Imagine you are a baby a few hours after birth. The moment you came in the world you were handled, washed, cuddled, and ended up alone in your crib. Until this moment a baby might not have a conscious self. It was one with nature, coming from a natural process where he was just a part from the environment. In the first hours, a baby doesn’t have the power to control or change anything in his world. But something doesn’t feel right for this baby when he is lying there alone in his crib. The environment becomes colder and colder. Does he have control over his body warmth or is he merely a product where the body temperature slowly escapes his body like the laws of thermodynamics depict, causing him to die slowly? While you lie there, as a baby, you have no clue that anything you do will help you in this situation. You never had any feedback from the external environment, except some knocks on the womb and the swirling of amniotic fluid. So you move your extremities in the thin air but receive no feedback. You can’t grab on to something. You pee your pants, this provides you some warmth, but not soon after that, it gives you even more cold and the heat is continuing to escape your body. You try anything, but nothing works. Then, out of pure desperation you start to cry, instinctively, hoping for any feedback. Within a few seconds, a shape appears in your eyesight. Your first moment of feedback in this world. You are astonished, you caused something to happen in the world, you found a coherent pattern in the world, you are in control.
Well, you could question whether it was the baby who controlled the event or whether it was the mother who chose to look at her baby. You could question if the event (of the mother present at the time of the cry) wasn’t coincidentally occurring. And you could question whether the “instinct” to cry, leaves any causation for the baby to have. Did he choose to cry or was this just a product of evolution? Well, I believe, there is no causation ever. I believe everything is a chain which is evermore growing in complexity. In this blog, I will argue why I feel this way.
What is causation?
When you think about the question; what causes your breakfast to digest within your body? You could say your digestive system. That is true, but what is that? Well, my mouth, stomach, liver, pancreas, and colons digested my sandwich. That is true, but what causes your mouth to digest the food? Well in my mouth, my tongue, teeth, saliva, and jaws are crushing my sandwich, in my stomach my stomach acids, the contractions, and so on, and so on. Also, right answer. There were numerous, more than thousand things that (helped) causing your breakfast to digest. You only described broadly what happened in your mouth even though it is a very complex environment. The digestive system (and almost every system) have numerous layers that all contribute to a cause. We have to realize that each question is asked on a certain level, and we expect answers on the same level. If the questioner ask a general description, we answer accordingly with a general description like the case of the digestive system”. So questions themselves form what we think of as a causation. A question about causation isolates a certain level of specificity. Secondly, questions about causation isolate a certain time frame. Like what caused you to eat breakfast, or what caused the mom to look at her baby, could also be answered in different ways which are all true. Namely, I was hungry this morning (this morning), I always eat breakfast (the past years), I exist (since birth), there is a humanity (about 40.000 years ago), there is a universe (about 13 billions years), which all caused you to eat breakfast eventually. So if someone asks you; why do you love her? And you answer; well, because there is a universe, you are weirdly correct. Thirdly, causation is about distilling the main causes within a certain time frame. When someone asks you why did you eat breakfast? You might answer because I was hungry. But in fact, there are always multiple reasons for eating breakfast that determine whether you eat breakfast even though you don’t consider them as primary reasons like the fact of having groceries, if you have time to eat breakfast, the events later that day, and so on. A complex algorithm containing several (constant) reasons (where coupling and transitions play a large role) cause something to happen. Moreover, most of the time (I believe) we ignore the constant variables in our lives that determine a huge deal of our reasoning (and wrote a blog about that). But when we want to say this causes that, we need to distill the “main” cause and focus on that. Distilling the main causes needs a focus. So when we talk about causation, we need to keep in mind the three concepts; specificity, time-frame, and distilling the main cause within a certain time frame. Nevertheless, these three concepts are heavily connected to each other but each a little bit different. They all have something to do with focus. Namely, specificity is a focus on certain “appropriate” level, time-frame is a focus on a certain time period, and the distilling the main cause within a time-frame also requires focus on that happening. So in the end, causation seems to be a focus coming together on different levels; time, description, and event.
