Ecology and Psychology28 May 2018 11:40 am

We are born sentient beings. While some senses like eyesight improve over the first few months, others such as smell begin fully developed. General states of well being, as well as sensorial sensations dominate the first year or so of life. Our internal sensations of comfort and discomfort and our sensorial experiences of pain and pleasure guide and direct our responses, reactions, movements and activities.

Our early lives are very similar to other mobile organisms with complex nervous systems and brains (such as mammals). We are processing information, making choices and having feelings based on our perceptual sensorial world. We adapt and thrive in our environment by learning from our experiences in mostly a trial and error methodology. 

The bulk of our time is spent in the actual and only over time do our perceptual images of our environment allow us to proactively plan and allow us to live in the possible. The journey to becoming a self-conscious autonomous person is a long, slow process. Growth in our ability to turn images into tools of imagination which we use to secure memories and project a future are vital to the emergence of self-consciousness and sense of personal history. Slowly we go from an actor responding to events, feelings and situations into a self-aware author of our own personal story.

The acquisition of language quickly turns the story into an ongoing internal narrative. We begin to tell our story to ourselves as well as others, and begin to see and hear that our story is often different from others with whom we speak. Developmental psychologists generally agree that most children demonstrate the ability to see and refer to themselves as a separate individual at around eighteen months. Yet, many research psychologists state that a firm and consistent sense of self may not fully form until the age of four. 

While the body is a thing, the mind is a process. Sentient experience is always a combination of body and mind, whether that be in humans, animals or birds. Yet, the majority of sentient life is not self-conscious with an internal narrative or worded thought. As we described above, humans too, are not born self-conscious but only become so through language, a growing ability of imagination to project a future and remember a past, and an emerging ability to be aware of their own feelings and emotions.

Since the process of the emergence of self-consciousness from mere sentience occurs so smoothly and quickly in modern humans its importance is often minimized or completely overlooked. Add to this the fact that once we attain self-consciousness it dominates our experience and in fact becomes the very definition of our identify, it is easy to see why we ignore and forget that we were born sentient and not self-conscious.

It would appear that self-consciousness is itself a stage of development dependent on the interplay of the sensorial body, and autonomic and central nervous systems. Self-conscious awareness does indeed seem to be secreted by the body as an advanced and sophisticated means of improving our ability to both survive and thrive. With this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine humans existing without being self-conscious and easy for us to see this reality reflected in all sentient life and not just in apes and other highly sentient life forms.

So while a child only takes a couple of years of their life to become self-conscious the transformation of sentience becoming self-consciousness is even more pronounced and obvious on an evolutionary level. Currently life scientist estimate that multicellular organisms made their appearance around 700 million year ago. Around the same time they developed non-centralized nervous systems allowing their body of cells to communicate with each other. Nervous systems make their appearance in organic life approximately 500 million years ago along with a centralized primitive brain. The brain went through a number of stages and at around 320 million years ago the cerebral cortex seems to have emerged. While the exact date of the emergence of sentience is still not known it would seem logical to deduce that organisms with a cerebral cortex would be sentient.

Yet, the neocortex which seems to be the strongest candidate to herald the birth of self-consciousness as opposed to just sentience is placed as emerging only about 200,000 years ago. Therefore, you can see the incredible expanse between the emergence of sentience and the eventual emergence of self-consciousness.

While we have already discussed the important role language plays in self-consciousness we still do not know exactly when humans acquired language. We are fairly certain that language existed 70,000 years ago, but we do not know if came into existence at the same time as the neocortex or for how long the neocortex predates the birth of language.

Yet, even if later research cases significant changes in the above timeline, one thing seems rather certain and that is nervous systems producing sentience preceded self-conscious by hundreds of millions of years. We know that sentient beings used their perceptual abilities to not only survive but to flourish. Internal and external mechanisms such as comfort/discomfort and pleasure/pain guided organic life in its successful journey towards surviving and thriving. 

Through natural selection organic life became more adept and adaptable and its developing nervous systems and brains increased its survival skills and mobility allowing territorial expansion and finding more suitable living conditions. As pointed out earlier in this article, the shift from sentience to self-consciousness in many ways was a shift from living and responding to the actual to being able to live in the possible and fictitious. 

So, for hundreds of millions of years our evolutionary path was grounded in our ability to survive and thrive in real and in-the-moment events. While very advanced sentient beings can anticipate and plan based on a history of past events, as evidenced by the behavior of both predators and prey, only self-conscious beings can truly invent and create. 

While being able to think, plan and act in the possible increases our abilities to thrive and survive, it also untethers us from the real and actual. Natural selection is a process that ensures that what is life affirming survives and succeeds and that which is not adaptive and generative dies out. Mechanisms such as pain and pleasure could impel us towards the life affirming and away from the life threatening. Through millions of years these built in attributes of natural selection fostered our developing into increasingly sophisticated and complex organisms with growing survival talents and skills.

To date, self-consciousness is the most advanced skill and talent generated by natural selection with unprecedented potential to have us thrive and be life affirming for not only ourselves but almost all of organic life. Yet, while living in the possible provides perspectives and knowledge increasing our ability to advance the cause of natural selection it also allows us to ignore and abandon the very laws that have guided the proliferation of organic life over literally billions of years.

In the previous article entitled Killing the Host we explored some of the potential harms and catastrophes that our self-consciousness could inflict on our fragile and lush planet. I would suggest you read that article now, and use it to help you better ponder the incredible opportunity and danger that natural selection has released through the emergence of self-conscious life.

It would seem prudent and wise for self-conscious beings to ponder well the road that natural selection has placed us upon and how it has assisted us, and organic life in general, in both surviving and thriving.  Our current tendency to want to transform and transcend natural selection and to demean or reject all of our past is quite risky and extremely arrogant. While the debate between nature and nurture is vital to our understanding of who we are and where we are going, it seems foolish for us to denounce all our old ways of life and being in the world as arbitrary, archaic or as obstacles to our freedom and development. 

Impulsive and reactionary behavior done from a level of self-consciousness does not have a great track record of being life affirming and furthering the cause of natural selection. Such tendencies of human nature have been grossly exploited to foster and justify war, prejudice and hatred. It is likely that further growth and development in the area of being life affirming and improving the quality of all organic life will be more an extension of the processes that have dominated the last few billion years than a rejection or dramatic transformation of its methods, mechanisms and strategies.

 

Jim Guido

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