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  • Writer's pictureCrone


I have started reading Annaka Harris's book Conscious. Within a few pages I found myself rebelling. I know that much of this has to do with the fact that she's young and pretty and the wife of Sam Harris and has achieved things and had children and is very bright. I mean, I am jealous.

But then there was something else. She brought up the amazing example of trees. It comes from Suzanne Simand's research. So, the underground fungal connections transfer carbon between trees. When firs are growing, birches send them carbon. When birches have no leaves in winter, firs send carbon back. Firs send carbon to seedlings - but they favour their own seedlings and will even create root space for their seedlings. I was pretty awe-struck bt this. I want to read all the tree books now.

And I thought, who cares if they're not conscious? I mean, why does FEELING matter so much anyway? Sure, we feel pain and that's salient for us and other animals. But it's still pretty damn devastating to be cut down. Just because you don't know about it doesn't make it matter less. Babies don't know much nor do people in comas but we don't saw them in half.


Harris also brought up a kind of suggestive proof of consciousness that defies the philosophical zombie thought experiment: only a conscious being could come up with the idea of consciousness. Therefore, consciousness exists. We can't be deluded and just think we are conscious.

But then I wondered about this, wandering around my neural networks and I thought: maybe an AI could in fact imagine that something might feel like something.

And then I thought: it doesn't feel like anything to be me. What there is, as David Hume and William James pointed out, is a stream of various thoughts, ideas, sensations, emotions and some layering of those things - thoughts aligned with emotions, for example, or emotions aligned with sensations. These 'feelings' of emotional content are just a different form of feeling from the feeling of physical contact, or the awareness of a scent or taste. Maybe emotions are just a register - and I think Antonio Damasio says this and Lisa Feldman Barrett makes a similar point - are just how we read the complex 'state of our being'. A car has a temperature gauge and a speedometer and a fuel thingy, we have it all subsumed into 'feelings'.

Sure, I admit, we are 'aware' of them. It's not like they just set in tranche a series of behaviours... but maybe consciousness is just 'the way' that those messages set up a series of behaviours. That something is in consciousness is like a flag on an email. We just reply to the urgent ones - like a reflex action; others we ignore (such as the background low level sensation my liver might be sending to me now to discourage me from drinking more wine); but the things overtly in consciousness are ones the system regards as demanding further analysis.

What comes into consciousness, to put it another way, are the things we'd put on a list. So we don't bother to put 'have a pee' on a list (unless we work in an Amazon warehouse), just as the body doesn't have to bring 'respiration' into consciousness. The list allows the system to regard the required and optional actions and put them in order.

The experience of consciousness is 'what it feels like' to have these self-referential loops going on in the neural networks. It's like the little light on an electrical device that says it's switched on.

This all worked very well while survival was a pressing concern and luxuries weren't on the cards. We could do the prioritising using the knowledge we had and the strength of the 'feeling'. Now the system relies more and more on what is outside itself to make survival optimising decisions: for example, you need to know something about nutrition to know what's good to eat and you need to know a lot about the world to decide what job would be right for you.

Problem is, the system wasn't adapted to respond to an environment where feedback is delayed (think of pension schemes), where power is so limited (think of being a citizen in a democracy with a first past the post voting system) and where there is no immediate sense of a community sharing the same needs and values that can advise through wisdom and experience and mutual concern.

Effectively, we need more and more big data and technology - we need to outsource our out of date consciousness!!

Back to trees, and our 'feelings' are just related to the way we have evolved to survive. We are no more important than a tree just because we feel. We may not be more complicated. So what that we can think up quantum physics! A tree can transform carbon dioxide into oxygen. Beat that, brain.

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