week_7 On consciousness by Nikola Kondov

We humans have always put ourselves above every other living being that inhabits planet Earth. And we do so because we tend to consider Homo sapiens the most intelligent and self-conscious species on the planet. But what is intelligence? People often associate being intelligent with having a lot of knowledge about the surrounding world. Usually, the boundaries of this knowledge is defined by society - one is considered an intelligent person when he or she is familiar with  math, sciences, art. Getting straight A-s and going to college sounds like a “must” for being  successful. And, failing to achieve this objective automatically puts a person into a “lower” category. More or less those people are considered “stupid”. They usually do the cleaning, repair, construction work, etc. BUT how many college “geniuses” know how to set up their own telephone line. Or to fix their TV if it breaks. Or to install a satellite dish, for example. I know that if I try to do such a thing I would probably fail to do so, and would probably destroy expensive equipment. Whereas every one of  those guys that we see every day around campus  walking around in a uniform and  carrying a toolbox could just do it in less than an hour. Then, compared to them , am I smarter, just because I go to UCLA and got a B- in a biology course, for example? If we consider being “intelligent” doing reasonably well in college, then maybe. But if the ability to perform a technical task means being “intelligent” then I am, in  fact, a “dumbass”. And the ability to perform their job conforms with the definition of being intelligent mentioned earlier. Such examples are obvious almost everywhere. I have personally known a lot of kids who are geniuses behind the computer. They do stuff that I haven’t even heard about. Yet if they try to do something completely different yet probably mundane and usual for an every-day person , they simply fail to do so. So are they intelligent or are they “dumb”? This question will remain unanswered simply because a definiton of intelligence does not exist. I can be a genius in one area but a complete failiure in another one. This controversy points to one conclusion -  there isn’t a single scientifically correct definition of intelligence. We can define most of the things that exist in the universe. A dog is a subspecies of the grey wolf belonging to the species Canis lupus which belongs to the class Mammalia, which in turn belongs to the kingdom Animalia. A star is simply a giant space body made of plasma that is held together by its own gravity. The biggest controversy that we see in nature is the nature of light -  it conforms to the definition of a stream of particles and to the definition of a wave at the same time. But intelligence is even more complicated. As mentioned earlier, one can be really intelligent in one particular area and not intelligent in another area. And when two people are compared (which happens a lot) someone cannot be “more intelligent” than the other just because actually two different areas are being compared. Just like speed and time cannot be compared, two person’s intelligences also cannot be compared.

And  just as intelligence is undefined, so is consciousness. Just as we have seen in the lecture on Tuesday, the term consciousness has a quite ambiguous definition in the dictionary. I would not comment the first part, which describes the term consciuosness as the “state or condition of being conscious”. If we analyze the second definition of the term, which is “a sence of one’s personal or collective identity, including the attitudes, beliefs, and sensitivities held by or considered characteristic of an individual or a group “, the term seems to get a definition.  As mentioned earlier, people tend to put themselves in a higher position than any other animal because they consider themselves more intelligent and conscious. As it has been logically inferred, intelligence is an undefined term, much like infinity. But what if we consider consciousness a quality that is not solely attributed to individuals of the species Homo sapiens. All we need is to prove that the null hypothesis, that is, that being conscious is a quality that is exclusively attributed to human beings, is wrong. But how can I say that another animal actually is conscious. If I take the definition of the term, and give an example of another animal showing behavior that conforms to that definition, then I would render a hypothesis that has been the basis of human consciousness, that is “our collective belief, that defines us” obsolete. The first animal that I would like to analyze is the domesticated dog, Canis lupus familiaris.They, of course, have derived from the gray wolf, which is known as a social species that hunts in packs and uses a unique and very successful hunting technique that depends on collective action from all members of the pack. This means, that wolves are able to hunt because they are organized well and use communication in order to set up an attack. Not only are they able to get a sense of personal identity, but they are able to get a sense of collective identity. They recognize members from their pack and would gladly fight off any intruder. But, of course, this statement could be easily countered by critics just by pointing out that they may act as an instinct, that all the individuals know is the members of their own pack and they may have learned that by imprinting just like ducklings recognize the first thing they see after they hatch as their mother, even though it could be a researcher’s rubber boots. As far as my competence on wolf behavior goes, I cannot state whether wolves recognize other members of their pack just because they have an “imprinting” instinct or not. But I can analyze their direct descendant, the domesticated dog. I have had the ability to observe a lot of “homeless” dogs in my hometown. Most of them have been born on the street and have not had any direct contact with people. More or less, they have considered people another animals in the concrete “forest”. What struck me during my observations, is their unique organization. They clearly have a distinguished hierarchy. I have seen “leaders” and “fighters”. There are two reasons why I could infer that some dogs had a specific role. Every morning, on my way to school, I could see certain individuals that I was able to recognize because they sat still on the exact same spot every single day, in an unnatural position. They almost looked like security guards to me, and they clearly had a specific assignment. Each one of them was monitoring a specific area of the street, while the other dogs were sleeping in the formed “square”, much like in the picture below:


