On consciousness, part 2: The human condition

Note: for a discussion on the evolutionary basis for consciousness, please review part one of this series.

No other species in the history of this planet has been so fascinated with its own reflection than humans. No other species has been so self-conscious in relation to its reflection than humans. No other species has ever given a voice to its reflection, or dialoged with it, or told it to shut the hell up.

To be human is to constantly talk to yourself. Usually not externally, but internally through conversations we have with our “internal voice,” with which we plan, plead, bargain, and perform many of the same dialogs we would with another person. But why is this so and, more importantly, why is this important in terms of adaptability and survivability?

Imagine a creature hiding in a bush, trying to figure out the best way to attack another creature as a source of food for survival. Now imagine two creatures in the same bush with the ability to communicate so that they can collectively figure out the best means of attack. In which of these scenarios is someone more likely to eat tonight?

Now, let’s take one of the creatures in scenario two and internalize it, so that creature two is always there for creature one to discuss and plan with. Is this “combined” creature more likely to eat than the separate creatures in scenario two? Probably not, because these separate creatures still bring individual experiences and the ability to work as a team that may be of collaborative value to the task of acquiring food. But it is still better than the creature in scenario one. In other words, being able to plan with an internal self is better than having no one else to plan with at all.

There are many species that have adapted to being able to work in teams for the betterment of the collective. Wolves are a popular example, but so are dolphins, elephants, certain species of the big cats, and, of course, primates. But no species has taken it to the level of humans, and this is inarguably due to our ability to communicate with one another; an ability that may be directly related to our ability to communicate with ourselves. In other words, our ability to not only reflect on real world events, but to also the ability to divorce that reflection into its own “entity” with which we can internally communicate may very well be our most adaptable trait, and the one that has allowed us to overcome our biological complexity and become the most successful species on this planet.

But if humans represent the current pinnacle in the evolution of consciousness, then what is next? How may Nietzsche’s Overman evolve? Well, the jury is still out that this high level of adaptability in the form of consciousness is a survival trait in the long game of evolution. Indeed, it is quite possible that, as a species, we may have overshot the optimal level of adaptability and be on our way to extinction. In other words, we may be too smart for our own good.

Consider: not only are we the species with the greatest potential to preserve life on this planet, we are also the species with the greatest potential to destroy it. All of it. No other species in the long history of this planet has ever had that potential. Indeed, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the rate of extinction of other species has been greater than possibly any other time in the fossil record, even the K-Pg event that wiped out the dinosaurs. In that sense, we have become the destroyer of worlds.

Secondly, while our level of consciousness and intelligence have provided us with an evolutionary advantage as individuals, it is our membership in an organization of even higher complexity that has allowed us to span this planet: our civilization. We may be complex organisms biologically, but our civilizations are far more complex creatures, and far more susceptible to change. There is some evidence, in fact, that we have only been able to achieve our level of civilization due to the fact that we have been living in a relatively stable period, climate wise, for the last ten thousand years. A stability that we are actively disrupting.

Finally, while we have not escaped the forces of evolution, as some have claimed, we are the first species with the power to advance it orders of magnitude faster, in whichever direction we choose. Whether it is genetically modified crops, animals, or people, we may very well advance human evolution straight off of a cliff. So this line of consciousness may very well stop with us, and by our own hands. Only tomorrow will tell.

But, speaking of tomorrow, assuming we survive and continue to evolve, and in line with the theme of consciousness, what may the future bring for us?

First, let’s quickly discuss the trend of altering the human form, either biologically or mechanically, called transhumanism. Is transhumanism the next stage in evolution? Given my thesis so far in this series that the primary human evolutionary advantage is the level of consciousness we have been able to achieve due to our intelligence, I would have to say no, unless it advances our level of intelligence and consciousness. Attaching alternate body parts or “purifying” the genetic code are merely enhancements, not true evolutionary advancement.

What about increased intelligence? There is little doubt that, within the next few decades, we will be able to enhance our intelligence, either genetically, biologically, mechanically, or some mixture of the three. But there may be limits to this, or at least a law of diminishing return. For example, if we double or triple the intelligence of our dogs, they may be able to learn tricks faster and possibly achieve some higher level of communication, but that does not mean we will be able to sit down with Rover and discuss the relevance of Shakespeare. At some point a dog will just be a smarter dog, as we will just be smarter humans.

