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Consciousness is Extra

I was watching a documentary about brainless creatures one day. It is quite a surprising realization that animals that have no brains – i.e. no thoughts, no perception of sight, smell, touch, temperature, motion etc. – can search for food, “walk”, “sense” where the food is and perform a complex ritual to eat it. More precisely, the starfish can realize when it is on top of an oyster that has a small opening in the shell. The next step is to open the oyster even more and then to take his (her) own stomach out of the body, lower it through the space created and digest its prey.

How can an animal do this without a brain? How can it trigger the exact muscle responses without a processing unit? Who makes the decision to “put the stomach out”? That is way more complex than what a carnivorous plant or a sponge does. These two have a trigger mechanism that needs no decision. But starfish’s way is too complicated for a trigger mechanism. Clearly there are decisions.

On the other side of the coin, it is really hard to pinpoint where triggers stop and where decisions begin. If you look close enough, you could actually say it is all just a complex trigger mechanism. After all, thoughts themselves just pop up in the consciousness; nobody decides to have a certain thought; they are triggered, don’t you agree? Look for your next thought; wait for it to see where it comes from. You realize it is there, but you don’t know how it got there. You just became aware of it. It is very likely that a thought leads to another thought. Sometimes the environment creates a new string of thoughts. They all trigger each other in a complex way. There is no intention; it cannot be. When you think you intend something, you just become aware of the intention. You cannot intend to intend. If you didn’t get it, focus on this last thought! How does intention arise? Do you intend to intend?

While thinking about who makes the decision in a starfish (and oysters, for that matter), I was thinking that, maybe, there are still neurons that form a… cluster, a proto-brain, a ganglion… There are sensors in a starfish, so maybe they “think” individually and each one “does its thing”. But how don’t the feet sensors just decide to walk? There has to be some hierarchy! After all, this is the essence of the brain: a command structure. This is the whole point of the ego, of the “I”!

Soon after this happened, I meant to feed the dogs. I was trying to untie a knot of a bag and it was really hard. Since I had nothing to do with my mind for a minute or two, I decided to meditate. Then I had this weird realization: I was not involved in the untying of the knot, but my hands were still doing the work. I wasn’t in charge of my body, but my body acted like that. I wasn’t making the moves, I was just witnessing them. My body was in charge of its own self, my mind was there just to observe, criticize, evaluate, but its role was somewhat redundant. Unfortunately, I still haven’t got enlightened, but this is something that enlightened people have observed for a long time, thus confirming this hypothesis.

As further support, I realized that we also move while asleep. Even if the movements might happen while dreaming, the dream itself is not involved in most of the motions we make. The body does them on its own. Thus, the consciousness is superfluous still.

Another argument for the “we are not in control theory” is the following. In the 80’s there were some experiments about what comes first: the mental decision or the cerebral activity? In other words: do we make a decision in our mind and then you can see it outside, or the decision comes from outside and then we can see it inside? The cerebral activity won. The thought is not thought (as in thinking), but triggered. There are now machines that can guess with seconds in advance what object a person will choose from the few choices the experiment offers.

Yet another argument is Sam Harris’s book “Free Will” that debunks the illusion that we are actually in control of our thoughts or actions – more specifically, that the control is local; it’s not.

The consciousness is extra! By consciousness I don’t mean thinking. Thinking does serve a purpose, obviously. If we were not on the verge of destroying life on this planet, I would have said that it is making us more adapted. It did, however, made us the most resilient specie, and gods for every other living being – cruel, unjust and egotistic gods, but gods none the less.

By consciousness I mean the feeling that we exist and the reflective thoughts. Someone else said it before me, and I agree, that if this Universe would have been designed the same way, and living beings would just had thinking, emotion, memories etc., but no consciousness, it would be exactly the same.

