A Panpsychist Response to ‘Is Evolution Conscious’?

To answer the question of whether or not evolution is (or could be) conscious, we must first consider what makes something conscious. Approaches to consciousness can be divided into two camps. Reductionist approaches attempt to explain how consciousness could arise out of non-conscious components.1,5 Fundamentalist approaches such as panpsychism bypass the problem of getting consciousness from non-conscious components by positing that consciousness is a universal primitive.4,14,16

Panpsychist approaches are faced with the combination problem:14 how do you get from the primitive sort of consciousness present in everything to the clearly distinctive form of consciousness possessed by humans? Building on Chalmers’ double aspect theory of information4 which holds that information has a phenomenal aspect, it was suggested that an entity is conscious to the extent it amplifies information.8 The origin of life through autocatalytic closure,13 and the origin of a self-organized understanding of the world and one’s place in it—i.e., a worldview—through conceptual closure,7 induced phase transitions in the degree to which information, and thus consciousness, is locally amplified. Much as light gets trapped and locally amplified in a diamond or a spherical mirror, organic systems provide a first level of locally amplifying information, and thus consciousness, and human cognition forms a second such layer.

Another challenge for panpsychism is that it strikes most people as counterintuitive; rocks and thermometers don’t seem conscious. However, much as a mirrored surface can block outside light from reaching the interior of a sphere, the localized amplification of information in a living system could effectively shield us from external consciousness; in other words, the apparent paucity of consciousness may be an illusion.8

If one accepts this position that consciousness is a universal primitive, then evolutionary processes are conscious, not to the same degree as the (locally amplified) conscious systems they give rise to, but to the same degree as everything else.

Evolution and Locally Amplified Consciousness

From here onward, let us restrict the discussion to the locally amplified sort of consciousness that we ourselves experience. Although the subjects of biological evolution are conscious in this way, the underlying process of biological evolution is not obviously so, unless one considers situations wherein these ‘subjects’ play a role in how the evolutionary process unfolds, as in cases of assortative mating, selective breeding, or genetic engineering.

However, a case for conscious evolution is more easily made with respect to cultural evolution. The fact that cultural change is cumulative, adaptive, and open-ended suggests that culture evolves,3 and computational models of cultural evolution have been around for some time.6,12 Since cultural evolution is fueled by the creative efforts of human minds which, by anyone’s definition, are conscious, it would seem that consciousness plays a central role in cultural evolution. However, although some view the term ‘conscious’ to be synonymous with ‘deliberate’ or ‘goal-directed’, most people would probably view activities such as mind-wandering or doodling, which would not be characterized as deliberate or goal-directed, to nevertheless be conscious. Creative ideation may be preceded by a period of subconscious incubation followed by a sudden burst of insight,15 and experiments on the ‘intuitive antecedents of insight’ have shown that, prior to insight, one is actually honing in on an idea even when one is not consciously aware of doing so.2 Thus, ironically perhaps, the creative processes that fuel culture may be less conscious than other cognitive processes (such as learning and planning).

It is interesting to note that the moment of insight is often portrayed as a light bulb turning on, and words involving light are used to talk about creative insight, e.g., flash of insight, creative spark, and so forth.10 Creative insight feels like a particularly conscious experience, and consciousness itself is also discussed using the concept of ‘inner light’.

How can the Notion of Conscious Evolution effect Positive Change in the World?’

It has been proposed that what evolves through culture are not discrete artifacts, gestures, and stories, but human worldviews, which as mentioned above are the self-organizing webs of knowledge and experience that guide how we see and be in the world.9,11 It has been suggested that worldviews locally amplify information by maintaining their self-organizing dynamics at the proverbial ‘edge of chaos’.8 Thus, although it is sometimes implied that directed is the opposite of random, the opposite of random is, in fact, deterministic, and it is the edge-of-chaos regime between these two extremes that may be most conducive to consciousness.

We assimilate elements of culture by reframing them in our own terms, and we, in turn, contribute to culture by adapting ideas to our own needs and tastes. When our worldviews are integrated as opposed to fragmented, we can more readily see ideas from different perspectives; thus we are more likely to contribute creatively to culture in ways that are conducive to higher or longer-term goals and to effect positive change. It is interesting that exerting positive change in the world can, like insight, bring a sense of ‘inner light’. Perhaps in these moments, our consciousness is heightened.  


This work was supported in part by a grant (62R06523) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


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