However, if attaining higher levels of consciousness is our primary evolutionary path as humans, what could that mean?

In part one of this series, I discussed levels of consciousness, from purely reflexive to highly conceptual. I also discussed the difference between “seeing” red, “feeling” red, and “being” red. Unique to humans is a state I would call “beyond” red. Our consciousness has achieved a level where we can create versions of red that have never before existed, or may never have existed via natural means. So, the next step might be moving even beyond “beyond” red by creating new realities in which the context of red itself may have a different meaning. Think of the Matrix and the alternative realities that that level of technology would allow. We will not just expand our consciousness in the current space-time continuum we call reality, but into many other virtual space-time continuums of our own design.

In relation to that, our level of consciousness has allowed us to achieve higher levels of complexities through the utilization of language and the ability to collaborate with others to create vast societies. If language is a barrier to increased complexity, then we may evolve ourselves beyond that either in the ability to process higher order symbolic constructs, or even doing away with language altogether and just comingling our consciousness with others or, perhaps, everyone. Indeed, by expanding—or even separating—our consciousness from the underlying biology, we may attain some sort of immortality, although that may stretch the definition of what it means to be human beyond the breaking point.

Finally, we may be able to create brand new consciousness, or consciousness that would never have come into being naturally; a topic I will elaborate on in the next part of this series.


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The tribunal of conscience

To those who were brought up in the Western tradition of conscience— and who was not?—it seems only natural to think of their agreement with others as secondary to a solitary decision in foro conscientiae [in the tribunal of conscience], as though what they had in common with others was not an opinion or a judgment at all, but a common conscience.

Hannah Arendt, Civil Disobedience

The New York Times had quite an interesting opinion piece the other day concerning the recent trial of Oskar Gröning for crimes against humanity as a Nazi in World War II. Although the author’s commentary is interesting in its own right, it is to the comments section that I would like to address this post; specifically those that believe the German people should not be held accountable because they were merely following the “common conscience” of the time.

In her essay Civil Disobedience, Hannah Arendt discusses at some length the dilemma that people can discover themselves in when they find their individual consciences to be at odds with the common conscience of their society. Do they have a right to resist? Can the right to resist be enshrined in law? What protections from the law do or should people have who choose to resist?

Entwined with these questions, of course, is the moral obligation to resist. If you find yourself at odds with established doctrine, do you have a moral obligation to resist regardless of the outcome? And if you choose not to, can you be held accountable for cowardice or complicitness by future generations?

There are many who say that the German people should be absolved from the Holocaust and other atrocities of World War II, as most of them were merely following the established doctrine of Germany at the time. But shall we give the American slave-owners a pass too? After all, slavery was the established doctrine in America two hundred years ago. People who owned slaves were just doing what people did back in the day, right?

Except that they weren’t. Even two hundred years ago, slavery was nearly unique to the United States amongst most other countries at the time, and there was robust debate within the United States as to the right of one human to own another. Thus, the doctrine utilized by slave owners to reconcile their conscious was not the uniform doctrine in the United States, but merely the doctrine of those who owned slaves and their enablers. The people who owned slaves, and their enablers, did so because they were slavers who thought it was ok to own slaves in contrary to most of the rest of the world. Nothing more.

Likewise, a similar argument could be made against the German people. The Holocaust may have been the “solution to the Jewish question” devised by the Nazis, but it was certainly a solution unique to the Germans, and one for which the rest of the world was aghast once it was discovered. And while the extermination of millions of Jews may have been conducted largely unknown to the majority of the German public, the harassment of the Jews certainly was not. Thus, much like the slave owners, the doctrine utilized by the German people to reconcile their conscience was not some uniform “common conscience,” but merely the doctrine of German exceptionalism, of those who disliked Jews, and their enablers. They may have been caught up in the moment, but it was a moment they heartily embraced, in contrary to most of the rest of the world.

The example of the Holocaust is not something for which the German people of the day should be absolved: it is something that should be forever enshrined in history as an example of the consequences of intellectual and moral turpitude on a grand scale. The Germans followed their path not because they had no other choice, but because they were either morally complicit, or too intellectually lazy to choose otherwise. The true heroes of the German people were those with the moral and intellectual fortitude to resist that in whatever way they could. This may sound overly harsh and removed from the issues of the time, but to suggest anything less is a way of enabling such collective atrocities in the future.

