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The origins of consciousness

Updated on February 9, 2014

The origins of consciousness

Scientists and philosophers alike have been searching for the origins of consciousness for millennia. But the answers are fairly obvious from a materialist perspective.

There must be a natural process that creates conscious life from non-living substances. This is what is known as abiogenesis. But the actual processes that took place at any particular time are not known. This puts science at a disadvantage. Though there is no shame in saying we don’t know, we are charged with assuming something that sounds almost unrealistic. We are accused of putting faith in a process we don’t understand, and I don’t think we have to be in that position with what we already know.

What I want to do is address this from the top down. That is to say. I want to start from how and why humans and other biological forms are conscious, and move down to the processes that make it all possible.

Why and how is a human being conscious?

The first component is that all biological forms have needs, and we’ll be talking about them a lot. We also have limited sensory apparatus that give us a perspective of all that is outside of ourselves. We have bodies, which are a compilation of cells which are going through their own life cycle.

These features isolate us from the outside world and give us a sense of self. But the self would not exist but for one specific feature: A memory. Without a memory there is no continuity. With a memory there is a personal history.

So human consciousness depends on physical components, in conjunction with our specific needs.

The brain was developed in response to the needs of groups of cells. It co-ordinates the cells for movement, this allows them to get food, which is required for replenishing energy that allows the processes of replacing and maintaining the cells, as all our body functions including procreation.

Only things that move need brains. Plants don’t need them because they don’t have to go anywhere for food or for any other reason. There is a plant/like animal called a sea squirt that has tadpoles.

These little critters have a brain that allows them to swim until they can find a place to take root. When they find a place to stay they absorb their brain. They no longer need it as from then on they stay rooted in one spot.

Needs are the driving force for biology. Needs are stimulus and without the requirement that our eyes are moist, we wouldn’t even blink. Everything we do, including writing papers on consciousness and agreeing or disagreeing with them is due to stimulus. We do nothing at all without it, there is no need. You don’t scratch if you don’t itch.

But what about lower animals? They don’t have the same kind of consciousness that we do. We say they live on instinct. What is instinct? It is in essence, automatic responses.

In humans we know that below the conscious is the subconscious. This subconscious is actually instinct. That is to say it functions on automatic. We have all heard of flight or fight response.

The subconscious is where our emotions come from. They emote us. They force us to do. They are a physical manifestation of our needs, along with a readymade response. You feel hunger, you know you need food, and you search for a source.

Conscious deliberation is too slow. Someone throws a ball at me. I see it and I think, oh my, should I duck or try to catch it? By the time I say: “Oh my” the ball has hit me in the eye. Neurology has shown that the brain responds often seconds before the conscious mind even knows it is going to react. How it reacts depends on how it has been taught to react, and the job of consciousness is to educate the subconscious before it needs to react.

Ask a martial arts master if they are deliberating while executing one amazing move after another, anticipating their opponents next moves. The answer is no. Time for deliberation is before the action starts: the training. When fighting, one is on automatic response.

In fact anything done well, any skill, is usually done on automatic, with the consciousness looking on as quality control almost as if it is a third party.

All animals have to have some self awareness. Again, basic hunger makes an animal aware of self. It may think of itself in anything like the same way we do, or it might. But that’s not important for this discussion. The point being that even a single celled animal has needs and preferences, and needs a certain kind of rudimentary self awareness not to keep hitting it’s head on the same grain of sand trying to get at food on the other side.

A single cell does not have a brain as such, but it has instinct/automatic responses.

So we can say, and some have, that consciousness is an emergent property of instinct and self awareness. The more complex the groups of cells creating an individual, and the more complex the individuals needs, the more complex consciousness. The complexities have to develop together through natural selection over time.

What really spurned on human consciousness was complex language. But that’s a part of the subject that has been well written about and studied.

But this is biology. The animate. How does the inanimate become animate? How does awareness and instinct come from the inanimate?

For this we will start from the bottom up and hopefully meet in the middle.

Atoms are small bits of energy/matter. They follow very strict rules. That is to say their nature is very specific.

