Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

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JustinG
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Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by JustinG »

Hi all,

I would appreciate any comment, critique or discussion on this paper I wrote (https://www.cosmosandhistory.org/index. ... e/view/704) which was published in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy a while ago.

It is quite long, so take your time in responding, as I will in responding back.

Here is the abstract:
The evolutionary argument for the causal efficacy of consciousness of William James contends that an implication of the theory of evolution by natural selection is that subjective states have physical effects. This paper explores the contemporary relevance of James' argument. The argument will be examined and some objections to it briefly discussed. Following this, the implications of the argument for the foundations of science and for evolutionary theory will be addressed. Consideration will then be given to how extensively subjective purpose may occur in living nature in view of James' argument. It is argued that the evolutionary argument lends support to Whiteheadian metaphysics and has significant implications for the world-view of scientific materialism.
Jim Cross
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by Jim Cross »

JustinG wrote: Sat Sep 11, 2021 8:22 am Hi all,

I would appreciate any comment, critique or discussion on this paper I wrote (https://www.cosmosandhistory.org/index. ... e/view/704) which was published in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy a while ago.

It is quite long, so take your time in responding, as I will in responding back.

Here is the abstract:
The evolutionary argument for the causal efficacy of consciousness of William James contends that an implication of the theory of evolution by natural selection is that subjective states have physical effects. This paper explores the contemporary relevance of James' argument. The argument will be examined and some objections to it briefly discussed. Following this, the implications of the argument for the foundations of science and for evolutionary theory will be addressed. Consideration will then be given to how extensively subjective purpose may occur in living nature in view of James' argument. It is argued that the evolutionary argument lends support to Whiteheadian metaphysics and has significant implications for the world-view of scientific materialism.
Justin,

Impressive paper.

A couple of thoughts.

Some materialist argue that consciousness is a spandrel - that is, it has no causal efficacy but is a side effect of increasing neural complexity that is the trait evolution has selected for. This isn't my argument. I consider it a trait that appears to be too widespread in nature and too costly from an energy standpoint unless it has some evolutionary value by itself.

Talking about causal efficacy gets into a range of problems about causality itself that need to be discussed. When does one thing cause another? What about the thing that causes the thing that causes... Where do you stop the chain of causality to say something definitely is the cause of another?

My way of thinking about it, at least with consciousness, is in terms of systems. Is there a boundary with clear inputs and outputs? Are there internal dynamics inside the boundary? Clearly there are with the brain. Senses are the inputs. Actions affecting survival are the output. What is the role of consciousness in the system?

Learning and integration of inputs so the organism can act in a unitary fashion.
Consciousness apparently does sit in the loop that can control directly the firing neurons. I would suggest, therefore, that consciousness itself, whatever it is, must have the ability to affect and engage in feedback with cells and circuits which are themselves unconscious. While this ability could originate as an emergent property of brain circuits, I have elsewhere argued that electromagnetic field theories would be provide the best explanation.
https://broadspeculations.com/2020/01/1 ... certainty/
Steve Petermann
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by Steve Petermann »

JustinG wrote: Sat Sep 11, 2021 8:22 am Hi all,

I would appreciate any comment, critique or discussion on this paper I wrote (https://www.cosmosandhistory.org/index. ... e/view/704) which was published in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy a while ago.
The topic of the causal efficacy of subjective experience is of interest to me because I struggle with it. As I've said before, it does give us a sense of self and I think that is important in some way but beyond that it's a puzzle to me.

So, here are some critiques of the paper. One is semantic. In the literature and media, we see lots of different terms used for consciousness. As Chalmers points out in his seminal paper:
The word ‘consciousness’ is used in many different ways. It is sometimes used for the ability to
discriminate stimuli, or to report information, or to monitor internal states, or to control behavior.
We can think of these phenomena as posing the “easy problems” of consciousness.
...
The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. Humans beings have subjective experience: there is something it is like to be them
So, terms like "feeling" can be ambiguous. There is a psychological meaning to the term but also a technical one. Are we talking about an easy problem (neural states and responses) or the hard problem (phenomenal experience)? If the focus of the discussion is the hard problem, I think the term "experience" (what it's like) should be used. It avoids confusion.

To illustrate this, we can think of certain neural state configurations that we call a feeling (pleasure, pain, emotion). We categorize these certain states with those terms. Say, for instance, there are certain states in the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, limbic cortex we categorize as emotions. There is the brain configuration that we have, on the one hand, but we also experience that brain configuration. There is a "what it's like" to have that configuration — a subjective experience of that state. This would also be like experiencing a thought, a pain, a pleasurable state, a reasoning process, an intuition, etc. The brain states can be thought of as easy problem configurations but experiencing those states is the hard problem.

