‘New” Consciousnesses

Posted September 2nd, 2006 by Harry Baya

I have re-started reading “Emergence”, a book by Steven Johnson, about “bottom up” intelligence – one example being an ant colony. The full title of the book is “Emergence – The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.
Click here for an excerpt from this book.

This triggered a thought today that perhaps “death” may be as important to the evolution of these kinds of consiousnesses as it was to the evolution of life on earth. I’m going to work my way up to that thought below. First I will lay out the context in which that thought is especially interesting to me.

In the opening chapters the Emergence book discusses how some kinds of complex systems can evolve to have adaptive behavior. The kind of complex system they discuss have multiple independent agents dynamically interacting in multiple ways with rules, such as the laws of physics, determining the outcome of each interaction. These systems can evolve, or progress, or whatever word you want, to behave somewhat like living beings. Among the examples they give are ant colonies, cities, and slime mold. The author says that we humans tend to look for some sort top down direction, a pace maker, or a ruling group, but that in fact these systems tend to behave more or less indepently of any such control. Rather they are the product of the interaction and the results of each interaction. This is referred to as “bottom up” intelligence.

This fascinates me and also expands on my own view that complex systems, such as hundreds of birds chattering in a tree, or a nation, or a city, can be usefully viewed as life forms with intelligence, memory, purpose, and the ability to learn and adapt. They can exhibit attributes of life and intelligence even though the individual components do not have significant intelligence as with ants and slime mold. Similarly the human body, I have read, is actually a community of cells that work together to form a complex system, though each of the cells is, relativly speaking, dumb. The human brain is another example of this. In other cases, such as a city or nation, the individual units, the humans, have some intelligence, but each one is only a tiny part of the greater creature and the “consciousness” of the greater creature, such as a city is not based on their consciousness.

This is somewhat old ground for me and one I have been thinking about, just for fun, for years. However, today I came up with a new wrinkle on this and I want to write it down while it is fresh in my mind.

Let me start by restating my perspective, my guess, about some of the fundamental aspects of our reality. It seems to me that life and conscioussness are “emergent” qualities of our universe. When certain kinds of complex systems ( multiple agents dynamically interacting in multiple ways) are allowed to persist for long periods of time (it may take billions of years) they tend to (a) get more complex and (b) eventually become homes for forms of life (hard to define, but definitly a persistent dynamic organization [ a dynamic pattern or sequence of patterns ] of physical matter over time ). We see this in what we know of the history of our universe. Initally, we now think, it was amost pure energy (whatever that is) but over time simple elements, like hydrogen, came into being. Over more time more complex elements, like carbon, came into being. Eventualy something we would call life “emerged” from these elements. And eventually something we would call conscioussness emerged in the evolution of some of the life forms. The key elements here are
(a) certain kinds of complex systems,
(b) something like “evolution” where the complex systems eventually find ways to become more complex,
(c) the emergence of something we would call life and
(d) finally, the emergence of something we would call consciousness.

I want to comment at this point that, from our perspective, consciousness seems to be the highest level of this evolutionary chain. This seems to be the most complex and interesting thing to emerge from energy, time, and simple matter, but, it seems likely that there are stages beyond this which either have yet to emerge, or which we cannot percieve. I find it fascinating to speculate on what these future (or unseen) stages of this process might be.

Now for today’s “insight”:

I recall reading years ago, probably in a book by Carl Sagan, that the early forms of “life” on our planet did not evolve.. they just persisted. They were able to somehow absorb things from outside and use them as a source of energy, and perhaps to replace detriorating components, but they just kept existing as long as they could with no real possibility of change.

Then, somewhere along the way, some of these life forms, through trial and error, which we now call evolution, changed so that they did not live forever. Rather they created clones/offsprings and then died. Death entered into the evolutionary chain. This, so it said in the book I read, was a major improvement in the nature of evolution. The other, perhaps equally important change, was procreation from sex. Both allowed for more or less random changes, mutations, to occur between generations. This opened the door to threads of evolutions, evolutionary paths. In some cases the life form evolved to favor one kind of mutation over another. In some cases this gave evolutionary advantages to particular life forms. The stage was set for the process of which we are the product.

Prior to the emergence of death in the process, change was far less likely, and far less able to form preferences and trends (get bigger, survive out of the sea for longer periods etc. ) because there was far less replacements of one system with another. Death, said my unknown author, was probably one of the most important things to come into being in the evolution of life. After organisms started to die and be replaced by their offspring, the evolutionary process took off and evolution occurred at a much much faster clip than before.

So, how about the emergent consciousness of ant colonies, of slime mold, of cities, of nations. Look ma, no death! Cities don’t die very often. They just persist. Interesting. What if cities had to be destroyed every two hundred years. I don’t know that the residents would have to die. They could be redistributed to work those from other cities to build knew ones. Would this be a good thing?

