The Conscious Patch

If consciousness is viewed as being on a dimmer switch - i.e humans have a lot of it, dogs and magpies have some of it, bees have a bit of it - what might a patch map of consciousness look like?

In Nick Lane’s fantastic book ‘Life Ascending’ he lists consciousness as one of the “ten great inventions of evolution”. Reading this got me thinking about how, if at all, the concept of consciousness could be applied to the patch.

Within this are two questions 1) is there consciousness on the patch? 2) is the patch conscious?

An answer to either of these will hinge on which of the various definitions of the word we choose to employ. These definitions range from the rigorously scientific to the less scientific - new-age beliefs, via religion and metaphysics. An interesting way to approach this question is to look at the various attempts to explain consciousness and speculate how a ‘map’ of consciousness on the patch might look on each of these views. To put it simply, if consciousness is like this where would you find it?

What is it to be consciousness?
What's it like to be a starling? Is a starling conscious?
Stephen Hawking thinks so.
I wake up in the morning, I think to myself  'time to get up', moments later my body moves - I get out of bed. Waking up is accompanied by a kind on mental switch, I start up the thing called consciousness. I have the thought, the intention, to get up.  This seems to be a non-physical phenomenon - and yet the physical world - my body- is affected.

The so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is the question just what IS a sensation, what IS the green of a leaf, what IS the painfulness of pain, what IS my intention to get out of bed. How does the firing of neurons generate these phenomena? Why does the feeling which accompanies awareness exist at all?

The question of consciousness has, until recently, been seen to be out of bounds to science - more the realm of philosophy or theology. Even though, each of us has a consciousness1 we are not well equipped to analyse it. We are biased towards a belief that feelings, sensations, hopes, fears are in some way ineffable – ‘feeling stuff’ seems different to ‘body stuff’.

The brain is pretty much blind to itself, we can feel the beating heart, the heart can feel pain, but thoughts and feelings just seem to arise like magic. Consciousness is for this reason often seen as belonging to the spiritual realm…how can it be explained in purely physical terms??

Levels of consciousness
Neuroscientists often distinguish between two (some, as many as 8) levels of consciousness – 'core' and 'extended'.

'Map' of core consciousness on the patch.
Core consciousness – animalistic, raw feelings – hunger, pain, thirst, fear etc. The function of these is clear – putting your hand over a flame is not a good thing for you to do – so evolution has come up with ‘pain’. There is nothing inherently painful in the flame, it is not a property of fire – instead your brain invents the feeling.  It is a powerful bodily ‘to do’ - move your hand away - that shoots straight to the top of the list of priorities. Good old evolution.

Humans clearly possess this kind of consciousness, but so do animals. The analogy of a dimmer switch is often used to describe the way the ‘light’ of consciousness is turned up as you go from primitive organisms to human beings. That’s to say, apes have a lot of it, dogs and magpies have some of it. But so, to some extent, do honey bees – the sweetness of nectar is the reward offered by the flower – prompting the bee to seek it out. When you get down to bees the dimmer switch maybe nearly off but there’s still some light.

'Map' of extended conciousness taking
 the restricted view that it is only possessed by
human beings
Core consciousness occurs on a moment by moment basis, when this is layered with memory, language, thoughts of the future, society etc, extended consciousness arises -  raw feelings are overlain with emotion.

Here is the dimmer switch turned up to full - we have the full and rich scope of human mind. So we have what are thought of uniquely human ‘complex’ emotions - nostalgia, love, sympathy, regret etc – and the things that have been the products over the centuries – a Beethoven Symphony, the Mona Lisa, Stonehenge, the moon landings, Buddism, the United Nations and yes, hard as it may be to believe, even Donald Trump!

Even amongst humans there must be degrees of consciousness – adults having the dimmer switch turned full on, babies less so. If this is true then perhaps it follows that magpies and dogs (which, at least seem, as intelligent as a baby) are conscious in the same way that a toddler might be. That’s to say they also possess extended consciousness...just less of it.

The idea that having consciousness is something that extends beyond just Home sapiens is gaining currency.  In 2012 an international group of prominent scientists, including Stephen Hawkins, signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.  They proclaimed their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and squid.

The illusion of consciousness
Consciousness on the patch taking Daniel Dennett's view that it is
 an illusion, or more accurately taking his opponent's view that
that he denies the existence of consciousness.
Daniel Dennett – in his book Consciousness Explained argued that consciousness is, in fact, an illusion.  According to Dennett, the mind consists of a set of mental faculties (memory, reasoning, perception etc) which are physical systems that can be reduced to ever simpler sub-systems - what Dennett calls the 'army of idiots'. Dennett, therefore, thinks that there is no-one 'in charge' over and above the idiot army. We are under the misapprehension that there is an overarching conscious agent – this is the illusion.

Opponents of Dennett have referred to his book as ‘Consciousness Explained Away’ or ‘Consciousness Ignored’. John Searle has summarised Dennett’s view as denying the existence of consciousness. I think I agree, I read Consciousness Explained some years ago and when I got to the end thought, 'so when is he going to start explaining consciousness??'

