To speak of an evolution of consciousness as a natural event is to be committed to the idea that consciousness can be a further expression of something which is not yet consciousness but is a prerequisite for the possibility of consciousness.

Consciousness means many things to many people. For present purposes let’s assume for our sense of consciousness that which is associated with a kind of executive level capacity to steer our own attention and choose our course of action in a way that we feel personally responsible for. We generally do not feel responsible for acts, such as having a seizure, that are not the result of a conscious choice. Whether or not we are free in an absolute, metaphysical sense (a controversial issue) we can’t help but experience ourselves as being free in making choices for which we feel responsible, i.e., conscious choices. But how does nature come to conjure the power of self-consciousness?  

I am going to argue for the claim that “nature explores greater levels of detachment” and that “detachment” is just such a property that is both required for, and may evolve in the direction of, the possibility of self-consciousness. I will call this evolutionary movement a ‘dialectics of detachment’ and will, of course, have to explain what I mean by all of this! Ultimately, I hope to make it apparent that consciousness just is what we call natural detachment at a certain stage, or more precisely what natural detachment comes to call itself.

Curiously, our understanding of what preceded the “Big Bang” provides important insight into the meaning of detachment through its complete negation.   Prior to the Big Bang, all existence (whatever that means) was contained in an infinitely dense, infinitesimally small singularity in which there was no space or time and all four basic forces were united into one. The universe was born, space-time emerges, in an explosion of detachment.  Without getting too bogged down in the technical details of high-energy physics and cosmology, the take-home lesson is that a logic of detachments-built-upon-detachments is set into motion from . . . the beginning.

It has been theorized that cosmic detachment begins with the separation of gravity from the unity of fundamental forces, resulting in the formation of elementary particles and anti-particles followed by an inflation into space-time triggered by the detachment of the strong nuclear force. As yet inexplicable asymmetries in the appearance of baryons (matter) versus antibaryons (anti-matter) are a sine qua non for the early persistence of our universe. It is now believed that the possibility of mass is predicated upon the detachment of the particle called the Higgs boson and the associated Higgs field. The detachment of the Higgs boson, and thus of mass, then constitutes the horizon for all subsequent detachments in our universe.

Physicists characterize the “possibility space” of a simple system in terms of its “degrees of freedom”. For example, a simple atom like hydrogen can respond to a perturbation (such as being hit by a photon) by moving in space along three axes (3), rotating (4), or elevating the energy level of its electron (5). It is thus accorded five degrees of freedom. A simple diatomic molecule, like O2, can also vibrate along its common axis so adds an additional degree of freedom. Detachment is always about the emergence of higher degrees of relative independence. The more degrees of freedom the greater the detachment. As our universe has evolved it has given rise to subunits with greater and greater abilities to buffer themselves against the “the ambient winds” (be it bombardment by radiation or predation by voracious carnivores).   A particle with rest mass that creates a well in space-time is more detached than a particle (like a photon) with no rest mass. A macromolecule, like a protein-based enzyme, whose folding history affects its future actions is more detached than a simpler molecule whose structure is solely determined by thermodynamic necessity (and thus has no history).   A major transition in detachment occurs when a system emerges that actively constitutes its own boundary and actively sustains its ability to do so. We associate this level of detachment with what we recognize as ‘life’.

All states of detachment, are relative, none are absolute.   Levels of detachment exist in nested hierarchies.   When a new level of detachment emerges, such as the boundary constituting, self-sustaining system (a simple cell), it also creates a space for downward detachments which may be viewed as parasitic on the higher level of detachment upon which it depends. Viruses emerge as expressions of downward (parasitic) detachment.   Parasites and their hosts, lower and higher levels of detachment, dialectically interact resulting in the transformations of each and the appearance of new capacities that either side of the equation alone could not have produced. Compartmentalization and other forms of cellular complexity emerged initially as host defenses against viruses. The mobility of viruses has come to characterize the vast majority of complex genomes and impart the capability of generating de novo variation, not on a random single point-mutation basis, but through segmental duplications and movements that result in species defining gene families.

Philosophical Anthropologists have long since recognized that human ancestors lost their instinctive specializations and viewed as organisms became the highly dependent weaklings of nature. But what was new under the sun was the appearance of a “Hominin Supergroup” whose loss of adaptive instinctual response patterns (First Hominin Detachment) enabled (and required) the emergence of an entirely novel, normatively integrated form of life. Homo erectus could live in permanent encampments with the controlled use of fire, organize big mammal hunts, produce the Acheulean hand-axe, leave Africa and colonize far reaches of the Euro-Asian landmass, long before the appearance of spoken language, by way of a gesture and emotion mediated form of group consciousness. Modern humans are the expression of a downward, ‘Second Hominin Detachment’ that results in the quasi-independent, quasi-parasitic human individual, that dialectically, has appropriated from the consciousness of the group, the resources for identifying, as and with, a consciousness of its Self. Those regimes of consciousness associated with tribal myth, with animism, with religions of the book, with the axial turn, with modernism, with scientism, with political liberalism, with socialism and so on can be reconstructed in terms of dialectical interplays between the legacies of First and Second Hominin Detachments (i.e., as still “Creatures of the Group” who strive for individuated self-identity and understanding).

Increasing levels of detachment constitute a form of directionally. The universe as a whole can be said to owe its existence to processes of detachment and at least in certain precincts of the universe dialectics of increasing detachment have been set into motion. While consciousness may not be an inevitable result of any dialectics of detachment, inasmuch as consciousness is part and parcel of that level of detachment that can reflect back upon itself, it is surely immanent to the logic of increasing detachment.

Read the entire “Conscious Evolution” series:

  1. Can Evolution Be Conscious? Introducing a Collection of Commentaries Published on This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson, Mel Andrews, and Maximus Thaler
  2. Cultural Evolution, Insight, and Fundamental Theories of Consciousness by Liane Gabora
  3. Conscious Evolution is a Category Mistake by Massimo Pigliucci
  4. The Origins and Evolutionary Effects of Consciousness by Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg
  5. The Evolution of Consciousness Enables Conscious Evolution by Steve Hayes
  6. Welcome to the Noösphere by Alice Andrews
  7. The Consciousness of Detachment and the Detachment of Consciousness by Lenny Moss
  8. Can Evolution Be Conscious of Itself? Yes, It Can! by Joe Brewer
  9. One Culture, Two Cultures? How Many Cultures, How Long? by Kurt Johnson
  10. Can Evolution be Understood as a Conscious Process? by Stanley N. Salthe

Published On: January 18, 2019

Lenny Moss

Lenny Moss

Lenny Moss holds doctoral degrees in Comparative Biochemistry (Berkeley) and Philosophy (Northwestern), is the author of What Genes Can’t Do (MIT) and is currently a professor of philosophy at the University of Exeter (UK). Recently, he has been working to renew the (mostly German) tradition of philosophical anthropology based upon current scientific research and to bring it into dialogue with both theoretical and philosophical biology and critical social theory.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.