Is consciousness central to evolution?

 
mikeymike345
 
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mikeymike345
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06 November 2017 02:11
 

A lot of scientists see consciousness as an epiphenomenon - i.e. it is a by-product of evolution which would work just as well without it. At one level this seems obvious. If I put my hand on a hot surface, I instantly remove it due to an unconscious reflex action. In fact I’m not aware of the pain until after I’ve removed my hand from the source of potential injury. For instances like this evolution doesn’t need consciousness. A ‘zombie’ human would behave the same as a conscious human.

But suppose I’m trapped in a burning building. I may have to push a burning beam out of the way, run up some stairs to a window, find a chair, smash the window, and then jump through it. This cannot be brought about by a simple reflex action. Without the subjective feeling of pain why would such a person embark upon a very complex series of actions and problem solving? A ‘zombie’ human would be able to cognitively realise that he could push the beam out of the way, run up the stairs and break the window - but without pain motivating him, why would he do it? Without the conscious experience of pain, surely animals requiring a complex set of actions to get out of a dangerous situation would simply remain in the situation until they painlessly perished.

 
Ain Sophistry
 
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Ain Sophistry
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06 November 2017 04:19
 

There’s a medical condition known as “pain asymbolia” in which pain appears to be bled of its subjective awfulness. If you poke these patients with a needle, they’ll say weird, seemingly contradictory things like “I feel pain, but it doesn’t hurt.” Often, they laugh. But they haven’t merely confused pain for something like an itch or tickle; it retains for them a unique, identifiable sensory component. But the affective component of pain has been lost.

Most interestingly, as far as this thread topic is concerned, people with this condition fail to learn to avoid painful stimuli, suggesting that the subjective awfulness of pain does indeed have an important evolutionary function.

The staunch epiphenomenalist, of course, can continue to insist that it’s still conceivable that one could learn these behaviors without actually experiencing something and that this alleged conceivability proves something interesting about the metaphysics of consciousness, but these folks are taken less and less seriously these days even within philosophy. Even Chalmers seems to be moving away from a metaphysical interpretation of “The Hard Problem” and toward an epistemological one.

 
 
Twissel
 
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Twissel
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06 November 2017 05:05
 

Bacteria and viruses live under the most intense of evolutionary pressure and they are clearly not conscious.

 
 
mikeymike345
 
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06 November 2017 05:18
 
Twissel - 06 November 2017 05:05 AM

Bacteria and viruses live under the most intense of evolutionary pressure and they are clearly not conscious.

But that agrees with what I’ve been saying. Simple reflex actions – taking your hand out of the fire, a bacterium going towards a food source - don’t require consciousness. To motivate an organism to carry out a very complex plan of action – like escaping a burning building – surely the subjective feeling of pain is required.

 
SkepticX
 
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06 November 2017 05:29
 
mikeymike345 - 06 November 2017 02:11 AM

A ‘zombie’ human would behave the same as a conscious human.


There’s where it all falls apart.

My extensive research into such matters has made it quite clear that Zombies don’t feel or avoid pain or physical damage.

 
 
SkepticX
 
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06 November 2017 05:51
 
Ain Sophistry - 06 November 2017 04:19 AM

Most interestingly, as far as this thread topic is concerned, people with this condition fail to learn to avoid painful stimuli, suggesting that the subjective awfulness of pain does indeed have an important evolutionary function.

The staunch epiphenomenalist, of course, can continue to insist that it’s still conceivable that one could learn these behaviors without actually experiencing something and that this alleged conceivability proves something interesting about the metaphysics of consciousness, but these folks are taken less and less seriously these days even within philosophy. Even Chalmers seems to be moving away from a metaphysical interpretation of “The Hard Problem” and toward an epistemological one.


I see a different epistemic issue. While it intuitively seems obvious that the pain reaction is evolutionarily advantageous (seems unarguably so to at least the extent of individual survival, and I expect it is in fact universally true), but might a given species actually end up better off it only those who figure this out on some functional level and consciously respond appropriately end up with the pain response survival advantage? It seems that would be a “risky” path (as if chosen) to greater viability, but so do other things that have worked out well for us humans (i.e. the risk of choking vs. a far more useful throat setup for vocalization and verbalization—early, long term, complete helplessness vs. a big, powerful brain ... ).

