Robin Craig asked the following:
What is the nature of consciousness? What is its cause? What is its evolutionary function? At what level of mental complexity on the evolutionary scale does consciousness occur (e.g. humans only, mammals, birds, fish, insects)?
Brain power can be compared between organisms according to the number of concepts that they may simultaneously process. For example, when we are small, we may think that a glass holds more water just because it is taller, since we are only able to compare them on the basis of height. As we mature, our brains become more complex, to the point that we can process four and sometimes five concepts and a relationship at any time. On this basis, “self awareness” or consciousness requires the ability to process a notion of ‘self’, a notion of that which is ‘not self’, and a relationship between the self and the outside world.
An infant is unable to distinguish between itself and its mother for several months after birth. While separating ourselves from the world is a step towards consciousness, there must be more to it… after all, our notion of ‘consciousness’ is more than just being able to tell the difference between cutting a tomato and cutting a finger!
I would suggest that consciousness requires a self vs not self distinction to be processed in the presence of at least one additional thought. This may take the overt form of asking yourself questions or thinking, while knowing that you are separate from your environment, or it could take the form of empathising with another, or acting directly, or any other activity that you might take. It is acting, including thinking, while being aware of yourself that constitutes consciousness.
Consequently, consciousness requires the capacity to process at least four things at a time. Scientists show that only the most developed brains are able to achieve this feat: Humans, dolphins and the higher apes.
I wonder whether we might consider a further distinction. There are some of us who are driven to live. There are some people who look to go beyond their conditioning and ‘mere’ survival, looking to lift their ‘consciousness’ to a higher level. Some would explain this as spirituality, whilst others would use more secular terminology. Striving to go beyond our environment, our conditioning and our history appears restricted to humanity alone – and even then only parts of humanity. Whether this is a desirable outcome or not is not my immediate concern… But if consciousness is being able to think whilst knowing that “I” exist, could higher consciousness be an awareness of our consciousness?