Consciousness and the Atomic Bomb

                                    Consciousness and the Atomic Bomb




The atomic bomb was invented and produced because the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of developing just such a bomb. After World War II a cold war between Russia and America led to the proliferation of atomic weapons and their increased destructive power. An arms race rapidly led to enormous stockpiles of ridiculously powerful weapons capable of destroying the planet. The result was widespread fear and anxiety, crippling economic conditions, and a general worsening of international relations. It would have been far better for all concerned had the arms race never occurred, but it was impossible to reach an agreement that would stop it, mainly because of lack of trust. We are still living with this nuclear arms race. Each side feels it must balance its weaponry against the weaponry of the other side, even if the outcome is bad for everyone—dangerous, expensive, and anxiety producing. If there were a central planner, it would be possible to avoid an arms race, by simply reducing or eliminating altogether the stockpiles on each side, thus maintaining military parity while avoiding the excesses of large nuclear arsenals. But no such central planner exists, so the arms race spirals out of control in a kind of vicious positive feedback loop. More people will die more horribly in case of conflict and the production of weapons diverts resources from more beneficial goals. There is nothing good about an arms race, but it is distressingly easy for them to develop.

            Biologists have adopted the concept of an arms race to describe the relations between animal species.  [1]Arms races are ubiquitous in the animal world, the case of predator and prey being the most obvious. As the predator gets faster the prey has to get faster, and as the prey speeds up, so must the predator. Natural selection favors faster predators, but also faster prey, and in turn faster predators, and then even faster prey. Equilibrium is reached only when both sides cannot get any faster, or when the cost of getting faster is outweighed by other factors. Thus the legs of predator and prey are under selective pressure to get longer and sleeker, even if the chance of breaking them increases, and even if longer legs divert resources from other worthwhile aims (more offspring, better balance, bigger brain). If there were a central planner this biological arms race could be halted, to the mutual benefit of the animals locked in it, but there is no such planner, so the arms race spirals to greater and greater extremes. Natural selection pushes animals to improve their weaponry (e.g. enormous antlers) in competition with other animals, even though it would be better to reduce the weaponry on both sides. The process is irrational from the point of view of everyone’s welfare, but the logic of the situation prevents a more sensible solution. Each animal in effect thinks, “I don’t want my antlers any bigger, but if the others are going to make bigger antlers I will have to as well”. The entire biological world runs on such arms races once you analyze it: every animal is trying to outdo other animals, with the result that adaptations occur that would not occur if there were a central planner. Instead of spending all their resources reproducing, like any good self-replicator, organisms have to manufacture ways of outdoing the weaponry of their rivals. They stockpile armaments instead of growing families. They have to or they will perish at the hands (or teeth) of others. It’s not survival of the fittest but survival of the most heavily armed—even if that just means the fleetest legs or the most aerodynamic wings. Remember that prey animals are as dangerous to predators as predators are to prey, since the ability of prey to escape spells death for the predator. The legs of an antelope are as dangerous to a cheetah as the jaws of a cheetah are to an antelope. If a prey species were to evolve a cloak of invisibility that would be the end for the local predators: they could survive only by in turn developing eyes capable of seeing through the cloak. So the basic concept of evolution should be “the survival of the well-armed”: one animal will have a greater chance of reproducing than another if it is better armed than the other. And being armed better will always exact a cost in resources and a danger in outcome (the bigger and sharper the antlers the more damage they can do). If natural selection could find a way to evolve actual guns and bombs, it would no doubt do so—then the cheetah would not have to run after its prey at all. Indeed, if natural selection could evolve nuclear weapons, it would do that too (given that it had a competitive advantage), even if that meant the destruction of the planet—since natural selection has no foresight. Arms races seldom lead to anything inherently good.

            So far, so familiar: where does consciousness come into all this? As follows: consciousness is a weapon in an arms race. The logic of the biological arms race applies to the mind, and in particular to consciousness. Consciousness evolves as a response to the evolution of consciousness in rivals and foes, as atomic bombs “evolve” as a response to other atomic bombs. The process is no doubt extremely complex, as all evolutionary change is, but the outlines should be clear enough: consciousness was invented in an arms race, and it developed new forms as a result of a continuing arms race—as it was pitted against other consciousness. There was no need for consciousness except in the context of an arms race, and consciousness is not in itself of unique biological value—it is not an optimal solution to a reproduction problem. Consciousness is like cumbersome antlers or long brittle legs, not a trait of an ideal reproduction machine (the kind preferred by a hypothetical central planner). Why do I say this? First, we have to understand why consciousness evolved to begin with. I mean basic sentience—seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. It evolved, plausibly, because of predator avoidance: a prey animal needs to detect its predator if it going to have a chance of surviving, and so it develops sentience.  [2] It also needs to feel pain if it is to react appropriately to the attacks of predators. Almost all animals are prey to some animal at some point in their lives, even big cats, so an ability to consciously sense danger and respond to it is critical. But this leads to an arms race, because the predator now needs to get better at spotting its prey and then tracking it. The better the prey gets at predator-avoiding sentience the better the predator needs to get at prey-tracking sentience; and so it goes in a circle of positive feedback, just like the evolution of legs. Why is the vision of eagles so acute? It’s because their prey are so good at camouflage and other kinds of self-concealment. But it takes resources to manufacture and maintain high-resolution eyes that could be spent on other things, and likewise for elaborate camouflage; it would be better for both predator and prey if it were not necessary to devote so much energy to outdoing the other. There is an arms race going on and hence a need to be always one step ahead of the enemy, no matter the cost in other respects. Consciousness (the mind) therefore obeys the same “irrational logic” as other biological arms races. If we move to higher forms of consciousness, such as sophisticated reasoning about the future, we have the same story: each individual has to outdo other individuals in the game of reproductive rivalry, and hence there is a premium on more advanced forms of consciousness. Brains are selected in a biological arms race, as well as bodies, thus producing brains that are more elaborate than if there were no arms race going on. If animals were at peace with each other, not in a state of mortal competition, then their brains would not need to be as finely engineered as they are, and their consciousness correspondingly not so well developed (if developed at all).

