James Kent, author of Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, recently posted a harsh critique of “captial C” Consciousness believers, offering an argument for science-based rationality, empiricism, and “lowercase c” consciousness. He targets a recent theory proposed by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, which claims to explain how quantum information in the brain (perhaps we can call it a “soul”) can persist beyond death in “quantum microtubules”. Kent leaves us wanting much more substance and far less hate.

We agree with his basic point: consciousness emerges from our neural networks. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests it is not some thing separate from body, but rather is a part of (and a result of) body.

But we have not seen evidence that consciousness cannot emerge from systems more simple than the brain. Of course, the burden of proof is on the soul seekers, and it may be impossible to ever prove or disprove such lines of thinking.

But, for example, it is conceivable to us that some sense of awareness, perhaps more limited than our normal, waking life consciousness, can emerge from more simple synaptic networks. We are loaded with neurons–could it be that a relative few neuronal firings in our hand*, through our back, or our toe, or in simpler species, could create some limited awareness that might qualify as “consciousness” but may not be identical to “human consciousness”? Perhaps an abstract yet reflective awareness, a “consciousness”, that has no capacity to sense human-ness or ego can emerge from simpler energetic systems.

*There are 1,300 nerve endings per square inch of our hand, creating quite a complex network of information exchange.

Neurons by Patrick Hoesly Image Credit: Patrick Hoesly / Creative Commons

In The Tree of Knowledge by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (damn important book), the authors propose a biological explanation for cognition and consciousness. In what has become known as the Santiago Theory of Cognition, Maturana and Varela propose that all living things, with or without a nervous system, are “cognitive.” In other words, when a living system interacts with its environment, it is perturbed and reacts to these perturbations by altering its structure. This constitues cognition.

A good example of this can be seen in chemotaxis–bacteria that alter their basic structure in the vicinity of certain chemicals, allowing them to move toward or away from the chemicals. For example, E. coli will swim towards higher concentrations of sugar (the chemical gradient activates the bacteria’s flagella). In this sense, E. coli are cognitive systems.

Obviously, then, different parts of our body are also “cognitive.” Because we wear a belt every day, the structure of our waist line has been indented–there is a muffin top. Our structure down there has been perturbed by its environment and has thus changed its structure slowly over time. Thus is our cognitive waist line. Similarly, our muscles respond to stress by enlarging, our pupils respond to darkness by dilating, and so on.

But, of course, Maturana and Varela differentiate consciousness from cognition. They propose that consciousness is a phenomena that takes place in language (in the mind and in our interactions), which is linguistic distinction on linguistic distinction. Think about this for a second: a 1st order of linguistic distinction is communicating something through linguistic cues; a 2nd order of linguistic distinction is communicating about the communication. According to their biological explanation, self-consciousness arises from the second order of distinction, or recursive coordination, in what they term languaging. Through languaging, we bring forth the world with our social domains and faculties, and in doing so, generate an awareness of self and consciousness.

This is consistent with Kent’s scientific perspective, with a little twist. Consciousness is something that emerges from recursive structural coupling in the physical realm (the brain and its coupling with the environment, including itself) and exists as a purely social phenomena.

Ok, good. But, is it not possible that our “cognitive” sub-structures–our hands, our spinal cord, our toes, all of our “pieces”–can exhibit (or preserve?) some sense of awareness independent of the blob of gray matter in the skull? That a second order recursive distinction could emerge from a handful of “social” neurons interacting with other energetic systems does not seem imposible to us. Obviously, such awareness would not constitute “everyday consciousness,” nor anything close to how consciousness is defined by Maturana and Varela, but it might exhibit resemblances to “linguistic distinctions”, such as through biochemical signaling. And the brain, as master operator, would certainly override any such independent awareness, but perhaps if it is silenced, some other forms of distributed cellular awareness could emerge.

Our sub-structures are quite active and autonomous, after all, and they are loaded with neurons. Surely, there have been plenty of studies suggesting that normal “consciousness” does not emerge without a functional neocortex, but why not entertain the possibility of sub-structural awareness? Or, perhaps, preservation of information or awareness among “quantum microtubules.” Or the possibility of awareness emerging from other energetic exchanges of information or chemistry.

Surely, we agree that defining what we truly speak of is important. Distinguishing between “everyday consciousness”, “Consciousness”, or “quantum spirit beetles” must be grounded with clear definitions. Everyday consciousness is tethered to brain. But might there be gradients of awareness, grades of consciousness hidden from our everyday experiences, that emerge among energetic systems and fall on a spectrum of “self” awareness?

Well, James, we agree with your basic tenets, but your article is quite dismissive of possibilities. Acknowledging the dangers of quack science, it’s damn fun (and important) to think about wild possibilities and test radical hypotheses, absurd as they may be. Through “crazy” thinking, great scientific advancements have occurred.

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"What is knowledge anyway? It is not a physical thing; but neither is it a metaphysical ideal, like a perfect circle that can never be drawn, a mathematical constant with an infinite decimal tail, or a goddess of sublime beauty who never ages. Knowledge, eventually, relates to nothing but itself, and leads nowhere but back to itself." - Reverend Nemu

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