Don Herbison-Evans ,
written 22 August 2008, updated 2 January 2012, 27 May 2017

What is consciousness?

For what it's worth: my view is taken by analogy with computer simulation. I think all living things have some internal model of their environment which they use in growing and propagating. I am thinking that this model does not need to be a mental or neurological model. A simple state machine with a set of actions which vary with sensory inputs, according to this definition, would be such a model. Animate organisms are a particular case: using their model to follow the goals of survival, growth, and propagation. As one progresses up through the animal kingdom, the models become more complex and more adaptable, and become embodied as mental models in the brain. For organisms with enough complexity in their model, they can begin a first level of recursion: they can begin to include a model of themselves. We have a word for this: the self.

So I contend that this is consciousness: namely the ability of an organism to include a model of itself in the simulation of its environment.

In this view, we can consider questions such as: is consciousness an all or nothing thing, or is there a continuum of degrees of consciousness?

My view is that depending on how complete is this inclusion, then there are varying degrees of consciousness. The standard test is whether an organism recognises itself in a mirror. There are many anecdotal reports of animals doing this, and I would say that these indicate some degree of consciousness in these animals. But I would also claim that this consciousness is not as complete as that in humans. Even children can understand the infinite recursion that is started by including ourselves in the model, and I would suggest that the internal models, even in the anthropoid apes, are not this complex.

As we grow and mature mentally, we further learn to model what other people model of themselves. This second level recursion: of being aware of what others are thinking, is often called 'empathy'. As children and then teenagers, we are self absorbed, and basically selfish. We can understand the theoretical concept that others think and have feelings, but we are not continuously aware of of this.

At about the age of 21, we learn to model a third level of recursion. This gives us an awareness not just of ourselves, not just of how others view themselves, but how others view ourselves. I think that this is why teenage drivers are so dangerous: a teenager is not aware of how other drivers interpret the teenager's actions. This limits a teenager's abilty to predict what is going to happen while driving, and delays their ability to avoid dangerous situations.

Another question is: can a group of organisms have a degree of group consciousness? For humans, the "yes" answer is easy: in a crowd, everyone in that crowd will be aware that they are in a crowd, and also aware that they are aware that they are in a crowd, etc. They will modify their behaviour to some extent accordingly. But the infinite recursion is not required. All that is required is for the internal model of the environment include special actions if other members of the same species are nearby. Many organisms demonstrate this ability, and it is particularly obvious in the social insects such as ants and bees. But of course, all organisms that have some sexual method of reproduction must have this awareness built into their environmental model. So some primitive level of group consciousness pervades all natural organisms.

In biology we are told to avoid anthropomorphic and teleological explanations of evolution or behaviour, but this group consciousness, whatever its lack of sophistication, can be viewed as evidence of a group 'self'. Then through the kingdoms of living organisms it may reasonably be said this group-self affects the evolution and behaviour of the organisms, and is, in some sense, goal oriented. If this is accepted, then teleological explanations are more than just metaphors.