top of page

Biology of Mind

Part 3: Subjectivity and Consciousness  

by Dee Wilson

(Part three of three)

August 23, 2021


This is the third and final article in a series on the evolution of mind based on discussions of evolutionary history in Antonio’s Damasio’s, The Strange Order of Things, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s, Metazoa and Merlin Sheldrake’s book on fungi, Entangled Life. This article also includes discussion of Michael Gazzaniga’s perspective regarding consciousness in Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (2011) and of Thomas Nagel’s views regarding evolution in Mind and Cosmos (2012).


The first two articles in this series offered an outline of the precursors of mind in single celled bacteria and in multicellular organisms that preceded the appearance of animals several hundred million years ago.  The first article included a discussion of the homeostatic imperative (per Damasio), and of the use of electricity by single celled bacteria to regulate traffic at the cell’s boundary, and possibly for other purposes. The role of symbiosis in the evolution of bacteria and fungi was discussed at length, a discussion followed in Part 2 by a discussion of symbiotic relationships between and among plants and fungi.  


Part 2 featured a discussion of the elements of subjectivity in animals, including development of feelings (per Damasio), unitary awareness, enhanced capacity for movement, action, agency, sensory awareness, nociception, i.e., “detection of damage along with response to it,” (Godfrey-Smith, p. 90), sense of self and awareness of an external world.  Both Damasio and Godfrey-Smith view subjectivity as a product of early central nervous systems, though they emphasize different features of subjectivity, i.e., capacity  for feelings and “images” (Damasio) or bodily movement and action (Godfrey-Smith). I place great importance on the development of unitary awareness in animals with central nervous systems, views influenced by both authors with some significant differences, as will become apparent in Part 3.  


For both Damasio and Godfrey-Smith, subjectivity is integral to consciousness and appears early in the evolution of animals, simultaneously or soon after the development of central nervous systems. In Damasio’s account, the capacity for affect with valence (feelings are positive or negative) is the foundation of mind; and developed in concert with the capacity for “images” of an external world produced by several sensory portals. Godfrey-Smith is not convinced that improved sensory awareness occurred in concert with capacity for feelings; and is more impressed by the way in which increased capacity for movement and action led to animals’ awareness of an external world.


Both Damasio and Godfrey-Smith believe than some non-vertebrates (such as hermit crabs) had elements of subjectivity hundreds of millions of years ago.  In their view, subjectivity and consciousness in animals and humans do not depend on the cerebral cortex; and extend far back in evolutionary history.  Both Damasio and Godfrey-Smith seriously entertain the idea that some insects have feelings or other elements of subjectivity.     


Characteristics and function of subjectivity


In discussions of the evolution of mind, it cannot be said too often that “a human, shrimp or octopus is a unitary organism” (Godfrey-Smith, p. 95), given that these animals and humans contain hundreds of millions or billions of cells, each with its own homeostatic imperative. Concretely, what this means is that animals and humans have a unitary awareness of pain and pleasure and perhaps of other feelings. Damage to one part of an animal is damage to the whole animal. Consider the sentence, “I have a migraine headache, but my stomach feels great,” or “my orgasm was pretty inadequate in my left arm.” These statements sound nonsensical because they violate the principle of unitary awareness. If I stub my toe or cut off the tip of my finger chopping vegetables my entire person is affected, at least in most circumstances.  However, odd experiences can occur. Many years ago, I had some dental work done under a mild anesthetic. I had the experience of pain, but it was as external to my consciousness as the dental chair. The pain was real, but it was not my own!  Under the influence of an anesthetic, I dissociated the pain, a weird experience which I chose not to repeat in subsequent dental work.   


When organisms have unitary awareness, an animal or human “owns” pain, pleasure, hunger, fear, love or hate, sights, sounds and touch,  and responds accordingly. Godfrey-Smith states that “Subjectivity involves feelings and seeming(s); agency is doing and initiating.“ ( p. 104) In Godfrey-Smith’s view subjectivity and agency in animals are connected: “Animals of this kind have a point of view, and from that viewpoint they act.” (p. 105) Furthermore, he maintains that increased capacity for agency created by central nervous systems led to subjectivity: “Roughly speaking, the evolution of animal agency brings with it the origin of subjects.”  (p. 105)


Godfrey-Smith introduces “the sense of presence” (p. 126) that some philosophers believe is an important feature of human experience. He comments that a sense of presence is more than “a basic kind of experience (that) comes “for free” in anything that is alive. This is an appealing idea but probably too simple. The feeling of presence … seems to depend on a lot of complicated processing that goes on continually within us, large behind the scenes. This includes the ongoing monitoring of your body, and how events there related to what is going on around you. … The feeling of presence is related to a sense of the ownership of your body.”  (p. 117) Godfrey-Smith comments that “presence does not seem to be essential to conscious experience” in that “A feeling of “unreality” – something people report that is different from presence – is still a feeling.” (p. 116) I will argue below that this is an objection that can be made about every element of subjectivity in conscious experience. Subjectivity can be separated from consciousness in multiple ways, despite its ubiquitous role in normal experience.    

