This is my first post, so hello.
I offer a theory about the nature and evolution of consciousness. This theory entails the continuous rise of complexity that has occurred throughout the evolution of the universe, which has culminated in the human brain. With the formation of autocatalytic chemical sets about four billion years ago, complex systems attained holistic closure endowed with the holistic characteristics of living systems. Holism is the basis for the physical, causal forces within a living system that govern its "self"-proficiencies, including self-organization, self-renewal, self-replication, etc.
Consciousness is also associated the emergence of holism in a living system. Consciousness is a property of that holism whose intensity and richness evolve in tandem with increasing complexity, and, in particular, the integrated information of the human brain. This theory is described more fully elsewhere, but below is an outline of some of its scientific features:
What gives us the ability to experience things, thoughts, and feelings? Is it a fundamental essence that permeates the universe? Is it a quality bestowed upon us by God? Is it the result of evolution? Indeed, given that a conclusive answer has eluded our understanding for millennia, despite the efforts of the greatest thinkers in history, we may ask if consciousness even exists, or have our brains somehow tricked us?
Recent scientific advances provide the pieces which complete the puzzle of consciousness. In this article we will assemble these pieces into a coherent model, revealing that consciousness is an emergent and inevitable product of the evolution of the universe. We will see that there is a special branch on the tree of cosmic evolution—the “anthropic pathway”—which fosters the rise of complexity and the formation of the conscious human brain.
Evolution along the anthropic pathway consists of six phases, beginning with the big bang and culminating in the human brain:
2) Symmetry Breaking
5) Symmetry Integration
6) The Human Brain
Let us trace the course of evolution through each of these phases:
The laws of nature do not change when a system transforms from one configuration, or state, to another. Individually, each of the states that a system can occupy is said to represent the symmetry of its underlying laws. Collectively, all of the states that a system can occupy comprise its symmetry space. For example, the symmetry space for the spin of a neutrino consists of two possible states; according to the laws of quantum physics, the spin of a neutrino may be either clockwise or counterclockwise, and thus the symmetry space for the spin of a neutrino encompasses, in potentiality, both clockwise and counterclockwise states.
2) SYMMETRY BREAKING
At the big bang, all parts of the universe were indistinguishable. There was total uniformity, thermal equilibrium, and symmetry. But this state is unstable under the laws of physics—because quantum fluctuations produce mathematically inconsistent effects globally (pertaining to the whole) and locally (pertaining to the parts). As a result, the parent supersymmetry of the universe “broke,” which gave rise to a cascade of intermingling sub-symmetry laws that entail unidirectional time; the elementary particles and their properties, such as spin; the gravitational, nuclear, and electromagnetic interactions; and an entropic force conducive to self-organization. In our example of the neutrino, its spin symmetry space underwent further symmetry breaking shortly after the big bang: only clockwise neutrino spins have ever been observed in nature, while both clockwise and counterclockwise spins are prevalent in the unbroken symmetry space of the electron.
The elementary particles that resulted from symmetry breaking in the early universe were able to bond into atoms and molecules. These composite structures exhibited emergent capabilities. For example, certain molecules, called catalysts, could activate particular chemical reactions in favor of others, resulting in networks of chemical interaction pathways and cyclic interdependencies, or complexity. Complexity thus dictated the utilization of environmental resources in a manner that selected for the fittest of systems.
Four billion years ago, inside the tiny chambers which riddled the walls of underwater vent structures, the complexity of catalytic systems advanced dramatically. These protective chambers were tranquil inside, yet were flooded with chemicals entering from the earth’s churning mantle below and the surrounding ocean waters. An extensive variety of large molecules, new catalysts, and self-modulating feedback and feedforward cycles evolved through continuous selection for complexity, which enhanced the overall strength and versatility of the intra-dependent chambered system.
Eventually, extremely complex chemical networks, termed autocatalytic sets, achieved holistic closure. Holistically closed systems exhibit the emergent proficiencies of self-referentiality, self-organization, self-renewal, and self-replication (whereas inanimate objects such as rocks and computers are not holistic because they lack the complexity to implement the “self”-proficiencies). The self-proficiencies, which characterize all living systems, are based in their own holism, and are governed by causal forces derived from that holism. These holistic forces represent laws of nature which are manifest in the symmetry spaces of living systems, or microcosms, in emergent dimensionalities that complement those of basic chemistry. After holistic closure was attained in the vent chambers—or a similar setting hospitable to the formation of stable polymer strands billions of molecules long—specialized organelles—such as ribosomes to synthesize bodily materials, mitochondria to produce energy, membranes to regulate the environmental interface, and DNA control centers to catalyze these and other functions—consolidated and worked cooperatively within the holistic symmetry space of the “organic cell.”