Here's a thought experiment. Say I'm in bed for a night of sleep. While still awake certain nerve fibers (unmyelinated C fibers or myelinated A-delta fibers) activate and I have a pain. While I'm awake I experience that activation and take a different position to alleviate it. However, what if I'm in a deep sleep? Those fibers activate and while I don't have a subjective experience of it, I still change position to alleviate it. There is the same behavioral result in both cases. What was casually added to the same situation by subjective experience? It does give me a sense of myself having that pain but is there also something else? This is, of course, the philosophical zombie question that Pinker talks about.

So, this raises the question for evolution. Would evolution not have produced what we see without subjective experience or is there some other reason for subjective experience.
Jim Cross
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by Jim Cross »

What was casually added to the same situation by subjective experience? It does give me a sense of myself having that pain but is there also something else? This is, of course, the philosophical zombie question that Pinker talks about.
I accidently touch a hot stove. My hand immediately pulls back, probably before I'm even aware of the pain consciously. The pain happens after the fact. What value is the pain? I learn not to touch a hot stove again. Consciousness is tied to learning and memory.
Steve Petermann
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by Steve Petermann »

Jim Cross wrote: Sat Sep 11, 2021 12:42 pm
What was casually added to the same situation by subjective experience? It does give me a sense of myself having that pain but is there also something else? This is, of course, the philosophical zombie question that Pinker talks about.
I accidently touch a hot stove. My hand immediately pulls back, probably before I'm even aware of the pain consciously. The pain happens after the fact. What value is the pain? I learn not to touch a hot stove again. Consciousness is tied to learning and memory.
One could think of memory and learning purely as a brain reconfiguration without the need for subjective experience. Does the amoeba's reconfiguration of its biochemistry to learn about its environment and avoid survival threats need an experience?
Jim Cross
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by Jim Cross »

Steve Petermann wrote: Sat Sep 11, 2021 12:50 pm
Jim Cross wrote: Sat Sep 11, 2021 12:42 pm
One could think of memory and learning purely as a brain reconfiguration without the need for subjective experience. Does the amoeba's reconfiguration of its biochemistry to learn about its environment and avoid survival threats need an experience?
One could think of it that way but there is a good empirical argument that learning and consciousness are closely related.



There is also the point that there is a need to integrate multiple senses in most learning and decision-making.

The Jablonka-Ginsburg argument is only that more complex learning, unlimited associative learning, is a a marker for consciousness. But it might be at the most primitive level consciousness may even manifests in very simple organisms that possess only simple associative learning.

Here's a quote from Llinás who believes the brain and nervous system developed to enable intelligent locomotion.
Is subjectivity necessary at all? Why is it not just enough to see and react, as robot might do? What advantage is conferred on the organism by actually experiencing something over just doing it? It is important to consider that animals may not have subjectivity but only react as if they do. Some in this field point out that because we cannot determine that animals do have subjective feeling (qualia), we can say in fact they don’t until it is demonstrated otherwise. It may be argued, however, that the burden of proof is on those who deny subjectivity in animals. For myself, I suspect that subjectivity is what the nervous system is all about, even at the most primitive levels of evolution. As an obvious corollary to that suspicion, I also suspect that consciousness as the substrate for subjectivity does not exist outside the realm of nervous system function or its nonbiological equivalent, if there is any.

https://broadspeculations.com/2020/08/2 ... -and-self/
Steve Petermann
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by Steve Petermann »

Jim Cross wrote: Sat Sep 11, 2021 1:02 pm Here's a quote from Llinás who believes the brain and nervous system developed to enable intelligent locomotion.
For myself, I suspect that subjectivity is what the nervous system is all about, even at the most primitive levels of evolution.
As I've said, subjectivity does seem to be important. It does provide a sense of self — a unity of experience. My guess is that this unity of experience is what God sought in this reality. How reality is constituted isn't just some aggregate of disparate events but one where each entity within the mind of God is unique but also embedded in the communion of all things. Each offers an experience of life from its perspective, combines and affects other entities to form an overall experience of the Divine Life.
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AshvinP
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by AshvinP »

JustinG wrote: Sat Sep 11, 2021 8:22 am Hi all,

I would appreciate any comment, critique or discussion on this paper I wrote (https://www.cosmosandhistory.org/index. ... e/view/704) which was published in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy a while ago.

It is quite long, so take your time in responding, as I will in responding back.

