Extropia Responds: ‘How Does Consciousness Arise In Animals’?
Welcome to an occasional series in which I respond to a question somebody has asked on the Internet. This time, the question was...
“Matter doesn't have consciousness, so how does consciousness arise in animals”
The key to resolving this mystery is realising that consciousness is not a ‘something’ you can ‘have’. To think this is so is kind of like somebody believing ‘flight’ is some mysterious extra ingredient that some winged creatures have, and that therefore no machine will ever fly until ‘flight’ is added. The truth is that ‘flight’ is not a ‘thing’ but a description of happens when matter is assembled in a certain configuration and reacts with the environment in a certain way. A functional model of a bird will fly.
In a somewhat similar fashion, consciousness is a linguistic wrapper that gets applied to configurations of matter that display complex responses to their environment. It’s a convenient narrative fiction used to summarise what would otherwise be an unmanageably number of physical processes.
If consciousness was a ‘something’ that had to be ‘given’, then films like Wall.E would be unable to make us feel like those moving images have emotions. Think about it: Consciousness is a mysterious added ingredient that animals have. Matter does not have it. Well, a film is just matter, and a digital movie like the kind Pixar makes is just code. So if ‘consciousness’ really is some extra ‘thing’ that must be added before we recognise it in something, we would watch a film like Wall.E and not see scared, happy, angry, excited, tired, wakeful robots who are aware of their world and their subjective states of mind, we would just see unconscious shapes.
However, because what I said is true, we watch a film like Wall.E, see robots that display the subtle behaviours we label as ‘conscious’ and readily accept that Wall.E is lonely, and that he is happy when E.V.E befriends him.