When the war ended and the Germans were freed of the spell of the Nazi party, there was—and still is—much soul searching as to how they could have been collectively complicit in such atrocities. And this is something that will come to haunt Americans, too, when the current torture fever and Islamophobia runs its course, much as we struggle now with reconciling the internment of the Japanese during World War II, or the long struggle of civil rights in this country. But make no mistake: there is no moral cover in following the herd. Either you believe what it believes, or you resist in the means available to you. Where atrocities are concerned, the tribunal of history will make no room for moral ambiguity, collective or otherwise.

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Oh Baltimore

I guess this needs repeating:

To those of you who cannot understand why a certain group of people could be enraged to the point where they would loot and otherwise destroy their neighborhood, close your eyes for a minute and consider what you would do if:

You belonged to a group of people who, statistically, were 25 times more likely to be shot by your local “peace” officers than anyone else, and…

If the police were 25 times more likely to KILL you, then consider how much more likely they would be to stop you, harass you, beat you, and otherwise rub your powerlessness in your face, and…

Society as a whole was programmed, at every turn, to make it just that much harder for you to move up in society or even just be accepted for who you are, and…

You, your family, other people you know in your group, indeed, nearly everyone you could think of who looked like you had to deal with the same shit, day in and day out, overtly and covertly, every day of their lives from the time they were born until the time they died…

And so on and so forth.

And then on top of all that…

One of those people seemingly paid to harass you and keep you down took it upon themselves to execute someone who was a part of your group, for no other apparent reason other than they could and…

All of his coworkers showed up armed to the teeth, with machine guns, tear gas, rubber bullets, and other “urban” (read “Black”) pacification gear, to keep you down…

And so on and so forth…

And then the grand jury let the murderer go, like you knew they would, like EVERYONE knew they would, because it was the victim’s fault he got killed, don’t ya know, for trying to resist getting killed…

And then the ones who are supposed to be protecting you–but instead are the ones who are killing you–show up again with their “urban” (read “Black”) pacification gear in case you get mad…

Wouldn’t you get mad? Maybe more than a little enraged at feeling so powerless? Tired of all the beat downs and young people in your group getting executed for who knows what? Tired and mad enough to just break shit?

I know I would. And so would you.

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Judge, jury, and executioner?

“I never broke the law. I am the law!”
–Judge Dredd

In the United States and, indeed, most other countries that claim the mantle of being “civilized,” there is a deliberate chain of events that is designed to unfold between the presumption of quilt and the actions stemming from that presumption. That chain of events is lengthy, and it is lengthy by design. It is lengthy by design so that every opportunity can be made by the accused to refute the presumption of guilt before the state can accord a punishment that will have irrevocable consequences. This applies to everything from petty larceny to the death penalty. Especially the death penalty.

Except for those, apparently, that we charge with keeping the peace. For it is seeping increasingly into the public consciousness that, for whatever reason, we have empowered our police officers to do away with all of that. Our police officers have been empowered, with little oversight and little repercussion, to, solely at their discretion, short circuit that purposely designed lengthy chain of events and execute the presumption of guilt in literally the amount of time it takes to pull a gun and squeeze the trigger. All of those days, weeks, months, and even years of deliberation (and deliberate action) by sometimes dozens of highly trained people all tasked with not only making sure that the innocent are not incorrectly accused before the irreversible occurs, but that the punishment reflects the crime; all reduced to a judgement call lasting only a few seconds.

This is not to say that this is not sometimes justified. In the heat of battle, the police are, and should be, accorded some leeway in making that call. But that call should be made with extreme prejudice, and that call should be examined, after the fact, with as much deliberation as would have been made if the chain of justice had been allowed to normally unfold. Indeed, if we are to empower our police with the right of judge, jury, and executioner, then that right must be strictly observed and controlled to the highest extent possible. Higher even than when executed at normal speed under the justice system.