But wait… though cities don’t “die”, they do seem to evolve. They can’t move, as a rule, but they can change. They can add new technology, new infrastructure, new ways of moving goods and people, new laws, changed laws, new guidelines, changed guidelines, new ways of enforcing laws and guidelines (rewards and penalties), new services and new ways of delivering services, new kinds of entertainment, education, communication and on and on.

This is different. The early life forms before death could not do these things. They did not have the abilty to change and adapt that a city does.

Still… I wonder if something like “death” would be benficial. E.g. every 100 years all laws must be abolished and a new constitution adopted. Each new law must be approved individually… no blanket adoption of groups of old laws. The same for education. The same for everything that could abolished and recreated, maybe even buildings, roads, parks, pipes, wires … every physical part of the city and and every rule or convention that could be changed. The same for nations, for clubs,…. for churchs (now there’s something I could get enthusiastic about)

Phase 2 of this line of thought: Early life forms were not mobile. They were stuck in one place, like plants, or they were completely at the mercy of the medium they were in, like the ocean. They had no choice as to where they would be tomorrow. For many of them they would live in only one location. Trees, flowers etc. are like this. Their offspring might end up far away (birds carrying seeds), but often their offspring would very close. Then life forms came into being that could move about, that were not anchored. Mobile life forms, animals, came into being and evolved. These tended to be more complex than plants (at least it seems that way to me) and more able to evolve into creatures that could survive and reproduce in a wide variety of climates. I read recently that man’s evolutionary advantage was in his/her lack of specialization to one climate. We survived because we were generalists. We did not have a shaggy fur coat as part of our body because that would be a disadvantage in hot climates. Rather we had vulnerable skin that could not survive at all in cold climates, and often had to be protected in hot climates… but, we developed the abilty to adapt by making and wearing appropriate clothing.

So… how do these concepts apply to “bottom up” intellgence. Ant colonies can move…a little.. and they do. So can slim molds.. but I don’t think they are truly mobile beings, like individual animals. I would like to hear from the experts about “mobility” in bottom up intelligence.

So, trying to end this rambling, where does this lead? For me it leads to questions about the nature of bottom up intelligences and how that nature compares to more traditional life forms and consciousnesses like animals and humans. I would love to hear, or read, the reflections of experts related to this issue.

Finally, it occurs to me that though cities cannot die, move and adapt the way an animal, especially the human animal, can, there can be other “bottom up” entities that can. These could be virtual entities that exist in cyberspace…and we could attempt to build an environment in which these could evolve, in which something like “death” could be a useful attribute. I find this a big stretch of mind… and perhaps I will be able to say something about it once I have had time to think about it. Right at the moment I feel like my mental reach has significantly exceeded my mental grasp.

Is this line of thought of interest to any one? Did you read all the way to here? Do you have any related thought you would like to share?

Harry Baya Sept 2, 2006

5 Responses to “‘New” Consciousnesses”

  1. Rick Randall

    Fascinating line of inquiry, Harry. The idea that there may be “higher” planes of evolution than consciousness is a new one to me; hadn’t even thought of it. I’ve long been intrigued by evolutionary theory, so I read your blog entry with interest.

    Coincidentally, many years ago I had an assignment to write an original essay about the nature of computer systems. The instructor neglected to give many rules about the essay, so I went off the deep end. I wrote about an imaginary system modeled after ants! My lowest components in the architecture were “erts”, and I talked about how the components communicated and made aggregated decisions, and how the system evolved, etc. The instructor didn’t know what to do with it, and he resolved to more carefully define similar exercises in the future. (I did get an A in the course, though!)

    The idea of cities being forced to “die” is interesting. In a way, we have that sort of evolution throughout history. Cities being destroyed (by natural calamity or war) and rebuilding is one example. But the main one that occurs to me is whole societies, such as the classic example of the Roman Empire. There’s an oft-cited “truism” that a society can last for 200 years but then begins to decay and is ripe for overthrow. This is used as an argument that the US is ripe for a huge fall – a projection that seems all too realistic these days. I also recall from undergrad philosophy the Hegelian theory of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; for example, a society or economic system arises, it’s opposite arises, and conflict produces a new system with characteristics blended from the two. This just sounds a lot like evolution to me. I’ve always been mesmerized by how societies work at all, when no one knows “what the plan is.” Human systems, economic systems….nothing more than ant hills.