Godfrey-Smith acknowledges that “philosophers, scientists, or anyone else who is reflective about these things may have particular kinds of experience that they feel are indicative … about the nature of consciousness and subjectivity. … For me, those indicative experiences are ones where there is certain kind of balance in place between a feeling of my own presence and a taking in of what is going on around me. This state of mind is not self-absorbed, inward-looking, or introspective. Neither is it one where you might disappear into transparency, left with just the scene itself.  Instead, it involves a balance between my presence and the presence of surrounding things.” ( p. 119) This passage has much to recommend it;  and is far superior to the descriptions of human experience by philosophers who maintain that all experience is sensory, and who use the language of sensation “to cover the detection of internal goings on (such as hunger and fever) as well as of external things.”  (p. 113) Godfrey-Smith responds to philosophers’ claims that “All consciousness is perceptual”, or that “the clearest and most compelling” cases (of consciousness) are found in “sensory experience and belief” with the question “How likely does that seem to you – that the “clearest and most compelling” cases of consciousness are sensory experience and belief. Surely, equally clear and compelling are emotions, …  moods and urges. Speaking for myself,  I’d say that those are quite a bit (clearer), as cases of conscious experience than beliefs.” (pp. 113-4)                      


It is remarkable that philosophers do not agree among themselves regarding descriptions of mental experiences in humans; and have difficulty describing conscious experiences in a way that brings together sensory experiences, feelings and emotions and body awareness, i.e., sense of presence and of location. Godfrey-Smith’s description of his own experience is close to my own in normal circumstances; readers will make their own judgments regarding how closely Godfrey-Smith comments on sensations, feelings and bodily “presence” correspond to their own experience.  


One interesting feature of Godfrey-Smith’s discussion of subjectivity is that he   begins to conflate subjectivity and consciousness, especially when commenting on human experience. He does not utilize clear definitions that separate the two. I will argue below that consciousness develops out of subjectivity and shapes “normal” experience into subject/ object; but  (surprisingly) is not integral to consciousness in the way Godfrey- Smith and Damasio believe.


Godfrey Smith’s remarkable discussion of the subjectivity of octopuses in Metazoa comes close to identifying the main function of subjectivity in animals and of consciousness in humans. This discussion deserves a detailed summary.        


Unitary awareness and the multiple sensory arms of octopuses  


Godfrey-Smith is fascinated by octopuses, intelligent, short-lived creatures (1-2 years life span) with decentralized nervous systems. He has written an entire book about octopuses, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016), and he devotes a chapter of Metazoa to discussion of the mental functioning of octopuses, coupled with lengthy sidebars on split brain functioning in humans. He has spent much time observing octopuses in their natural habitat.  


Godfrey-Smith comments:

“Octopuses are behaviorally complex animals, and I think they are also sensitive animals; I think they experience their lives in a rich way. … Octopuses are exploratory animals who direct the complexity of their bodies to whatever confronts them. They fiddle around and try things and turn the problem over and over, physically, not mentally. Octopuses have an extraordinary sensorium and an anarchic bodily embrace of novelty,  but they are not for the most part ruminative and “clever” sorts of animals.”  Nevertheless, “ … some famous incidents where octopuses have escaped mysteriously from aquarium tanks might involve something close to planning. … Their use of objects seems to have an improvised opportunistic look about it in some cases. … Those behaviors suggest a sort of mental as well as physical exploration.” (pp. 142-43)

“Octopuses show a surprising awareness of what other agents, including people are up to,“ (p. 143) squirting water at their human handlers when they are not looking; and they show a large degree of individual variation, according to Godfrey-Smith.  


Godfrey-Smith states that after watching octopuses in the sea, he has “no real doubt that octopuses experience their lives, that they are conscious, in a broad sense of the term.”  They embrace novelty, “seem to undergo moods – stressed, inquisitive, playful … The octopus seems fairly clearly to be a conscious invertebrate.” (p. 147)  Nevertheless, octopuses create puzzles for philosophers   who believe that subjectivity in animals “lies in the origin of a new kind of self … tied together in ways that give it a point of view, that make it into a subject.” (p. 147)  He comments that “In the octopus … we see an animal that is very complicated but less integrated. An octopus is still in many ways a whole, a center of action and sensing, but one organized in an unusual way. … Octopus behavior … arises from a mixture of central and peripheral control.”  (p. 148)


To his credit, Godfrey-Smith recognizes that the minds of octopuses represent a challenge to the idea that subjectivity is integral to consciousness. “An octopus often behaves in a very unified way.“ However, “We should … consider the possibility that an octopus is a being with multiple selves. There is a primary or most complex self – or central brain – but also eight smaller ones. These smaller ones might not be sentient or conscious, but the general shape of the situation would be: 1 t 8.” (p. 148) He considers several alternatives for understanding the experience of an organism with a central brain and several sensory arms, e.g., “two different conscious streams” before settling on his hypothesis that octopuses engage in “a switching, back and forth, between a more unified and less unified situation.” (p. 149) Godfrey-Smith suggests that “sometimes an octopus is a single unified agent. … But at other times the arms are allowed to wander and explore, and perhaps the central octopus does not “own” these locally guided motions.” When an octopus needs to act, “ the arms lose autonomy when the octopus “pulls itself together” and imposes central control.” (p. 158) He acknowledges that “The octopus puts pressure on many parts of the picture I am developing.  Maybe their 1 t 8 organization will one day force us to rethink the whole idea of subjectivity and its relation to integration in animals.” (p.159)  This is that day.


