Basis of Consciousness
By: Jim Virkler
When our neighborhood birds decided to engage in high-spirited, ebullient behavior, our thoughts wandered toward, “What caused this sudden display?” Description of the behavior is easy; explanation is complex and difficult.
Our previous post on “Exuberant Wildlife” described the collective antics of thirteen different bird species in the woods behind our home one recent day. Their behavior seemed to express energy, excitement, and enjoyment. Their more ordinary and deliberate activities were put on hold for roughly 45 minutes, replaced by what appeared to be an instance of simple fun. Their antics were somewhat reminiscent of playground antics of human children. We were tempted to anthropomorphize this group of animals.
The term “consciousness” may be interpreted in many ways. Without formally defining the term, we would agree that humans have a high degree of consciousness from an early age. Humans are self-aware and aware of their surroundings. What about our birds? Are they self-aware? Are they aware of their surroundings? Do they have emotions? Memories? Sensations? Human consciousness has been studied and reported on in thousands of books and articles. Consider: Do higher level animals experience consciousness in a manner similar to humans?
For this discussion we will take these aspects of consciousness: the ability to sense conditions in their surroundings and make behavioral decisions. It was obvious that each of our neighborhood birds observed their avian companions and made a “decision” to frolic with the group. Their decisions brought enjoyment to themselves and their human observers. Perhaps the individual bird’s “decision” was a reflexive expression of a mysterious group action, but we do not have full knowledge about the dynamics of this event.
Either way, we are aware of mental phenomena in living things which result in physical responses. These mental phenomena are the basis for consciousness. What actually happens in an animal’s brain? The wondrous brain is composed of simple matter—primarily chemical combinations of a few dozen of the approximately 100 known elements we studied in Chemistry 101. Have you ever wondered how the interactions of simple atoms in a living entity produce consciousness—sensory awareness, emotion, fear, joy, pleasure, pain, response to stimuli, intelligence, memory, and freedom to make decisions and choices?
Commentators have stated that mind and matter are interconnected at the atomic level. Consciousness, whether in neighborhood bird groups or in human beings, relates in some unknown way to physical atoms and molecules. Scientists have been discussing the problem of consciousness for centuries. The literature on this topic is overwhelming, perhaps because the nature of consciousness is one of the last major unsolved problems in science.
We ask readers to contemplate the mystery of how ordinary matter in the form of atoms and molecules may come together under some conditions to produce a conscious living creature, while the same atoms and molecules could assemble in a non-living configuration. Fundamentally, this is a mystery to science, but not to the Creator.
Job 33:4 (NIV) is offered to help us contemplate the mystery of consciousness and from where it springs: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.