I’ve written a number of posts on consciousness over the last 7 years, or whenever it was I started blogging, so this is a refinement of what’s gone before, and possibly a more substantial argument. It arose from a discussion in New Scientist 24 May 2014 (Letters) concerning the evolution of consciousness and, in particular the question: ‘What need is there of actual consciousness?’ (Eric Kvaalen from France).
I’ve argued in a previous post that consciousness evolved early and it arose from emotions, not logic. In particular, early sentient creatures would have relied on fear, pain and desire, as these do pose an evolutionary advantage, especially if memory is also involved. In fact, I’ve argued that consciousness without memory is pretty useless, otherwise the organism (including humans) wouldn’t even know it was conscious (see my post on Afterlife, March 2014).
Many philosophers and scientists argue that AI (Artificial Intelligence) will become sentient. The interesting argument is that ‘we will know’ (referencing New Scientist Editorial, 2 April 2011) because we don’t know that anyone else is conscious either. In other words, the argument goes that if an AI behaves like it’s conscious or sentient, then it must be. However, I argue that AI entities don’t have emotions unless they are programmed artificially to behave like they do – i.e. simulated. And this is a major distinction, if one believes, as I do, that sentience arose from emotions (feelings) and not logic or reason.
But in answer to the question posed above, one only has to look at another very prevalent life form on this planet, which is not sentient, and the answer, I would suggest, becomes obvious. I’m talking about vegetation. And what is the fundamental difference? There is no evolutionary advantage to vegetation having sentience, or, more specifically, having feelings. If a plant was to feel pain or fear, how could it respond? Compared to members of the animal kingdom, it cannot escape the source, because it is literally rooted to the spot. And this is why I believe animals evolved consciousness (sentience by another name) and plants didn’t. Now, there may be degrees of consciousness in animals (we don’t know) but, if feelings were the progenitor of consciousness, we can understand why it is a unique attribute of the animal kingdom and not found in vegetation or machines.