 
 
Antisocialdarwinist
 
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06 November 2017 07:13
 
mikeymike345 - 06 November 2017 02:11 AM

A lot of scientists see consciousness as an epiphenomenon - i.e. it is a by-product of evolution which would work just as well without it. At one level this seems obvious. If I put my hand on a hot surface, I instantly remove it due to an unconscious reflex action. In fact I’m not aware of the pain until after I’ve removed my hand from the source of potential injury. For instances like this evolution doesn’t need consciousness. A ‘zombie’ human would behave the same as a conscious human.

But suppose I’m trapped in a burning building. I may have to push a burning beam out of the way, run up some stairs to a window, find a chair, smash the window, and then jump through it. This cannot be brought about by a simple reflex action. Without the subjective feeling of pain why would such a person embark upon a very complex series of actions and problem solving? A ‘zombie’ human would be able to cognitively realise that he could push the beam out of the way, run up the stairs and break the window - but without pain motivating him, why would he do it? Without the conscious experience of pain, surely animals requiring a complex set of actions to get out of a dangerous situation would simply remain in the situation until they painlessly perished.

First, it depends on the definition of “consciousness,” which seems to be the trickiest part of any discussion about consciousness. But I’ll nevertheless say no, I don’t think consciousness was central to evolution (unless maybe you’re talking cultural evolution). I’ll go even further out on a limb and claim that it wasn’t even an adaptive trait, but learned. The pre-frontal cortex makes consciousness possible, but people with pre-frontal cortexes like ours probably existed for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years without ever learning to become conscious. If that sounds impossible, it’s probably because you mistakenly attribute much of your own non-conscious behavior to consciousness.

You’re mistaken to think that a non-conscious person would “simply remain in the situation until they painlessly perished.” How do you reconcile that with your earlier assertion that you pull your hand away from a hot stove even before you’re aware of the pain? Claiming that there’s no pain simply because “you” are not aware of it is like claiming a tree falling in the woods makes no sound because “you” are not there to hear it. Where “you” (the awareness of self, or the illusion thereof) is a central part of what I’m calling consciousness.

 
 
burt
 
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06 November 2017 08:48
 

FIrst, have to distinguish consciousness from self-consciousness and in particular reflective self-consciousness. That said, the ability to respond to random environmental fluctuations (what I call virtual stability: maintaining a state that would otherwise be unstable in order to gain flexibility of action), which requires being able to move between habituated states, can act as a driver for the basis of the evolution of a neural base that can support reflective self-consciousness.

 
Ain Sophistry
 
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06 November 2017 14:02
 
SkepticX - 06 November 2017 05:51 AM

I see a different epistemic issue. While it intuitively seems obvious that the pain reaction is evolutionarily advantageous (seems unarguably so to at least the extent of individual survival, and I expect it is in fact universally true), but might a given species actually end up better off it only those who figure this out on some functional level and consciously respond appropriately end up with the pain response survival advantage? It seems that would be a “risky” path (as if chosen) to greater viability, but so do other things that have worked out well for us humans (i.e. the risk of choking vs. a far more useful throat setup for vocalization and verbalization—early, long term, complete helplessness vs. a big, powerful brain ... ).

I’m not completely sure what you’re proposing here. Evolution doesn’t act for the benefit of species. Are you suggesting that those who come to avoid (or not avoid) painful stimuli after consciously reasoning about it would have an advantage over those who simply learn to avoid anything that has ever caused them pain?

 
 
Poldano
 
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06 November 2017 19:15
 
Ain Sophistry - 06 November 2017 02:02 PM

...

... Evolution doesn’t act for the benefit of species. ...

Huh?

To be sure, evolution doesn’t act as a willful agent acts. Nor is there a direction (i.e., toward results beneficial or not beneficial to the species) to any of the primary changes (mutations, recombinations, etc.). Natural selection, however, tends to impose a change direction that is beneficial to a species, even if most of that time and for the most part that direction is to stay in the same place.

One can also quibble about whether biological evolution acts upon species or upon populations. It surely does not act upon individuals, despite the fact that the success or failure of individuals is the primary modus operandi of evolution.