Thursday, June 14, 2007

Consciousness and kinematics

Consciousness looks like it might be an adaption to multi-sensory life on the move, in that the blur of vision, the swirl of smell, the cacophony of sound and the sum of gravity and the various propulsive forces we're exerting with our limbs are a lot to be dealing with directly, if you've got a gazelle to catch (see Merker, B. Consciousness and Cognition 14: 115–118). In other words, there seems to be some speed and efficiency to be gained from walling that off and handing control to a front end that deals with just a simplified synthesis of these inputs, the content of which is the outside world and its happenings, and the disentangled subtracted ingredients of which include, for example, the "merely apparent" motion that our eyes would otherwise causes us every time we glance sideways. A world view sort of like the "image stabilized" view many digital cameras provide.

A nice illustration of a speed improvement that an animal might derive from a "guidance system" that works with a self-subtracted representation of the world might be how a dog fetches or chases: My dog, at least, pursues his line of sight, so that if a person ahead and to his left is tossing a ball to another to his right, he will trace an arc in the grass in his sprint after the hurling orb. When a throw is so weak that the ball would fall short, any human child with a little experience in sports, having had a moment to track the ball, could trace a straight-line course to where the arcing ball is bound to land and so might beat the dog. That which confers advantage in NBA draft selection could also confer advantage in natural selection.

But would it be fair to conclude that the child pursues the ball consciously while the dog does it only unconsciously? Or are dogs and people alike conscious, whereas my dog is just dumb? (Snoopy succeeded as a shortstop, after all.) Or are canines, as carnivorous hunters, just predisposed by evolution to see any moving target as animate and liable to flee adaptively to his or her pursuit? (reorienting always to maximize headway and so sure to extend its lead if a predator were ever to deviate from a dead-reckoned bee-line)

I imagine raptors and other high-nesting bird lineages might have evolved efficiency at intercepting a passively falling body (such as junior or his egg), but to the extent that everything falls at the same speed (shout out to Galileo), that may not have required anything so fancy as consciousness. Do many animals besides ourselves seem to distinguish passive motion and to know the laws that apply?

1 comment:

John said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.I came across your site via Prospect/Scruton.

Please check out this site which gives a unique understanding of the non-human inhabitants of this mostly non-human world---and of Consciousness spelt with a capital C.


Plus references on Consciousness and Light---or Conscious Light