Here is the abstract:
The evolutionary argument for the causal efficacy of consciousness of William James contends that an implication of the theory of evolution by natural selection is that subjective states have physical effects. This paper explores the contemporary relevance of James' argument. The argument will be examined and some objections to it briefly discussed. Following this, the implications of the argument for the foundations of science and for evolutionary theory will be addressed. Consideration will then be given to how extensively subjective purpose may occur in living nature in view of James' argument. It is argued that the evolutionary argument lends support to Whiteheadian metaphysics and has significant implications for the world-view of scientific materialism.

Justin,

This is a very well-written and researched article. I appreciate the effort you put into it, even if it was awhile ago. I started looking into James' evolutionary argument myself and found it very interesting. It really seemed to emphasize the role of the individual as the locus of evolutionary activity, which is pretty much the opposite of the materialistic evolutionary view, which holds each individual as a nearly irrelevant agent in the world. So I completely agree that consciousness has "causal efficacy" in evolution. Actually, as I have been exploring in my recent mythological essays, I think it is very clear that all such traditions are reflecting the evolution of consciousness itself. Since you asked for critiques, that is mine - it seems you are still going with the strictly "bottom-up" materialist or panpsychist approach of simple units combing into more complex ones through mostly material selection pressures, but also saying the simple units have consciousness. I am not sure if that is even compatible with Whitehead's metaphysics, but perhaps I am wrong about that. Either way, I think Cleric's comment on another thread is very relevant here as well (my insertions in brackets):

Cleric wrote:The complexity of the Natural world is already there. Is there reason to look further than the human brain, the most marvelous structure known? It doesn't make sense to hijack this already existing reality and keep convoluting it into more and more complex relations and call that 'lowering the entropy'. Any complex biological energetic process on Earth can be traced back to the Sun - it is Solar energy that supports the entropic gradient. When we trace this process we can follow how low entropy energy travels through space, enters the Earth atmosphere, interacts with chlorophyll, propels the whole biological world and so on. This is in purely physical sense. It is similar in spiritual [or idealist] sense, where instead of tracing the abstract concept of energy, we trace the processes in the Divine Mind [MAL], which become increasingly convoluted (higher entropy) and ultimately lead to our current state, where we're facing impossible complexity. Lowering our entropy is the actual fully conscious transformation of our being such that, just as we normally live with our own thoughts, so we live in higher order Cosmic Thoughts, which are that actual causal factors behind the dissipated higher entropy states. It is quite clear that TC doesn't speak of that. Everything that we speak of here is completely collapsed and lost between the 'Consciousness broke down to pieces, so that it can interact with itself'. There's absolutely nothing between Consciousness and the 'piece'. Everything that exists is the build up of 'information' into more and more complex relations. This is also why people feel comfortable with the 'instinctive MAL' paradigm - it's a very convenient upgrade of materialism, we again build up the World order from the bottom-up, except that we do that from pieces that have inherent capacity of consciousness.

If we understand entropy in the way physics finds it, then we reckon that there isn't 'absolutely nothing' between Consciousness and the piece but in fact everything is there. Then lowering entropy is not further increase of complexity (even though it is hoped that would bring greater harmony between the pieces) but the actual conscious penetration into the living processes that are already responsible for the complex picture we observe on the natural sensory surface.
“It is your presumption that freedom is something which you already possess that ensures that you will remain in chains."
JustinG
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by JustinG »

Hi Steve and Jim, thanks for the comments. My response:

The paper aimed to have a primarily biological focus. So I didn't want to consume too many words discussing philosophical issues related to causality or the definition of consciousness, important as these issues are. The reference to feelings is to phenomenal experience throughout, and not to Chalmer's notion of psychological consciousness.

From the perspective of Darwinian evolutionary biology, if feelings do not do anything (i.e. if they have no causal efficacy), then there is no evolutionary reason why, for example, touching a stove is associated with feelings of pain or eating is associated with feelings of pleasure. From a Darwinian perspective, if feelings do not have causal efficacy then it is equally likely that touching a stove be associated with ecstatic pleasure or eating be associated with excruciating pain. As the latter is not the case, Darwinian theory therefore implies that feelings have physical effects in the world (i.e. they have causal efficacy).
JustinG
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Re: Evolution and the causal efficacy of consciousness

Post by JustinG »

Thanks Ashvin,
Whitehead's metaphysics was chosen as an example of, possibly one of many, "defensible interpretations of physics available which are consistent both with observed empirical facts and with the proposition that subjective states influence physical behaviour". An idealistic approach could been given as an example instead. But condensing Whitehead into less than 500 words was no easy task in itself, so I wasn't going to try and do the same with an idealistic approach, especially since the paper has a biological focus and was aimed at biologically-oriented readers. But, yes, the principle idea (the causal efficacy of consciousness) could be consistent with and applied to various forms of idealism.
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