Evolution of Human Consciousness SOLVED! — Yet Again, It Seems…What does the term “evolution” contribute to the discussion of the origin of human consciousness?
At Psychology Today, we read a bold and simple claim about the evolution of consciousness: “A type of information processing called unlimited associative learning (UAL) may be necessary and sufficient for very basic sentience.”
The article by University of Toronto psychiatrist Ralph Lewis begins on a very self-assured note:
Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The gradualism of evolution has explained and dissolved life’s mysteries—life’s seemingly irreducible complexity and the illusion that living things possess some sort of mysterious vitalizing essence. So, too, evolution is likely to be key to demystifying the seemingly inexplicable, ethereal nature of consciousness.Ralph Lewis, “Learning May Be the Key to the Evolution of Consciousness” at Psychology Today (November 3, 2022)
First, what does it even mean to say that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”? If the chosen topic is human consciousness, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa come quickly to mind. But then what does the term “evolution” contribute to the discussion of the origin of human consciousness? Is it something useful or something theorists are stuck with, come what may?
Science theories should make predictions. Who predicted either King or Mother Teresa?
A theory of evolution could, of course, predict the emergence of smarter apes, just as it might predict the emergence of faster carnivores. But, as everyone knows, that is not what we are talking about.
Consciousness is “ethereal” because that is its very nature. “Constitutional government” is ethereal too. Human consciousness means dealing in abstractions. We can’t “demystify” it and still make any sense.
At any rate, Dr. Lewis has written in defense of a theory proposed by neuroscientist Simona Ginsburg and evolutionary biologist Eva Jablonka, “unlimited associative learning” (UAL):
UAL “refers to an animal’s ability to ascribe motivational value to a compound stimulus or action pattern and to use it as the basis for future learning.” UAL is a cumulative type of learning involving novel stimuli and actions, building on prior learning. It allows “open-ended behavioral adjustments” and can lead to complex goal-directed behavior. It requires the capacity for representing, remembering, and evaluating goals, their predictive cues, and the ways of reaching them… The most primitive forms of learning and memory do not even require a nervous system and are entirely mechanistic at their molecular level. UAL requires a brain with particular types of networks).Ralph Lewis, “unsolved problems in mathematics, for example?
Lewis’s article is just another example of a failing approach to psychology that increasingly depends on mere assertions like “The gradualism of evolution has explained and dissolved life’s mysteries.” That’s nowhere close, where anything like the Hard Problem of Consciousness is concerned.
*Note: Minimal consciousness has a different meaning, as applied to humans. It refers to the medical classification of comatose states.
You may also wish to read: Is consciousness the sort of thing that could have evolved? Researchers Simona Ginsberg and Eva Jablonka have written a book attempting to trace the evolution of consciousness. Material processes cannot, for example, account for the power to grasp infinity or perfection — which are not material ideas. (Michael Egnor)