The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

A Darwinian History of Consciousness

The Italian mathematician Piero Scaruffi (“A simple theory of consciousness”, 2001) views consciousness as originating from the co-evolution of memes, language, tools, emotions and brains.

If one applies Darwinian thinking to the origins of consciousness, one is led to believe that today’s consciousness must be a point in a continuum of consciousness that started a long time ago and underwent evolution. If we accept that the human mind is just one of the organs that evolved over millions of years, the origins of the mind must be found in 1. A primordial organ of "thinking" and 2. An evolutionary advantage of that organ that made it evolve into what it is now.

It is likely that a number of facets of our experience evolved together.

First of all, we are a tool-making species. And tools have always shaped the mind. We are not the only tool-making species, and we are not the only species whose "cognitive life" is shaped by tools. Even a spider, that has built a web, will have a "mental" life that revolves around the latter. Each new tool, whether fire or television, has shaped the mind of the humans who used it. Tools contribute to create the mind as it is because they change the environment in which the mind must operate. As tools have evolved, from the wheel to the automobile, according to a Darwinian scenario of their own, our mind has evolved with them.

Secondly, the primordial "mind" that evolved from non-conscious matter ages ago is likely to have been very simple, possibly limited to a few emotions. For example, it may have only been capable of feeling pain and pleasure. Those emotions proved to have an evolutionary advantage, and therefore they reproduced and eventually evolved into more complex emotions, such as fear and desire. And so forth: as they proved more and more useful for survival and reproduction, eventually a whole spectrum of emotions began to emerge.

Emotions had an evolutionary value, as they helped bodies (and their genes) survive, and therefore were valuable, and therefore evolved. It is unlikely that humans are the only species with emotions, but it is likely that humans are the species in which emotions evolved in the most spectacular way. The reason for this spectacular evolution may very well be that at the same time we were developing ever more sophisticated tools than any other species. Tools relieved us from many daily chores. Our emotions had been invented to help cope with those chores, but, thanks to tools, our emotions gradually became less and less crucial to survival. The fear of tigers is important to survive in a tiger-rich environment, but once we build fences around our dwelling that emotion becomes less crucial; at least, we don't need to fear tigers all the time.

Our mind was nonetheless still producing emotions, because once an organ is created that does something it will continue to do that something. We can't just turn off our immune system because this morning there are no viruses around. Just like the immune system is producing antibodies all the time, the mind is producing emotions all the time. That flow of "free" emotions eventually led to what we call "thought". Thought eventually yielded a continuous flow of emotions and a concept of self: consciousness was born. Consciousness was born because our mind had nothing to do most of the time. We became conscious because we had nothing better to do with our emotions.

At the same time, communication was also evolving. Language evolved from primitive sounds and gestures because, again, it provided an evolutionary advantage.  Language shaped the mind as much as the mind shaped language. The very idea of the "self" may have originated from the ability to think in a structured manner about our experience, the ability to form narratives.

Finally, memes evolved. Ideas, slogans, religions, ideologies evolved from the early, very basic, concepts of the world. And, again, memes shaped the mind as much as the mind shaped memes.

Today's mind appears to be the result of the co-evolution of brains, tools, emotions, language, memes.

It was evolution on several parallel tracks.


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