The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Design Without Progress

A not so subtle argument has to do with the concept itself of “evolution”. Evolution intuitively implies a progress from less to more, from lower to higher. Whether Darwin intended it that way or not, the idea that species evolve towards better and better beings does not follow logically from his premises. In particular, any change in the genes is more likely to do harm than to do good to the organism: how can this possibly lead to better organisms?

The US paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould does not believe that there is any inherent "progress" towards bigger complexity in evolution. Life evolves largely by accident. He opposes a biased interpretation of the fossil record. For example, he pointed out that bacteria still represent the dominant form of life on this planet. One should focus on variety and diversity, not "complexity". He objected to choosing one feature as representing a trend. If one considers the whole diversity of life, there is no trend towards progress or higher complexity. Simple forms still predominate in most environments.

We are unlikely accidents, not the fruit of progress.  Any replay of the tape of life would yield a different, unpredictable evolutionary history, albeit still a meaningful one. Evolution is not in the hands of determinism and not in the hands of randomness, but in the hands of contingency.  Chances that humans would be recreated if history were played back are kind of slim.  Gould thought that consciousness evolved only once in all the experiments that life performed on Earth (whereas eyes evolved many times in many species, and so did wings, in both birds and insects).  Consciousness is therefore unlikely to occur, and human consciousness must be considered a sheer accident. If the tape of life were played back again, it is unlikely that a conscious being would emerge.

Ernst Mayr put it bluntly when he argued that evolution does not seem to reward smart organisms over stupid ones.

On the other hand life may be more probable than it appears to be, since it happened on Earth as soon as it could happen.

As Francis Crick put it, natural selection has the function of making unlikely events very common. 

The mind itself came into the picture quite late in the evolutionary process. If mind is unique to humans, then a tiny change in the evolutionary chain could have resulted in no humans, and therefore no mind. Mind does not look like a momentous episode, but as a mere accident. 

Evolution is still a blind process. At any point in evolutionary history the outcome is uncertain.  Evolution does not proceed towards complexity but randomly produces variety.  Progress is purely accidental.  If we interpret Darwin literally, there is only variation, not progress.


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