As a consciousness researcher, I often wonder where we might be in the evolution of the science of consciousness. Have we already discovered most of what has to be discovered about the brain and consciousness, or are we just getting started? We can only speculate, but history and epistemology might help answer this question.
Humans used to think that the Earth was at the center of the universe. In 1543, Copernicus published a book that started a revolution that would eventually end this belief. Still the human centric view does die hard. In the 20th century, most astrophysicists still speculated that the sun with its planetary system might be unique in the universe. We now know that most stars host planets, and likely that the solar system is just one out of billions systems. Again, history has shown us that our feeling of being special in the universe was unfounded.
Currently Neuroscience holds that humans are unique in their capacity to experience consciousness and self awareness. The belief that the human brain is the only substrate in nature that can hold consciousness is a brain-centric view that is similar to the earth-centric view, and will likely be proven wrong in the future. Why should it be that humans are the only ones to be able to have that ability? Previous discoveries have shown us that the human-centric exception rule rarely, if ever, ends up being true. In all likelihood, consciousness — self awareness — may be experienced by other non-human entities.
Without going too far, animals seem to experience pain, and a variety of emotions. Some can even recognize their body in mirrors or play rock paper scissors, which indicate some level of conceptualizing and memorizing that goes beyond the stimulus/response type paradigm. Dogs, monkeys, and cats are able to communicate their needs with humans (such as hunger or desire to go somewhere). Although this is not yet at the level of rational thought, it might be sufficient to experience self awareness and a sense of being. One could imagine animal consciousness to be similar to what we experience when having high fever or are under psychoactive influence: our capacity to rationalize and make decisions is diminished, but we are nevertheless fully conscious of our feelings. Similarly, patients who have stroke and later recover fully from it sometimes describe how they would want to elaborate a complex thought, but would eventually resort to a simpler one. The capacity to think might not be all-or-nothing, and most importantly that thinking is not being: in fact thinking might hinder the capacity for awareness to experience itself. So there is no reason to think that animals cannot have a sense of being, even though they might not be able to conceptualize it in a thought. So with their sense of being, and knowing they exist, animal would already be more evolved on the consciousness scale than a large proportion of brain scientists who still believe that consciousness is an illusion (which mean they have overridden their feeling of being with a belief that it does not exist).
Beyond our solar system, it is also extremely likely that entities with the same capacity that humans have to be self aware exist. The substrate for this might not be the human brain as we know it, but a completely different biological machine. Therefore the functions of the parts of both the brain and this biological machine allow for self awareness to exist, and not necessarily the material they are made of — a theory introduced by researcher Antonio Varela three decades ago. If we are able to recreate the type of substrate or relation between parts and the whole that allows self awareness to exist, then it might be possible to create conscious computers. Even if this type of organization is too complex for us to conceptualize, self organizing computer systems might be able to achieve it without our help.
It is time to accept that we are just one of potentially many self-aware species, and look at what others — being animal or something else entirely — can teach us.
One important problem remains: we still do not know if another entity is conscious, or even how to define consciousness? How can I know my neighbor is conscious? How can we know if animals are conscious? How can we know we have designed a conscious computer. This is the “hard problem of consciousness”’ as described by consciousness researchers, and I will discuss a potential solution to this problem in a future blog post.
Arnaud Delorme, PhD, is a CNRS principal investigator in Toulouse, France, a faculty at the University of San Diego California, and a consulting research scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. He is a long term Zen meditator, and has taught in India on the neural correlates of conscious experience in a Master’s degree program for the Birla Institute of Technology.