On Consciousness and its Various Forms
Electrochemical activity in the brain produces subjective experience. When this activity is modulated during any state other than sober wakefulness such as during drug use or while dreaming, subjective experience can be markedly changed. In the case of dreams, although there exists an exceptional dissimilarity between cognitive experience and actual bodily experience, this fact often fails to become apparent until one awakens. Seemingly, the neural activity produced during a dream loosens the boundaries for what can be judged as “reality” during this time. Without the ability to recognize that an experience is happening merely as part of a dream, any event that occurs during the dream seems no less real than if these events were actually occurring.
It would be difficult to argue, though, that our minds place a filter on what can be perceived only while dreaming. In the cocktail party effect, for instance, we unconsciously perceive background noise at a party only until our name is said by someone in the room. Only then do we “consciously” hear some quality of the background noise, despite its existence all along. Unsurprisingly, sound is not the only quality we often fail to perceive consciously, despite its ubiquity. For all the value we place on our sense of sight, we cannot even perceive the majority of the electromagnetic spectrum (the entire range of light that can possibly be perceived), including the near-infrared wavelengths that creatures like the mantis shrimp can perceive. Clearly, it is not the actual physical reality that determines what is perceived, but rather the perceptual system of the observer, formed through countless years of natural selection. Ultimately, the form of consciousness that is conducive to survival and reproduction in a certain environment is what persists due to the inheritance of genes underlying that form of consciousness. If, due to completely different environmental pressures, humans were more likely to survive with X-ray vision, genes for X-ray vision would have been passed on, since these genes would have afforded increased survival for individuals who had them. In a world such as this, however inconceivable, Superman’s “special” power would be color vision.
Scientific research, then, which generates testable predictions about our shared observable reality, is conducted through an ultimately subjective lens. And although this lens is shared among all humans, it can be thought of as subjective when it is recognized that human consciousness is merely shaped by the environmental pressures of a single planet within the universe. In spite of the vast range of human experience, then, our search for objective truth yields facts denoting only a reality which can be humanly observed. The idea that observations made using the scientific method could be deemed as objective is convenient in a pragmatic sense, and even necessary for our very existence as a species, even if the research is conducted within the boundaries of the human mind. However, a truly objective reality that exists universally, no matter the life-form that observes it, may perhaps never be gleaned from the human mind alone.
Imagine a calculation which compiled every conscious entity on earth and created an overall value denoting a total level of combined conscious awareness, along with all the qualities encompassed by the consciousness on that planet. For instance, if we were to take a small subset of our consciousness, like our visual perception of the electromagnetic spectrum, and combine it with that of the mantis shrimp and other life forms that, together, see the remaining wavelengths, we would obtain a set of boundaries to denote what could possibly be seen by all organisms on earth. We could also perform this calculation for all other senses and cognitive perceptions that could possibly be made by a conscious organism. The hypothetical set of values denoting all possible levels of conscious awareness on earth could foreseeably be very different from the value representing the collective consciousness found on another planet. This can be hypothesized based on the postulates of natural selection, which state, in sum, that success in survival and reproduction between variable individuals is non-random because individuals with variations that confer survival and reproduction in a certain environment have a greater chance to pass their genes to the next generation (Darwin, 1859). Due to the distinct environmental pressures that could have influenced the propagation of life elsewhere in the universe, it seems that vastly different forms of life and, hence, consciousness, could evolve, since other organisms are naturally selected based on the demands of the unique environments in which they respectively live. It is not inconceivable, then, to think that an alien species could have evolved a broader level of consciousness than that of humans or any other known species, giving them a completely altered perception of reality. This altered perception of reality would be “altered” only in our eyes though, and would therefore represent an entirely different reality, one which we could never conceive.
One must wonder, though, how different an alternate perception of reality could actually be, since all matter is known to be bound by universal laws of physics. Therefore, the supposed brains of an alien species, different as they may be, are likely to not only be composed of the very matter that follows these universal laws but also to perceive matter that follows these laws. Could it be the case that consciousness would not differ so greatly in other parts of the universe, then? Maybe. But even the physical laws which govern all events in the universe have been determined by the human mind, which can only reason to a certain point about what truly exists in the seemingly infinite expanse of even the observable universe.