Godfrey-Smith acknowledges that “Various animals have sensory streams that are somewhat separate from each other, but other states like moods, satiation and stress might be shared across the whole,” an idea Godfrey-Smith explores in his discussion of split brain humans whose two brain hemispheres have different sensory input that is not integrated in the usual way but whose “moods and emotions can be shared across the two sides, presumably through the lower unsplit part of the brain.” (p. 156) In split brain patients, it appears that unity of affect creates unitary awareness of a self even though the two hemispheres have somewhat different sensory experiences.  Arguably, octopuses can have unitary awareness despite a decentralized nervous system because both brain and sensory arms share affect.  In evolutionary history, it appears to be capacity for affect that creates unitary awareness in animals, an idea I discussed in Part 2 of this series.   


Godfrey-Smith understands the survival value of an animal acting with unitary awareness to procure food or protect itself: but offers no suggestion why octopuses would have retained a decentralized nervous system that they employ at times.  Consider what occurs in human consciousness when focused awareness is decoupled from the need to act: aesthetic experience, artistic awareness. Human beings experience the world differently when awareness of the sensory world, or of interpersonal relationships (especially conflict), occurs in a context that removes the need to act. Experience is potentially heightened, and the sensory world or social world may be perceived in a more finely delineated way. Subjectivity is lowered somewhat,  but not in a way that incapacitates or immobilizes if a threat were to occur that requires action. It is easy to watch a movie while sitting still, de-emphasize moral judgment while watching a drama with flawed characters, and then walk out of the movie and drive home while passing judgment on other drivers we encounter on the road! Humans usually have no difficulty with quick switching between artistic awareness and the practical requirements of everyday life.


Why might octopuses retain multiple sensory arms and temporarily loosen central control of their awareness? Perhaps to explore and enjoy the world around them without an acquisitive or fearful motive.  


There is one other lesson regarding aesthetic experience from Damasio’s  discussions of the minds of animals.   All sensory awareness has an affective element in that affect is the foundation of mind. The world can take on aesthetic qualities such as beauty because sensory experience always has positive valence  inherent in affect. There are no affect free information “bits” in the minds of animals and humans.  I agree with Damasio regarding this crucial element of his theory of mind.  


Damasio on subjectivity


Damasio begins his discussion of consciousness with a description of subjectivity:


“In normal circumstances, when we are awake and alert … We spontaneously recognize ourselves as the subjects of our mental experiences. … The term “consciousness” applies to the very natural but distinctive kind of mental state described by the above traits. That mental state allows its owner to be the private experiencer of the world around and, just as important, to experience aspects of his or her own being.” (p. 143) Damasio comments that “This perspective is so critical to the overall process of consciousness that it is tempting to simply talk about “subjectivity” and leave behind the term “consciousness …” ( pp. 143-44) However, Damasio foregoes this temptation “because only the term “consciousness” conveys an additional and important component of conscious states: integrated experience which consists of placing mental contents into a more or less multidimensional panorama. In conclusion, subjectivity and integrated experience are the critical components of consciousness.” (p. 144)              


Damasio makes a fundamental mistake in his conflation of normal consciousness with consciousness, and other mistakes follow. Damasio asserts:


“When subjectivity disappears – when the images in mind are longer automatically claimed by their rightful owner/subject  -- consciousness ceases to operate normally. If I or the reader would be prevented from holding the manifest contents of mind in a subjective perspective, those content would float unmoored and belong to no one in particular … Consciousness would vanish … The sense of being would be suspended.” (149)


These comments suggest that Damasio has never taken a large dose of a psychedelic drug, or had a mystical experience in which subjectivity vanished, and is unfamiliar with descriptions of shamanistic trances. He is also mistaken about the effects of low doses of psychedelics. Damasio states:


“The conscious state of mind has several important traits. It is awake rather than asleep. It is alert and focused rather than drowsy or confused or distracted. It is oriented to time and place. The images in the mind – sounds, visual images, feelings … are properly formed, exhibited with clarity , and inspectable. They would not be if you were under the action of “psychoactive”  molecules, from alcohol to psychedelic drugs.” (p .144)


Every statement in this paragraph is false. There are states of consciousness on the border of wakefulness and sleep. Consciousness can be confused and distracted. It is common to drink moderate amounts of alcohol and remain conscious, and on low doses of psychedelics the sensory world takes on added clarity; and is present in a way unusual in normal consciousness, with no compromise of self-awareness.         


