Higher Levels of Consciousness
Let's start with a relatively simple definition of consciousness. Let us say that consciousness is the property of a system that allows it to be aware of its environment. Moreover, consciousness allows a system to encode what it perceives into memories that constitute mental models, which it uses to interpret what it perceives and use the information to make intelligent decisions. It follows that higher orders of consciousness are then capacities to be aware of larger and “temporally longer” scales of the environment and make smarter decisions. I wrote a series on consciousness to attend my series on sapience. I'm afraid the simple definition gets complicated rather quickly. Even so, the fundamental idea is still simple. We human beings are capable of attending to elements in a complex environment only to a certain capacity. Our environment in the modern era has grown incredibly complex and extended. The average human being is seemingly incapable of dealing with (think about) issues that cover the globe or extend in time to a future century. If they were, they would grasp the significance of climate change for their grandchildren and the degree to which the refugee crisis in MENA will impact the rest of the world. Instead the typical response is xenophobia.
The human brain is limited in what can be considered within working memory at any given time, hence the limitations on active awareness of broader scopes of time and space. But the brain evolved to have an additional capacity that does not depend directly on awareness. A vast majority of thinking actually goes on in what we have come to call the subconscious mind. When we are not called to attend closely to some thing or another, our brains are busy at work running multiple complex models of what parts of the world we have had some experience. When we sleep at night, our brains are resolving conflicts and dumping useless memories that don't integrate with those models. Over a person's lifetime they build up a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge about the world that provides a basis for what we now realize are out intuitions and judgements. If we have been good in constructing these models during our lives, then they are reasonably good at anticipating future states of affairs and our intuitions and judgements are reasonably good. This is what we call wisdom.
Wisdom isn't the same thing as rational thinking when done in conscious working memory. For example, when one is trying to decide on a course of action based on some set of facts and conditions, they are using their best rational thinking (which, however, is still constrained by the facts they have and their perceptions of conditions, which may be faulty even if their thinking is relatively sound). Wisdom works on a very long-term time scale and produces background guidance to our rational thinking through judgements and intuitions that are barely perceived in conscious thought. The same is true for affective states of mind that operate to nudge rational thinking as demonstrated by Antonio Damasio's work. Emotional guidance works to speed up rational choices by pruning the decision tree based on positive or negative valences for the choices themselves. Wisdom can slow down rational decision making, but generally helps speed it up but based on the “expertise” encoded in the elaborate and largely veridical models operating in the subconscious. That is the thumbnail sketch of sapience.
Though humans have this capacity for subconscious thinking it appears to be relatively weak in most people. That is why we are in trouble. Wisdom should improve our rational thinking by providing good guidance to our conscious thinking and even damping down or modulating our emotional inputs. But if it is weakly developed then our decision making will not be as competent as it should be in tackling the kinds of problems we humans face.
Consciousness, then, not only consists of the capacity to be aware of what is in working memory (the stuff we see and think in language) but to process information subconsciously as well. It takes sapience as well as cleverness and emotions to produce a fully competent mind.
Consciousness and Ideologies
In the broadest sense of the term, we will always have some form of ideology because these are in the mind. The central question is how valid are the ideologies we have? In Part 3 I called into question several commonly held ideologies. Up until the modern age the basis for ideologies has been reflection and invention; create a story that seems to explain observations based on what we know of the world. During the development of the modern age our understanding of how the world works and, thus, explanations for what causes the phenomena we observe, has grown exponentially. Moreover, many of the dots have been connected across wide spectra of phenomena so that we can observe the internal consistency of these understandings. In other words, the kind and amount of reasonably veridical knowledge that could be brought to bear in constructing valid ideologies makes it now possible to re-examine older, traditional ideologies and throw out the parts that are clearly not valid, keep the parts that retain some truth, and remold the ideology to reflect reality as we now understand it.
Previously, ideologies such as covered in the last part, arose without a great deal of understanding regarding the systemic nature of phenomena observed. Hence they could be taken as true as long as there was some level of internal consistency within their subject framework. For example, we saw how the economic theories of markets arose from simple observations of markets and economic dynamics in a simpler time (distorted unfortunately by budding economists yearning to be just like the physicists and have mathematical theories govern their work). With what we know today we can replace those older theories with ones that are valid based on science, like biophysical economics, and reform our concepts of how the economy works. In other words, we can produce new ideologies that assist us in our mental processes.
What we cannot do, however, is let those ideologies attain the stature of revealed truth status. We cannot become religious about what we believe to be true. That is where higher levels of total consciousness come into play. When one is sufficiently wise, one can be aware of how their ideologies were formed and recognize them as provisionally true until new evidence suggests a time to change. Unwise people cannot do this. Once an ideology is formed and reinforced socially it is nearly impossible for a lower sapient individual to change their minds.
What it comes down to is the question of what causes the majority of people to have low levels of sapience? Is it nature or nurture, or a combination of both? If the latter, how much of a boost can come from better nurture?