Feedback and coherent patterns
But let’s go back to that arbitrary place in time, where the baby had a singular reason for causing something (cold temperatures), on a singular level of broad description of his actions. This moment was point zero in time (for this baby), a singular point of reason (distilled on temperature), and a singular point of reasoning (on the appropriate level of thinking). At that time, the baby needs to do something to become warmer. Let’s say that when the baby does something to change the temperature is 1, and doing nothing is 0. So the baby has an initial sequence, some inner pattern. We’ll take 8 time frames, and one action is moving its joints for example. So the baby does this for a while with his joints; 01001010 and receives no coherent feedback from it environment. His mother is a separate time frame (which will form feedback later) that just looks occasionally at the crib with the sequence 0010010. The sequences 01001010 and 0010010 don’t cohere with each other, there is no correlation between the two sequences. But for crying, the baby finds a coherent pattern in his environment! For crying the sequences could be 01111111 for the baby, and 01111111 for the mom. You can see here that the sequences are (close to) equal. Mom is present whenever the baby is crying, making the baby and the mom sequences coupled together. But mom needs to solve the temperature issue to make the baby stop crying. And we suppose that moms solves this problem effectively, and we suppose that the baby only cries for warmth. Furthermore, in these situations we consider that there is no delay in the response of the mother or that the baby can account for the delay efficiently. But overall; when coupled, the baby feels control because of the coupling itself. As a cause of his actions, a similar pattern emerged into the world. It’s like making a wave with your hand in a still lake, where your (waving) movements correspond completely to the waves occurring in the water. You feel like you caused those specific waves, at that moment of time. You are like a god, summoning your will upon the world.
The link to consciousness
But without the ability to isolate a time frame in existence, to focus on a particular event, and to pick an appropriate level of zoom, you cannot determine causation. You will stand there waving your hand in the water in our billion years old universe where everything in the history contributed to the fact that you are waving your hand. While at the same time, there are billion events happening of a similar kind, on the largest scale and on the smallest scale and every scale in between. With focus you can zoom into specific events, select a time-frame, select the appropriate level and determine causes within this event. So maybe causation and thus focus, is fundamentally linked to human consciousness. At the birth of a baby, the time-frame of this child is of absolute zero, and consciousness arises. The baby can focus on events, he can select time-frames to zoom into on a level that is in correspondence to his environment. Maybe, then consciousness is the ability to depict a time-frame in time, to focus on a particular event at the appropriate level. Well, we believe that we become conscious from the day we are born (approximately). Our time-frame starts with the day we open our eyes. Secondly, our ability to focus might depict consciousness. Focus is the ability to zoom into something while being aware of the bigger picture, what I also call the reference frame (in this blog). A focus depicts the distinction between the one thing you focus on, and the other (or several) things you don’t want to focus on (from larger scales to similar objects or events). So focus by itself is decoupling events from one another. This is quite some power, and might make us human. How do we determine to focus on the (sequential) responses of our mother and not on the noises of the cracking wood of the crib? Well, maybe because our mother helps us solve our problems and does more than just cohering with our inner sequences (duh). But our problems also require a focus, if we don’t focus on them, are the problems there?
Life seems to come with a need to determine causation, a focus, and thus a distinction from things we call nature. We are born with an internal sequence that is our reference-frames, aka the setpoints of our system (like the temperatures we desire in our crib or the amount of darkness when we want to sleep). Through the sensory input of our body we can detect the external environment and process this in our brain. As follows, we will change behavior or change our minds to get us closer to the desired setpoint (homeostasis). Sometimes we can do this directly by wearing more clothes when we feel cold, sometimes we need or mom and just start to cry, and sometimes we try to change our mind to think differently about cold (what I tried to do). The ability to choose between these options is maybe what makes us conscious, this requires a focus and a mindset. Do we adapt to the sequences in our environment, or do we try to strengthen our own sequence to acquire full control across our environment? Do we search for an environment where we can do this? Or do we find a balance somewhere between adaptation and robustness where we can thrive? But somewhere, deep within us, there is something that is trying to find the right environment for ourselves. Something that makes us want to live, an inner sequence, a setpoint, that makes us, us.
Some things for further thinking:
– How does our “inner sequence” emerge? What is the causation in this?
– The relation between sensory input and consciousness
– How do we handle delay in feedback?
– How do we focus?
– The difference between causing things to happen in lifeless objects and in things with inherent rhythms (like animals)
– The relation between instincts, genomics, and the self