Thoughts on thinking
Consciousness and thought are often equated, but I believe consciousness is more than just thought. It’s my opinion that thought is a result of the dynamic nature of life. Thought develops from the ability to sense the environment and react to it. Inorganic matter does not think because it cannot sense and it cannot act. And without thought it can never achieve consciousness. Does a grain of salt contemplate its own existence and ponder whether seasoning popcorn is its ultimate purpose? I doubt it.
Virtually all life can think to some degree. Sensory stimulus presents information and thought processes develop to organize those stimuli and choose appropriate reactions. An amoeba can react to pain by moving away, and plants can turn to face the sunlight. I believe these actions are a very basic form of thought. Even a virus can replicate itself; does that mean it senses its environment and reacts? I think it does, but this may be the absolute lowest threshold of thought and certainly does not rise to the level of consciousness, or even self-awareness.
Just as awareness of environment is required for thought to develop, I believe that self-awareness is required for consciousness to emerge. At some level of organic complexity, thought processes transition from “this is happening” to “this is happening to me.” A mental model must be constructed to represent the self, and this model necessarily resides in memory. But the self does not exist in isolation. There must also be a model of the external world to serve as a reference for the self. Plants, viruses, and single cell organisms lack any kind of memory and are therefore unable to model the self and attain self-awareness. It’s only the more complex animals with some sort of brain structure that can become self-aware. But even then, self-awareness is not quite the same as consciousness.
In addition to self-awareness, consciousness requires a further leap into the realm of imagination. What if the world were different? What if I were different? What if fire burned in a small rock pit instead of destroying an entire forest? What if I put an animal pelt over my fragile skin? And with the concept of manipulating the environment comes the use of tools and then language, and eventually the ability to contemplate our own existence.
No one would argue that humans lack consciousness, and no one would argue that table salt is conscious. I would argue that a virus may think in a rudimentary way, but it also lacks consciousness. So, somewhere in between the virus and homo sapiens is the threshold of consciousness. My opinion is that imagination is the spark that elevates mere thought into consciousness. Virtually all animals think, the higher animals are self-aware, but it seems that only homo sapiens has the spark of imagination that is needed for full consciousness.
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