Life and consciousness

A simultaneous origin?

The origin of life
The origin of life
23 MAR 2017
by

The notion of consciousness continues to be elusive for science. The general terms of the question are known. Consciousness means subjective experience, the field of all what happens around me and in me. The barking of the dog, the parking of the car, the perception of the clouds and the colors and the sounds, my thoughts and imaginations, … these are all contents of consciousness, they all present in the subjective experience which is the reality in first person. All what is outside my consciousness forms instead the external “objective” reality. Among those who consider consciousness to be primary (i.e. not caused or conditioned by the brain or the mind) there is a general agreement that there is a feeling-of-being which is prior to the very thinking “I am”: the thought “I am”, must be based on a prior check-up of a “presence” (see Bergonzi, 2011, and the WSI of May 23, 2016). The feeling-of-being appears thus as the point of departure for any consideration about consciousness.

There is in the field the question, whether and to what extent consciousness can be studied by classic science. In classic science, the phenomena to be investigated are described by the observer as external objects, including our mind. Consciousness cannot be studied in this way-consciousness is not a phenomenon, but is the phenomenology itself (see Bitbol and collaborators). The observer cannot point at something outside there and say: there is the consciousness… Because by saying so, the observer becomes external to that thing he calls consciousness, and this is precisely what is logically impossible (see also Thompson, 2015). Descartes was looking for consciousness in the pineal gland, and some modern neurobiologists, looking for consciousness in the brain, or in the mind, or in the quantum states of tubulin, conceptually do the same ontological mistake. The main mystery is the origin, and the nature of consciousness. We do not even know why it is there, although some daring explanations are not missing, like the one by David Chalmers, who is proposing that consciousness as another basic universal constant, like space or time.

This is well-known background. The present short article was born from a specific consideration, and a corresponding question, about consciousness. The consideration is that consciousness must be based on a living entity. There is no consciousness without life, and there is no life without consciousness, and actually we can conceive a circular relation between consciousness and the experience which is present in a living entity (this would be a kind of embodied consciousness).

And now the question, about the very origin and nature of consciousness: why do not assume/propose that there is a simultaneous origination of life and consciousness? That the origin of consciousness corresponds to the arising of life? This would mean, simply, that in each living being the feeling-of-being arises with life itself. Being alive corresponds to the feeling of being. One means the other.

The stringent relation between life and consciousness is the very point which caused the above question to come to mind. In its primordial form, consciousness appears as a feeling-of-being, the feeling of a presence prior to the thought, and this can be seen as the main expression of consciousness. The feeling-of-being is like an open window, permitting all other subjective feelings to “enter”: the feeling of blue, the feeling of fear and joy, all other experiences, thoughts, and emotions, all other kinds of subjective experiences. This corresponds to seeing consciousness, at least in this initial state, as personal and individual.

Of course, as soon as we want to extend the subjective personal experience of the feeling-of-being to other living beings, we immediately encounter difficulties. There is no way for each of us to know about the subjective experience of other human beings. It appears very reasonable to assume that the other human beings have my kind of consciousness-but this is still, necessarily, an assumption. And things are more difficult when we consider life at large, for example all other animals, plants, or bacteria. Obviously, there is no way to share the first-person experience of a lizard or a fish.

However, one step forwards from this position can be done by recalling the theory of autopoiesis and cognition by Maturana and Varela. In fact, the notion of cognition permits an interesting link with the feeling-of-being. Let us recall that each living organism is characterised by its own autopoiesis, the internal organization which permits the self-regeneration from within (life is a factory that remakes continuously itself from within during homeostasis). And the main function of cellular life, and life in general, is self-maintenance, the defence of the individuality in face of external perturbations, evolutionary pressure, random mutations. All living beings are all without exception characterised by autopoiesis, although they generally have different structures. This structural diversity is what permits, according to the authors, the specific “cognition” characterising each living organism, namely the possibility of recognition and interaction with the environment. Cognition is due to the internal organization, and it is what permits the “doing” of the organism. It is a first-person doing (“knowing is doing”- as Maturana says). It is constrained by the “operational closure”, so that there is no way for the external observer to interfere with the doing of the organism (for a detailed review see Luisi 2016).

