Discovery magazine had an interview by Susan Kruglinski with Gerald Edelman, What Makes You Uniquely ‘You’? (here). There are some interesting definitions in it that I comment on below.
What is consciousness? He gives William James, “It is a process, and it involves awareness. It’s what you lose when you fall into a deep, dreamless slumber and what you regain when you wake up. It is continuous and changing. Finally, consciousness is modulated or modified by attention, so it’s not exhaustive.” This seems a very clear and fair definition.
What is the evolutionary advantage of consciousness? “Consciousness allows you the capacity to plan.” Well yes, planning is maybe the most important, but also it allows you to remember in a way that allows particular types of learning.
Are animals conscious? “There is every indirect indication that a dog is conscious—its anatomy and its nervous system organization are very similar to ours. It sleeps and its eyelids flutter during REM sleep. It acts as if it’s conscious, right?…It’s the experience of a unitary scene in a period of seconds, at most, which I call the remembered present.” He then goes on to make a distinction between primary consciousness, the ‘remembered present’ above, and consciousness of consciousness. He feels animals have only primary consciousness and therefore has no narrative history of the part or projected future plans. To my mind, this is too simplistic and all-or-nothing. There is a lot of evidence that animals vary in the amount and sophistication of their projected plans and remembered history. Some animals would have the sort of consciousness that Edelman describes, some more, some less.
How does this primary consciousness contrast with the self-consciousness that seems to define people? “Humans are conscious of being conscious, and our memories, strung together into past and future narratives, use semantics and syntax, a true language. We are the only species with true language, and we have this higher-order consciousness in its greatest form.” I think he is on the mark in the importance of language to human consciousness – it is the significant difference between our awareness and that of other animals. But we have a chicken and egg problem here. If we are looking at the evolution of human consciousness, language is important. But if we are looking at the evolution of language, then many skills that we association with language have to pre-date it and evolved with their own functionality. Otherwise either the language or the thought processes have to be a huge leap. Animals can use symbolism, or sequential structures, or actor-action-object categorization or other aspects we think of as parts of language as basic cognitive tools.
Edelman has very interesting things to say about artificial consciousness as opposed to programmed AI in robots and I will probably return to this in a future post.