Neurocomplexity, choice and conciousness

Like @blangry I’ve got a long list of thoughts, two pages in my case, about democracy that I’m trying to shuffle together into something semi-coherent before blogging about them.

So, as a procrastination exercise here’s something on a completely different topic.

I recently listened to a fascinating episode of In Our Time about extremophiles — primitive microbial life that can survive in the harshest environments. This got me to thinking about the great chain of evolution that links us all to the first stirrings of life on earth.

Many of the things that happened along the way are fully understood but at least two huge ones are not — at least not fully. I think they are separable — but probably strongly connected.

The first is the idea of choice. Our observations are that our ancestors, the plants, don’t possess this capability. Whereabouts on their forms stems grow comes from reactions to concentrations of chemical signalling agents not something we would consider a decision. Humans, on the other hand, appear to have an ability to make make concious choices every waking second of every day. Few people believe that we are part of a truly fully deterministic universe in which our observing minds just slide through a crystalline 4D space-time with an illusion of being able to effect it with our choices. Although, I did have that discussion recently with Gabe Perez-Giz of PBS Space Time who says that’s exactly what he believes.

If we choose instead to believe that we have free will but “lower” orders of creatures don’t that means that there must have been a time when a species — in fact probably a single individual — appeared that was the first that was able to make a choice. I say this as I don’t see how there can be a half-way house between a “choice maker” and a “non choice maker”.

What was different about this individual that endowed them with that previously unknown capability? Was it a function of patterns in neurocomplexity? Individual neurons are based on the laws of physics as much as anything else and are therefore deterministic. If this is related to deterministic neurons how could patterns of them, no matter how complex, lead to non-deterministic behaviour?

The second concept is that of conciousness. Let’s make it a bit easier by overlooking the observed fact of the existence of my conciousness but no reliable evidence of yours (or anyone else’s) and vice versa. This phenomena has the same problem. By any tests we can come up with plants are not concious but many believe that some animals are. This means, again, that somewhere along the evolutionary chain there has to have been a time where a creature started to exhibit the first states of proto-conciousness.

Unlike the issue with choice above I can see conciousness being something that is a sliding scale from non-aware (reactionary), through multiple levels of partially aware to meta-awareness in humans (theory of mind). So, in this case neurocomplexity looks like a good candidate although it does leave us with the so-called Hard Problem of conciousness.

I find this all fascinating but mostly well over my head — particularly when I’ve tried to understand Compatibilism. I’ve read some Daniel Dennet — notably Conciousness Explained and Freedom Evolves but while I enjoyed them both, especially the former, they both left me with about as much understanding as when I went in.

It’s great to know that people are working hard in these areas but I wish I knew someone I could sit in a pub with who could explain them to me in simple terms…

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