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.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “On Consciousness, part 2: The human condition

  1. Pingback: On consciousness, part 1: An evolutionary basis | The Cosmogonic Grunt

  2. With the remarkable inevitably comes the remarkably bad.

    You ever read David Brinn’s novella, Stones of Significance? It has a brilliant take on post-singularity consciousness. Well worth the read.

  3. Thanks, John. I’ll have to check that one out. The book that came to my mind when I wrote this was Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human.

  4. Pingback: On Consciousness, part 3: The Robots | The Cosmogonic Grunt

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