 In “higher” consciousness (either on a psychedelic or through mystical experience that occurs in other ways), the subject/ object structure of experience is attenuated or vanishes, but the sense of being (and of truth) is heightened. It is a remarkable feature of consciousness that the subjective boundaries of normal awareness can be effaced in so many ways, both in ecstatic and nightmarish states and in more mundane ways as well, e.g., the dissociation of pain produced by an anesthetic described above.


Many strange, wonderful and terrifying experiences are possible:

  • Consciousness can merge with the sensory world; or be drowned (so to speak) in the electrical energy of the brain in a way that creates paradisal experience.

  • Consciousness can be “unhooked” (at least perceptually) from the body in out-of-body experiences while retaining a sense of self.

  • Consciousness can be disconnected from time and space in both ecstatic and terrifying ways.

  • Shamans around the world for many thousands of years believed that in trance states they could inhabit the minds of animals;  and use the body of a fierce animal to attack enemies. Ancient peoples feared shamans for good reason. Shamans had the capacity to enter strange mental states with the potential to harm or help others; and most of them were not saints.  

  • Repeated traumatic experiences can result in victims with multiple personalities that engage in quick switching, depending on circumstances.

  • Some types of mental illness fragment consciousness such that there is no organizing subject at times;  parts of the mind can attack the whole through auditory hallucinations.  


The idea that consciousness is confined to subjectivity is false.  Damasio is right that subjectivity is an intrinsic feature of normal consciousness, but wrong to assert that consciousness without subjectivity is impossible and inherently meaningless. A more accurate formulation is that subjectivity is how conscious minds are integrated:  

Subjectivity tethers consciousness (a sort of dog leash) to a body, a personal history and a social identity in the service of an organism lest consciousness escape all boundaries.


An equation suggested by evolutionary history:


Affect is to subjectivity as subjectivity (with affect) is to consciousness.  Affect is the foundation of mind in animals because the capacity for feelings creates the unitary awareness of an animal consisting of hundreds of millions or billions of cells. Subjectivity integrates the fragments of conscious minds into an integrated whole by tying awareness to the bodily presence, personal feelings and story of a person.  Subjectivity is not a given in consciousness; it must be constantly renewed through bodily awareness and internal chatter regarding one’s concerns, hopes, desires  and social role. The internal talk of consciousness is so routine, such a familiar part of everyday experience that most people are not even aware that they are continually generating a narrative by talking to themselves. The Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron has the following to say regarding internal chatter:


“We carry around an image of ourselves, an image we hold in our minds. One way to describe this is “small mind.” It can also be described as sem. … Sem is what we experience as discursive thoughts, a stream of chatter that is always reinforcing an image of ourselves. … Beyond all the planning and worrying, behind all the wishing and wanting, picking and choosing, the unfabricated, wisdom mind (Ripka) is always there.” (When Things Fall Apart, p. 27)


Damasio is accurate in his assertion that “Subjectivity is a relentlessly constructed narrative.” (p. 159)  One goal of mindfulness practice is to slow or stop the internal chatter for brief periods of time through non- judgmental awareness, a process that allows other dimensions of mind to surface.


 The energetic features of consciousness


The evolution of mind has many surprising elements from the intelligence and symbiotic strategies of single celled bacteria; the use of electricity by bacteria to regulate traffic at the cell boundary;  the capacity of fungi to survive and thrive in practically any environment (including outer space), the economic exchanges of fungi and plants; the homeostatic functions of every living organism and the development of homeostasis into capacity for affect in animals; the use of affect by central nervous systems to create animals’ unitary awareness;  the enmeshment of affect and sensory awareness (fundamental to animal mind), the interaction of agency, action and self-awareness in non-vertebrates hundreds of millions of years ago. However, there is nothing more surprising than the energetic properties of consciousness which must be tethered by subjectivity to serve the interests of an organism, and which is as likely to be fragmented as to be centered around a goal or need.


Consciousness is fed by a deep stream of affect and by multiple brain systems, as discussed below. It is also “feisty” and aggressive rather than passive in the way that sensory data, feelings and cognitions are processed. Conscious experience is interpreted, reflected on, evaluated, and judged; consciousness is an active power. The aggressiveness of consciousness is so ubiquitous that the evolution of mind has provided an antidote: a sense of humor. Humor transmutes aggression through a mental trick, i.e., by noticing the absurd, ridiculous features of situations or behavior and releasing aggression through laughter. Humor can also be used as a weapon, and as a way of strengthening social bonds by directing laugher toward a despised enemy. Humor used in this fashion amplifies aggression and is spiritually corrosive. It is like taking small sips of a tasty poison.  


The capacity of consciousness untethered from subjectivity to experience paradisal states, or to be painfully fragmented into warring elements of mind suggests that ideas of heaven and hell have a genetic foundation, fed by tiny affective streams from billions of cells that can be joined and amplified for good or ill. From this perspective, experience of the sacred is created by central nervous systems and given concrete expression by the imaginative powers of consciousness.              


