‘Layers’ or ‘levels’ of consciousness?
Damasio defines consciousness as “the sense of self in the act of knowing . . . a narrative without words” (Damasio, 2000, p. 168), with characters – the organism (us) and the object (everything we encounter) – unfolding in time. He describes ‘simple’ and complex kinds of consciousness differentiating between ‘core consciousness’ and ‘extended consciousness’. Core consciousness (the ‘here and now’ consciousness), he says, generates an imaged, nonverbal account of the organism’s own state as affected by the ‘object’ in a spatial and temporal context and a sense-of-self (in the act of knowing). The sense of self in core consciousness is experienced as a subtle, transitory “feeling of knowing, constructed anew in each pulse.”
Damasio grounds the sense-of-self component on the following core hypotheses:
Core consciousness depends on the internal construction and exhibition of new knowledge concerning an interaction between the organism and an object.
The organism, as a unit, is mapped in the organism’s brain, within structures that regulate the organism’s life and signal its internal states continuously; the object is also mapped within the brain, in the sensory and motor structures activated by the interaction of the organism with the object; both organism and object are mapped as neural patterns, in first-order maps; all of these neural patterns can become images.
The sensorimotor maps pertaining to the object cause changes in the maps pertaining to the organism.
The changes described in 3 can be re-represented in yet other maps (second order maps) which thus represent the relationship of object and organism.
The neural patterns transiently formed in second order maps can become mental images no less than the neural patterns in first-order maps.
Because of the body-related nature of both organism maps and second-order maps, the mental images that describe the relationship are feelings. (Damasio, 2000, pp.169-170)
Damasio goes on to describe extended consciousness (in which the organism has an elaborate sense of self) as “everything core consciousness is, only bigger and better”. Extended consciousness grows across evolution and the lifetime of individual experience, placing what core consciousness “knows” from experience in a broader canvas and within the extended timeframe of lived past and anticipated future (Damasio, 2000, p. 196). Extended consciousness, he says, “... still hinges on the same core “you”, (the fleeting, momentary sense-of-self known in core consciousness) but that “you” is now connected to the lived past and the anticipated future,” an autobiographical record reactivated when autobiographical memory is accessed. Autobiographical memories are artifacts, objects which generate a “pulse of core consciousness”, a sense of self-knowing. Extended consciousness is thus “the precious consequence of two enabling contributions” – the ability to learn and retain records of myriad experiences and the ability to generate a sense of “self knowing,” by reactivating those records in such a way that (as objects) they too can be known to us.
Consciousness is an indispensable ingredient of the creative human mind, but it is not all of human mind, and, as I see it, it is not the summit of mental complexity either. The biological tricks that cause consciousness have powerful consequences, but I see consciousness as an intermediary rather than as the culmination of biological development. (Damasio, 2000, p.28)
This statement acknowledges the ongoing conversation between body, brain and the world mediated by consciousness and creativity. Core consciousness, he says, provides a rite of passage into knowing, and extended consciousness builds on that capacity, permitting levels of knowing which can sustain human creativity. The capacity which consciousness extends to creativity, and which creativity obligingly puts to good purpose, is its ‘image’ making capacity. This capacity allows us to transform and combine images drawn from that “wellspring of creativity”, the repertoire of patterns of action stored in memory, to invent new ways of doing things and make new plans for future actions (Damasio, 2000, p.24). Creativity and consciousness are intimately linked. If we take away consciousness, creativity vanishes. If we take away creativity, extended consciousness becomes a chaotic existential curse.
Steven Pinker throws a spanner in the works when he asks if consciousness is, in the end, “useless”, if a creature without it can negotiate the world just as successfully as a creature with it, and why natural selection would have favoured the conscious one? (Pinker, 1997, pp. 169-170). To tease out that question it would be necessary first to accept that the ‘conscious’ creature has been favoured by natural selection – for example that human beings are, in fact, more successful than cockroaches or bacteria. For the purposes of the discussion the question really rests on the definition of “successful”. If survival were the only criteria, then cockroaches and bacteria would seem to have the jump on humans in the potential survival stakes in the event of widespread environmental catastrophe, being more resistant to polluting agents and with the capacity to adapt to changing environment through rapid mutation. Our answer as a species is to respond to changes by artificially recreating environments that favour our survival rather than altering our physicality in response to environmental change – unless we shoot ourselves off into space in some artificial environment and reconstruct our systemic view of the living world. Pinker’s question is a valid one. What use would consciousness be to human beings if we didn’t have the means to put it to good purpose, to construct anew and create?