The United States is one of the few civilized nations that allows the execution of prisoners. But even here that is only practiced—in theory at least—after the full deliberation of justice and only for the most extreme offenses. We do not, for example, place someone on death row for scheduled execution for throwing a brick through a window, carrying a toy gun in public, riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the road, selling loose cigarettes, carrying a knife, running away, or any other non-violent infraction. We do not allow the execution of children, under any circumstances. We do not allow the execution of the mentally infirm. To allow the police leeway to do any of these not only invites anarchy, but reduces them to nothing more than a gang of armed thugs with a common uniform.

Police brutality is unacceptable at any level. The role of the police is to enforce peace. Except for the most extreme cases, the roles of judge, jury, and executioner need to reside firmly and deliberately in the halls of justice, not out on the street.

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The Problem With Hillary Clinton: A Liberal’s Perspective

The problem with Hillary is not her ties to Wall Street, although they are certainly troubling. The problem with Hillary is not the sources of funding for the Clinton Foundation, although they are troubling, too. The problem is not Benghazi or “email-gate,” as these are merely cases of Republican hate-mongering, although the email issue does seem to point to a troubling lack of common sense. The problem is not all the other troubling issues, factual and otherwise, that will undoubtedly be uncovered and perhaps unfairly spotlighted during her campaign.  The problem is not even the troubling issue of political dynasties. No, the problem is much more basic than any of these.

The problem with Hillary Clinton is the subversion of the democratic process.

The Republicans and the so-called Very Serious People that make up our political elite may not care all that much about democracy, and indeed they sometimes seem to express a demonstrably visceral reaction to it, but there is a not-insignificant percentage of “wild-eyed liberals” who still like it, thank-you very much. And thus it is with much chagrin that we observe the pre-anointing of Hillary Clinton by Democrat party bosses and the money establishment long before the primary process has even had a chance to unfold. And not only that, but enduring the attacks by those who suggest that even entertaining the thought of another candidate is playing right into the Republican’s hands. As if allowing the primary process to unfold is somehow, you know, undemocratic.

But the process must be allowed to unfold uninhibited. And it must be allowed to unfold by encouraging a robust field of candidates to run. To allow otherwise is to subvert the very democratic principles that the Democratic Party claims to uphold, and to delegitimize the process altogether. To allow otherwise is to go into the presidential campaign assuming wide-spread and unified support when, in fact, it does not exist.

Hillary Clinton may very well be the best candidate and, if so, she will survive the primary process and go on to lead the Democrats to victory. I have no problem with that, and would have no problem supporting her candidacy if that were the case. But what I viscerally reject is having her shoved upon us as if she were the only reasonable candidate, and that the outcome is somehow inevitable. Nothing is inevitable, and to say otherwise is to project not inevitability, but entitlement. We witnessed how that worked out for Mitt Romney.

Clinton is not entitled to be the Democratic candidate for the presidency. She is not entitled to be the president of the United States. The only thing she is entitled to do is to run like everyone else. Anything else subverts the process and makes a mockery of our democratic principles. If she wants my support, then let her earn it by being robustly vetted through the primary process, not steamrolled through by the party elite.

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On consciousness, part 1: An evolutionary basis

What is consciousness? That is a question that has stymied humanity for probably as long as we have been conscious, whatever that is. And with theories ranging from the purely mechanistic to the deeply spiritual and everywhere in between, it doesn’t seem that we will be converging on a definitive answer any time soon. For my own interests, however, the question is not so much the how, but the why. I am not so much interested in how we are conscious, but why we became conscious and, building on that, where consciousness will be taking us in the future.

In discussing why we became conscious, a good starting point is to examine the evolutionary basis for consciousness. There is still a quite robust debate as to whether consciousness is, in itself, a selectable trait or merely a consequence of something else, but let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that there is an evolutionary advantage for consciousness; that being conscious gives us a competitive edge. If so, then why might that be?

Let’s consider the need for adaptability.

There are two reasons why adaptability is important. First, change is a fact of life, so adaptability is the means by which a species survives so that it can propagate. Species that can adapt to change successfully propagate, those that can’t become extinct. But adaptability itself unfolds during two different timescales: over the long run through the forces of evolution and natural selection, and over the immediate through “real time” adaptation to the daily grind for survival.

