Is consciousness a coincidence of evolution

Divine spark - and evolution can explain it!

And evolution can explain it!

The philosopher Daniel Dennett approaches the problem of consciousness materialistically.

Human life is trapped in a powerful paradox. In our spiritual experience we find moments of greatest clarity and moments of greatest confusion at the same time. Nothing is as clear to us as that 2 + 2 = 4. Or that I am here and now - more or less desperate because I am no longer there - sitting in front of a computer and typing this text.

This corresponds exactly to the situation that René Descartes described in his «Meditations». He's sitting there by the fire and wearing his dressing gown, but regardless of that he is pretty clear (“aware”) that this is the case. He then dismantles this clarity step by step through brutal and persistent doubting - that goes as far as asking oneself whether God is not deceiving him; He has long since left the suspicion that he is only dreaming - but in the end it remains: I think, therefore I am. (“I think” can be replaced by “I doubt”, the thought remains valid).

The scene looks slightly over the top. The result can be formulated more soberly: Here is a consciousness (as “I” that “speaks” of itself), and this cannot be shaken by any doubt. In consciousness - and only there - there are these moments of indubitable truth. What is true is what can be seen clearly and distinctly. Descartes concludes: The mind is "closer" to knowledge than the body. For him, the world is then divided into two substances: a res cogitans (thinking substance) and a res extensa (extended substance, i.e. everything that takes up space, matter).

The ghost in the skull

Because no one knew how the two could work together, it was called "dualism". Because in addition to the great clarity comes the big question: where does the res cogitans come from and where in the world is it? (Descartes considered animals to be soulless automata, which they do not have.) Consciousness itself becomes a complete mystery to the philosopher. If you are honest, you will be put in a loop anyway: "Consciousness" means that I am aware, that I have an awareness.

In the 19th century Darwin (and Wallace) introduced their theory of evolution. All life came into being, not created, and slowly through evolution. Unfortunately, Darwin held back wisely: although he spoke of the uninterrupted chain of life, he only hinted at the beginning (how did life come about?) And the end (and how does it become self-aware?).

It is easy to see that consciousness has something to do with the evolution of the central nervous system. But the animals also have central controls. But no awareness. Where does it come from? For many evolutionary biologists it was "there all of a sudden". The term "emergence" was invented for this, but not much was gained with it. So where should you draw the line now?

Of course, a philosopher like Daniel Dennett doesn't like the fact that even science still struggles to explain consciousness. And talk of the “divine spark” or the intervention of an “intelligent designer” hurts him. He tries to explain mind and consciousness without recourse to outside interference. The explanation with evolution has to cope with the difficulty that it works with chance. Something arises and if it works, it stays. Dennett calls this “bottom-up”. In contrast, a human designer works “top-down”. He examines the problem - by representing it in his consciousness - and solves it. Evolution has undoubtedly also found good solutions to many problems. But just by trying it out?
People can try out different solution strategies because they “understand” the problem, that is: they can keep it in front of themselves in their consciousness and choose what is suitable and what is not.

Skills without understanding

All organisms that have made it are "highly competent". They cope very well with the requirements of their niche. Without understanding anything. Humans also have competencies that they use without fully understanding them. The main thing is that it works properly. "An empty brain doesn't think so well," says Dennett. Inferring, arithmetic, drafting theories, testing hypotheses and much more happens unconsciously with us too.
What defines a person is the ability to communicate. He can communicate with others about what is absent. The development of language is not easy to explain in terms of evolution, but one can imagine that it can be done without a "leap". The gap between the conscious and the rest is great. It goes without saying that the language is a highly successful competence. This opens up the opportunity for culture. Culture means passing on skills (“memes” as building blocks of knowledge). Dennett works with a plausible analogy: our intellectual abilities are like apps installed in our brains. We didn't have to wait for them to appear (by chance), but could acquire them (through imitation, demonstration and learning, or through more subtle whispers).

Language, as the ability to assume a 1st ("I") or 2nd person ("you"), is already a kind of "metaprogram" or - to stay in the picture - an "operating system". And then it is not far to consciousness: It is a kind of "user interface" that operates with the existing apps and uses them.

How does Dennett solve the dualism problem? It's a problem of perspective. We have got used to seeing everything in the mirror of consciousness. Dennett calls this pretended reality "the manifest worldview". Consciousness (or the brain) creates this world with plants, animals, sunrises and all that. Basically, this is an illusion. Science strives for "what really exists". And there are really big differences.

Daniel Dennett From the bacteria to Bach - and back. The evolution of the mind. Suhrkamp-Verlag, Berlin 2018. 512 pp., Fr. 56.90.