You remember Gaia, don’t you? It was the theory, popular among touchy-feelies and tree-huggers a few years ago, that the Earth and biosphere had evolved consciousness, that the environment itself was a thinking organism capable of evaluating its surroundings and acting on threats and exploiting conditions. “Gaia” was the ancient Greek Earth goddess, sort of a counterpart to Poseidon, the god of the sea, or Uranos, the sky god.
I was never entirely convinced by this argument. True, the planet/biosphere system is highly complex, with many moving parts and interconnected components, but whether it is fundamentally akin to say, a mammalian nervous system and its associated behavioral properties, is something wholly different. Or is it?
We tend to think of consciousness, or sentient entities, as highly evolved biological organisms, or perhaps Artificial Intelligence in machines. Still, the idea of other complex systems evolving their own self-awareness, even intelligence, is not easily dismissed. After all, unless your thinking is constrained by religious or vitalistic ideas, it seems reasonable to conclude that intelligence, sentience, self-awareness or consciousness might be programmed into, or emerge spontaneously in any sufficiently complex system; one with input and output devices, data processing elements, and memory capability. Rightly or wrongly, that appears to be the current paradigm. And there is no reason to expect that only biological or machine systems might achieve this status. As other posts of mine on this board have suggested, any complex and interconnected system where energy and information is processed could host a “soul”. We have speculated about languages, insect hives, corporate bureaucracies, economies, governments, nations, societies, species, even cultures; behaving as autonomous beings, interacting with other such creatures, and even evolving through time, merging with and splitting from other forms.
This is all highly speculative, of course. For starters, we really don’t have a decent definition of consciousness, intelligence, sentience, etc. and its not certain we could even identify it if it were organized in any other way than biologically or in AI. Still, once you accept the idea that consciousness is a phenomenon associated with complex matter/energy/information systems, the concept of it arising (or programmed) in an ecosystem is not unreasonable at all. This is, after all, what Lem’s novel “Solara” is all about. The astronauts are studying, and being studied, by an entire planet.
We tend to think of human beings as being “intelligent” and self-aware, but we recognize that this is a property of the human organism as a whole, not of its organs, tissues, cells,
or component molecules. Neurons don’t have a little piece of our intelligence, the totality of their relationships define our consciousness. We think of them as mindless little machines, although we certainly seem to think of ourselves in loftier terms. Maybe our consciousness is an illusion, an epiphenomenon, as some behavioral scientists call it. “I think I think, therefore I think I am.” This is what the films “2001″ and “Ex Machina” are all about. Are those fictional AI computers self-aware, or only simulating self-awareness? Is there really any difference? Does that question even make any sense? After all, computer programs don’t need to know what chess IS in order to PLAY it very well–so well they can easily defeat a human opponent. And if HE can’t tell, then what difference does it make?
Real, existing ecosystems, such as coral reefs and tropical rain forests, are certainly complex enough to substitute for brains or computers, or perhaps the totality of all interacting ecosystems on a planet, is complex enough. How would we perceive thought in such beings? We might not see it as the self-directed behavior of an organism, but something more like the evolution of a taxon. And it would almost certainly operate at vastly different time scales. If Gaia truly lives and thinks, is she aware of us? Would she be able to communicate with us? Would she want to? Gaia might see us as simply another environmental factor that must be dealt with, like air temperature or ocean salinity or soil pH.
Biological organisms are certainly complex enough to support what we would call consciousness. After all, we have at least one example, and we think we can detect lesser, smaller consciousnesses in other animals. My cat can certainly adapt to me, and even manipulate me. It appears that chemistry can create complex enough molecules, and evolution can produce sufficiently complex cellular, tissue and organ structures, to support the human soul. But humans can create even higher level orders of complexity: cultures, nations, civilizations and no doubt many others exist throughout the universe. Or maybe even right here on our own planet.