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Neuroscientist: Nervous Systems Alone Do Not Cause Consciousness

Antonio Damasio, author of Feeling & Knowing (2021), points to the whole body as involved in consciousness

Prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, considered “a leader in understanding the biological origin of consciousness,” wrote in The Scientist yesterday that “The idea that minds and consciousness might be generated by the nervous system alone is false. In his view, the whole body is involved in consciousness:

Attempts to understand consciousness exclusively in terms of neural activity have failed and are, in good part, responsible for the belief held by some scientists and educated laypeople that consciousness is an inexplicable mystery. It is likely true that consciousness only emerges in organisms endowed with nervous systems, but it is just as true that consciousness also requires abundant interactions between those systems and many non-nervous parts of the organism

Antonio Damasio, “Opinion: Being, Feeling, and Knowing: Our Path to Consciousness” at The Scientist (November 1, 2021)

It’s fair to say that more than “some” scientists and educated laypeople find human consciousness an inexplicable mystery in a materialist framework. That’s something Damasio seeks to remedy in his new book, Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious (Penguin Random House, 2021). He invokes the power of the billions of years of evolution of the elements of life forms that are not part of the nervous system:

What the rest of the body brings to the marriage with the nervous system is billions of years of complex biological intelligence, the covert competence that sustains life by satisfying the demands of life regulation and maintaining homeostasis. What nervous systems bring to the marriage is the possibility of making biological intelligence explicit, by constructing the patterns of neural activation that constitute neural maps and mental images. The result of this process is explicit knowledge of the body and the world around it.

Antonio Damasio, “Opinion: Being, Feeling, and Knowing: Our Path to Consciousness” at The Scientist (November 1, 2021)

Damasio’s approach to consciousness leans heavily on homeostasis, the constant self-balancing of a life form to stay in existence.

Briefly, he argues for being, feeling, and knowing as three stages of the evolution of life forms, replicated in the intellectual development of a human being.

Bacteria, which do not require a nervous system, exemplify being. Life forms that started around 500 million years ago (roughly, the Cambrian Explosion) feature feeling (and thus some level of consciousness):

Feelings provided organisms with experiences of their own life, assessments of their relative success at living, a natural examination grade that comes in the form of a quality—pleasant or unpleasant, light or intense. And organisms evolved to behave according to how they felt, which is the profound novelty of consciousness.

Antonio Damasio, “Opinion: Being, Feeling, and Knowing: Our Path to Consciousness” at The Scientist (November 1, 2021)

Lastly, “Once being and feeling were in place, they supported and extended the sapience that makes up the third member of the trio: knowing.” Presumably, humans are included in this group. In this short guest column, Damasio does not address the knowingness of great apes, whales and dolphins, or octopuses and squid, all considered unusually intelligent.

Antonio Damasio

Overall, it doesn’t sound like Damasio has broken new ground here. That is, we still do not understand explicitly human consciousness much better if we see it as partly contingent on bodily being. One could say the same thing of whatever consciousness a clam or a fruit fly has.

In a free, brief excerpt from Feeling & Knowing, at The Scientist, Damasio further outlines his view of the dawn of consciousness: “Remember: in the beginning no words were spoken and no words were written, not even in the exacting manual of life regulations.”

I know that talking about the purpose of life can cause some discomfort, but considered from the innocent perspective of each living organism, life is inseparable from one apparent goal: its own maintenance, for as long as death from aging does not come calling.

Antonio Damasio, “IN THE BEGINNING WAS NOT THE WORD” at The Scientist, (November 1, 2021)

From the excerpt — which we must assume to be representative — Damasio accounts for human consciousness (“the word”) explicitly without any need for underlying intelligence in the universe (no “word”) by pointing to such features of life forms as homeostasis and avoidance of death. But he does not show how those features are a bridge to human consciousness. We want to account for Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, and Gautama Buddha, — and innumerable others of our kind. Not for how humans, like amoebas, regulate our systems and strive to avoid death. Those may be mysteries in themselves at present but they are more tractable ones.

Damasio probably provides a good deal of information on the types of awareness possessed by, for example, one-celled life forms, a once-neglected area in the study of intelligence and consciousness. But human consciousness seems to have, once again, vanished from the net.

You may also wish to read: Why do many scientists see cells as intelligent? Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

Note: J. Scott Turner also relies heavily on homeostasis as a central principle in evolution in Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (2017).


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Neuroscientist: Nervous Systems Alone Do Not Cause Consciousness