I’ve long wanted an authoritative but readable account of how consciousness is thought about in a biological context, to compare my own thinking to. Peter Godfrey-Smith is a professor in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. His “Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind” is what I wanted. He is the needed combination of academic philosopher and field worker; he illustrates essays on creatures and their minds ranging from microbes to humans with accounts of scuba diving amongst such creatures. In “Metazoa” I trust I come across all the ideas common in thinking about consciousness in a biological context.
My conclusion: those ideas are absurdly inadequate to the task. If we’re confused about consciousness that’s largely because we lack concepts we need for understanding it.
Metazoa does share with me some of this concern:
If we ask whether there is “something it’s like to be it,” then we are back where we started. Our current language seems somehow inadequate for asking the crucial questions here. But I don’t think the problem can be solved just by coming up with better terms; at this point we are inside a thicket of every kind of uncertainty.
His basic position is physicalism--mental is physical. To account for mind and conscious experience all we need to explain is how the brain generates thoughts and experiences:
The aim… is to make sense of why it feels like something to be a material being of the kind that we are.
Brain processes are not causes of thoughts and experiences, they are thoughts and experiences… experiences and other mental goings-on are biological, and hence physical, processes of a certain kind…
If materialism is true, then the storms within cells, the threading together of countless cells’ activity, the perturbed rhythms of their electrical breathing, and their large-scale coordination are the stuff of mind. This is what we are asked to identify with—not to think that our minds are a consequence of this, but that our minds are such activities… What is experience? First and fundamentally, it is the activity described above as felt from the inside.
any alternative seems to head back toward dualism… To say that is to go back toward a view in which brain activity somehow causes consciousness. Instead, once we have worked out the kinds of brain activity that matter here, we can say that having that pattern of activity is having conscious experience.
His method of study:
Evolution has shaped animals not just into complicated collections of cells, but into centers of agency and subjectivity... [To be explained] varieties of subjectivity, different ways of being a subject that relate to an animal’s lifestyle and circumstance.
He draws his conceptual terms mainly from human psychology and neuroscience:
There is also the possibility of a separation between different forms of experience, which I will call sensory and evaluative experience. (They might also be called sensory and evaluative consciousness)… They do sense and respond, and are full of signals, but this is probably not enough to have felt experience even in simple forms… These emotion-like states are in between those two timescales—longer than a jolt of pain, shorter than learning. When we look at these intermediate scales [similar to those of our experience], the evidence for experience can be quite strong.
What does a philosopher of biological philosophy have to say about the role mind plays in the cosmos?
Two starkly different pictures can be compared; we might think of these as desert and jungle. The desert view holds that mind exists hardly anywhere [human exceptionalism?]… The opposite vision is a jungle, with mind everywhere or nearly everywhere. The most extreme version of this view is panpsychism, with soul-like powers seen even in atoms… The truth is between these, neither desert nor jungle.
To propose such a vast range of roles for mind as from human exceptionalism (my reading of desert, above) to panpsychism is essentially to throw up one’s hands as to its place in the cosmos. “Metazoa” confirms my impression that the philosophy of biology, as far as mind goes, is barren. It lacks a discourse adequate to account for the biological origins of our experiences of consciousness and what that implies more broadly.
I’ve written the above not as an even-handed review of “Metazoa” itself but as a survey of the conceptual framework professional academic philosophers of biology bring to the study of the evolution of mind and consciousness. I am unembarrassed to assume the role of creative writer free to speculate wildly without consequences. Godfrey-Smith’s account helps me appreciate where and how I will appear to violate professional wisdom. Below a quick summary of my thoughts on the subject:
We humans are capable of thinking up novelties. By novelties I mean events that appear not to follow from the action of physical laws on prior events, ie are not physically determined. Examples are scientists coming up with alternative hypotheses and novel equipment they design to judge between them. Thinking up novelties like this typically involves conscious experiences. I will refer to being able to think up such novelties and conscious experiences as mind. Being able to generate novelty, mind is not physically-determined yet invariably comes associated with a brain, which is. Despite this, minds and brain work closely together: I can consciously decide to have my brain report on my current conscious experience and it will express it physically, in writing, and accurately, as my consciousness confirms.
For mind and brain to work together as closely as this they must have evolved together as a single entity. Evolutionary processes must be able to harness both physical and non-physical processes at the same time. If mental processes must have some physical support, as our minds are supported by our brains, where is the physical support for evolutionary processes? Drawing on Erasmus Darwin’s suggestion in Zoonomia that there exist “living filaments” capable of directing their own evolution and identifying his living filaments with our genomes, I suppose that genomes, as physical “brains,” support minds capable of thinking up novel kinds of living creatures.
Discount for a moment the current scientific mechanism for evolution of genetic mutation and natural selection, two purely physical processes, and look at the products of evolution with a fresh eye. Once freed from the assumption that they are the result of physical determinism, the process of evolution stands out as having vast capacity to create novelty, beyond anything we see in a purely physical environment such as the Moon or Mars.
In this view, genomes had to evolve first, before they could think us into existence, together with a portion of their creativity. But genomes are unlikely to have been the original platform for life. All (almost) of the genomes of species of living creatures are written in the same arbitrarily-settled-on redundant code, suggesting that some mind had to have evolved first able to migrate prior living creatures from a variety of other codes onto the genetic code of DNA and RNA. This suggests an origin of life as follows: First, physical creatures of a great variety were generated by chemically-generated AI, these induced into existence a mind that evolved able to bring about that migration of those creatures from a variety of platforms onto one consisting of nucleotides. The nucleotide platform facilitated further evolution leading to genomes as we know them. My cosmos consists of living creatures like us, thought up by genomes, in turn thought up by a process of evolution they in turn support.
This suggests there are several kinds of evolutionary processes, that we’d learn about by studying their products, first genomes, by studying the evolution of their creatures they generate, and then other processes of evolution by studying the evolution of genomes themselves.
Such a study is likely to generate a set of concepts with greater reach than those we have now.
I do not believe my account above is actually true, it can’t be, we don’t have the concepts yet. This is what I call an “as if” theory. It could act as a forcing ground for generating such concepts.
Now let’s see if there are signs of such ideas surfacing in “Metazoa.”
One of my suppositions is that genomes can read each other’s minds, that they form intelligences at every node in the tree of life. Otherwise, how could living creatures’ bodies maintain such perfect proportion as they develop, to an invariable schedule? But there may not be minds at every node. We each seem to have one, at the level of the entire individual, but not at the level of individual organs or cells. Then, there may be a mind corresponding to an ant colony, but not to individual ants:
Wound tending has never been seen in an insect. After injury these animals just continue, as best they can, with whatever they have to do. They may show some initial squirming, but then they get back to work.
Maybe the test should be for whether the colony repairs itself.
And, possibly, a convergence with some of my thinking:
the genealogical tree of life on Earth, the tree produced by evolution, now over 3 billion years old. First, and surprisingly, some activities that are mind-like in a broad sense are all over the tree, perhaps on every branch and stem…. one option has it that although precursors to experience exist in much of the animal part of the tree, felt experience arose several times in different evolutionary lines… second possibility is that a primordial form of experience arose just once, longer ago, early in animal evolution. That form was in place for the evolutionary radiations we have charted in this book, and developed in its own way down various different lines. Which is it? The attempt to resolve this question encounters every possible problem.
I sense a welcome open-mindedness.