There is one law that starts the process of creation very literally: every atom has to try to maintain or reach it’s lowest possible level of energy output. These are the laws of energy conservation.

What this nature does is forces atoms try to always find their lowest output of energy. When atoms interact their energy output usually rises. F an atom catches a stray electron it’s energy output rises and it flings the electron away from itself. If another atom catches it, it flings it back. In this way atoms get caught in a game of atomic hot potato.

At this point they are merged. Their merger creates a new substance which has its own characteristics and nature. The two atoms then find the lowest possible output of energy between them.

These mergers between atoms happen in various ways and with various results depending which atoms are interacting, and they produce chemicals on our level of existence.

Chemicals in turn form complex compounds that have their own natures.

In a very real way, automatic responses of an atom are exactly like response to needs. These needs are brought on by the laws of conservation of energy. These laws are the nature of energy/matter.

Everything and everyone is made from atoms. Cells are groups of atoms in a particular configuration. Everything follows the laws of physics, and thereby the laws of the nature of energy/matter. So below, so above.

Therefore, automatic response is the forerunner to instinct/subconscious, and the conscious is an emergent property of instinct/subconscious. Each is a more complex form of the other. Each is the same thing in a more complex form, produced by increasingly complex forms of existence.

We don’t know the details of how biology formed, but it did form quickly. We know that amino acids are formed naturally under many conditions. The form spontaneously in experiments done to replicate what we think was earths early conditions. We have found them on space.

These are the building blocks of life, as they say. DNA and RNA are made of them. It is my contention that the nature of the inanimate and the nature of the animate is the same.

Atoms are anything but inanimate.

Needs in humans are felt. Yet we wouldn’t say an atom feels the need to lower it’s output of energy. But in a sense it does. It responds to stimulus. Stimulus is information. Whether it feels that information or not, it responds to it automatically because it has to.

We feel our needs. They are information and stimulus. We are forced to respond to them. Even inaction is action.

We have will. But our will is a manifestation of our conditioning: both genetic and environmental, and how they play off each other. That makes it a unique will, though not a free one in any other sense.

This feeling or noticing of information is awareness. So again, a form of rudimentary awareness seems to be inherent in everything. That awareness in a more complex being like ourselves, coupled with instinct/the subconscious, a sense of self through isolation, a human brain and a memory, all driven by needs/stimulus, and the need to fulfill those needs, create consciousness and full self-awareness.

(needs demand to be resolved. Needs are conflict, which demands resolution. Conflict is the mother of creativity. No need? Then there is no need for creativity.)

Is it really that the inanimate created the animate? That life came from nonlife? (abiogenesis)

I think there is a real case to be made for changing our definition of life. In a sense there is nothing but life. I’ve written about this before. On the other hand one could make a case for there being nothing but auto response.

In a sense they are both the same thing from a different perspective.


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    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 

      4 years ago from Isle of Man

      Another excellent treatment of a very important topic few spend any time considering. This is the kind of discussion I feel should be encouraged at an early age in schools so people can start to think more about why we are here , who we are and where we are going.

      I also believe that animals, plants and things do not have an ego and this is the reason why we are different to them.

      I hope you and your family are well and please keep up the great work you are doing through your writing.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      4 years ago from England

      Fascinating read Slarty, your ideas were really interesting, I often wonder how we started of with 'consciousness' your theories do make sense, whichever way it started its pretty amazing stuff isn't it? voted up and shared! nell

    • Slarty O'Brian profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Hooft 

      4 years ago from Ottawa

      Too right about the sea squirts. Thanks for the correction. And thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Joyus Crynoid profile image

      Joyus Crynoid 

      4 years ago from Eden

      Slarty - sea squirts are not plants, they are animals. In fact, they are chordates, the same phylum as vertebrates (including us). That is, they are among our closest relatives among the invertebrate animals. See: True, they are in some ways 'plant-like' as adults, in that they are sessile, but they still need to eat to live (they are filter feeders), and they have nervous systems that help them do that.

      Other than that, I agree with you--the universe is alive, and consciousness as we know it is just a highly developed form of sentience, which is in turn a developed form of subjective experience.


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