- Hits: 2011 2011
What is it we most want or lack an origin story of? On approaching my eighties, I've concluded it's the experience of being. I am increasingly aware just of being, of being something. And increasingly this has become the foundation of my sense of well being in general. Because of how I carve nature at its joints (see the introduction to this section) I trace that experience back to us having evolved, first to become living creatures, then to become human, finally to become conscious. From this point of view, the key to finding meaning in life lies in the study of these particular stages of evolution. Yet we're very unlikely to get that kind of wisdom from how science studies evolution, at least not within our lifetimes.
Is that OK, making the human lifespan the standard for what we should study? I think so. Each of us exists no longer than a lifetime, and I've come to think that how evolution and development continue to express themselves throughout our lives is the greatest of all dramas. Science only matters as it features in that drama. After all, if all humans died, science wouldn't exist. In some absolute sense, resources available to us for enriching our experiences in our lifetimes are more important than progress in science. The value of science depends on how it can serve us during our lifetimes, as it always has.
So why are we still living with a pre-Victorian theory of evolution--Darwin, approaching 30, was already two-years back from his Galapagos trip and working on his theory when the 17-year old Victoria ascended the throne. The big issue then was the origin of species. The leading science of the day was making sense of new creatures being discovered on distant continents and as fossils in the ground. The leading technology was the breeding of livestock for which you had to select among the best available species.To solve the big issue of his day Dawin drew on that science, artificial selection by livestock breeders, to come up with his mechanism he called natural selection. But while his theory may account for our inclination to rape and murder each other in order to propel our genes into future generations, that doesn't address the big issues facing us--how, individually, we matter, and how as a species we belong in the world. What does it mean, to us, today, that we evolved?
To answer that question I go back to the five creations I've already proposed. From how different the two are that we know most about, the material world and the quantum world, I'm going to assume the creations of life and consciousness also operate on entirely different principles. I don't know that's true, but it seems a reasonable assumption. In particular, I won't carry over to the creation of life the laws of physics that hold in creation three, the physical world of the elements.
The main problem I face is needing appropriate metaphors in order to imagine anything. For life I do have one or two metaphors. But for consciousness I have none at all. I have nothing but my experiences of it. Here goes.
My main metaphor for life is, patterns of connection. I got this idea from Gregory Bateson, who I expect got it from his father, William Bateson. Examples of patterns of connection are complicated physical systems such as water sheds, where an input you make in one place--the breaking of a dam, for example--will have a complex set of outcomes throughout the system, just through how everything's connected. To create machine intelligence technicians set up a system like that, from scratch, out of banks of switches, each bank of switches processing the signals from the bank preceding it. What's different in this case is, you tell the system what output you want from what you put into it, and let the system arrive at the pattern of connections inside it that "solves the problem." It does this by trying out different patterns of connections throughout the banks of switches, arriving gradually at the solution as it's told how well it's doing.
I think of early life as taking the form of patterns of connection that solved the problem of living and reproducing. I think of the switches as being made of chemicals, like how proteins work in the body to catalyze particular reactions. Then, think of life not as masses of tiny creatures but as growing webs of patterns of connection. Inputs into such a system are what a creature senses, outputs are muscle twitches driving behavior. Behaviors that solve problems become reinforced throughout the pattern of connection.
In those growing webs what we think of as intelligence can be imagined developing to almost any degree of wisdom as the webs spread. Intelligence like this isn't a property of matter, it emerges through forms matter can be fashioned into. From this point on, life operates as directed by its own intelligence on principles alien to the creation of physical matter. The rest of the story of life will consist of how that intelligence learns to monitor its own operation, learns about the conditions around it, and elaborates itself to solve problems of increasing complexity.
That's my account of the origin of intelligence. For the origin of mind I have to employ another metaphor--and it's a very weak one--that I think of as a register in a computer. When in the course of its normal operations a computer needs to carry out some special operation that it's not equipped for, it can offload that operation to a special register that is appropriately equipped. That register does its thing and then passes the outcome back to the computer. Now imagine life, having taken the form of vast webs of patterns of connection, hiving off special webs of connections for special uses. For memory, for example. For mathematical operations. For deciphering "causes"--correlations between earlier and later events. For reason--a logic that can be abstracted from these correlations. And so on. These begin as registers, that any part of the living web can call on. And suppose further that in time these registers join up into their own collossal pattern of connection to form a general intelligence. That's mind.
How does mind come to drive behavior? By applying reason to signals from the outside world the mind can identify new meanings in them, leading it to conclusions that feed back into the existing patterns of connection that influence behavior. In time the greater wisdom in those conclusions may result in mind being given priority within the pattern of connections leading to behavior. Now mind can manipulate matter. Patterns of connection can support mind, but they're made of matter, so they can make changes in matter.
For me, that's an OK explanation for the origin of mind. All I needed to account for is how it could work, what it does, how it could have developed. My metaphors help me "understand" that. Consciousness is something else. Mind is a capability for intelligently directing the behavior of living creatures, but conscious experiences are real, real things with their own distinctive nature. Mind I experience only as something within consciousness but consciousnes I experience directly. I can imagine how it arose, as mind begins to apply reason to its own operations, then to suppose itself the "agent" responsible for those operations. But somehow then this supposing itself an agent becomes consciousness of itself as an agent. And that's a leap into an entirely different creation. I'm totally at a loss for metaphors through which to feel I understand that. All I know is, it happened. I'm conscious.
All this I imagine happening within a billion years or so of the first appearance of life. Self-aware agents within the neural nets of life begin to consciously direct the process of their own evolution, and of the creatures they code for. Increasingly they embed some of their own intelligence in their creatures, until in us they embed some of their own capacity for consciousness.
I say more about this in my book "Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved."
For a more entertaining and graphic account see my video "."