The materialistic view is that consciousness is an emergent property of a large number of interacting cells in the brain. The question we would all like to have answered is what is it exactly about these cells and interactions that give rise to consciousness. Does the number of cells matter? Neuroscientists have shown that primates, dolphins and elephants possess self awareness and most would believe that they also have some form of consciousness. I haven’t done a survey but perhaps a smaller set of scientists believe that this extends to all mammals and some birds. However, if you believe that not all animals have consciousness then what sets the cutoff scale? What is the difference between the animal with the smallest brain that has consciousness and the one with the largest brain that does not.
I think it is safe to say that most people don’t think that insects have consciousness. While an ant is, in the words of Utah mathematical biologist Fred Adler, “stupid but persistent”, an ant colony can seem quite “intelligent”. They are adaptive to changing conditions and some species of ants domesticate other species. Would an ant colony have a form of consciousness? How about a colony of bacteria? The Australian radio show “All in the mind”, had a fascinating episode on bacteria recently (see here). Philosopher Pamela Lyon talked about the predatory soil bacterium myxococcus xanthus, which hunts in packs, lures and traps E. coli, and exhibits division of labour. Colonies have a self identity and individual mobs will war with other mobs. Hence a colony of myxococcus could be said to have some form of self awareness, but does it also have a form of consciousness?
There are 100 billion or so neurons in the brain and perhaps 10 to 50 times as many glial cells. I would venture that there are at least that many numbers of individual multicellular organisms on the planet earth, and many more if we include single cellular organisms. These organisms all interact in a complicated and nonlinear way. So, could there be a form of collective consciousness of the life on earth? James Lovelock proposed that life on earth was a super-organism he called Gaia but he was mostly talking about the biomass on earth self-regulating like a single organism. Well why stop there? Maybe Gaia has a self-awareness and consciousness. Maybe there are multiple super organisms that can interact? Maybe there are hierarchies of super-organisms?
How would we know if any of this is possible? Is there a way for the collective consciousness to communicate with its components and vice versa? Would Gaia know that her “cells” or at least some of them are conscious themselves? There is no reason to believe that the two would be commensurate in any way. Obviously time and spatial scales would be very different but there could be other reasons that would make communication difficult.
If we think of ourselves as the components of a collective consciousness then it really brings the question of free will to the fore. What would it mean for Gaia to have free will? If we have free will does that mean that Gaia could not have it and vice versa?