Like the philosophical “conscious alien,” certain organisms on earth may exhibit consciousness so disparate from our own that we may not see reason to believe they are even conscious. Many would postulate that we possess a higher level of consciousness than “lower” life-forms like plants, for example. We can, so it seems, perform a greater array of functions in a wider variety of patterns than these organisms and we seem to harbor an enhanced ability to manipulate the environment around us. But there does not seem to be a reason to believe that our form of conscious perception of the world should be considered entirely or even partially superior to that of other living organisms. Ultimately, referring to plants as lower life-forms could even be considered a misnomer. Plants, whatever our perception of them, show to have at least some level of awareness of the environment. Take the Venus flytrap, which snaps at its prey only when certain hairs on its leaves are touched (Pavlovic, Slovakova, Pandolfi, & Mancuso, 2011) or the thale cress, whose offspring are comprised of genes that allow them to respond to the same environmental stressors their ancestors experienced (Kooke, & Keurentjes, 2015). Other plants curl their leaves in response to touch and some even grow faster when competitors are near (Abramson & Chicas-Mosier, 2016). The Venus Flytrap, the thale cress, humans, and all other life-forms evolved on the same phylogenetic tree, meaning we were all, at one stage, on the same journey to consciousness. Why, then, do we not consider all life to have some form of consciousness? It could certainly be argued that, although we were once on the same evolutionary course, consciousness did not exist until a certain advanced stage, presumably around the time animals began to emerge. But at what point would this be? Just as there existed the chemical precursors to life, followed by vastly different forms of life, there must have also existed precursors to consciousness, followed by vastly different forms of consciousness. Consciousness may, therefore, on at least at some level, be inherent to all forms of life. If not, it begs the question: At what point did the lights of conscious awareness turn on?
As of now, we do not seem to have any reason to ascribe consciousness to only some forms of life. When we reason about inanimate objects in the universe, for example, we know that, when an object moves, it will, without question, follow the laws of physics. These laws are universal, seeing as they have been, and will be, obeyed throughout all time, based on every known scientific observation to date. On the contrary, reasoning about consciousness does not seem to be constrained by any law or theoretical boundary. We do not have laws governing the transformation of neural activity into conscious thought, nor do we have any idea how this phenomenon occurs in the first place. Without a law denoting what forms of life are conscious and which are not, we may not yet have a basis to delineate conscious life versus unconscious life. Consciousness, then, could be a defining feature of all life.
But it is here where we stumble upon an important concern. If all life is conscious at some level, at what point in an organism's development does it become conscious? If the seeds of consciousness exist in complete accordance with the seeds of life, then even in the most incipient form of development, shouldn’t all life have some level of consciousness? And at which point would this fundamental level of consciousness appear? As a zygote? As an embryo? After the formation of the nervous system? These are questions which simply cannot be answered at the moment. Frustratingly, the human mind may never become capable of solving its own riddles. Just as the mystery of life itself, consciousness, the very quality that affords us the metacognitive capacity to reason about the matter, remains enigmatic to all who philosophize about it.
Abramson, C.I., Chicas-Mosier, A.M. (2016). Learning in plants: lessons from Mimosa pudica. Front. Psychol. 7, 417. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00417
Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: Murray.
Kooke, R., & Keurentjes, J. J. B. (2015). Epigenetic variation contributes to environmental adaptation ofArabidopsis thaliana. Plant Signaling & Behavior, 10(9). doi: 10.1080/15592324.2015.1057368
Pavlovic, A., Slovakova, L., Pandolfi, C., & Mancuso, S. (2011). On the mechanism underlying photosynthetic limitation upon trigger hair irritation in the carnivorous plant Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula Ellis). Journal of Experimental Botany, 62(6). doi: 10.1093/jxb/erq404