The question I posed is: “Can the average human being rise to a level of consciousness to see the above issues as currently problematic and then take action to find a new way of living in the world?” That is what it is going to take in order to obtain some kind of sustainable society in the Ecos.
Indiscriminate growth, profit taking, conveniences and speed, all supported by outmoded ideologies and deriving from our deep biological history are now producing completely unsustainable conditions. Global warming and climate change, peak and declining fossil fuel resources, destruction of soils and drinkable water supplies, and the list goes on, are all resulting from humans continuing to believe they have a right to those behaviors (and those beliefs). And thus those beliefs are going to be the cause of our extinction. Can human beings change their beliefs based on the perceptions of reality and let go their historically derived beliefs? It will, of course take much more than merely changing beliefs. Remember those beliefs have their roots in our biological-mandated behaviors.
Consciousness is the “capacity to be aware of reality.” But reality is perceived differently by different capacities. A worm is aware, but only of the soil through which it crawls and the chemical senses that tell it which way is food or danger. Fish are aware of more of the complexities of their environments, like a coral reef, and what other entities are moving around in that environment; which ones are food or which ones will make them food. Dogs are aware of themselves, of specific other dogs and people with whom they interact regularly, as well as their wants and desires (to play or run after the mail truck). And humans are aware of all of that plus their own thoughts formed into narratives of their lives. We are conscious of the future to some extent, of environments not immediately visible, through our memories and reasoning, and most importantly, what others around us want and feel and think (again to some extent).
In my writing on sapience I posit that this level of consciousness, while a breakthrough in biological evolution, is now limiting us in terms of being aware of the really big picture of the world. This means not just being aware of the weather anomalies and relating them to global warming, but actually grasping how each of us individually and acting as a collective, operating on our ideologies and giving in to our biological mandates (which somehow seem to provide justification for what we do) are the cause of these anomalies. Moreover, how we are the cause of the suffering that is going to come as the conditions we've set in motion progress in the future must be crystal clear in our understanding. I do not currently believe that the average human being has the brain machinery to transcend this level of consciousness. I believe this based on what I see as the evidence to date. I want to be wrong.
Doing the right thing takes more than just a higher level of consciousness to “see” the situation, it also takes a conscience, a motivation to want to do the right thing. This too is part of the sapience picture. Sapience includes natural moral sentiment and the constellation of attributes attending hyper-sociality.
Is it possible that some kind of learning can take place that raises the level of consciousness of people in general so that they become aware of the total picture and start to take actions accordingly? I have been spending no small amount of time pushing the science of systems as just such a framework. The thesis is that people who have learned the principles and methods of systems science will become systems thinkers, which is what I believe is part of higher sapience. This is what I hope can be done even though I am skeptical that 1) we can turn the education system around to teach systems science, and 2) even if exposed to systems thinking a significant portion of the population will experience sufficiently raised consciousness to make a difference. Moreover, I do not believe one can learn to have a conscience and become hyper-social. Mark me in the pessimists’ column on that count.
On the other hand, if humans have brains that are more evolvable than I have been giving credit, then something like a new social system might result. This will require a new age and mental framework; a new world view must emerge. What might argue in favor of the possibility is that we have seen new world views emerge in the ages described above. As our collective knowledge of how things actually did work grew, especially following the Enlightenment, our beliefs about the meaning of everything also changed and became more encompassing. We have evolved expanded world views before, presumably with the same brains that we had at the end of the Pleistocene. Moreover, according to Steven Pinker (The Better Angles of Our Nature) there has been a regular dropping in rates of violence from prehistoric times to now. Could this be evidence of an expanding conscience? Is the fact that we are able to operate cooperatively in a global economic network evidence that our sociality has likewise expanded?
What I do wonder about, however, is whether this next transcendence, the one needed to save our butts from our own folly, might require a greater step up in brain power (in sapience) than we could muster by learning alone. One persuasive argument against our being able to successfully learn to be more sapient is the evidence of how many groups of people over history have tried to set up communities based on sentiments that align with those I have just alluded to. Communes have often been tried throughout history since the advent of the industrial age. People tried to not be selfish. They tried to not take advantage of their brethren. They tried to live simple lives. Sometimes they have succeeded to some degree. But more often the communes and their cultures have either failed outright or evolved to become more like the extant cultures that surrounded them. Sentiments and desires aside, we seem prone to become exactly what we have become. To my way of viewing the situation there is little evidence that sapience (and consciousness) can be learned. But what other options do we have? For my part I will proceed with my development of systems science and engineering education on the hope that it might help.
In the last installment (Part 5) I will explore what sort of social arrangements might be possible if the majority of people were to somehow elevate their consciousness and adopt systems thinking as they reorganize societies to become fit. If people are able to learn to think more broadly and deeply, and our social milieu is able to instill this kind of thinking (it can't be just a matter for schools), then we might stand a chance of minimizing the pain of a transition to a completely new age.