Carl Sagan wrote beautifully that human consciousness is one of of the ways in which the universe knows itself. But what is consciousness, how are we conscious, and why are we conscious?
This Consciousness Problem fascinates everyone. It’s life’s greatest mystery, and the starting and ending points for the work of every ambitious philosopher, from Descartes (Cogito ergo sum) to my sister, Hudson (Consciousness blows my mind. It’s just…I can’t even…dude).
I’m not going near it. At least, I’m not going to address the what? or the how? of consciousness; I’ll only address the why?
The Simple Answer
The simple answer is that consciousness is the only means of decision-making complex enough to guide complex animals through the complexity of life. We need to be able to think original thoughts in response to new stimuli, because the range of situations humans encounter – and the range of responses available to us as complex organisms – is enormous. Consciousness is the tool evolution gave us when things got too complicated for a playbook concise enough to fit on the genes. Consciousness outsources decision-making from the body to the ether.
That seems obvious, of course. We’re conscious so we can make decisions. But remember, there are plenty of organisms who aren’t conscious, as far as we know. How do they make decisions?
Life is Simple When You Are Simple
And the simple answer to that question is: they don’t make decisions. At least, they don’t have to actually decide anything. The simplest organisms have all decisions made for them genetically. They’re little computers: their bodies receive input (The pH level is perfect!) and their bodies produce output (Quick! Split in half!), all of which depends only on the physical structure of those bodies, which itself is dictated by the physical structure of their genes. From “birth,” such organisms are built, by DNA blueprint, to react to the situations they’ll need to survive in order to reproduce. They don’t have to choose responses in real time. The right decisions have been made for them by nature, which has mercilessly eliminated poor decision-makers from their ancestors’ gene pool.
Very simple organisms recognize very few situations, and need very few responses. They don’t have access to much creativity. If something crazy happens, they just die, which is okay. Everybody dies. If something happens that’s crazy enough a human can’t figure out how to survive it, the human just dies, too.
Humans, however, can’t use that system. Despite our relative abundance of genetic material – a few more genes than a mouse! – our genes hold nowhere near the amount of data we need to make even routine decisions.
Consider the following contrast in decision complexity.
A simple organism “decides”: It’s cold. I’m going to shrink to conserve energy.
A human woman decides: I guess I’d better follow that guy. In nine months he’s gonna realize he oughta take care of this thing.
The gentlemen among my readership will acknowledge that the former “decision” does not require conscious input from the “deciding” organism (or part of an organism). The ladies will acknowledge that the latter is probably on a knife-edge and relies on factors as diverse as the beard-growing potential and singing voice of “that guy.”
From Rational to Irrational and Back Again
So it’s obvious there’s more to human decision-making than can fit on the 1GB or so of storage afforded by the human genome. But, if you’ll allow me a quick detour, that last comparison illustrates one of the ways in which evolution expanded the genome’s capacity without (before?) resorting to rational consciousness: Love.
Love is one component of the irrational bridge nature used to close the gap between the two types of rational decision-making it eventually created (the two types, of course, are: 1. the sort used by simple organisms, which are rational in the same sense a computer is rational: they consistently apply strict rules to input situations in order to output responses, and 2. consciousness, which is rational in the sense that it relies on reason).
As nature collided with the limits of the genome’s simple physical decision-making process, it seems to have turned first to the chemical-emotional voodoo of Love and other emotions. Love’s usefulness is obvious: the strong attraction the man, woman, and child in the above anecdote may feel for each other will cause them to make countless correct decisions for the child’s (and all of their genes’) well-being.
But Love’s drawbacks are also obvious, as any human being knows. Now that we’ve got in place Conscious Reason, a robust decision-making tool, it seems a shame we can’t roll back the vestigial stopgap measures that so often get in its way.
Oh, Yes, the Outsourcing Analogy
As I said, I’m only capable of approaching the why? of consciousness, which is not such a difficult question. Consciousness serves the same purpose in humans as a creative/executive committee serves in a company.
A tiny, newly-formed company might handle decision-making informally, by consensus of its few employees, but as it grows, it’ll probably have to outsource the process to a dedicated Board of Directors. That Board of Directors has very little to do with day-to-day operations (you don’t want some figurehead Director in charge of crucial logistics any more than you want your Consciousness in charge of your heartbeat), but it can produce cut, dry decisions about complex issues in a way several thousand employees can’t. Good analogy.
Now I’ve got it. The Board of Directors is the bridge, the voodoo stuff like Love that’s not really conscious reason yet, but certainly not just discrete physical responses to simple stimuli. The dinosaurs on our company’s Board are relics whose grand, outdated ideals, beautiful as they may be, are just too blunt for the intricacies of modern business.
That makes the real Rational Consciousness in this analogy the hip boutique consultancy, driven by precise analysis of countless sources of data and only ineffective because the Board decides not to follow its advice, after all.
There You Have It
So that’s why we’re conscious. We need to be to make complex decisions involving inputs we can’t physically sense. (Self-consciousness is a no-brainer from consciousness: no conscious decision about any future state would be thoroughly reasoned without the recognition that consciousness will be an available resource at that state, as well.)
No mention of what Consciousness actually is here. It’s obviously produced by something physically written in our DNA, but it’s also obviously extra-physical and massive in a way that we admire without understanding.
Just enjoy it while you’ve got it. You’re not likely to be reincarnated as a human again soon, since people are probably only one in a few quadrillion (or so) living things on earth.