If we think of evolution as a multi-generational process for optimizing the survival of “living” systems for a given set of environmental conditions, then evolution will work, through natural selection, to adapt a species over the long haul to long term changes in the environment. However, evolution needs two things in order for this to happen: time, and, assuming that a species has the capacity for genetic mutation, a high enough survival ratio so that hereditary adaptations can “stick” and propagate through the species. In other words, if evolution can adapt a species faster than the environment is changing, then, over the generations, an evolving species would maintain some level of optimal survivability with respect to its environment.

However, in a more rapidly changing environment, the slow optimization through which evolution of a species occurs may not be enough and the ability of an individual organism to adapt to change in real time would become as important a survival characteristic as long-term evolution of the species. If the change is continuous, then the capacity for “real time” adaptability itself would become a trait for natural selection. Species that could not adapt quickly enough in real time would not be able to propagate at a sufficiently high enough rate to allow evolution to take its course.

The second reason that adaptability is important is that the more complex an organism is, the less “hardy” it is. Humans, for example, may be exceptionally adaptable, but the range of environmental conditions for which we can survive unprotected is far narrower than for the simple organisms that live in volcanic vents, or even for our companion rats and roaches. Thus, the higher on the complexity scale a species is, the more important that adaptability to real time conditions becomes as a survival trait. Indeed, real time adaptability is most certainly a prerequisite for complex organisms to survive and sustain themselves over the long haul.

So how does consciousness relate to adaptability? First, the ability to respond in real time is directly related to awareness of one’s surroundings. The more aware a creature is, the more responsive it is. Second, it is important to understand that consciousness is not an all-or-nothing trait. Most scientists who study consciousness now agree that there is a continuum of awareness and consciousness; from purely reflexive behaviors, to behaviors driven primarily by what is called access consciousness—awareness of something—to behaviors driven by phenomenal consciousness—awareness of self, or what most people refer to when discussing what it means to be conscious. Thus, there are levels of awareness and consciousness that relate to species’ need to adapt to survive, from the lowest level of purely reflexive responses without awareness of context (pre-awareness), to reflexive response with context (semi-awareness), to learned responses and responses generated through contemplation and simulation (awareness and pre-consciousness), to, finally, a state of behavior driven by self-identification and reflection (consciousness).

At the bottom of the awareness/adaptability chain are organisms that can only react via a programmed response to stimulus without any actual perception as to the context of the stimulus. Think of a tick that drops from its perch in response to sensing a pheromone. Whether the pheromone comes from a mammal or a cotton cloth, the tick will not only respond by attempting to insert its head, but that is the only response it is capable of. In a sense, it has been “hardwired” by evolution to respond to a fixed set of factors with a fixed set of responses. If no mammals were to walk underneath it, it would never reproduce. From an awareness perspective, this could be described as pre-awareness: what it exhibits is purely reflexive behavior without consideration.

Next up the awareness/adaptability ladder are species that still execute a reflexive response, but in reaction to some limited perception of the environment. For these organisms, it is not just the environmental factors that trigger a response, but also the context of the environment. This is the first step towards true awareness: a wasp may “choose” not to pursue its prey with the intention of laying eggs, for example, even though the sequence for doing so is reflexive, “programmed” behavior. This would tend to enhance survivability by providing a “menu” of pre-programmed responses to choose from based on some primitive evaluation of environmental factors.

At the higher end of the reflexive behavior scale are species that can alter programmed responses through learning. Locusts, for example, fly utilizing a programmed sequence, but older locusts have shown the ability to fly better than younger locusts, demonstrating some method of utilizing experience to improve their reflexive flying behavior the more they fly. Obviously, this would work to their evolutionary advantage, as being able to adapt reflexive behavior in real time would likely improve survivability and the chances of reproducing.

Next comes a big leap in awareness and adaptability: evolving from reflexive to “contemplative” behavior. Species at this level are fully aware of their environment: they respond not with reflexive programming, but with actions determined by some conceptual model of the world that is produced through learned behavior. Their responses are not pre-programmed by evolution, but are programmed in real time by their environment. A dog that has been raised in a nurturing atmosphere, for example, will organize a response to a set of circumstances much differently than a dog that has been abused every day. As will people, for that matter.

