Consciousness From A Biological Point of View

(A braindump of my thoughts after listening to John Vervaeke’s lectures.)

To replicate, Biological systems need to satisfy three criteria: 1. Survival 2. Reproduction 3. Fidelity of copying—and, since most biological systems that exist are optimized for replication (since this is the process by which natural selection occurs), most are tethered to these three criteria. On the level of the organism, the dynamic self-replication of the organism is illustrated by Kant’s example of the tree, whose leaf helps the trunk to grow, and the trunk supports the leaf. (Can give more examples.) 

The world constantly changes. Biological systems—for which I mean all levels of emergent biological organization, from the level of the gene to the organism to the species to an ecosystem—need to constantly adapt to and change its environment in order to replicate. Biological phenomena therefore is “self-ordering”—it operates on feedback loops, and is recursive (therefore can be modeled by differential equations). The failure of these loops lead to diseases, such as type II diabetes or cancer. The success of these loops lead to replication. Though self-ordering, the causation of a B.S. need not be circular, as in, a plant’s processes causes the survival of a plant which causes the plant’s processes to occur. This is because two powers, causes and constraints (akin to the Aristotelean distinction between efficient causation (causes) and formal causation (constraints)) act on biological systems. A constraint changes the possibility of an event occurring, and is the primary manner in which Biological Systems operate. The form of a constraint loop is roughly that an event A causes some event B in a B.S. which is in turn the constraint for event A, increasing or decreasing its possibility. A constraint is always both selective and enabling, decreasing the possibility of certain events occurring, and increasing the possibility of others. (A cell is a constraint in that it increases the possibility of certain molecules being inside it, and certain outside it. A leaf is a constraint in that it increases the possibility of a photon hitting the plant.) This changing of the possibility of various events ultimately leads back to the satisfaction of the three replication criteria (i.e. constraint for the occurrence of a certain event) which increases the chance of self-perpetuation. To anticipate, consciousness is the higher-level self-ordering of the organism which creates constraints.

There is a constraint that B.S. are subject to that is the condition of the possibility of all constraints—non-omnipotence. This leads to the question of action, or, “What should I (the system) do?”,sinceI do not have the power to do everything. This question cannot be optimally answered by B.S. due to the constraint of omniscience, that is, B.S. cannot know all possible outcomes of their actions and compare those with all possible actions.

The problem of omnipotence is a structural consequence of the second law of thermal dynamics: A closed system tends towards equilibrium, with less free energy over time. This is the Heideggerian problem of finitude—B.S. can only choose some courses of action out of the infinity of possibilities given to it, and are constantly at risk of non-replication/death. B.S., in order to replicate, need to survive through the retrieval of free energy from without. This retrieval is based on photosynthesis, and then ingestion. And B.S. need to use those limited energy to create new constraints that makes the capturing of more energy more likely, and ad infinitum.

This leads naturally to the problem of omniscience, which is the problem of information processing—there is too much information in the environment for an organism to compute all the implications—and, therefore, the impossibility of solving optimally for the problem of What is to be done for me to replicate? Under the current model of Physics, in which physical events can be reduced to information (and blackhole is the maximum information space can contain), this is not even logically possible, for the universe doesn’t have enough computational power. (Combinatory explosion.) The traditional biological solution to the information problem is natural selection. There is a change in the environment, numerous answers to this change are generated through natural selection, and the incorrect ones perish, the successful, replicate, until a new change occurs, and the process occurs again. This exposes a tension between fidelity of copying and survival. Too static and the gene cannot adapt to the changing environment, changing too fast, then there is no fidelity of copying. This is a subset of the biological problem of continuity through change, and will be a major problem that consciousness needs to solve—reformulated in human terms, it is the tension between isolationism and globalism, but it can also be seen at the level of the cell, where membranes are both boarders, keeping much substance outside, whilst always selectively permeable, allowing certain substances in in order for the cell to become, as well as the immune system, where most none-self is killed, whilst some, such as food, are incorporated.

These two constraints corresponds to the definition of an organism as a negative entropy machine, that is, something that has great order within against the disorder without. This can be conceptualized as the difference in the probability of the occurrence of reactions—difference between spontaneous reactions and endergonic reactions, mediated by enzymes (a potentiality shifter). B.S. are self-ordering in that they add constraints onto themselves, and thus changes the possibilities of events happening within and without itself. This is what we “character.”

Consciousness is the antidote, on the level of the organism (and the more complex forms at that), to the constraint of omniscience (relevant only because it is not omnipotent) through the reciprocal process of potentiality actualized and actuality potentialized. Potentiality actualization is the process of identifying the relevant information, and acting on it; actuality potentialization is the process of moving from what I am doing right now, to thinking about what I can do—thus plunging into potentiality. This corresponds, in evolutionary language, to death (elimination of possibilities) and variation (creation of possibilities), and perhaps is what Heidegger was pointing towards in the being-towards-death of Dasein. Consciousness, in short, is a mechanism for natural selection of the optimum action of the organism under limited information and energy.

The mechanism by which consciousness does this is through the creation and amendment of concepts, since each concept is a way to select that which is relevant to me right now, and that which is not. These concepts direct the attention of consciousness, and allows it to actualize its potential (which is why Plato made the philosopher-king see—that is, pay attention to—the form of the Good, for the paying of “loving and just attention” (Murdoch) to the Good is no different to the actualization of the good).

Consciousness creates concepts normally not ex nihilo, but through exaptation. That is, adaptation of that which is already given for one’s present purposes. This is a subset of adaptation that is most prominent in B.S—B.S. are the complex exaptation of the primary creation of DNA/RNA, this is what one means when one says that the DNA base pairs are universal: it is the base from which all biological adaptation develops. This is the making of metaphors to understand the world. Thus, the abstract concepts of language are often derived from the physical world—de-rivus means “down stream.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s