Consciousness as Pure Information
Although consciousness certainly depends on cellular and molecular activity for its functionality, the content of consciousness is pure information. We reason by processing information. We use our ability to reason to guide our behavior. Through our activities we convert thoughts into adjustments to the environment.
Thoughts are Things
Thoughts undoubtedly exist. You and i experience them all the time. Thoughts are fleeting wisps of seeming nothingness that seem to have little direct impact on reality, but they are “things”, non-the-less. They add up. We know that thoughts, interacting with neurons, eventually become new pathways of learning, represented by real living tissue. The brain “grows” to accommodate what it thinks about. Through this process, thoughts become more “real”, until finally becoming behavior that results in changes in the environment.
No human project would get far without thought. The process that takes us from thought to physical artifacts is what we do as humans. If we take the wider view of how this process works within the larger system, we can see that this progression from pure information to physical reality is only half of a feedback loop. Just as important to the system is the fact that physical reality is converted to pure information by the complimentary half of the process.
Another way to look at it is that the environment represents an increasing degree of uncertainty as one looks farther into the future. The role of this feedback loop is to make it possible to adapt to future environmental changes.
It is this process that we like to think of as uniquely human. This is the magic of what human beings do so well; we think and then act. Our nervous system converts reality into pure information, analyses it and makes adjustments that are converted back into reality as adaptations. However, the ability to adapt to future changes is universal. At all levels of animal behavior, we see reality being converted to information and back again, by a very similar complex of nervous system activity. Our intellect is surely part of it, but is there any realistic way we humans can claim exclusive rights to this process?
All mobile creatures use a version of this process to navigate. Their nervous systems also convert reality into an internal display, where the animal makes choices that result in changes or motion within the environment.
Instinct or Free Will?
We can look at other animals and say that their process differs from ours in that there is no conscious thought, only subconscious or instinctual reaction. Can we be sure of that? Well, recent studies into how we humans make decisions indicate that the subconscious makes our choices first, and then informs the conscious mind. Is our intellect really the source of “free will”? If the subconscious is really the seat of authority in humans, how is that different from “lower” animals? Is the process by which an animal learns to find food any less an expression of free will then that of a man ordering a burger? Is it really possible to make choices without some rudimentary kind of thought?
All animals learn their environment using the same system of sensory input as we do. It seems obvious that a flying bird benefits from the same kind of seamless holographic projection of external reality, as do human beings. The brains of even the smallest creatures are giving them a similar internal projection. That half of the process is the same as in our own case; reality is converted into pure information.
Can the other half of the process, (conversion from pure information back to behavior in the environment), be any different? Pure information is understood and acted upon by all mobile species. Somewhere within the system, choices are made based on pure information. Something understands.
We can see great differences on the complexity of human projects, but the act of learning about and adapting to the environment, is fundamental to living things. In fact, evolution itself, is a process whereby individuals learn about the environment and adapt to it.