            Although it is not easy to prove, I suspect that there would be no consciousness on earth if there were no arms races within and across species. This is because an efficient reproduction machine does not need consciousness (as with the bacteria that lived on earth for a couple of billion years before anything like consciousness emerged). It is only when organisms enter into arms races that luxury goods, like brains and minds, become necessary. Self-replication by itself has no tendency to produce consciousness. Atomic bombs are not produced in times of peace and harmony, and the same is true of conscious minds, because of their biological costliness. Consciousness is not an adaptation in the service of reproduction per se; it is an adaptation to the threats to reproduction caused by other organisms—just like big antlers and long legs. Animals would be better off without these adaptations, if it weren’t for the danger posed by others—just as we would all be better off without atomic bombs, if it weren’t that others insisted on possessing them.

            There are two reasons for this. First, as noted, consciousness, and with it a complex brain, is a very costly adaptation, using up vast amounts of the animal’s energy reserves—like atomic bombs and super-fast legs. That energy could be diverted to reproduction, ensuring more offspring (which is what the genes ultimately prize). Consciousness is a distraction from the prime biological imperative—as atomic bombs are a distraction from the prime political imperative to improve the wellbeing of citizens. Maybe some faint glimmerings of sentience would be useful independently of arms races, but most of it results from the necessity to outperform rivals and enemies. If they didn’t have it, you wouldn’t need it. As things stand, animals are armed to the teeth with consciousness in all its varieties, human beings in particular (and we certainly need it in spades to outsmart our natural predators). But second, consciousness introduces bad things into the world—it is by no means an unmixed blessing. For a primary modality of consciousness is pain, and with it fear and anxiety; consciousness brings suffering. The selfish genes don’t care about that: what matters from their point of view is maximum survival, and pain is a useful way to persuade animals to act so as to bring that about. Pain was selected because it maximizes gene reproduction, and individual suffering be hanged. No humane central planner would allow such a thing, especially given the amount of suffering nature contains. Animal consciousness, as it exists, brings pain; it does so because in the biological arms race pain enlarges the arsenal of weapons at the genes disposal. Consciousness is a key armament in the unending biological wars, but it can be hell to have it. Consciousness will help you win battles, but only because it can cause you pain—that is simply how the genes protect themselves from enemy fire. They build a body that houses them and that feels pain as a means of self-preservation: they make you suffer so that they may continue. Pain is really just another armament in the arms race—but one that harms the possessor of it. Pain protects the organism by making it miserable. We would be better off without it, but the arms race keeps it in existence.

            So consciousness is costly, painful, and unnecessary (relative to the prime biological imperative)—yet it exists. It exists because animals are locked in arms races from which they cannot escape, there being no all-powerful central planner. It doesn’t exist because it’s somehow a good thing; it’s like the atomic bomb in being an ultimately pointless outcome of a runaway arms race. Even simple sentience is not a good thing, especially given that pain is part of it. If a benevolent deity had decided to experiment with a self-replicating world, inventing DNA and sexual reproduction, there would be no need to allow arms races with their attendant drawbacks; so there would be no pressure to invent consciousness with its attendant drawbacks. A biological world without suffering would be far preferable to the world in which we live. If an arms race began to develop in this experimental world, the deity could step in to nip it in the bud, preventing each side from a massive build-up of expensive and nasty weapons (poisonous stings, ripping teeth, piercing horns, etc). Predator species would agree not to cull beyond a certain proportion of the prey species, while prey species would agree to give themselves up voluntarily in the same proportion—thus avoiding all the high speed chases, broken legs, daily anxiety, and wasted resources. Similarly, if consciousness started to gain a foothold because of a burgeoning arms race, both parties could make an arrangement, supervised by the deity, whereby an accommodation was reached obviating the need for consciousness. If the conflict had to do with territory, for example, it could be contractually agreed to share territory in a certain way, instead of fighting for it with every weapon at one’s disposal, including consciousness (perceiving, thinking, etc). This would no doubt be a sleepier world hovering just on the border of consciousness, but it would contain a lot less suffering and be far more economical of precious biological resources. A world without runaway arms races would be a world without any consciousness to speak of. It is only the egregious build-up of weapons in an arms race that causes consciousness to be propelled into existence. In an ideal world consciousness would be banned by international treaty, much like the atomic bomb. Anything good about it is strictly adventitious.  [3]



  [1] There is a good discussion of this in Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth (New York: Free Press), pp.382-90, from which I borrow.

  [2] I defend this theory in Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press), chapter 11. Other explanations for the origin of sentience may be defended, but the argument I give here will be essentially the same under these other explanations.

  [3] Of course, it is not to be denied that consciousness can have valuable side effects, such as art, science, and brotherly love. I have been speaking only of strict biological value, which is measured by number of offspring and gene proliferation. One consequence of the view proposed here is that a world without biological arms races is a more highly populated world, since energy can go into reproduction instead of arms build-up. Thus consciousness has the side effect of keeping the population down.  We may also be glad that we have consciousness, but that does not negate the fact that it arose as a side effect of an arms race.

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