How Consciousness Emerges and Persists

Matthew Schutte
Oct 27, 2017 · 6 min read

How does a new form — or what I will term a new “consciousness” (footnote 1) — emerge and what are the factors that determine whether such a form will continue to persist?

Part 1: The Generation of Entities.

Take any two (or more) entities(footnote 2).

For instance, take Hannah, Harry and Oliver.

Any interaction between them can be thought of as communication.

Hannah holds hands with Harry and Oliver. This physical contact means that each may perceive the touch and pull of the others.

With any communication, there is the creation of a community.

Holding hands, Hannah, Harry and Oliver form a group. For ease of use, we’ll refer to this group as HHO.

There are certain signals that the community will be sensitive to.

With HHO, if someone grabbed onto Oliver and pulled him, Hannah and Harry would either get pulled as well, or the bond between them would break and the coherence of HHO would be altered.

Similarly, if Harry grabbed onto a live electrical wire, all three of them might get electrocuted.

Some of these are different from what the interacting parties are sensitive to when not in community with the others.

If the three were not holding hands, and someone grabbed onto Oliver and pulled him, Hannah would not be pulled along. Similarly, if they were not physically connected, Harry’s grabbing of an electrical wire might shock him, but it wouldn’t necessarily shock Hannah or Oliver.

Similarly, If Harry and Oliver cannot read, they wouldn’t be able to make use of street signs to navigate their way through the city. But if they hold on to Hannah, who is older and can read, they end up being able to find their way thanks to her guidance.

On the other hand, certain other systems may only be sensitive to them (open / capable of interacting with them) when they are functioning as a group.

In order to retrieve a frisbee that had gone over a ledge, the three might need to hold hands to lower one person down the hill far enough to retrieve it without getting stuck.

The set of entities and processes that the group is sensitive to, and capable of interacting with will determine what it is conscious of — and thus will determine the characteristics of its “consciousness” — i.e. the perspective from which the combined entity interacts with the world. It is in this way that a new “consciousness” emerges.

The hand holding of the group HHO creates a coherence that communicates tugs of Oliver and electrocutions of Harry to the other members of the group. In that way, the group became sensitive to those sorts of signals. Similarly, HHO became able to alter the world around it, in new ways perhaps by being able to retrieve a lost frisbee that would otherwise have been unreachable.

However, it is important to note that though this new layer of consciousness will interact with other entities (and will likely alter even those entities that participate in its generation) it does not subsume them. They may continue to persist. This is easier to understand when we recognize that this “consciousness,” like all consciousnesses, is not an object — but a set of processes.

The formation of HHO can impact Hannah, (if nothing else, it changes her risk of electrocution and her ability to retrieve frisbees). However, Hannah continues to persist as an entity — or consciousness — as well.

The key consequence of this is the recognition that consciousness does not exist solely at a single layer. It is pervasive throughout all layers and their interactions — and these interactions overlap with one another.

In this way, the group HHO has what we can recognize as a consciousness. Hannah has a consciousness as well. But beyond that, there are organisms within Hannah that contribute to her functioning as a healthy human. One such organism may be a particular microorganism of the type Pediococcus acidilactici. Living in her gut, it is sensitive to certain things and plays an important role in digestion. As a result, it can be said to have a specific consciousness. However, one can also perceive of the way in which a water molecule (H2O) is sensitive to certain interactions and insensitive to others as a form of consciousness. This may seem like a more controversial statement than the assertions about humans, and even bacteria. However, it is analogous to both those and the functioning of the social organism HHO.

From any entity’s perspective, other entities and processes that it is incapable of sensing or interacting with do not exist (note that this is different from claiming that they don’t exist in an absolute sense).

If HHO is not sensitive to radio frequencies, a song broadcast on the radio spectrum will not be directly sensed by, or alter the behavior of, HHO.

With the addition of extra interactions, the community may get expanded and new sensing capabilities may emerge.

If HHO finds itself in a room with a radio, an amplified speaker, air that can propagate sound waves etc, then the radio frequency can get converted into sound that HHO is able to hear. Note that this is a result of a second entity, the radio, transforming signals on one carrier (radio frequencies) to another carrier (sound waves) that HHO could hear.

Through this, a group (now in a modified form) can become conscious of entities and processes that it was not otherwise capable of sensing. New capacities for interaction emerge.

Suddenly, through the addition of those interactions, HHO+Radio+Speaker+Air can interact (indirectly) with the radio waves. In fact, given a mic and transmitter, HHO+Mic+Trasmitter+Air may be able to convert sound and generate radio signals, and thus communicate with others that live far away.

The group as a whole will only persist in its present form so long as the individual participants continue to follow the “protocol” required for maintaining (or renewing) the coherence of that group.

For instance, if Oliver decides to let go of Hannah’s hand, we will no longer have HHO expressed. We may now have two groups HH, and O. But we would no longer have them operating as a single coherent HHO unit. Note that the breakup of the larger community does not break all communication between the parties. Hannah and Harry are still holding hands, and are in community with one another. This community, no longer interacting with Oliver, will behave differently — but it is still a community — and one that had existed throughout the exercise to this point, but that we had simply not highlighted.

The group may change shape

If another group consisting of Hillary, Heather and Oscar joins hands with HHO, we may get the formation of a larger group. We’ll refer to this as 2HHO. Or we could have another reconfiguration of the group. Perhaps Hillary and Heather will split off as a separate group of hand-holders (HH1). As might Hannah and Harry (HH2). Finally, Oliver and Oscar could form a third group (OO).

These reconfigurations will again have different properties and will again be sensitive to the world in ways that are not identical to the original HHO (though there may be some common characteristics).

Again, one way to think of this is that the form HHO may cease to persist, though other forms HH1, HH2, OO may begin to be expressed.

Coming Soon:

Part 2: The Curation of Forms

Footnote 1: This will obviously be a controversial naming. Perhaps it will lead some to write off this paper all-together. However, that may say more about the artificial neatness of their western rationalist disciplines (which have traditionally treated physics as separate from chemistry, chemistry separate from biology, biology separate from psychology, and psychology separate from sociology — assumptions that ignore the ways in which nature ignores such boundaries and radiates signals across such neat and tidy delineations). More at: and

Footnote 2: The definition of an entity gets complicated quickly, but suffice to say that if one or more processes form a coherent functioning that operates in a manner that is different from how the surrounding environment operates, we can conceive of it as an entity for our purposes here.

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