 Consciousness and imagination


There is another surprising way that subjectivity and consciousness interact in human groups and societies, i.e.,  through the medium of imagination.   Subjectivity is created in animal minds by central nervous systems through the combination of affect, bodily presence, action and sensory experience (per Damasio and Godfrey-Smith),  but personal identity and social identity – the very stuff of subjectivity – are the imaginative creations of culture.  The continuous internal talk that sustains personal narratives is influenced by bodily experience, but its social medium (language) as well as its values, motivations, beliefs and ideas are influenced by the imaginative creations of cultures.  Biology determines that the minds of animals will function through subjectivity, but it is multiple cultural influences (beginning with the family) that largely determine the shape and specific content of personal and social identity, i.e.,  identities that give subjectivity concrete form.  Human history is the clash, intermixing and development of these multiple cultural identities.  


The integrative functions of consciousness which Damasio emphasizes  bring together feelings, bodily presence and awareness, sensory experience and cognitions with the imaginative creations of cultures.  Emile Durkheim’s discussion of the totemism of Australian Aboriginals in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life describes a fantastic and intricate imaginative structure created by a civilization of ancient humans to understand their place in the world and their relation to animals and to each other. The function of imagination is to create coherent wholes from seemingly unrelated fragments. From this perspective, science is as much an imaginative structure as totemism.


Early humans with big brains did far more than develop better technologies, create different types of social organization and a wide range of cultural practices to meet their basic needs: they also created elaborate, complex imaginative structures (including rituals) to understand themselves and their place in the world and to achieve social cohesion. In prehistory, a flowering of art and sacred practices occurred about 40,000 BCE; and continued to flourish while early human groups developed new tool kits and more complex forms of social organization (see Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion by E. Fuller Torrey) .


Some cultural anthropologists have wondered why the extraordinary practical intelligence that led to better technologies for survival were accompanied by fantastical imaginative creations of mythology and religion in early human groups. It is not difficult to make up Darwinian explanations for imaginative ideas that created and sustained cultures and societies. Social identity is an intrinsic feature of human groups that stay connected and function as wholes; and all social identities depend on imaginative stories that give meaning to shared experiences. However, this explanation does not come close to explaining the many ways in which imagination shapes consciousness, and it is a superficial, inadequate account of religious experience and practice as well.                  


Imagination is the power of mental creation: to intuit, make up stories, speculate, theorize, empathize, grieve; and give meaning to events, as well as to create art. The products of imagination often have cultural meaning that is difficult for persons outside that culture to fully grasp. Cultures are inherently self-referential;  and include complex interconnected systems of  values, beliefs, and ways of communicating.    

Imagination and intelligence are different. It is possible to be intelligent but have limited imagination, and vice versa. Perhaps a better formulation is that imagination is a particular type of intelligence in which it is possible to think about (with affect) possibilities that do not currently exist, or which are not open to observation, e.g., adventures, the minds of others, living arrangements, art objects and even the motives of unseen powers and divine beings. Furthermore, through imagination cultures can employ symbols to represent objects, ideas and the unseen world of superhuman or godlike powers. Symbols can be invested with powerful meaning in the cultural mind: and be viewed as a virtual embodiment of whatever they represent, e.g., a totem.  All forms of imagination aim for coherence, unity, synthesis or harmony of dissonant elements, but employ different criteria for achieving these goals. The main function of consciousness is to overcome fragmentation of mind and body, and to moderate interpersonal and social conflict through both reason and imagination.            


In the human mind, experience is located by reference to a body. The mind is suffused with feelings which are present with every kind of sensory and cognitive input. The world is perceived, and different types of sensory awareness are integrated. The world is understood, and the world is imagined and recreated through intuition, aspirations, speculation, belief systems, social interactions, technology, and artistic creations. Imagination is not a requirement of animal subjectivity; but it is essential to human consciousness, arguably its main purpose.


Intrinsic elements of consciousness                       


Human consciousness is reflective in two ways: (1) as a reflection of dispersed brain processes which for the most part operate automatically and unconsciously. This is a theme of neuroscience as summarized in Michael Gazzaniga’s book, Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (2011), and (2) conscious awareness has a “look back” feature at all time scales, i.e., seconds (or less), minutes, hours, days, months, years, decades, or a lifetime.  The conscious mind is aware and monitors its own awareness, even in the moment; or to say the same thing in a different way, consciousness has a feedback loop that can either heighten or distract from awareness. This is a theme of phenomenology, literature and some religious thought.


