Consciousness, Imagination, and Change

This was going to go on the fiction blog. Part of the way through writing on a half-baked theory on consciousness, I realized why I was really writing it {climate change}, and so it more closely belongs here with the politics.

I am not a scientist, so in that sense–eg, I don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, this is not based on my research–it is still kind of fiction. Further it will likely make people more knowledgeable on the subjects covered cringe. I’m doing it anyway.

Consciousness. There’s a search in the scientific community to try to figure out what it is, what it really does, where it resides in the brain, and how it came to be. Not all living things are conscious, so it is assumed to have come to be somewhere along the line through evolution. The possibility that it resulted from a mutation, possibly from a virus altering genes in some ancient species, is not out of the question.

One theory views consciousness as the mediator between other, unconscious processes. The usual example used is carrying a hot plate. Survival instinct is saying to drop it, to prevent injury from contact with an object uncomfortable to hold. Some other process is aware that it means eating and/or the fulfillment of a social or economic need in the case of a group gathering or employment in food service, so it’s okay to put up with that pain for a little while. The theory contends that consciousness is what allows those more abstract desires and impulses to overcome the “gut” or the lizard brain, the fear of being scalded, the pain from the heat.

What I’m suggesting is similar to this but perhaps more abstracted, more encompassing of behavior in general. A typical way adaptation occurs in species is by trial and error, or “survival of the fittest.” Gray-colored moths tend to get eaten more often by birds as compared to their off-white cousins in white-barked birch copses because birds can spot them easier on those trees. But along comes the industrial revolution, the white bark becomes gray from the soot from burning coal, and suddenly the gray moths have improved their odds of hiding from predators while the white ones start being easier to see, betrayed by the discoloration of the very same trees that once helped them to hide. The white moth population dwindles while the gray moth’s flourishes. Over time, the white moths may even become darker in hue as those with a darker shade of off-white have an edge over those who do not.

This multi-generational method of adaptation is how we often think of it. Many, many organisms that failed to implement a strategy that promoted offspring died off. Those that managed to propagate themselves–such as by performing almost random changes upon their hosts in the cases of viruses and parasites who did not kill their hosts–survived, without being conscious. In other words, using luck.

But what about the individual? What about managing to alter behavior quickly, without having to wait for generations to pass in order to implement the survival strategies necessary to adapt to external changes? Why rely only on trial-and-error as a means of keeping the species going when circumstances may not have allowed for that throughout Earth history? What about imagination instead of luck?

An additional question about consciousness is, what benefits can it provide that could not be just as easily emulated with some unconscious system? In the case of the hot plate, why not simply allow some kind of visual or olfactory clue to tell the pain system to switch itself off temporarily? Why does it necessarily require a conscious act of will to make it from the kitchen to the table? We can imagine ourselves getting beyond that initial pain.

“A system cannot understand itself,” per W. Edwards Deming. What if, then, there was a built-in emulator. A sort of “little man” standing outside the system looking in? It might be able to take a step back and look at the behaviors of the individual, even if–really being a part of it–it could not understand the whole. It might be able to implement changes in the behavior that might seem counter-intuitive, counter to survival, or counter to some other unconscious process but that actually improve survival. Damn whatever instinct and old habits are demanding, we can produce a behavior that is in the best interests of the individual because we can imagine changing scenarios.

Take for example, placing the pursuit of wealth that causes climate change ahead of dealing with something like climate change. We can feel our air conditioning making us comfortable now. We even know that we require money in order to keep that comfort system in working order and to pay for the electricity to power it. In this sense, we have stepped away from simple, gut instinct of jumping into a lake, moving closer to the poles, or simply languishing and perishing until such time as future generations manage to adapt to a warmer climate. We have overcome an initial step in resisting what Nature demands of us.

We further assume–because this is what we feel, what we sense–that wealth will somehow stave off the problem, make us secure. Even when those behaviors might be part of what is exacerbating the problem and leading to a situation where wealth loses worth altogether.

We cannot easily feel, see, know climate change, the effects nor the causes with our senses. Nor is it close enough in abstraction to our behavior to make a similar jump in altering behavior as reliance on air conditioning and behaviors that allow us to use it, nor the hot plate scenario. Is it that these ideas haven’t been around long enough in our minds to absorb and accept that a new kind of application of the will is necessary? Is it that have no real suggestions beyond a few concerning energy and water saving coming from a consistent, organized place we come to rely on for our information beyond what we sense directly?

We clearly have the ability to do it. Unconscious may be what drives us, but consciousness does seem to be able to intervene, at least as long as we are able to focus our attention on doing/not doing the behavior we want to change.

What then holds us back?


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