There are several advantages to this from an adaptive standpoint. Organisms that can operate via an internalized, alterable model of their environment can accommodate change much more readily than those that cannot. They can conceptualize problems, solve them, and learn from them; obviously an important improvement for survivability. They can also anticipate and plan, which are advantageous traits to have when competing for survival and reproduction. This also sets the stage for the next level of adaptability: simulation.

Simulation is an important survival trait because it allows one to not only anticipate, but to model alternative scenarios before taking action. It also marks a leap from awareness to the beginnings of consciousness: the difference, for example, between seeing the color red, “feeling” the color red, and, by extension, conceptualizing “as if” the color red.

“Seeing” red refers to the low-level biological and physiological processes of identifying something as being the color red. “Feeling” red refers to the emotive response that occurs upon seeing red: love, hate, attack, run away, whatever, and why individuals of the same species might have different responses to seeing the same color red. “As if” red refers to the ability to put oneself in red’s “shoes”: to imagine what it would be like to be red. The better that an organism can do that, the better it can simulate the responses of others and anticipate the best way to respond in return. This is a necessary step for evolving from a reactive nature to a proactive nature; from merely responding to circumstances to being able to anticipate them and plan ahead.

This leads to the next level of consciousness and adaptability: the awareness of self. This has only been demonstrated so far by species at the highest end of the complexity scale: humans, chimpanzees, dolphins and orcas, and elephants. This is arguably an important part of allowing complex organisms to socialize with others in order to collaborate and adapt as a group for survival. And, finally, the level that has, so far, only been demonstrated by humans: reflection of self. This is the “Joycean Machine,” the basis of the little voice in each of our heads with whom we debate and plan our lives, and from which the great works—and disasters—of our species have sprung. Is this a survival trait, or an evolutionary dead end? Food for thought for the next post in this series.

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The science is settled: global warming is caused by cosmic rays

Actually, it’s not. The evidence is irrefutable at this point that global warming is being caused primarily by human manipulation of the environment. But does it matter? Despite increasingly dire predictions by scientists and international organizations—and recent evidence that events are progressing even faster than predicted—our world leaders have shown little to no zeal for scaling back the burning of fossil fuels that is pushing global warming towards a civilization-destroying catastrophe. Indeed, it may as well be caused by cosmic rays for all they seem to care.

Despite the thousands of hours of painstaking research, the millions of words written to explain global warming and its consequences, and the billions of dollars spent just trying to agree that this is a problem, the majority of the people on this planet still do not even know that global warming exists. They live in information-poor areas where anything other than subsistence living is a luxury. Of those in the industrialized world who do have access to information, the majority of those still don’t believe that global warming is man-made, or that anything can be done about it. And perhaps they are right, for what the climate community is fighting against is something far more powerful and insidious than cosmic rays: they are fighting ideology.

Ideology is exceptionally difficult to change. It will resist contrary evidence all the way to the bitter end. People will sooner change their religion than their ideology. So my suggestion to the climate community is this: just stop trying. Let the climate deniers have their beliefs. When they point to cosmic rays, or volcanoes, or sunspots, or orbital wobbles, or whatever cockamamie cause they come up with, just nod your head. Let them win. Because the alternative is just going to cause them to dig in deeper and rob resources from the real challenge before us: coming up with a plan to keep global warming from pushing civilization into a thousand-year dark age.

The question now before us in not whether we can stop global warming. That ship has sailed. The question before us is not how to minimize global warming. That ship has probably sailed, too. The question now before us is how we can adapt civilization to the rapid changes that will be occurring during the worst case scenario. Instead of spending time and money antagonizing the people in power who, frankly, just do not want to be convinced, spend the money on researching how to adapt. Instead of continuously sounding the alarm about the worst case scenario, embrace it and plan for it. Because that is the track we are on, no matter what we say or do. Ideology or cosmic rays, it’s irrelevant at this point.

We who understand that global warming is being caused by human intervention are smart people. We have demonstrated the ability to listen to the evidence and use it to accurately see into the future. We are proactive, not reactive. We are leaders, not followers. It is time to stop fighting and start leading. The deniers may be able to refute the cause, but they are increasingly unable to refute the change. Let’s use that to lead us towards a future where at least some of our civilization is preserved. The alternative is to keep fighting over semantics until the water is literally lapping at our doors.

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