I mentioned emotion, and some might think that that makes us “alive”. This is what we couldn’t write in a computer program – or just didn’t see it benefic to have computers throw tantrums. It’s not that hard to flash a text like: “don’t say that! I’m offended!; Press ok to continue” every time the computer reads a swear word in the text, forcing us to write: “Oh, shoot!”. So emotion might seem like the guarantee of us being alive. It’s the one thing meat-eaters try to convince themselves their food doesn’t have. But emotion is just a bunch of connections in the brain, just like thinking, smelling or moving. There are reward systems that get triggered and that can be altered, as in the movie “Robocop”, rendering us “machine-like”. Emotion serves a purpose as well: we avoid dying for a longer time. But it is just as a reflex mechanism as everything else. Try to change it, if you don’t believe me. Feel good all the time! Of course, you might achieve this by reconditioning your emotions, proving that they are mechanic.

You can also recondition your thoughts, write yourself a different script as Eric Berne pointed out in “Games people play” or adopt the mental behaviors of winners, as Tony Robbins says we should. But how do we decide to recondition our thoughts. I agree that on this level it feels like we are making a decision, but at a deeper level, is just an input leading to an output. And consciousness comes into play to make it seem like I am in charge, to give unity to a bunch of behaviors that are part of a complex unwinding mechanism. Those behaviors would happen anyway, consciousness just makes it more personal, more individual; it makes it an “experience”.

Thus, in conclusion, consciousness might be just an embellishment of reality – or a really horrifying experience, for example, if you are one of the species seen as “meat” – but not more. Of course there is a level where we do feel in charge of our life – the ego stage – but at the deepest level consciousness seems to be just like any other feature of evolution: not necessary, but useful; just like the computer’s operating system is.

In other words, I hope everybody realizes what this implies: there is no soul. It would be both redundant and it would involve a huge number of unanswerable questions, which I addressed elsewhere. Life still goes on, though, just less separated! Also, you should have no regrets; everything is as it should be. Deja-vus and premonitory dreams are glimpses into the already established future, and there are no responsibilities for wrong-doers. They are part of a system – the way things are pushes people towards bringing their own suffering to the world; but the system can be changed… if enough input will make its way into it. Also, this doesn’t mean we should do nothing about all the cruel people of the world. You might ask me: “What do you mean by doing? Isn’t everything just happening?” This would be a good point to talk about the levels of reality, I guess: there is the Unmanifest, above it there is the flow of reality as a whole, and, above that, there is the feeling of control. They function separate and mixing them often leads to confusion or discarding valid data. So at the “we are in control” level the wrong-doers must be educated to be part of the whole. The smaller you think your “family” is, the more pain you are likely to bring in the world. But this is a subject for some other time.

A last but important consequence that I want to leave you with is: there is no reason for anything; not in the individual, anyway. The choices you make are not because of certain reasons you thought. The choices just are, the reasons are made up by the mind to make sense of the choices. The same thing happens when a tragedy happens: we make sense of it. Even with maladies, I believe, we are attempting go give them a bigger sense than random perturbations have, while keeping certain core beliefs valid. Levels of consciousness (Spiral Dynamics) are different levels of sense that we make out of the world we inhabit. This is the purpose of the consciousness (reflectiveness) as I see it: to make sense! That is why the world is organized the way it is or in any way at all, that’s why we see objects and light, we feel pain and fear and love. It doesn’t have an interior structure that we see; we make it in our “big mind”. Why do we do this? It’s simple: there is no reason. Reasons are illusions that are supposed to bring coherence to the picture of the world; there would be no picture otherwise. So next time when you do something or make a decision, you might just do it, and be in the moment.

References:

  1. Berne Eric (1992). Games People Play,Grove Press
  2. Da Vinci Channel
  3. Gazzaniga Michael S. (2009). The cognitive neurosciences IV-th edition, MIT Press.
  4. Harris Sam (2012). Free Will, Free Press.
  5. Robbins Anthony (2003). Awaken the Giant Within, Free Press.
  6. Squire Larry R., Berg Darwin, Bloom Floyd E., du Lac Sascha, Ghosh Anirvan, Spitzer Nicholas C. (2013). Fundamental Neuroscience IV-th edition, Academic Press.
  7. Wilber Ken (2002). Boomeritis, Shambhala Publications.
  8. Wilber Ken (2006). Integral Spirituality, Shambhala Publications.
  9. Wilber Ken (2006). No Boundary, Elena Francisc Publishing.

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