Regarding his neuroscientific account of consciousness, Gazzaniga asserts:


“Our conscious awareness is the mere tip of the iceberg of non-conscious processing. Below our level of awareness is the very busy non-conscious brain hard at work. Not hard for us to imagine are the housekeeping jobs the brain constantly juggles to keep homeostatic processes up and running, such as our heart beating, our lungs breathing and our temperature just right. Less easy to imagine but being discovered left and right over the past fifty years are the myriads of nonconscious processes putt-putting along.”   (pp. 68-69)


“I am suggesting that the brain has all kinds of local conscious systems, a constellation of them, which are enabling consciousness. Although the feelings of consciousness appear to be unified to you, they are given form by these vastly separate systems. … It’s a dog-eat-dog world going on in your brain with different systems competing to make it to the surface to win the prize of conscious recognition.” (p. 66) And “The brain has millions of local processors making important decisions.”  (p. 44)


Gazzaniga has a powerful challenging account of consciousness based on brain science, an account that insists on the primacy of highly dispersed brain processes that largely control physiological functioning and most human behavior while generating an illusion of a unified conscious self which is in control. It should be apparent from the discussion of the biology of mind in this series that what must be explained is the unity of the mind and of consciousness rather than its decentralized functioning.  However, Gazzaniga does not satisfactorily answer the question presented by his description of a “dog-eat-dog” mind: what is the “prize of conscious recognition” indicated by human behavior? The most obvious answer is “to guide the decisions and actions of the entire organism, not just the brain.”  If I recognize I’m hungry,  I’m more likely to seek food. If I’m consciously  frightened, I’m more likely to flee. The illusion of the self (in Gazzaniga’s terms) reflects the needs of a person at a moment in time; and is an organized basis for action. However, this is far from the whole story of consciousness, per my discussion of imagination. Consciousness is as much about possibility as it is about acting in response to needs.


Humans invest a remarkable amount of their conscious awareness on one dilemma that cannot be handled adequately by automatic processing: how to respond to and manage conflict, including intrapsychic, interpersonal, and political conflict. This subject in its many variations is endlessly fascinating, so much so that all dramatic art (plays, stories, novels, movies) is about conflict of some type. A common strategy of dramatic artists is to begin with scenes of family happiness (“The Godfather”), or romantic love, or group cohesion, and then introduce bitter conflicts into this joyful scene. Furthermore, much conscious thought concerns how to balance competing interests in personal life and family life, including an emotional weighting of the various possibilities. This is a never-ending process; no equilibrium that resolves conflict lasts for long.


The dramatic arts can focus an audience attention on painful,  sometimes horrible events with the promise of discovering emotional meaning and coherence in an artistic vision. Popular stories and movies require admirable characters with whom to identify and happy endings; but great dramatic art has other rules. Nevertheless, all dramatic art must create emotionally coherent representations of human conflicts; there is no other theme that commands the same attention from audiences.  Any adequate theory of dramatic art must explain why humans can derive pleasure from watching or reading about fictional characters endure suffering and death without being emotionally or morally harmed by the experience.         


Social life presents a wide array of conflicts. Every large (and most small) human group tends to break into factions. There is constant tension between adherence to moral codes and pursuit of personal desires.  Rational thought and the restraint of impulse is invaluable in resolving these conflicts, which are commonplace in every family, community and organization. Furthermore, the minds of humans are themselves divided by conflicting character traits and ambivalent motivation. The human mind is not typically characterized by unity of purpose, quite the opposite. Unity of purpose and simplicity of mind is an achievement; it is not a given feature of subjectivity.  Consciousness has a vital role in coming to grips will these conflicts, both intrapsychic and interpersonal.  It is how these conflicts are resolved in action that determines character.      

Consciousness and reflection            


Consciousness is inherently split between awareness and reflection at all time scales. Consider the experience of public speaking, or of listening to a person being interviewed. A speaker may trip over a word or make a mistake in pronouncing a name. Most speakers will catch their mistake and correct it before someone else does it for them. The speaker is registering her words while speaking; the brain in conscious experience has a feedback loop.  This feedback loop can heighten or detract from experience.  If someone notices a beautiful flower, he/she can instantly choose to extend and intensify attention through immediate reflection, e.g., “What a gorgeous flower, what a beautiful yard.” It’s also possible to detract from wonderful experiences by the thought that “this will be over soon,” or by the reflection that “this food is great, but it could be better.”


The reflective capacities of consciousness operate at all time scales. No powerful human experience is ever fixed in memory regardless of pretensions to the contrary.  Some people reflect on and reexperience events from childhood, school, first love, bad marriages, or conflicts with friends and enemies throughout their lives. I do not usually dwell on the past, at least consciously, but I’ve had sudden insights into events  (including minor events) that happened decades ago occur to me unbidden, seemingly out of the blue, while showering or taking a walk. Both the conscious and nonconscious mind “chew” on past experiences far past the point when (it seems) they should have been rationally digested by memory.


Consciousness allows for endless reflection and reimagining of experience; and this is true for families and for cultures as well. Important historical events are reimagined and reinterpreted by historians in each generation. There will never be an end to reimagining the American Civil War or  the two world wars, or an end to discussions of slavery, or of any event that captures consciousness in Gazzaniga’s “dog- eat- dog” mind. There is never a final word on any subject that stirs strong emotional reactions.  


