Consciousness is the greatest mystery, prevailing over our emotions, decisions, the experience of life and afterlife, the observability of the universe, and free will. We can never really know how it came to be, whether it even exists, and whether it’s “important”.
One speculation is that instead of binary, it’s a spectrum of complexity that all particles have a value in. Humans have developed the autobiographical self to the point of the ego, with the need to plan ahead, make goals, and alter the world. This could be an illusion presented to our attention, without any awareness involved. Assuming it’s not, the smartest animals have an advanced autobiographical-self element with memories just like humans, but have no development plans beyond fulfilling instinct. Does that disqualify them from the label? “Medium” level animals have most of the same instinctual tasks as us to complete, can feel physical pain, but do not have the same level of emotional feeling that primates, dogs, cetaceans, and other near-humans have. Machines that humans create, not usually understood as any different from static non-living material, have the consciousness of a programmed task to complete, which can be thought of as artificial instinct, perceiving and inputting data just like the living, but with no sense of the self or others, and assumably, no pain. Veganism is seen as more ethical than animal eating. As just another chemical reaction forcing one to abide by programmed survival, pain could be evolved out of an organism, perhaps one day the wealthy humans that have no use for it. Would being unable to experience something we consider as elemental to consciousness as suffering make them less conscious? Even non-mechanical particles “know” how they react with other chemicals, and whether they can stably exist or must decay, with no knowledge of the self or meaning.
Our emotional self can be seen as an obvious evolutionary creation, putting pain and happiness to failure and success in relationships that could lead to reproduction or cooperation, feeding our kin, and making possible the lives of the next generation. Our ego allowed us to create agriculture and population density, maximizing the simplest reptilian goals. These developments have brought both sustainability and the lack thereof, increasing the carrying capacity of earth, but decreasing the longevity of it as an appropriate environment for humanity, a fact our instinctual programming is not aware of. Evolution isn’t conscious. If it were, melding our emotions and actions deliberately, would that make us individuals less conscious, or does the random force of nature have the same manipulative effect? Wherever you draw the line of consciousness and unconsciousness, how could something so magical and un-secular-seeming develop from just a series of successful genetic mutations? I feel inclined to believe it’s more than the methodical advancement of brainpower having a side effect of advanced consciousness. Though quashable at any moment, if it were true that there’s a specific point of self-awareness coming into existence, would that be the most important thing in the universe, suddenly creating meaning?
We feel sorrow for a species or language going extinct, more so than individual deaths of strangers, but where’s the meaning behind that loss of category? Is it just revealing of our home’s temporality? We want the people we’re directly connected with to have better lives for longer, experiencing as little as possible of the emotional or physical pain that makes us unique compared to the machines we build or plants we eat. Sometimes, this is at the expense of everyone we don’t know. Those emotional connections that we can loosely associate with evolutionary instinct are not conscious. If each consciousness individual chooses to help family and friends, influenced by instinct, and not necessarily the human race in general, does that mean that humanity’s ultimate survival is unimportant, even to itself?
The evolutionary step of our ego came with massive consequences. It created the need to change the world around us in ever-novel ways, through agriculture, science, and construction. While we can assume the same kind of pain and awareness we have exist in other species and existed in humans before they started developing agriculture, the fundamental difference between the modern human behavior and the behavior of any other clump of particles in the universe is the denial and resistance towards nature. Is this ego conscious, or as automata as other physical needs and processes? Is everything we do, including intellectually, just to fulfill physical needs, with no realized inner influence?
Maybe we’re consciously aware there’s no meaning, while still feeling the burden of meaning through emotions. To cope with this and ward off boredom, we spend time not needed for physical survival on creation and consumption of art. That occupation of time, absolutely essential for sanity, causes you to lose awareness. Perhaps, the highest level of consciousness is recognizing that consciousness is pointless. Yet, how important is being aware and stepping outside of the machine-like completion and fulfillment instinct? Does feeling enlightened about meaninglessness make you somehow more conscious, more human? Do whales, with their great intellect but a lack of lasting material expression capabilities, experience this phenomenon? If so, perhaps they’re more conscious than us, more philosophical than the overburdened human.
If consciousness is a spectrum, does that imply a hierarchy of innate importance or greatness between species? Humans and animals share a meaningless instinct towards maximizing reproduction for species survival, as well as sentience observed by chemicals. We extend that survival to arts, unnecessarily long survival, destruction, and ethics, maintaining homeostasis and reason to live. We gain pain beyond physical: discontentment, boredom, loss of love, and anxiousness. These feelings are complex and difficult to experience and work through. Despite occupying our time, they’re accessory to the animal instincts. Even if “meaningless,” and even if we’re more of a passive experiencer than controller, they’re beautiful in a profound way. They assure us that, at least for a brief moment in time, an empty universe means something to someone perceiving it, and can be altered by something able to discuss what meaning is. Even the highest awareness is still just another element in a mysterious ecosystem, where we believe we can decide what gets us through the day, but we can never know whether that belief is true, what put us in the day, whether the day will be taken away from us, and who else has the experience of a day.