The emergence of the holistic symmetry space was accompanied by the emergence of experientiality, which is a nonphysical property of a holistic physical system. Experientiality is “property-dual” to the physical system, and supervenes upon certain informational patterns, or objects of consciousness, that are constructed by the system. Obviously, in a unicellular organism, or a holistic chemical set, the sophistication of objects of consciousness and the richness of experientiality are meager, but these properties are there, in nascent form, with the potential to gather and evolve into the human brain.
5) SYMMETRY INTEGRATION
In the primitive symmetry space of a deep sea vent chamber, information processing concerned only the regulation and balance of chemical concentrations. Although information was integrated through the holistic interconnectedness of chemical pathways, there were no mechanisms to construct focused informational patterns, and therefore sophisticated objects of consciousness could not be assembled to serve the experiential faculty of the microcosm. As life systems evolved, pathways and cycles consolidated into functional units (e.g., the organelles and DNA control centers mentioned above) able to produce and recognize higher-level patterns of integrated information. But these patterns were still spread out in space and unsynchronized in time. It would take the selective powers of “infoldment”—the concentration of process-structures in space and time for improved responsiveness—and symbiosis—the specialization of functional parts working together for the benefit of the whole—to partition the most salient informational patterns into a phenomenal symmetry space specifically dedicated to the experiential faculty.
In a microcosmic symmetry space, process-structures work together to integrate information, both to improve the physical fitness of the organism, and to construct objects of consciousness for its experiential faculty. On earth, evolving symmetry spaces have ascended a hierarchy of informational platforms, as new levels of holism have been achieved through repeated cycles of differentiation (specialization of individuals) and integration (symbiotic interconnectedness). First there was the specialization-symbiosis of colonies of molecules into the organelles of holistic unicellular organisms, then came the specialization-symbiosis of colonies of cells into the organs of holistic multicellular organisms, and, most recently, the specialization-symbiosis of colonies of neuron cells into the process-structures of holistic nervous systems which are devoted exclusively to informational transport and integration, the platform upon which the advanced attributes of human consciousness have been realized.
It is natural to ask: What is consciousness like for a unicellular amoeba, a multicellular tree, or a sea star having a rudimentary nervous system? The objects of consciousness formed in the phenomenal symmetry spaces of these microcosms can be identified and described according to the continuous evolutionary paradigm outlined above. The anthropic pathway to complexity provides the ingredients for the emergence and evolution of holistic living systems, and enables the selective advantages of integrated information and experientiality to be gained. Numerous phylogenic strategies have found success on the anthropic pathway, and the great range in informational focus and experiential richness, varying from dispersed chemical sets to the infolded human brain, points to the diversity of life, and to the scope and essence of consciousness. This interesting topic is explored in the book Consciousness Infolded, by yours truly, but suffice it to say here that the objects of consciousness which are integrated in these, and all, holistic symmetry spaces differ essentially in terms of their infoldment in space and time; and the focus and richness of the integrated information they produce, and experience, should not be ascribed features peculiar to the human brain, the most complex structure and vehicle of consciousness, of which we are aware, in the universe.
6) THE HUMAN BRAIN
Living systems are open systems. They require a flow of materials and informational signals (called signs in biosemiotics) to pass through their process-structure (called the interpretant). Thus, an amoeba, a tree, and a sea star are all biosemiotic interpretants that process afferent (incoming) and efferent (outgoing) sign streams. In the case of the human nervous system, a hierarchy of structures has evolved in both the afferent and efferent streams, with the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the latest neural structure to evolve, residing at the nexus and apex of the hierarchies.
Within the prefrontal cortex, a group of process-structures (including the short-term memory register and Wernicke’s area for language comprehension) selects particular signs cycling in from afferent sources (sensory, limbic (emotional), cognitive, and long-term memory stores distributed across the neocortex) in order to integrate resonant patterns of electromagnetic activity, which are also distributed across the neocortex. The prefrontal system is at the top of the efferent executive-motor hierarchy as well, and is responsible for initiating actions based upon the integrated patterns. Further, experiments employing advanced neuroimaging techniques have correlated these electromagnetic patterns with the objects of consciousness experienced by test subjects—however, not all information integrated in the brain is represented in the phenomenal dimensionalities, as demonstrated by the implicit memory and subliminal perception experiments of cognitive psychology. But in the phenomenal dimensionalities, salient qualia (the redness of red), memories, and abstract towers of meaning are selected and integrated, on the basis of maximal complexity, into transmodal informational objects of consciousness. In turn, these objects of consciousness serve the co-emergent, property-dual, experiential faculty of the human brain.