Every person, family, society is constantly engaged in the mental reshaping of past events, relationships and experiences. Consciousness allows for the “inspection” (per Damasio), reimagining and rethinking of personal and social narratives, and therefore allows for changes in the cultural “mind” without waiting for disasters or existential threats to create new world views.  In reimagining the past, historians may closely adhere to factual information;  or find new sources of information, or interview participants in the events (if possible). However, accurate information is only one element of a compelling narrative. Story tellers often play fast and loose with the truth, and that includes everyone who tells stories about their recent experiences and their past. Personal memoirs usually contain elements of fact and fiction; or insist on versions of events that other family members question (The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.)   In relationships (including marriages) and social groups, memory of key events is negotiated, and is subject to power struggles.   


The power of attention


Human consciousness has two related extraordinary powers that are often taken for granted: (1) the ability to focus attention and (2) the ability to control attention. The ability to focus attention on tasks is concentration,  a sine qua non of all achievement. The ability to control attention is a broader and deeper power: the power to shape mind and character through continuous acts of attention, and to refuse to indulge in self harmful thoughts and fantasies. This is the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, or a Christian’s practice of loving kindness. It is also the virtue of refusing to engage in gossip and of forswearing revenge fantasies, or fantasies that involve self-glorification. It is a virtue that depends on mindfulness, one of the few ways a conscious person can act to reshape her/his mind. The character of mind is created little by little by daily acts of attention, mostly determined by unconscious habits. The  power to control attention must be practiced daily to reshape the mind. Anyone who does not understand that all acts of attention influence consciousness (including affect), and who imagines that fantasies – however malignant – are “for free” i.e., no more than harmless daydreaming, has turned over the power of shaping their consciousness to the unconscious, or “nonconscious” brain processes, and/ or to powerful social ideas or movements.  


The power to reshape one’s mind through attention does not mean that consciousness lacks causal determinants that include nonconscious brain processes (per Gazzaniga), or can easily overcome passions, drives or feelings.  Every person is subject to these powerful influences that will often overwhelm any effort to control the mind. It does mean, however, that conscious persons can adopt identities that are aspirational, and which can gradually acquire a larger influence on attention and on character, though not without struggle. The reflective capacity of consciousness allows for sustained thought regarding personal potential and deep-felt commitments. The control of attention is the only way that humans can attain a small degree of freedom from biology, personal history, and culture.  


Does evolution have a purpose?


There is a widespread belief among biologists, other scientists and philosophers that the Darwinian theory of natural selection has put an end to rational speculation regarding the purpose of evolution, speculation which is at best naïve and at worst reflects an anti-science bias. Experts have modified the understanding of genetic transmission in recent decades through recognition of gene transfer in symbiosis, and of epigenetics, i.e., the influence of environment on gene expression. However, these changes in the understanding of genetic mechanisms have not affected the confidence of biologists that evolution has only one purpose: the propagation of genes from one generation to the next.


In Mind and Cosmos (2012), the philosopher, Thomas Nagel, challenges this  view:


“Physicochemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect. But for a long time, I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard account of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard account becomes.”  ( p. 5)


Nagel agrees with Damasio that there is little or no chance that life originated in complex genetic structures that appeared spontaneously. Nagel opines: “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. … What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true.” (p. 6)


Nagel makes the same argument other theorists and philosophers ( e.g., Paul Davies)  have made regarding the origins of life, i.e., genetic structures are too complex to have preceded metabolism. In this account, simple life  forms existed before genes were created, rather than vice versa.


Nagel argues that “Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history , and its appearance … casts its shadow back over the entire process …”  ( p. 8) Nagel questions whether physics and chemistry can explain the appearance of life and of consciousness. How, for example, was it possible for single celled organisms to have precursors of mind ( see part 1 of this series) and to be capable of “flourishing” ( per Damasio)?   


Nagel is resistant to the idea of a transcendent designer of evolution. He states:

 “ So, my speculations about an alternative to physics as a theory of everything do not invoke a transcendent being but tend toward complications to the immanent character of the natural order.” (p. 12)            

Nagel questions whether features of mind such as “consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts – facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences. (p. 13)     

Nagel believes that


“… what explains the existence of organisms like us must also explain the existence of mind, ” including consciousness. He writes:


“A genuine alternative to the reductionist program would require an account of how mind and everything that goes with it is inherent in the universe.” ( p. 15) And: “We don’t know how this happens; but is hard not to believe that there is some explanation of a systematic kind – an expanded account of the order of the world. “ ( p. 31) He states: “If all this has a natural explanation, the possibilities were inherent in the universe long before there was life, and inherent in early life long before the appearance of animals. (p. 32)


Nagel wrote Mind and Cosmos before Damasio published The Strange Order of Things, and before the publication of Sheldrake’s book about fungi, Entangled Life, and Godfrey-Smith’s book about the evolution of mind in animals, Metazoa.  The information and perspectives in these books have led me to a broad theory regarding the creation of life and its purpose, a theory that is my own, not these authors:


 Life originated in metabolism billions of years ago because electromagnetic energy produced states of “flourishing” that is a part of homeostasis. Damasio asserts that “homeostasis has been the governor of life in all its guises. Homeostasis has been the basis for value behind natural selection, which in turn favors the genes.” ( p. 26) In other words, metabolism created organisms capable of “flourishing,”  which led to “ceaseless efforts” to construct genes to insure reproduction of favorable homeostatic states. “Flourishing” in single celled organisms was the precursor of feelings in animals, which Damasio describes as the “mental deputies of homeostasis.” (p. 25) The minds of animals are grounded in affect, i.e., the capacity for feelings, as much as in enhanced sensory capacity.


