The Extent of Consciousness

Pax Christi, everyone!

This is partly due to me developing a science fiction story, but I’ve been hopelessly out of my league but still trying to ponder the nature of consciousness for a bit and was wondering to what extent the lowest of lifeforms might be conscious. My particular focus for this question regards responses to stimuli in bacteria: can we call this consciousness?

I certainly would call this consciousness. BUT to what extent???

So small and insignificant compared to what you experience as consciousness that it would seem nothing by comparison. Just our bodies without our nervous system is 300 trillion times as much as a bacteria. And how do we quantify what is added to this by our nervous system and by language? I would suggest another huge factor for each of these. In everyday life most things that much smaller by so great a factor would be treated as nothing by comparison.

And yet this cannot change the fact that these bacteria are aware of both their environment and themselves – they have to in order to live. Clearly both environment and self are very very much smaller than for us. And it is not just size obviously but vastly different capabilities also.

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Conscious bacteria feels like a joke given how unreal people seem in their sinfulness, in their denial of the cause of the universe being aware of his action.

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Reacting to stimuli can hardly be called any kind of consciousness. If that were true, then we would have to say that our thermostats had consciousness, and photosensors.

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Agreed – sort of.

  1. Thermometers don’t react to changes in temperature they are directly changed by it.
  2. Bacteria do a lot more than react to stimuli.

Bacteria monitor BOTH the environment and themselves and thus they react to the environment according to their needs. Big difference.

But like I also said, we obviously do a LOT more than bacteria do, even under the label of consciousness.

What more do bacteria do than react to stimuli? For example warfare between bacteria and its predators (as well as between themselves and their own prey) is a continuing and complicated effort… Efforts of bacteria to defend against predators is so great that few resources left for offspring -- ScienceDaily.

Frankly… some people will say that WE just react to stimuli. I find myself quite skeptical that you can distinguish between us and bacteria in such a way. In other words, people are just as capable of making light of the difference between us and bacteria as you are capable of making light of the differences between bacteria and mechanisms. But the fundamental difference remains… what the bacteria do is NOT a product of design.

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According to their needs – just internal sensors and not such a Big difference. I expect biomimicry and bioengineering can be or is already doing it. And I’m glad you’re being Frank. ; - )

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High tech automated weaponry and systems, not consciousness.

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It might help to highlight some of the important difference with human beings. Our ability to plan for the future seems pretty significant and I suspect that language plays a role in that. I would guess that the nervous system also helps and thus animals with nervous systems are more capable of planning than bacteria.

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I wonder if intelligent crows’ and octopus’ problem solving abilities really incorporates planning or just memory. (Slime mold has ‘memory’ and ‘problem-solving’ ability.) Computers have RAM and problem-solving ability, and there isn’t too much discussion about them being conscious (some with AI though I suppose ; - ).

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This article is interesting

Planning is the ability to think through future events taking place at a different location. Ten years ago, Mathias Osvath, a cognitive biologist at Lund University in Sweden, designed a series of tests to measure whether other primates were planners. Great apes—like chimpanzees—passed. Monkeys failed.

It seems in similar studies with birds, ravens passed while other birds failed.

An interesting thought… can these be considered the pinnacle of the evolution of intelligence in dinosaurs? LOL

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I’m not sure that does not just constitute good programming and memory though.

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(Super advanced slime mold. ; - )

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Been looking into slime molds. Pretty smart stuff! The leap of capabilities from prokaryotic to eukaryotic should also be taken seriously.

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Abstraction would be another important differentiator. Languages themselves are abstractions, so that would be an important feature.

I also suspect that consciousness (as we know it) requires multicellularity and tissue specialization.

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(From a while ago, when COVID testing became more public ; - )

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Corvids are the hominids of the dinosaur clan.

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Apparently, some of them can recognize faces and “warn/tell” fellow corvids about certain people. Truly remarkable birds!

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Corvids can learn tricks and even invent new tricks that give rewards. For example, when I was winterfeeding small birds, I put a small ball of a mixture with fat on a string, hanging it from a branch. Hooded crows tried to get it but the place was such that they could not take pieces by flying to the ball. Finally one of the birds sat on the branch above the ball and started to pull the string with it feets and beak, inch by inch. Then it opened the slipknot I had used with the beak. After that it flew away with the reward. If it had only opened the slipknot, the fat ball would have dropped to the ground where other crows would have taken it. Now it got everything to itself. Clever!

At least breeding magpies use regularly cooperation when they want to rob thrush nests. One bird flies in front of the nests, attracting the defending thrushes to attack. At the same time, the other bird sneaks to the nest by approaching behind the tree trunck, jumping from one branch to another instead of flying. Usually it manages to snatch an egg before the thrushes realize they have been fooled. This could be counted as some sort of planning.

No doubt corvids are clever, can invent new tricks and plan raids. What level of consciousness they have is another question. Also wolves and many other animals, even ants, use cooperation when hunting or defending their nest, so cooperation does not reveal much about consciousness. No doubt corvids are clever compared to most other animals. I have not yet heard that slime molds would plan their trips in advance.

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They could be said to ‘learn from experience’ though. Maybe just adding good memory (and heritage) makes it seem like planning among more ‘clever’ creatures? Do they really understand cause and effect? Pavlov comes to mind.

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Hey @Combine_Advisor !

I was listening to The Language of God podcast interview with Jeff Hardin earlier today. Hardin and Stump were talking about cells rearranging themselves as part of embryonic development. In their discussion they needed to contrast the anthropomorphic metaphor we use casually that implies intelligence in cells, against the cell’s abilities to be responsive to stimuli that indicate changes the cell needs to make in order to continue proper embryonic development. I copied the part I thought was pertinent below in case it helps answer your question. Sorry the transcript didn’t have time stamps.

An interesting question of yours.

When your story is ready for publication, let us know, will you?

Thanks!

I don’t think of cells having a collective consciousness or something like that. When I say cells need to know which way to move, it’s because cells can emit signals, which are received by neighboring cells using receptor molecules on their surfaces, which act like molecular antennae to allow a cell to receive that signal. Then it’s pre-programmed, in some ways, with a limited repertoire of responses to that signal. That’s very cumbersome what I just said. So it is true that sometimes, with in a popular discussion, we’ll use words like know and sense or something like that in a way that might lead some people to think that there’s some overarching, intelligence exerting effects on individual cells and rearranging them like checkers on the checkerboard or something. But really, scientists don’t think in that way about how embryos develop, it’s really better to think about the unfertilized egg having molecules in it, when that egg is fertilized, it sets in motion, a set of chemical reactions inside of that cell that leads to molecules being moved to different locations. As cells divide then different cells have different properties that allow them to communicate with one another. Eventually, in the period of morphogenesis, when the cells have to move around, we are thinking about chemical influences on the surface of cells leading to changes within cells and involve building blocks, assembling into chains of molecules and doing all those kinds of things. So we use shorthand that sounds teleological, we didn’t actually define that word. This is the notion that there’s a directedness to natural processes.

You may also be interested in the novel Blood Music. It shows up in some discussions around here, if you haven’t already seen them.

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