Clearly, the dogs that were guarding were covering a 360-degree radius and could easily alarm the rest of the pack if something dangerous happened. They had a responsibility toward the group, which means that they have a sense of personal and collective identity. As no research that was known to me has been conducted, my observations are yet to be confirmed. But, as far as I have seen, they clearly depict rational behavior, that goes beyond what  people have normally seen in domestic dogs that have been raised under “normal” circumstances. This is just one example that confronts the hypothesis that consciousness is exclusively reserved for human beings.

As prof. Ramakrishnan has mentioned on Thursday, bees exhibit a specific behavior, that is unique to them. They are able to recognize a “spy” wasp in their hive and “fry” it alive just by moving their bodies. They have the knowledge that  moving their bodies together and using  friction leads to an increase in temperature just one degree below their heat tolerance, which is enough to kill the intruder. The same bees exhibit a specific behavior that points to the location of a food source -  a specific dance, that varies with distance and direction to the food source. So not only are the bees able to recognize themselves and the individuals of their group, but they are able to interpret the location of a food source by reading the code that the bee scouts show to them by their dance. This is, in fact, a complicated language, because they are able to locate a food source miles away just by interpreting the frequency of the vibration of the bees. I am positive that if an average person finds a note saying that there is a food store  five miles somewhere to the right, they could get lost, or at least have some trouble finding it. So by no means is the bee less intelligent or have less consciousness than a human being. Yes, bees cannot build skyscrapers, invent the Internet, write, read, create machines that make their everyday lives easier, but , as prof. Ramakrishnan has pointed out, they simply don’t need to do that in order to survive. They would find our technology as unnecessary as we find the stamens and the pistils of the flowers unnecessary. And if a language is what makes us different from the animal world, we are wrong again. The way octopi and squid change their colors in order to convey a message is so elaborate and complex, that it is , in my opinion, a language as elaborate as ours. The bee dances mentioned earlier are also a form of communication that is just as complex as our vocal or visual communication. There is even a species of parasitic fungi that infects the brain of a species of ants and performs “brain control” on them. The “zombie” ants simply climb to a high location where the fungus’s reproductive part simply burst from the ant’s body (much like the parasite in the movie Alien) and releases spores. So, if a species of fungi knows what chemicals to release in order to control another living being’s brain, then where do we people stand? The answer is simple : every organism is conscious for itself, it just does not exhibit it in a way that other organisms can sense their consciousness. Much like different species are unable to mate and produce an offspring, seeing another species’s consciousness looks impossible because this consciousness is exhibited at a different level. We do not need to read the bee’s signs because we do not consume flower nectar. Bees do not care about us because our lives are not connected to them (except if someone sticks his or her hand into the hive, which will trigger a defensive response in the bee community).

Some people accociate consciousness with the ability to perceive the surrounding world and use the senses in order to reproduce an image within the brain- much like a memory.  But sometimes unsuspected things happen. One would infer that if a blind person who has never seen the surrounding world could never depict an accurate picture of it, because he or she would not be conscious enough about the visual world. Of course, that couldn’t be more wrong, as it is visible in this case:

Esref Armagan - a blind painter with a perception of perspective

Terms such as intelligence, consciousness, perception are just too broad to be given an exact definition, yet they are used within our society to describe supremacy that actually does not exist anywhere but our own minds.

by Nikola Kondov

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