Consciousness: The Saviour?

The human brain, probably a more alien ‘thing’ to us than Martian geology or the depths of our oceans. Could the salvation of the universe lie within? …Probably not…Well, maybe. (Credit: Pixabay)

NOTE: What follows is unqualified opinion and not scientific fact, the thoughts and ideas expressed here are not necessarily represented by the scientific consensus – in fact it’s mostly crackpot nonsense.

Also Note: You should probably read the other article Nature: The Abusive Mother before reading this.

My last post was probably a bit of a downer to a lot of people. People like to think of nature as pretty and delightful, of life as fun and happy not an inevitable meander to death – but truth fucking hurts and that’s the truth. Sorry.

I also explained that nature has no innate morality and that to some extent all creatures are selfish. Let me give an active demonstration of that by not letting someone else be my counter-argument and by doing it myself! Fuck you, people who don’t like what I had to say!

You see I described life as having a ‘will’ and it was for want of a better term because will implies an intent, a deliberateness that life just doesn’t have. Life is blind, aimless and ever blundering. Sometimes it gets away with its blunders, look at the platypus, sometimes it doesn’t, just ask the dinosaurs – and to make matters worse conditions are always changing.

It takes blind evolution millions of years to adapt to conditions that can change in the melting of a pole, the collapse of a cliff, the evaporation of a lake or, cosmos-forbid, the smash of a meteorite.

I made a point of saying nature has no morality, not that it was immoral. It doesn’t know the darkness it brings, the harm it causes, the miseries it perpetuates.

Now if only there were a system or process, evolved by accident, that gave some aspect of nature and life the ability to reflect upon itself, subjectively, to consider its direction and to have the potency to potentially change it should it be going the wrong way.

Well…There might be.

I know, I know – a lot of you are going to want to throw your hands up like eager schoolchildren and say “SIR! SIR! IS IT PEOPLE? SIR, IS THE ANSWER PEOPLE!?”

No. You’re close but no. I said it was a system or process, not a species. Sadly people are too biological, too selfish-gene driven and too damn stupid to save the day. To anyone offended by that I am sorry you are one of the lucky ones ignorant enough not to recognise this as true.

It is, though, a skill people possess. Consciousness.

What is consciousness, you might ask? Well the answer is we don’t really know. We know it is because it says it is and is very good at insisting it is. Science is pushing us further and further down the road of understanding it. What we could best say is that it is an ability to consider, irrelevant of the current, immediate stimuli, the past, present and future not just of oneself but of other things.

The common octopus remarkable for its own intelligence, especially given that it’s basically an overgrown sea slug. Outside of mammals, these guys probably represent the best shot conscious intelligence has of having any agency. (Credit: Martijn Klijnstra)

Put in simple terms it’s being able to think. The same thing that causes untold human misery could also, one day, be its salvation.

Consider for a second glaciation – ice-ages – now a species of wolf in a temperate climate with a mid-length coat, adapted for temperatures between, say -5 and 35°C is going to struggle to adapt to a tundra where -5 is considered warm and clement weather. Maybe around that time a few longer, shaggier coated individuals start appearing, and a few of them survive and eventually they thrive in this new, colder climate. That is a process that takes tens of thousands into the millions of years to show success.

Now consider a human. What would we do? We’re cold, the climate is getting colder. Hey, there’s a shaggy coated wolf, let’s skin the bastard and wear his coat, then we’ll be warm.

What the human has done, that we take so for granted, is consider the immediate conditions (fucking cold), consider a future projection if nothing changes (I’ll fucking freeze to death), assess the environment (there’s a wolf), solve a puzzle (I am cold, that wolf has a warm coat, that warm coat make help solve my cold) and then put into action the solution (skin the bastard and wear its skin).

To me what a combination of intelligence and consciousness represents is the ability to adapt, on the fly, to ever-changing conditions, freeing up the genome to evolve for greater longer-term success, now un-burdened by the shorter term changes. Considering that genome is now about 4 billion years old, and those shorter-term changes can be in the millions of years you have to imagine a combination of consciousness and intelligence is frightening.

What’s most frightening, about it, however, is it allows nature, life itself, to observe itself, externally, consider its direction and ponder whether it is right or not.

Again, humans are natural, consciousness is natural, intelligence is natural, these are all natural systems – but these are now natural systems that can combine to change the very direction of nature itself.

And we have!

Those uninteresting monocultured species I talked about in the Nature article, the jungle fowl (chicken), the aurochs (cow) and the boar (pig) that we most commonly consume are now so altered from their original forms, from years of human interference, selecting for certain things and, without even understanding biology or genetics, finding a way of making that pass from one generation to the next.

We have cereal crops that are staples around the world but we did the same with them.

We build dams and create lakes, we sink ships to build reefs, we deforest and reforest, sometimes with a view to exploiting for our own gain but sometimes with a view to managing the environment for its own sake, rather than ours.

I don’t think humans are clever enough to save themselves. I think we’re doomed. What I want is for us to at least leave conscious intelligence behind, as our legacy, so that life, nature, even the universe itself can look upon itself with borrowed eyes and learn more.

I told you everyone has their crackpot theory. I’ve pretty much just dropped mine but the fact is if nature is the beautiful-ugly reality then conscious intelligence is the closest thing it has to a divine spirit, to a ‘soul’. It can be nature’s agent of morality, but as human behaviour demonstrates it definitely has a lot of growing up to do before it is wise enough.

But there’s hope yet.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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