A recent CNN article questions the place of humans in a universe in which consciousness has nothing to do with intelligence. That is, should machines that can emulate high intelligence through raw computation power be considered conscious? Does consciousness impart some magical property that is more competitively advantageous compared to the machines that we create? In a Kurzwielsque type world where computers are capable of both high intelligence and raw computational power, do humans actually serve a purpose?

To answer this question I would propose that there are three fundamental components which help arrive a conclusion: the first is that life propagates life, the second is how we live, and the third is how we adapt.

Life begets life

It’s all about competitive advantage. No matter how you break up the fundamental question if there is no perpetuation of the ‘species’ then the entire question is moot. Life begets life. Without this capability, intelligent machines that exist for a single use might not be considered conscious if it does not lead to some competitive advantage that makes redundant their evolutionary pre-cursors. So for example, let’s assume that the species ‘intel-coprocessorus’ is a divergent new classification of life similar to how cats and dogs evolved from miacids millions of years ago. That would negate the proposition in so far that humans would continue to have a competitive edge in some unique way from that of computer life forms.

Consciousness therefore must have some intrinsic connection to species perpetuation otherwise all life vanishes after a single iteration. To be conscious would not only imply knowing that one exists, being able to act on the fact that one exists, but also to be able to replicate and pass on what it means to be conscious to the iteration of self that follow.

How we live

From a very simplistic perspective there are three mechanisms that broadly define how we live and, in part, our self-awareness. They are based around ideologies that I would classify as being religious, atheist, and new age points of view in which most other ideologies can grouped.

Disclaimer: Keep in mind I’m keeping this simple for the moment. There are other ideologies with different characteristics. The definitions below are also not as black and white as I’m about to make them appear. For our purposes, these three categories will establish the point. The layering of the complexities and subtleties through expansion of these and other definitions just serves to emphasize the conclusions later.

From a religious point of view, mankind’s perspective on the world is one where the expression of knowledge is a priori based. That is, it is independent of experience. The way in which the religious person defines themselves is through the moral and ethical value of choice and the consequences of their actions as viewed by others. They are externally focused. The result being that the religious person seeks out situations which validate their existence through the approval of others.

From a new age point of view, mankind’s perspective on the world is one where the expression of knowledge is a posteriori based. That is, it is empirically based. The way in which the new age person defines themselves is through experiencing the world and then rationalizing the experience as it pertains to themselves as an individual. They are internally focused. The result being that the new age person seeks out situations which validate their existence through personal growth and enlightenment.

From an atheist point of view, mankind’s perspective on the world is one where the expression of knowledge is emotionally based. That is, it is independent of either rational or natural experience. The way in which an atheist defines themselves is fatalistic. All experience is meaningless. Self-interest and what bring the most joy to the individual is paramount. The result being that the atheist person seeks out situations which validate their existence through contextual circumstance and emotional stability.

How we adapt

From a very simplistic perspective there are three mechanisms that broadly define how we adapt. They are based around socio-political structures that I would classify as being democratic, oligarchic, and anarchic. Similar to the very broad definitions above, these classifications are very simplistic. They belie the complexities and subtleties of other forms of socio-political structures that are possible. The primary purpose here is to show a continuum of socio-political diversity in which all other forms could be categorized for the purposes of illustration.

From a democratic point of view, socio-political structures, which establish coping mechanisms for overcoming barriers to species, propagate through identification with communities. The defining factor here is that, while all members of a society have an equal voice in determining outcomes, the individual will is subjugated by the collective intelligence of all. This would include both traditional democratic state structures and pure communistic state systems

From an oligarchic point of view, social-political structures which establish coping mechanisms are most effective when identified with small groups. This would include small group structures such as power brokers, big business, and family. The defining factor here is that the individual will is subjugated by those groups which form the power base and have decision making control. Dictatorships, monarchies, and fascist state structures are primary examples of competitive systems which follow these types of principles.

From an anarchic point of view, individualism and strength through a single focus of purpose is competitive. Note that I would tend to also include mob dynamics and group think scenarios as being anarchic. These dynamics abdicate an individual’s freedom of choice. While an anarchic socio-political structure would tend to imply complete freedom of choice, the defining factor here is the lack of choice of the group over the individual. These types of structures are not defined by any specific state system but rather are an equilibrium in which each person is essentially out for themselves.

What is Consciousness

When looked at as a matrix of self-awareness verses socio-political structure, consciousness would need to show some driving characteristic, which high intelligence does not, in order to not be considered an evolutionary dead-end.


Anarchic Oligarchic Democratic



The challenge here is not to fill in the matrix as if each box were a static state of affairs. Rather it is to consider the dynamics of movement between the boxes and what that implies when accounting for high, medium, and low intelligence characteristics. An evolutionary dead-end occurs when a specific species becomes encapsulated in a specific box and is incapable of moving from that state of being to one of the 728 other states of being implied by just this simple example shown above (27×27-1, when accounting for intelligence as a z-axis component of the model).

This is what is believed happened to the Neanderthals as they were pushed out by our more direct ancestor lineage archaic homo sapiens. Changing circumstances require adaptation in order to overcome barriers. When a species becomes trapped in a single box, say mid-intelligence, empirical self-awareness, and oligarchic socio-political structures such as may have been true with the Neanderthals, then when circumstances dictate the species must be capable of seeing past their limited circumstances and evolve to a new state of being.

Could we consider a high-functioning, high intelligent mechanism to be conscious if it only occupies one space in the model? Possibly. I would however subscribe to the fact that consciousness is more a factor of risk aversion, curiosity, and the ability to pass those traits onto your offspring than it is of number crunching. As such I’ve developed a definition that, while not perfect, I think can help establish why humans will still have a role to play in the future, even if that future is dominated by high-functioning, high-intelligent computing based systems

Consciousness is that ability, born of high intelligence, which seeks out diversity of experience, exploitation of opportunity, and adaptation to complex situations to overcome barriers which limit species perpetuation.

There may be some far flung off distant future where we eventually come to a symbiotic relationship between organic and silicon based life. Similar to how mitochondria use to be separate life forms from current cellular structures hundreds of millions of years ago. The only way I can foresee humans becoming irrelevant in the grand scheme of evolution is if we allow ourselves, through our technology, to become so homogeneous as to no longer be willing or capable to exceed the sum of our parts.

That is assuming of course that an asteroid or a gamma ray burst from a nearby super nova doesn’t fry us all first.

 — Kevin Feenan

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