    Another thought: I have a book by Marvin Minsky called The Society of Mind. Regretably I haven’t read it yet. I was fascinated by a review I read a long time ago, which is why I bought it. The contention of the book (as I understand it) is that consciousness is an illusion – it’s actually nothing particularly profound. Instead, what we have is an assembly of a large number of independent but communicating parts, each with their own purpose – but which when taken as a whole look seem like a unique whole with characteristics that look like consciousness. Since I perceive that consciousness is a sacred, inscrutable gift, I was amazed that there would be a theory to the contrary. Consciousness to me is one of the things that to me dictates life after death: it’s incomprehensible to me that consciousness dies with the body. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I haven’t read Minsky’s book yet: I may fear he’ll convince me that what I think of as a mystical essence – the hallmark of my soul – is actually nothing more than a mechanistic construct.

    Lots more to think about. Thanks for stirring the pot!


  2. jim kee

    Harry, as I understand it, Johnson uses ants and other examples to illustrate how “dumb components give rise to smart systems,” as one reviewer said, and this is characterized as a “bottom-up” process. Somehow the individual units are genetically programmed to use feedback from their environment and their ”fellow units” to respond in ways which are more complex and “intelligent” than an outside observer might anticipate.

    I wonder, however, if this phenomenon might even be more wondrous and mysterious than it appears at first glance? I remember confronting this question some years ago when I observed a large flock of birds performing perfect, simultaneous swoops and turns as if they were a single organism guided by a single brain. It led me to wonder about the possibility of a “group mind” that was controlling the movements of these individual units, which would suggest some sort of “top-down” mechanism.

    True, I admit that we are invoking an idea which is beyond the domain of conventional science, and some of my friends would accuse me of drifting off into the “woo-woo” zone of fuzzy New Age fantasy.

    In my defense I summon Socrates, who, through Plato, stated that our ordinary space/time world is the realm of shadows, and that “reality” lies in the realm of the “Forms.” Could it be that individual space/time ants live, move, and have their being in a Platonic-like Form of “Antness,” a kind of “Meta-Ant Consciousness” existing on a level other than our space/time continuum?

    Yes, yes, I know I’ve moved into an area more properly the purview of science fiction writers. But, if you’re still with me, allow me to extend the idea one step further.

    In your reading, have you run across the concept of Adam Kadmon? This is usually encountered in Kabbalistic literature, and is generally translated as “Primordial Man.” However, it is sometimes taken to mean something similar to Plato’s notion of a non-spatial/non-temporal Form for all mankind. In fact, all humans–past, present, and future–collectively comprise the being of Adam Kadmon. Carl Jung was profoundly influenced by the concept, writing about it extensively and perhaps using it as a source for his notion of the “collective unconscious.” Others, with more pronounced New Age leanings, even suggest that Adam Kadmon, through the evolution of human consciousness, is destined to become the “Cosmic Christ”, but I will leave such speculation to the woo-woo crowd.

    Anyway, Harry, pardon my ravings, but, hey, it’s all your fault for blogging your way into my madcap brain!

  3. Harry Baya

    My understanding of the bottom up intelligence is that the same thing that happened to the human brain to allow it to “think” and be self aware can be observed in some complex systems, ant colonies being one example. It’s not so much that they are more intelligent than we might anticipate, as I see it, as it is they are truly intelligent and able to adapt to kinds of events just as we do… not from genetic memory but through complex problem solving. This veiw allows for the continued evolution and growth of intelligence in these kinds of aggregate beings.. moving toward where we are.. and beyond.

    My veiw is that humans are examples of “dumb” cells working out a community, the human body, that seems to be intelligent and conscious. It took them a very long time and a lot of trial and error, but here we are.

    I have never heard of Adam Kadmon… which shows how little I know in this general area. I spent 20+ years as a Quaker so I do have some mystical orientation and exposure ( i.e the ‘“woo-woo? zone of fuzzy New Age fantasy’ is not completely alien to me). However, I see the bird flight, and similar behavior as bottom up, not top down. In some way the two blend for me. The communal spiritual experience of the Quakers seems to me to be more like the ant colony intelligence than awareness of some external being. I think it is part of the range of human potential and is somehow magnified by the number of people involved. It seems like a kind of shared force field linking some particular energy in each of us. I see it as bottom up based on what’s within each of us rather than relating to anything that could exist without us, or independent of us.

    I am vaguely aware that trying to make this sort of thing fit the words and concepts available to me is somewhat futile, but still, for me, worth trying. I see the emergence of complexity, life, consciousness and whatever comes in the phases after those as being as inately miraculous as would be the existance of some “top down” central source independent of those experiencing its energy.

    In my hall of miracles the biggest one is that anything exists at all and the second is that anyone, especially me, exists and is conscious of existing. After those comes the apparent pre-set likelihood that some kinds of complexity cause life, consciousness and so forth to arise.

