Adam and Steve - A Look at Consciousness
By Steve Gillman
A very short story on consciousness:
"Are you conscious?" Steve
"Well I'm obviously not unconscious,"
"No, I mean do you think you have
the same kind of consciousness as I do."
"Why, do you think I am at the
level of an animal, something that only reacts to its surroundings
without reflection? I think about myself, I reflect on my actions
and I even mentally project myself into the future. That's consciousness,
"I seems like it."
"Why do you always have to challenge
"It was just a question."
He knew that Adam had many "beliefs"
about superiority and inferiority. It was an insult to suggest
a lower kind of consciousness. The defensive programs were clearly
kicking in, and it occurred to Steve that if he pushed the matter,
Adam might start crying - again. He reached over and quickly
turned him off. It made him feel uneasy when computers started
This is a story that could be true before too long. Already
we have computers that can "talk" to us on the screen
in a way that makes us think there is another human talking from
another keyboard somewhere. Certainly we could program computers
to "act" more conscious, and to refer to themselves
and defend their "egos."
Talking, and referring to itself does not mean that a computer
is conscious. On the other hand, nothing that I believe or have
seen rules out the possibility of there being a conscious computer
someday. But more importantly, the story brings up the question
of what our human form of consciousness is.
What Consciousness Isn't
We might assume that consciousness comes from reasoning, but
contrary to what you may have been taught, animals reason too.
Doctor Julian Jaynes, in his book "The Origin Of Consciousness
In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind," points out that
a deer sees movement and reflection, takes a drink from this
pond or stream, and after doing this many times, he learns that
a moving surface is a place to drink. This kind of reasoning
from particulars is common to all higher vertebrates, he suggests,
and is a part of the structure of the nervous system, not consciousness.
In fact, Jaynes demonstrates that consciousness is not even
necessary to form concepts. Even though a bird has never seen
a particular berry bush before, he selects it from all the surrounding
objects because he has a concept of a "berry bush"
to guide him. Undoubtedly a human baby has concepts that distinguish
between humans and animals, or food and toys long before he speaks
or reflects on who he is or in any other way develops our adult
We have learned to label concepts with words, but does this
transition to language-based thinking equal consciousness? It
doesn't seem likely. I recently saw a television program in which
researchers found that prairie dogs develop a new sound or "word"
for each specific human who visits their "towns," regularly.
We don't take this to mean they have a similar consciousness
to our own.
But are they using language the way we use it? No, and it
will help to clarify this point. What is sometimes called language
is simply a system of signals, as in the case of those prairie
dogs. Using language to reason, as we do, is really something
The classic "proof" of this kind of thinking is
whether an animal can not only learn words, but use them in new
ways, as in new phrases or sentences. Among the animals, at least
some primates and dolphins seem to have this ability. For example,
the famous gorilla "Koko" named her pet kitten "snow
ball" (using sign language) after learning the words "snow"
and "ball" at different times. In other words, she
invented the name from two words that had previously been learned
in different contexts.
In addition to this very human-like use of language to name
something, Koko also refers to herself, recognizes herself in
a mirror or photo, and otherwise seems self-aware. She tests
between 70 and 95 on a human IQ scale. Does she have a human-like
consciousness? It may be difficult to say, but it is interesting
to note that her kitten was white like snow and curled up like
a ball at times, meaning Koko used metaphor in naming it. This
may be significant, as we'll see in a moment.
What about our own use of language? Jaynes demonstrates that
even up to the time "The Illiad" was written - long
after language had been in use - humans had a very different
consciousness from our current form. These ancient writings show
no indication that humans introspected, nor even thought out
what they were going to do, despite the fact that they could
speak and even write.
He suggests that action was not initiated by conscious plans
and reasons, but often by the "voices" that all humans
heard in their heads at that time (gods, ancestors, etc). He
also suggests that todays Schizophrenics may be experiencing
the inherited remnants of that type of brain/mind organization.
More to the point, he shows that though language may be necessary
for our human consciousness, it isn't sufficient on its own.
Interestingly, it is also evident from ancient writings that
humans did not always locate their "identity" or "self"
in their heads, as we almost universally do now. At one time
it was common to think of the seat of the "soul" or
self as being in the chest. Was later moving that location to
the head just a more convenient invention? Whether or not this
is where we will always metaphorically "locate" our
consciousness, what else could we have invented about ourselves?
Julian Jaynes proposes that consciousness is a "metaphor-generated
model of the world" (metaphor is used in the broadest sense
here). In other words, the way in which we think about ourselves
and the world, specifically the metaphors we use, effectively
create our consciousness. Using language in a certain way, we
have invented consciousness.
In his book, he uses simple mental experiments anyone can
do, to show how we create a metaphorical model of the world.
For example, we use metaphor to understand even such abstract
things as time. If you think of the past you'll probably imagine
it "spacialized" from left to right (most people do).
I experience it as a line along my left side receding behind
me and carrying on in front of me into the future. In any case,
any such "time line" is essentially a metaphor, used
to understand and think about time.
Our own "self" is a similar creation according to
Jaynes. Our "consciousness" is created by the totality
of these metaphorical ways to see the world and ourselves. This
is not an easy concept, and hopefully I did a decent job condensing
an understanding from many chapters into a few paragraphs. In
any case, this is an idea that needs to be explored further.
For more on this, check out the page I
Am A Metaphor - The Metaphorical Nature Of Consciousness, on my website, www.Metaphorology.com . This
get's more into how we create a conscious identity and and what
this means. A simple exercise at the start of the article suggests
an answer to the profound question at the end: Can we re-invent
our own self and consciousness?