A "Proof" for the Existence of God, Part 3: Consciousness, Information, Complexity, and Morality

[Disclaimer: This series is not really going to deliver a proof for God's existence. This is why the word "proof" is in scare quotes. It is, rather, a suggestive line of argument. However, "A suggestive line of argument for God's Existence" isn't a very good blog title. So, the goal of the series is not to arrive at a Q.E.D. moment. It is, rather, to end with a "That's an interesting argument" moment.]

If consciousness is brute the issue becomes: Why are some physical systems conscious and others are not?

Tables, pens, oceans, and coffee mugs are not conscious. But people, dogs, fish, and mice seem to be conscious (not self-conscious but experiencing creatures). What is the difference between these two classes of objects?

David Chalmers suggests that the difference is that the latter are information processing systems. That is, people, dogs, fish and mice appear to process various physical inputs resulting in physical outputs in a lawful fashion. An ocean doesn't take in external inputs, store inputs, manipulate inputs, or produce outputs. But a dog does. And so do we.

So it appears that consciousness is intimately related to information processing physical systems. True, there is still a great deal of mystery here, but "information processing" does seem to separate conscious from non-consious physical systems.

The next obvious question is, how sophisticated does the information processing have to get to manifest consciousness? For example, the simplest information processing system is a one-bit processor. Like a flashlight. Such as system can process/store one bit of information: 1 or 0 (On or Off). Neurons, as information processing systems, are like flashlights. They can Fire or Not. So, how many flashlights do you need to "connect" to get human-level consciousness?

Chalmers offers an interesting proposal. If consciousness is brute and is connected to information, it seems reasonable (!) to assume that consciousness comes in a "quantum" (i.e., bundled) unit associated with a bit of information. That is, there is something in feels like to be a flashlight. However, this "bit of consciousness" is so degraded that for all intents and purposes we can treat it (from an ethical perspective) as an un-experiencing object.

But when we string enough bits (informational and conscious) together we start getting nervous systems like we see in rudimentary organisms like worms or ants. We can speculate that worms have "pains" and "pleasures." But again, these experiences are so degraded that we don't sweat the ethical status of these creatures (although some religious start to...). If we scale up the informational complexity we see a correlated increase of consciousness. For example, think of a rat scaling up to a dog scaling up to a chimpanzee scaling up to a human. As the informational capacity increases the conscious experience grows richer and richer, and, as a result, ethical considerations begin to kick in at each level of complexity.

Clearly, this vision implies a kind of panpsychism, where consciousness in all its forms, is ubiquitous. Personally, I like the idea of thinking about the feelings of my flashlight. (Or to be more precise, its feel--singular--since it can only process one bit.)

But even if you beg off on panpsychism I don't need it much for my subsequent argument. All I wanted to do in this post is to note the correlation between informational/physical complexity and the richness of conscious experience. I also wanted to highlight the link between consciousness, complexity, and morality. So, for future posts hold this relationship in mind:

Informational/Physical Complexity : Conscious Complexity : Onset of Moral Considerations

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4 thoughts on “A "Proof" for the Existence of God, Part 3: Consciousness, Information, Complexity, and Morality”

  1. In "A History of the Mind" Nicholas Humphrey makes the case that another feature of a conscious entitiy is that it makes an internal model of the world out there and is continually rechecking the model based on the external inputs. A continuous feedback loop is in operation. A flashlight has no organized actvity in that regard.

  2. Steve,
    Thanks. I read that book a few years ago and forgot that formulation by Humphrey. I agree that is seems clear that matter has to be organized a certain kind of way for consciousness to emerge. I wonder how his model scales down to rudimentary organisms.

  3. I was thinking it hadn't been very long since I'd read the book. When I looked in the front it shocked me to see it was acquired in April 1993.

    "..what is required is a short high-fidelity loop of the kind that probably occurs only in the cerebral cortex of animals such as ourselves.
    ...But if we are being cautious we should probably think of it as being limited to higher vertebrates such as mammals and birds, although not necessarily all of these."

    History of the Mind, Nicholas Humphrey. Simon and Schuster, 1992,ch 27 The Mind Made Flesh p205

    I kinda think consciousness extends to lower levels in the animal kingdom than that.

  4. Humphrey has a very interesting new book out, Seeing Red, which summarizes and clarifies his understanding of how consciousness is produced. Interestingly, in the book, he refers to a query from a reader that asks about the possibility of some sort of personal existence after physical death. As a scientist, he says, he must note there is no empirical or theoretical support for this hope.


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