All the creatures
Stephen Jay Gould would have it that humans are the only creatures that, for better or worse have “developed the most extraordinary new quality in all the history of multicellular life since the Cambrian explosion … consciousness with all its sequelae from Hamlet to Hiroshima.” (Gould, 1993, p. 294-295). Laughlin, McManus, d’Aquili are more inclusive of other species putting forward the view that:
“... we must consider mind to be a characteristic of all animals that have brains and animals that have brains, we must presume have minds.” (Laughlin et al., 1992, p.13).
If all animals with brains have “mind” then, according to Dennett, the “stuff of the mind” – that is, witnessed events in consciousness – would have to be available to all animals with brains, to a greater or lesser extent. Damasio’s ‘here and now’ core consciousness characterised by its transitory feelings of knowing would readily fit that scenario. Opinions may differ about which creatures have this faculty and which creatures don’t, but the presence of consciousness (or not) seems to determine how much value human beings place on other creature’s lives in relation to our own, how inclined we are to tell ‘good’ stories about them. Frogs, dogs and chimpanzees; dolphins, koala bears and wasps – human babies – the levels of consciousness attributed to living creatures plays a major role in establishing standards of ethical conduct towards them (eg our intermediate science class frog). If a human baby’s ‘higher level’ human consciousness only develops incrementally after birth, as Peter Singer proposed some years ago on ABC Radio, does that mean we have no greater moral obligation to it than we do to a lamb or a calf or a piglet. I don’t think that Peter Singer wants us to start considering the pros and cons of eating babies (lambs, or calves or piglets maybe) but he is asking that we consider the assumptions and value judgments we make about sentient creatures and their experience of life.
A Duck in the Moonlight.
One evening as I sat on my back verandah enjoying the moonlight dancing on the lake, a family of ducks swam by on their way to the boat ramp up which they waddled each night to the nearby park. I had been watching these ducks for some months since moving into this lakeside home. They followed a similar pattern each evening, ten birds swimming purposefully round the rocky point, quacking loudly to each other all the way across our little bay to the boat ramp. The same two or three would climb out first, busily quacking at the others seemingly bossing them about. One small male bird always brought up the rear. He swam silently a couple of duck lengths behind the rest until he reached the ramp, up which he would valiantly attempt to clamber. The others would turn to face him, quacking louder and louder, jostling for every square inch of ramp available, beaks outstretched to hurry him along or send him packing, it was hard to tell which. He would swim back and forth at the end of the ramp waiting until they tired of this one-up-manship, then clamber out and follow them to bed.
This full moon night, however, he was two or three metres behind the others as they rounded the point, swimming comfortably, looking this way then that, his progress calm and peaceful in comparison with his ‘brothers and sisters’ frantic passage. They were half way up the ramp when they turned in a cacophony of quacking to see he wasn’t following. He had dropped behind even further when he reached the strip of moonlight sparkling on the water, which the others had swum straight through without breaking stroke. This small one slowed his swimming to glide through the light, which danced around him and glowed on his sleek head feathers. He turned to swim back through, head held high, then round and round in the stream of light before following the moon-path further out into the lake and back again, head up, always with the light falling directly on him and dancing about him. The others by this time had fallen silent and they watched quietly for a time before one quacked diffidently and they all made off with low querulous quackings, which sounded for all the world like puzzled duck mumbling. Round and round and back and forth he swam, oblivious to their departure, playing with the movement of the light as slivers of cloud drifted across the moon. Eventually he circled round once more, in a slow glide, then made his way to the empty ramp. He waddled up a way then turned and settled himself down facing the widening path of moonlight on the water until a bank of cloud cover drifted past obliterating the light altogether. He got up, shook himself, preened his feathers and made towards the park.
I don’t speak duck, so I can’t say what kind of relationship this duck had with his fellows, or whether their quacking at him was abusive or encouraging, whether he even belonged with them or not – was of their clan. I know that he slept amongst them at night, fished amongst them during the day – this I had seen – and usually stayed within the group or in close proximity. On this occasion he split off to do his own thing – I don’t pretend to know why. But he wasn’t fishing, or catching bugs, he wasn’t enticing a mate or attracting the attention of his flock members, he wasn’t lost or disoriented. He was quite clearly playing with the moonlight. What biological purpose might a duck have for playing with moonlight? Surely not simply to entrance me?
My concept of consciousness will inevitably be influenced by my perception of how other creatures (human or animal) relate to me, how I perceive their ‘sense of self’, their inner dialogue. Phenomenologically, consciousness can only be known to me by my being open to the direct experience of the senses (Laughlin et al., 1992), in Merleau-Ponty’s terms, being open to ‘pure perception’. My phenomenological experience of consciousness (mine and others) lead me back, again and again to its embodied, relational, spatio-temporal qualities.