An argument that supports the idea that consciousness existed before animal nervous systems

I’ve decided to publish a few articles on intellectual topics. I’m not changing the main focus of the blog; it will continue to emphasize experience and information that’s useful and interesting to spiritual seekers.

I’m going to describe an idea that first occurred to me several decades ago. It’s a weak argument and a vague one but it may be of use as an idea. It’s very simple; it can be stated in a few paragraphs. Some readers may think I have panpsychism in mind but I don’t; if you want to put this idea in a bucket, Advaita Vedanta is a much better fit.

As far as I can recall, I’ve never written this idea down because I assumed it had occurred to other people, especially academics in the field of philosophy of consciousness, who had presumably published it. Lately it occurred to me that I could use one of the new large language models to do a literature search for this idea. Trying this in early 2024, I’ve had the best results with Claude 3 Opus. To my surprise, the LLM couldn’t find the idea anywhere. It did find published passages with related ideas but the relationships were weak. If the LLM was right, the idea has never been published. This seems unlikely to me but it’s possible so I’ve decided to publish it here.

When I use the word “consciousness,” I mean that which enables experience. I don’t mean qualia. I mean that which makes experience of qualia possible, or that which has such experiences. I’m following the traditional Indian idea that consciousness and mental activity are different sorts of stuff. Like Cartesian dualism, Indian philosophy divides reality into two main parts, but the two traditions differ in where they locate mental activity. Indian philosophy puts consciousness by itself in one category and mental activity together with the physical world in the other.

Here’s the idea. If there’s anything new here, it’s mostly in the last paragraph:

It has occurred to many of us that everything that animal bodies do, they could do without consciousness. For example, they don’t need to feel thirst in order to drink. Brains could have evolved in such a way that when they notice that blood volume is low, they directly command the body to find water and drink. But brains didn’t evolve that way. Instead there’s a complicated mechanism that uses consciousness as an intermediary. Instead of commanding the body to do something, brains create a feeling of thirst, which requires consciousness, and then something — presumably the brain itself — reacts to thirst by performing the desired actions.

From the brain, to consciousness, back to the brain. Note that the intermediate step is part of the machinery because without thirst, the body wouldn’t do what the brain wants it to do. On first consideration this seems to me a sort of Rube Goldberg design. If gravity were designed this way, epicycles would actually exist. I mention this in passing; it leads to some interesting ideas. But for now, I think it’s sufficient to observe that a robot could be built that could replenish its store of fluid when it’s low without being conscious. Presumably animals could have evolved the same way. But they didn’t.

Why would natural selection go out of its way to produce consciousness and design mechanisms based on it when it didn’t need to bother? We can think of several possible explanations — I’m not suggesting that the explanation I’m about to offer is the only one, and therefore I’m not suggesting that the argument on this page is any sort of proof — but one possibility is that consciousness already existed when animal nervous systems began to evolve. It was “there” somehow although I can’t say where or how exactly. It was there and evolution made use of it because it was convenient for evolution to do so. The situation was a little bit like plants evolving photosynthesis because sunlight was there.

7 thoughts to “An argument that supports the idea that consciousness existed before animal nervous systems”

  1. Consciousness was never produced which is why it is effortlessly vast, you can’t corner it, yet it’s always there, remarkably useful. and always free (gratis). It doesn’t need to be carried within oneself, which would only make one more self-conscious, more than one needs to be.

  2. Vedic scripture definitely distinguishes between consciousness and mind.
    Consciousness is considered to be the foundation of all manifestation, even present as what we are reduced to in deep dreamless sleep – when everything else (including mind) has disappeared for us.
    As humans we have the capacity to be self-conscious, which animals do not . . . though many humans pay little or no attention to it.
    Re the comments on evolution, Barry Long had an interesting insight (theory?) that although it all (including mankind’s origins) started long before the Genesis story, Adam and Eve were the first to have self-awareness.

  3. Just a note on the topic of Descartes: I am not sure if I understand Descartes correctly, as I haven’t read him, but as far as I know from the history of philosophy, Descartes did not mean “res cogitans” as thoughts, but rather their counterpart, the thinking self or subject – the I or consciousness in the sense of the knower. After the radical doubt, the radical doubter is the only thing that remains – a subject. The word “Cogito” does not only include thinking but also the I (I think). Thus, Descartes would also be a kind of Advaitin, in the sense that he separates the I or consciousness from everything else (“res extensa”).

    1. Hi Sabbato,

      You raise an extremely important point for seekers. This is of more than intellectual interest.

      I am not sure if I understand Descartes correctly, as I haven’t read him…

      How about reading two sentences of his? You may be surprised to hear what he actually says.

      First, his definition of “think”:

      “By the word penser (to think), I understand everything that happens in us in such a way that we perceive it immediately by ourselves; this is why not only understanding, willing, imagining, but also sensing, is the same thing here as penser.

      Second, here is what he believes he is:

      Thus, simply by knowing that I exist and seeing at the same time that absolutely nothing else belongs to my nature or essence except that I am a thing that thinks, I can infer correctly that my essence consists solely in the fact that I am a thing that thinks.

      Taken together, those sentences mean, I am nothing other than a thing that understands, wills, imagines, and senses.

      That’s not Advaita. That is most definitely not Advaita.

      Advaita has a name for what Descartes believes he is: chidibhasa, ‘reflected consciousness’, that which has experiences such as willing and imagining.

      Advaita also has a name for Descartes’s belief: avidya, ‘ignorance’.

      According to Advaita, avidya, the belief that we are chidabhasa, is the precise illusion that keeps us in bondage.

      According to Advaita, liberation is the recognition that Descartes’s belief is an illusion, a mistake. In reality we aren’t chidibhasa. We are Brahman, pure consciousness, consciousness without an object.

      For seekers, that sums up the main difference between most Western philosophy and Vedanta/Yoga. They differ in a huge way on the question of whether consciousness is experience of objects or something entirely without objects. It’s not just Descartes, it’s most Western thinkers including Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, etc. I think this may help explain why many Western seekers mistake mental states for Self-realization.

      P.S. My girlfriend’s reaction to this comment was, “Why didn’t Westerners discover Brahman?” I think the answer is too obvious to be interesting. They didn’t discover it because the illusion “I am chidibhasa” is fantastically powerful. All normal people think they are chidibhasa. It’s extremely difficult to doubt this false impression. Even Descartes, the most famous doubter in European history, couldn’t doubt it. The interesting question, it seems to me, is, “Why did ancient Indians see through the illusion and discover Brahman?” As far as I know, they are the only people in all of history who did so. What made them so remarkable? If anybody knows of another time and place where Brahman was independently discovered, please tell me. I’d like to know.

      1. Thank you for your precise answer. What you wrote is correct. What I actually meant is not that Descartes can call himself an Advaitin based on his conclusions, but rather that he is methodologically somewhat close to Advaita, specifically through his methodological negation of the world and his inquiry into what can be known with certainty to exist. This is why Shankara is sometimes seen as a kind of pre-Cartesian thinker, because he argued that it is nonsensical to think “I do not exist.” Regarding the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy and the question of the relationship between consciousness and the object, I fully agree with you. The best example of this is Brentano-Husserl or phenomenology, where consciousness is seen as “intentional,” in the sense that consciousness is inconceivable without an object.

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