One of the most surprising capacities of single cell bacteria is their ability to use electricity to achieve homeostasis. Godfrey-Smith asserts that:

“ …our brains are electrical systems—and also a great deal else.” (p. 28) 


“Electrical charge is a basic feature of matter. Charge can be positive or negative. Objects with the same charge … repel, and those with unlike charges…  attract. … The electrical tendency to repel and attract is strong.

…  Charge is not life-like or mental in itself … but living activity runs on charge, especially by the corralling, pumping, hoarding, and unleashing of ions. A cell’s membrane keeps many things either outside or inside, but it contains channels that selectively let some material through. Many of these are ion channels. … A flow of ions can function as a minimal form of sensing … voltage gated ion channels are the basis for another innovation, the action potential. This is a moving chain reaction of changes to the membrane of a cell, especially in our brains.”  (pp. 29-31)


According to Godfrey-Smith,  bacteria invented biological transistors billions of years ago. He asks:


“If bacteria invented transistors,  what were they doing with them? Why did they need to control electricity with electricity? As far as I can tell, no answer to this question is widely agreed on. … Several billion years ago, nature invented the fundamental hardware device in computer technology – a complicated and costly device too – and did so in bacteria, but bacteria do not seem to have been doing much computing with it. Regardless of why it arose, the voltage-gated ion channel was a landmark in the taming of charge.  … It is remarkable that this control device was invented so far back, when most of the uses it has now were not even glints in evolution’s eye.” (p. 32-33)


My hypothesis is that electricity with its positive and negative poles was essential to homeostatic “flourishing”, indicating that electricity has the capacity to create positive or negative states in non- organic matter. According to this idea, electricity is the bridge from matter to mind.


The strength of Damasio’s account of the evolutionary history of mind is that he places feelings at the center of the story.  He writes:


“… homeostasis, acting under the cover of feeling is the functional thread that links early life forms to the extraordinary partnership of bodies and nervous systems. That partnership is responsible for the emergence of conscious, feeling minds that are in turn responsible for what is most distinctive about humanity:  cultures and civilizations. Feelings are at the center of this book, but they draw their powers from homeostasis.”( p. 6)


Damasio reminds that “… feelings are powerful disturbances that inject into the thinking process a striving for a desirable homeostatic range. … feelings serve as arbiters of the quality of response. Ultimately, feelings are the judges of the cultural creative process. … feelings and reason are involved in an inseparable, looping reflective embrace.” (p. 171) From Damasio’s perspective, the purpose of evolution is to create more satisfying feeling states through the medium of cultural creation.     


The distinctive feature of the minds of animals is the enmeshment of affect with sensory experience. Damasio’s theory of mind is that all experience has value across a positive - negative spectrum, i.e., there is no affect free information “bits” in the mental experience of animals or humans. One possible purpose of evolution is to create minds that unite the experience of an external world revealed by the senses with a world of feeling that gives all experience value.    


For years, I believed that the purpose of evolution was to create paradisal states of consciousness; an idea I developed through use of psychedelics and exploration of mysticism.  I have come to believe this is too literal an idea that cannot explain the fantastic variety of life on Earth, or plausibly account for human consciousness, not (it appears) the most likely vehicle for paradisal experience.


My intuition is that evolution is a form of play for a Cosmos infinitely curious about its possibilities. According to this idea, human imagination is not an unfortunate side effect of big brains whose main function is to calculate how to master the material world and propagate themselves. Rather, the purpose of the evolution of human consciousness is to allow humans to create imaginative worlds, including cultures and civilizations, by which to overcome fragmentation and achieve  harmony of awareness.  A creative universe has evolved creative minds for this purpose.  


The ancient myth that comes closest to embodying this view of creation is the  story of Prajapati:  the Vedic God of creation who is not omniscient, and who is compelled by the force of his own desire, “ardor”,  to create the universe from his own dismemberment, a creative act that is “uninterrupted and perpetual,” an “indefinite limitless outpouring” of “boundless immensity” that combines agony with perfect happiness. (Calasso, Ardor, p. 87)


Most surprising of all for such an ancient story is that Prajapati has a physical embodiment:   
“Prajapati: the background noise of existence, the steady hum that goes before every sound graph, the silence behind which we perceive the workings of a mind that is the mind.  It is the id of what happens, a fifth column that spies on and sustains every event.”  ( p. 94)  This sound is the electrical energy of the brain, accessible at every moment to conscious minds.    


Read Part One

Read Part Two

bottom of page