Jun 122019

A recent episode of Making Sense was basically an hour of two people being confused about consciousness. It was bad, and led quickly to “and therefore it’s probable that fundamental particles are conscious,” which… wow.

However it did bring up one good point. Consciousness is biologically expensive. It’s vanishingly unlikely to have been preserved under evolutionary forces unless it was providing some benefit. And considering how expensive it is, it must be a massive benefit just to survive. And yet, not only has it survived, it’s taken over the planet. And still we cannot discern any survival advantage that consciousness gives us. It seems to cost a ton with literally no benefit.

(aside: this is the reason we regularly see Science Fiction with advanced non-conscious aliens. It seems intuitively obvious that a non-conscious species would have a huge advantage over a conscious one, and contact with one would lead to our quick extinction. This is also how the Harrises fell into the “the answer must be that consciousness is a fundamental property of physics” trap.)

By coincidence, at about this same time Scott Alexander posted his review of “The Secret of Our Success”. A truly fantastic book which argues, in short, that our species survives and thrives due not to our individual intellect and reasoning ability (which isn’t even up to the job of keeping us from starving to death in a friendly environment overflowing with natural resources and food), but due to the creation and transmission of cultural knowledge. Read Scott’s review at the very least, and pick up the book if you can, you won’t regret it.

Wherein it occurred to me – perhaps consciousness it necessary for culture. In order to be incensed that food isn’t prepared in the right way, and that dress norms have been violated, and that god will become wrathful if our children aren’t taught the special way of planting corn that honors Him, one first needs to have a sense of self. If there isn’t an object at the center of self to feel aggrieved at decorum not being followed, there will be no decorum.

Consciousness is partly that which distinguishes the Self from all that is non-Self. Culture is partly that which separates Us from Them. Our shared dialect, dress, food, taboos, norms, etc, make us distinct from those who are not Us. One must first have a Self to locate before one can locate it within an ethnic group distinct from those who don’t share our culture. And the more complicated and refined one’s culture is, the greater the consciousness needed to support it, until you get to the crippling sack of neurosis that is the human psyche, constantly demanding to know why it exists.

A barely-conscious agent like a bat will barely squeak past basic reciprocity. But a completely non-conscious stimulus-response process will never develop any culture. And an intelligent but non-conscious rational agent bound purely by observable inputs and outputs will never stumble into a process that removes cyanide from manioc. Only a tangle of neurosis, awe, and confusion has the required depth of social architecture which can act as the scaffolding on which such a complicated process can arise. A process that is unbeknownst even to the user of it. That takes a rich cultural hivemind, built upon countless generations of taboos and group-signifiers that separate the Us from the Them.

Obviously culture didn’t start out this complex. The book argues that culture co-evolved with technology. And if culture is indeed built upon the foundation of consciousness then consciousness very likely co-evolved with culture as well.  Which is to speculate that we are very literally more conscious than our human ancestors of even a few millennia back. And our descendants will be more conscious than us.



These are just some initial thoughts I wanted to get out while I was still having them, and are pure speculation. If anyone has similar thoughts, and in particular can think of reasons or examples of how Culture Depends On Consciousness (which is what I’m most interested in), please let me know. And/or point me to links which explore this.

  5 Responses to “Consciousness required for Culture?”

  1. There are a bunch of different ways people think about consciousness. Philosophers often talk about qualia – some of them would deny that it has anything to do with brains and therefore doesn’t have any energy cost, some would say its an emergent property of our brains and therefore has not cost other than the costs of what our brains were doing otherwise. I’m not sure that, if you believe in p-zombies at least, you need this sort of consciousness to have a culture.

    When scientists talk about conciseness most commonly they’re talking about awareness. That is, if someone can talk about an experience later they were conscious of it. Being aware of something in this sense seems to be identical to forming a working memory of it, which might or might not later make it into short or long term memory. People can experience subliminal sensations that alter their behavior but this difference in behavior goes away almost immediately after the sensation does and when we instrument a person’s brain we can see the associated activations decaying away to nothing over the course of a second or two. By contrast when you look into someone’s brain when they become consciously aware of something you can see the activation spreading through the whole brain. This behavior has a steep energy cost but there’s little point in having a big brain without a working memory so it for creatures that develop brains this sort of consciousness seems work it. And this sort of consciousness is clearly needed for culture since you need to both communicate ideas and remember them to maintain a culture and you can’t do either without this.

    • Ah… Crap, I may have been using the wrong word. I meant it more in the sense of aware-of-one’s-own-existence-as-a-being. In my defense, that was the way it was being used on the podcast, so I had smuggled in their terminology (as I understand it).

      And no, I don’t believe in p-zombies in the least. :)

  2. Non-conscious animals can have quite complex behavior patterns. A salmon may not be incensed that it isn’t in the proper place to give birth, but it still won’t spawn if not in the proper place. It doesn’t need self-awareness to follow rules.

    It seems to me that what consciousness gives you is the ability to change culture / ignore rules. To eat the food that wasn’t prepared properly because you realize the alternative is starvation. And self-awareness gives you an incentive not to want to die.

    • But aren’t even insects trying not to die?

      Wait, I wanted to argue something else.. the instinct that gets salmon to return to its birthplace is something it hasn’t been taught by other people, it’s genetic. Therefore, the rules can only be changed by mutation over a long period of time. This has two disadvantages compared to rules transported in consciousness.
      – it doesn’t work to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, which is a bit of a problem a lot of animal species are facing right now
      – if new circumstances require a change of rules only the very small part of the population with the different mutation that uses different rules can survive, while humans can look at what other humans who can deal with those circumstances do and ask them how they are doing it and thereby learn their rules

  3. However it did bring up one good point. Consciousness is biologically expensive. It’s vanishingly unlikely to have been preserved under evolutionary forces unless it was providing some benefit.

    I’m not sure this is a valid assumption. It could be that consciousness is non-optional, that, expensive or not, if an organism is going to surpass some threshold of behavioral plasticity, it simply must be conscious. So, it’s behavioral plasticity that is providing the benefit, and consciousness is an ineluctable corollary. And therefore the competition scenario between conscious and non-conscious entities with similar behavioral profiles will never arise, because all sufficiently behaviorally complex entities will be conscious.

    In general regarding your premise, I’d say, yes, culture is a function of a high degree of behavioral plasticity, which requires consciousness.

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