years it’s been passed on as part of one living cell to another, without a break. At the same time, as the living creatures it coded for got more complicated, it grew from less than a million units of code to billions. We’ve nothing to compare that to, to help us judge what it could be capable of.

If that be granted, we now know of two causes for things happening. There’s physics. And there’s mind. Recall my comparison of the Earth and Mars, how different the evolution of living creatures has made the Earth. That difference is because of minds, ours and the genome’s.

Now, what can we build on that foundation? First, an entirely new account of how evolution works, how species evolve, how we evolved and what kind of a creature that’s made us.

Nowadays, biologists identify species by their genes. When one species evolves into another they say, essentially that’s due to changes having occurred in their genes. So for it to be genomes that drive evolution they must be able to make changes in the genes they carry code for, the very same molecules they consist of.

How could genomes do that, make changes to the molecules they consist of? I suggest, by employing the same kind of machinery we do. When we commit something to memory we make changes in “memory cells” in our brains, something purely physical. Later, we can draw on those purely physical brain cells to bring that information back to mind. Since we can do that, we know it’s possible for minds to make changes to their material substrate, and later bring those changes back into mind. In us, that material substrate is our brain. In the genome that would be the molecules it consists of, including the genes that lie along it. So all a genome has to do to drive the evolution of whatever living creature it codes for is just to think about it—draw on code for the genes of that creature to bring it to mind and think about it again, which will make that new thought register back as changes to those genes, changes in that code. Merely by thinking about it, a genome can evolve an old species into a new one. Hey presto! Generation of a new species. A new theory of evolution.

By supposing a genome can think new species into existence, am I invoking anything supernatural? I know that’s how connecting mind and matter can seem at first, when applied to the genome. But remember, it’s something we’re doing all the time as our thoughts register in brain tissue. Our ability to do that, to connect mind and matter as we think, means it’s a feature of the universe we live in, so it can be true of other things in that universe as well, such as genomes. Once you accept that you can’t logically deny to the genome its use of such a connection to evolve new species.

Matter, mind, evolution all accounted for. That leaves only consciousness. And creativity. My speculations about that occupy the next chapter.