Panpsychism views all matter as conscious - it's everywhere
David Chalmers has argued that consciousness must be a generated by physical processes, however feelings don’t correspond to any known property of matter. His rather startling conclusion is that matter must have some additional property which we are unaware of – and that, in fact matter itself is conscious. He further suggests that this must mean that consciousness is universal – it’s everywhere. If you are a Panpsychist you see yourself as a mind in a world of minds.

Not just would this mean that you’d have to extend the realm of consciousness down past honey bees but to microbes and then rocks.

This kind of idea has been around for a long time and Chalmer's work chimes in with the theories of Plato, Leibnitz and Spinoza. With attention turning to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness Panpsychism has, started, perhaps surprisingly, to become fashionable again.

Is the patch conscious?
On most definitions of the word 'consciousness' and in almost every way it is explained we can conclude there is indeed consciousness on the patch, but what about the second question - is the patch itself conscious?

James lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis contends that the earth behaves as if it were a single organism. Organisms interact with their physical environment to form a self-regulating system that’s helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life.

The theory has been eagerly jumped on by some in the environmental movement and a 'Gaian Philosophy' has emerged. Subscribers to this strand of thought have gone a long way beyond Lovelock’s ideas and suggest that not only does the earth behave as if it were a living organism, but it actually is a living organism and a conscious one at that.

It’s certainly possible to imagine that some Gaian-type self-regulation happens at the level of an eco-system
Some so-called ‘new-age’ beliefs and several religious traditions hold a view that the earth, or even that the universe is conscious and so have embraced the notion of Gaia as being scientific proof of the fact.

Opponents of this view brand it has un-scientific and indeed wishful thinking - Lovelock himself would absolutely disown these ideas. Many scientists these days treat the Gaia hypothesis as a useful metaphor but nothing else.

Just to suppose for a moment that it were the case that the Earth were conscious – would that mean that a hemisphere was conscious? What about an eco-system? What about the patch?

What if the panpsychists are correct in their, seemingly hard to swallow, contention that all matter is conscious?  The patch is comprised of matter so on this view you'd have to conclude that, yes, in some way, the patch is conscious.

Perception per se
The map of core consciousness could also work as a map of neural activity and also of perception per se. Everywhere there are organisms with nervous systems. Sense organs are sending information to these 'brains'. There is a lot of perception going on.

Would it make any sense at all to view to these organisms collectively and contend that this collective has self awareness? Does this equate to a kind of collective consciousness?

In my view if the patch were ‘conscious’ then the meaning of the word has been stretched so far that it’s not at all the same thing as the kind self-awareness of internal states that humans possess. It’s certainly possible to imagine that some Gaian-type self-regulation happens at the level of an eco-system, but it’s not necessary to invoke ‘consciousness’ to explain it.

The Noosphere
Although, not totally relevant to the question 'is the patch conscious’ a fascination diversion is the concept of the ‘Noosphere’. If, as some contend, consciousness is a property that emerges from computation, then we should be able to a build a conscious robot with computer for a mind, if a robot why not a whole planet?

Humans are currently engaged in linking up the earth using the internet. Not only will the ‘internet of things’ link man made objects – fridges, cities, cars, but humans will be directly ‘plugged in’ to this web. Might the Earth itself then become conscious?

Recent Patch Sightings
27/8 - Tree Pipit -1, Chiffchaff - 21, Barn Owl -1
26/8 - Trickle of bird migrants overhead
25/8 - New Beetle - Silpha atrata
24/8 - Influx of Painted Ladies
5/8 - 'Flying Ant Day'
New Moths - Oak Hook tip, Cabbage moth, Dinghy shell, Blastobasis adustella, Ancylis badiadana

Another moth with beautiful metallic markings - Gold Spot
This Lesser Water Boatman was in the moth trap - it wasn't very happy until I put it in some water - then he was as happy as Larry (whoever he is)

1 I can only ever know with absolutely certainly that I, myself am conscious - my mind is the only one I have access to. I have to make the working assumption that other people are also conscious. It makes sense to assume this - they behave as if they were conscious. Get this


  1. Sorry Phil, I've got totally behind! A great read and lots of interesting points and individuals' work to follow up on. (Having largely avoided philosophy for years I've recently been watching a lot of lectures by Profs Peter Singer and AC Grayling.) Love the image of the Gold spot - a really beautiful moth (I've one on my blog somewhere I think), and that video is great - when we released the Elephant hawkmoth that is exactly what s/he did. Great to see the warm-up before take-off! The mugs are looking cool too, are you selling them online? Jan

    1. Regarding the mugs I'm still looking for somewhere that I can do them cheaply enough. Those are Vista print - ok for prototypes but not really cheap enough to produce.

    2. Hi Jan, nice of you to say 'great read', I think it's probably too dry and wordy for most people.

      I like watching Ted talks as I find you get the ideas summarised nicely and you don't have to bother reading anything! I've seen one of Singer's - I think he's been around a bit as a key philosopher in the animal liberation movement.

      Yes I really love a Gold spot, parts of the wing look almost stained glass like.

      Autumn's here! had a skein of Pink feet overhead on saturday and another this morning

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