    I don’t have anything much to say about what the next emergent stage is after consciousness. It’s possible that those with a greater reach than me can sense more and that something like Adam Kadmon (or the “Cosmic Christ, whatever that may be) is their early perception of that stage.

    My guess is that communities of humans (clubs, cities, nations, etc.) are very primitive life forms in a new evolutionary chain and that the Internet is going to become the nervous system, the brain and the stimulus/reaction mechanism for the being, or beings, that will exist at the next level. Another possibility, and both could be, is that machine based intelligence and consciousness will become the next stage in the process and will eventually evolve independently from us… whether we continue to exist or not.

    The collective unconscious to me relates to the pre-set tendencies (mental and physical) related to our path of evolution.. stored in our bodies and brains. It’s a useful construct for dealing with part of human experience and behavior but, as I see it, has nothing “magic” in it. It’s very deep and very powerful and strikes the same resonant chords in us (I think) as mysticism, magic, music and art… but it’s who we are and what we do, and not anything that implies anything exists independent of us. It may imply communication channels of which we are only vaguely aware, but, if so, these will someday be dealt with by whatever science becomes.

    Other days I’m a little more open to the more radical views of mystical experience, but most days I see it a very normal, natural, little understood, side of the wonder and joy of life.

  4. Harry Baya

    Rick, I looked up the book by Minsky on Amazon.com and found that he also co-authored a science fiction book that, he hoped, would show an example of his theory. Very interesting … both are added to my list.

    I’ve read a little further in Emergence and the author suggests that cities are life forms that have lives on the order of 1000 years. I am still inclined to think they are either a kind of life where sufficient change occurs that death is not as needed as it was with our kind of life, or they are simply early in their evolution and that something like death and mating will occur as it did with what we now call life.

    I have little problem with the thought that consciousness dies with the body. That seems highly likely in the reality we know. My best guess is that in some sense there is another level of reality in which everything has always existed and always will; it’s just unfolding. Whether it does it again and again, or can be experienced from outside or something…are issues I can’t get a feel for. And, I assume, there are levels above that one.

  5. Harry Baya

    [ This contains excerpts from an exchange of messages with an old friend, Jim Kee, related to “top down” vs. “bottom up” consciousnes ]

    I will probably get back into my “bottom up” intelligence soon.. but it’s on the back burner for the moment. I have the sense that reality permits (accepts, is congruent with, rewards, “can feel right with”) numerous points of view. Though, it seems to me, they may seem incompatible, that is only because they are not as fully developed as they can be. This is one way of saying the apparently illogical statement of “Though I don’t really disagree with you at a deeper level, I do disagree with you form the limited version of my perspective I now have.”

    It may very well be that there is something “on high” that extrudes down to what we call consciousness. However, that seems very unlikely to me. Rather, I think the essence of the reality in which we live and of which we are capable of becoming aware, is composed in such a way that it evolves over time to contain things like life and consciousness. To say that it was designed to be that way seems limited to me. Rather, I would say, given that it is possible for realities to exist that permits interaction and change over time it is likely that such a one as we are in will come into being. I think that things like physical reality, matter, time, space, life, consciouness… and more that we have yet to reach, will eventually emerge. I like the term “emergent qualities”.

    That is part of my fascination with the bottom up intelligence experiments and theory. It also underlies an equal, though equally amaturish, interest in computer based intelligence and consciousness. It seems very likely to me that there will eventually be machine based intelligences (though the machines may be more like meat than metal) that will act and speak and feel and want much like we do and that they will seem as conscious to themselves as we do to ourselves.

    The possibility that at some level in the evolutionary climb they can be said to be touched by, or to have reached, contact with some sort of higher level ( something on high extruding down), does not, at the moment, interest me anywhere near as much as the exploration of the climbing process.

    Jim Kee wrote:


    On the top-down/bottom-up issue, my basic albeit totally unprovable contention is that consciousness, in the self-awareness sense, is a top-down phenomenon. I suspect that everything of real significance in us is basically a downward extrusion from “on high,” if you will, and that physical existence is secondary to something going on in a higher dimension.
    As Jesus purportedly said in “The Gospel of Thomas,”If the flesh exists because of the spirit, it is a miracle; but if the spirit exists because of the body, it is a miracle of miracles. I marvel at how such great wealth established itself amid this poverty.”


    —–Original Message—–
    From: Harry Baya
    Sent: Wed 9/20/2006 8:51 PM
    To: Jim Kee
    Subject: Re: [Warp Baya] Comment: “‘New” Consciousnesses”

    Great to hear from you. I responded in the Blog… but I know I am way over my head in all this. I have a point of view and enjoy exploring it but I am painfully aware of how personal and limited it is. I’m open to expanding it.. but I can’t make it happen… I just have to let the meme’s battle it out and notice where I happen to be along the way.