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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Being Aware of Awareness

Preamble: There is but one paradox: that there can be paradoxes; all the rest are the spawn of this one.  Just as with the equations of General Relativity, the very most potentially interesting explorations give impossible solutions.  Awareness is “impossible,” yet it is what informs these words and allows the passing on of these “ideas” to another nervous system.  Our only “solution” has been to assume that the universe, itself, is aware, that some how this capacity of matter has been concentrated in the human species to such an extent that we have generated the whole consciousness process.  But, of course, this is just easy foolishness: the first second-level paradox is that awareness is the only tool with which to study awareness.

Awareness is compellingly real, but is not directly observable.  The physiological counterparts are broadly obvious – brain is necessary and electrical/chemical action can be correlated in various ways.  There is every reason to believe that nervous system processes are causal. But, what does it mean when a measurable process “causes” something as insubstantial as awareness?

The evolution of structures, processes and behaviors can offer some clues: Bird flight became possible because of the design of the down covering of the nascent temperature regulating of dinosaurs.  Bones are owed to cartilage framed fishes needing to store calcium for trips into calcium poor freshwater, as a way to avoid sea predators – added stiffness, along with an equally complexly originated structure, the swim bladder, allowed for the teleost fishes to be so successful; and created the base from which came the land vertebrates.

Awareness may be of analogous origin.  But before considering that option; one of the most common arguments made today is that awareness (often considered equivalent to consciousness) is the natural consequence of complexity and thus even attributable to cells (or perhaps even responsive protein).  There are many occasions when increases of quantity result in a change of quality – too much of an essential nutrient can turn it into a poison – and examples in which changes in quantity retains a relationship with quality, i.e., the more quantity the more quality (within the normal range of occurrence).  However, it is more likely, when this argument is used for awareness, that several aspects of responsiveness and behavior are being conflated.

The vast majority of living responsiveness is more parsimoniously analogized with a lever than with what we call conscious agency.  Evolutionary process is, itself (even with the newest understandings of genetic complexities and integrations of function), ultimately driven by the relatively simple proposition that the phenotype must perform satisfactorily in the totality of the ambient environment to remain alive and to send its genotype on to the next generation.  The new evidence that the genotype can be more directly responsive to selected aspects of the environment doesn’t change that basic formulation.

Homo sapiens, and very possibly other members of the genus, began using information in a new and unprecedentedly powerful way.  I call this the Consciousness System of Order (CSO) and treat it as a design of order, not as a subjective product of nervous system complexity.  And while there is ample to play with in this less ambitious model, we have not even begun to recognize or explore this potentially comprehensible idea, rather we are drawn to the confusions and paradoxes of being aware of our world.

It is here that I have to attempt to disarticulate consciousness and awareness.  It is clear that other species from other genera and families, even other classes and possibly other phyla, have some elements of awareness, but significantly do not function within the CSO [1].

The great apes, the dogs and even complex mollusks like octopus show behaviors that suggest awareness, that is, they “rush” to the solution of problems without going through (obvious) random problem solving processes; and these solutions seem to be mediated by learning: stored experience seems to organized in such a way that it can be quickly scanned and options selected relevant to the perceived problem.  While this may not suit everyone’s notion of awareness it does describe the behaviors that we humans typically judge as “aware” behavior in ourselves and other organisms: that is, complex, situation relevant behaviors that are not organized and driven solely by genetically based instinct or random actions stumbling on to behavioral solutions [2].

There are great advantages and great dangers in approaching life with the various forms of “awareness.”  Instinct has been genetically tested, random actions are not fooled by misperceptions, but when the nervous system is organized to sort through experiences related to the present ambient perceptions, appropriate behaviors can be formed far more rapidly than by any other method when dealing with a complex environment.  Or… the organism can be misled, guided in directions so misdirected that behaviors systematically fail when selected by “aware” solutions.  There is nothing about awareness that assures veridicality.  In fact, awareness is the only source of disconnection from Reality.
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Awareness is such a consistent feature of our experience that it is impossible to imagine an experiential life in any other form, but experience, in the broadest sense of information storage and change in response to events, is a feature of all living things.  Even our subjective experience of “knowing about” and “evaluating” perceptual and thought events may very well not be unique to humans.  When my son’s dog “wants” to play ‘chase the ball’ she first brings me a ball and drops it at my feet, then, if I make no appropriate response, she touches the ball with her nose and ‘dances’ a bit with her front legs.  That failing she then pushes the ball toward me usually bouncing it off my foot and then chases it for the foot or two that it rolls.  And finally she will try to set the ball on my foot.

This is unlike the instinctual behavior of a sandwasp that digs a hole, finds and stings a spider, returns to hole, plants the spider with her egg in the bottom, covers the hole and flies away; if the wasp is interrupted in any way it must start over again from the beginning. The dog can pick up her behavior at any point in the normal sequence, change the sequence in response to my actions, extend or shorten parts, leave at any point or opportunistically take advantage of circumstances to press her case, like setting the ball on top of me without any of the preliminaries if I lie down on the ground.

All of my ‘operational’ assessments of awareness are meet, short of the dog saying, “Hey you, get off your butt and throw the damned ball.”  And she almost does that by getting agitated, when ignored, to the point of making snappy little barks.  I have, therefore, reason to believe that she is seeing the world in designs around her desires in ways not remarkably dissimilar to mine other than that I filter my perceptions through the artifice of language.

It is not unreasonable to suspect that the subjective experience of awareness, that we even more reasonably believe to be common to almost all humans, is experienced in varyingly similar forms by many other creatures with complex nervous systems.  Certain other species may, possibly, experience direct environmental awareness to a greater intensity than typical of most humans since we run so much of our “awareness” through the variously distorting veil of language processes.
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If awareness existed only in the human species, its consideration would be deeply problematic; but since it is completely reasonable – even compelling – to assume that awareness has an evolutionary history, then we might usefully apply the typical biological questions to its development and function.  We may still be at our limits to understand awareness directly – as we might, say, understand the function of the immune system – but we can, perhaps, recognize (I have to avoid saying things like ‘be made aware of’) the naturalistic and functional origins of a biological capacity with survival value.

This separates awareness from the Consciousness System of Order, which, while it requires awareness processes, is a completely new way of identifying, selecting, organizing, storing, distributing and implementing information; and is unique to our genus.

[1] If everyone had a different name for everything, the discovery of the process of evolution or any other systematic process would have been unlikely if not impossible; we need to have a consistent (and accurate) taxonomy of consciousness experience in order to develop a veridical theory and understanding of awareness and consciousness processes.

[2] For science and philosophy to deal with an idea the terms of that idea must be operationalized, that is, they must be defined as objectively measurable behaviors.  It needs to be realized that general considerations of ideas do the same the thing only without transparency; each person has “operations,” often in the form of analogies, underpinning concepts and ideas that are believed to be broadly understood, but deeper examination usually shows that common terms are not supported by the same analogies, metaphors or other operators for the ideas. 
“Good” science and philosophy operationalizes concepts in ways that thoughtful people can understand and often agree with; “bad” science and philosophy operationalizes concepts with behaviors that don’t apply meaningfully to the concepts.  This has been an especially difficult problem for the concept of awareness.  There are people who don’t want any organism other than modern humans (and supernatural beings!) to be aware and so they operationalize the meaning of awareness in conditions that only humans can meet.  The goal should be to operationalize awareness in behaviors that best distinguish it from the behaviors that are central to other concepts.