Cognition is not consciousness, but it can be seen as an unconscious self-identity and driving force for survival, which in turn can be seen as an unconscious feeling-of-being. The lower organism, the amoeba or the lizard, do in “first person”, but unconsciously, what they have to do as determined by their own cognition, i.e., the internal organization of their structural autopoiesis, their state-of-being. The big, critical assumption now, is that this first-person unconscious cognition may become at a certain point a conscious feeling-of-being. In other words, a possible positive answer to the title question would posit that all living organisms have a feeling-of-being which is intrinsically linked with their own specific cognition and autopoietic structure- and which can be conscious (in mankind and maybe other higher animals) or unconscious (in lower organisms).

I do not want to use here the notion of emergence - namely that the physical structure brings about the “qualia” of the feeling-of-being. I am only making the assumption that cognition, and the feeling-of-being may be one thing. Cognition is a stratified concept, in the sense that, as the structure and sophistication of the organism grows, so does the sophistication of cognition. We go from the gradient-sensitive membrane of the amoeba to the tentacle of the jelly fish to the visual perception of the butterfly, and so on. We are still at the level of cognition, and although this is not consciousness in the sense of awareness, it is a first-person doing; and we can foresee a gradual development from cognition to awareness with the increase of the complexity of the life structure. Natura non fecit saltus.

In conclusion, the question is again: why not assume/accept that there is a simultaneous arising of life and consciousness in all forms of life? Let me condense again this view:
1. The equivalence between physical life and the feeling-of-life would be present in all living beings. However, not all living organisms may possess the awareness of that. Most lower animals will have that in an unconscious way - a feeling-of-life which is manifested for example in a frenetic desire of not dying - see the protest of the shrimp when you fish it out of water; or even the frenetic movements of bacteria when you put them in an anaerobic environment.
2. The statement that all living beings have a kind of consciousness is the way of thinking of most oriental traditions, Buddhism in particular, where life and consciousness are generally considered complementary and equivalent. In this way, we would have found a close correspondence with the ancient oriental thinking- observation that should not be undervalued.
3. One other important consequence of this simple biological view of the simultaneous origin of life and consciousness, is that we would also arrive at an evolutionary dimension of life/consciousness. Not that human consciousness might have had an evolution since the first hominins till now. But humans were not present on Earth a few million years ago, whereas life, in much simpler form, has been present for almost four billion years. Thus, in terms of evolution, the feeling-of-being would have been present in an unconscious, formless mode from the beginning of life, and, with evolution going from bacteria to higher animal to mankind, with the evolution of the living complexity there would be an evolution of the capability of accepting more complex contents of consciousness. In other words, although the “consciousness” of each single species–bacteria, lizards, homo - may be the same though the millions of years - there would be a kind of evolution of consciousness in going from one life form to a more complex one, whereby the greater complexity means the acquisition of more complex contents of consciousness. Bacteria or shrimps, as far as we can say, do not entertain thoughts or feelings of ethics.

There are certainly questions to be clarified in this general picture of the simultaneous arising of life and consciousness, and at this regard a particularly important point in the passage that goes from “my” feeling-of-being (first person) to the assumption (in third person) that all other human beings are provided by consciousness-so as to connect “me” with all others. However, there is also no doubt that the proposed view would stop to be a magic, mysterious thing. One could add here that life is per sé such a (miraculous?) phenomenon, that to add to life the entanglement with consciousness does not seem to me too much of a drastic assumption.

References
M. Bergonzi, Il sorriso segreto dell’essere, Oscar Mondadori, 2011
M. Bitbol and P.L. Luisi, in Consciousness and the Universe, R. Penrose editor, Cambridge, MA, Cosmology Science, 2011; M. Bitbol NeuroQuantology 6, 53-72, 2008
D. Chalmers, Journal of consciousness studies, 2, 200-219, 1995
P. L. Luisi, The emergence of life, 2.th edition, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2016
H. Maturana and F. Varela, The tree of knoweledge, (revised) Shambala 1984; Autopoiesis and cognition, Reidel 1980
E. Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, Columbia Univ. Press, 2015