Is consciousness needed to do science?

On a forum I occasionally follow, a question was asked: "Can science exist if no one is conscious to do it?" Someone argued that the answer is YES since genetic algorithms and artificial life are implementing a kind of scientific process.

To this, someone else noted that evolution also uses genetic algorithms and asked: "Are you prepared to say that every tree in the woods is practicing science and that science has existed since the advent of life?"

My answer to that question is YES; life is practicing science.

DNA is a symbolic language with four letters. You could consider a gene to be a word, a chromosome to be a sentence, an organism to be a paragraph, and a species to be a book. Consider that all the current life on the planet is the accumulated knowledge of all those books which together represent the current best theory of the world that life has constructed so far. A symbolic theory or model of the world is precisely what constitutes science.

In particular, a tree, for example, uses the theory of the world that states:

  • there are various minerals and water in the soil of this planet,
  • there are certain gases in the atmosphere of this planet,
  • there is gravity that provides a direction to grow from the soil to the atmosphere,
  • there is a certain amount of sunlight available at certain wavelengths in the atmosphere
  • that the minerals, water, gases and sunlight that can be combined to produce energy carrying molecules (carbohydrates like sugar), and
  • that the "sugars" can be used to grow the size of the tree - which then (exponentially) increases the rate of sugar production.

That alone certainly sounds like quite a bit of earth science, physics, and chemistry. However, that is not all the tree "knows" - it also knows biology! It knows about the other life that can prevent the tree from growing and it has both active and passive defenses against those other predatory living organisms. The tree knows about the seasons of the year and the likely range of extremes of weather it might experience. The tree also knows that there is a community of other trees that it is living among and potentially competing against.

The tree also knows that there are also other trees that can provide pollen to fertilize its seeds and to try out new scientific ideas to produce even better trees in the next generation. New scientific ideas are generated whenever a tree (or organism) reproduces in the presence of mutations and the recombining of ideas using sex. It can take many generations for the new idea to be accepted and widely duplicated in the species. Mini-scientific revolutions occur as species become extinct and as new species arise.

The tree knows all this by interpreting the words of its DNA symbolic language and by interacting with the environment - which is congruent with what a human scientist would do as she would perform experiments to test her understanding of the current best scientific theory.

The abstract symbolic knowledge contained in all the DNA of life on this planet is life's accumulated symbolic scientific knowledge about this part of the solar system. However, who or what is it that "understands" this symbolic knowledge? I would argue that the understanding occurs on multiple levels:

  • All individual living cells are the agents that directly read (and reread and copy) the symbolic DNA language and understand how to do practical things with that knowledge. The "practical things" are whatever functions that cell performs for the organ that contains it.
  • The organs composed of living cells are the next level that may be performing various mechanical, fluidic or chemical process for the organism as a whole.
  • The organism as a whole is the next level of understanding (and implementing) the symbolic knowledge contained in the DNA.
  • Finally, the biosphere of interlocking and competing organisms is the final level of understanding of the science contained in the symbolic DNA language contained in that biosphere.

In summary, the total biomass on this planet constitutes the"entity" (or scientist) who understands the "science" contained in the symbolic DNA language that evolution has discovered. Evolution is essentially the continuously changing accumulated biomass on the planet since life began 4 billion years ago. For the vast majority of those 4 billion years, the medium used to store the symbolic language of science was DNA molecules. There must have been something before DNA, but that is the problem that abiogenesis will eventually solve.

However, in the blink of an eye (on that evolutionary time scale), evolution has found that by using humans and human brains, it can now store the accumulated scientific knowledge in an entirely new symbolic medium - human language. At first, it was "stored" in an oral tradition of human language; then more recently in written symbolic language and now in electronic symbolic language. Now, for the first time, a single organism (a human scientist) can understand and extend a significant portion of that accumulated scientific knowledge. Until humans came along, that activity of understanding and extending accumulated scientific knowledge only took place on the entire scale of life from the individual cells up to the current accumulated biomass of the earth.

So, unless you claim that the whole biomass of the planet has always been a conscious entity, science is certainly possible without consciousness. What an interesting time to be conscious - where we, as individuals, directly extend evolution's scientific theory of the universe! And it is happening right here, on Quora!

The answer to this question hinges on what is meant by "science" and "doing science."

In today's world, "science" refers to a community of practitioners that originally formed in Europe in the 1400s (Leonardo da Vinci's time) and is now global and highly sophisticated. This community has developed methods for finding structure and patterns in nature. The methods include the "scientific method" of experimentation, modern day statistics, and an elaborate network of universities, institutes, and scholarly publications. The by-product of Science has been an extensive framework for understanding the world, captured in textbooks, taught in schools, and used to create technology.

In today's world, "doing science" means integrating with the global community of scientists to add to the world's knowledge.

Can an unconscious algorithm do science?

It is possible that an algorithm could be sufficiently sophisticated that it could devise and conduct its own experiments, write its own papers, and engage with other scientists. It is hard to imagine such an algorithm not being conscious, but who knows.

Is a person or algorithm "doing science" if it is not integrated with the scientific community and does not use the scientific method or build on the world's scientific knowledge? Maybe, but it seems only marginally "science."

Are trees "practicing science" because they are using "genetic algorithms"?

I think this has to be "no." The evolution of biological life is a form of technology, not science. Evolution is a building process, where trial and error produces ever-more-effective systems that "work." Evolution has produced the human world of Science, but Science works at the pleasure of humanity as an optimization of technical thought. The ultimate test for the value of a scientific endeavor is whether it can be used for something, even if that use is the production of more science.

Interesting question, but one that comes with a bit of an assumption, that science is a singular activity.

Consciousness is not required to find mathematical relationships out of statistics. Consciousness may not be required to perform many experiments. However neither of those two items classify as being the whole of science.

Consciousness is required to interpret the relationships is the same sense as interpreting a painting, except that similar interpretations can be ruled to be more effective than others. Consciousness is required for the 90 odd percent of experiments that will need a creative mind to devise, that can then be automated once it's devised. This is as much science as the first part, but cannot be outsourced to genetic algorithms or neural networks. However, working together with humans, non -conscious intelligences can be a boon to science.

Edit: this is all predicated on the assumption that the semi-directed creativity of genetic algorithms remain as inefficient as the fully- directed creativity assumed by a consciousness, which could change with a non-deterministic touring machine.

Consciousness is a state of mind of awareness of all that is happening around us.This awareness is a common factor for humans & all living creatures including plants,animals,insects etc.The difference between awareness of humans & other living beings is,that humans have extra qualification of understanding,analyzing & deriving practical & concluding evidence of "Nature's" manifestation & effects on living beings.This extra cognitive perception of humans is not mere awareness but "Consciousness" of nature & happenings around them.The awareness of other creatures can be categorized as ability to live with "Instincts" & are incapable of deriving any intelligent conclusions like humans.Neither they have any intelligent perception of deriving any meaningful conclusions like humans,nor they have any intelligent perception of nature & its attributes.The sensual perception also varies in degrees to their bodies & living conditions around them.The type of food,liking & adaptation to its surroundings will all vary according to their anatomical & physiological requirements.The amount of intelligence varies according to the design,structure & purpose of its existence & humans have the highest purpose & ability to transform themselves to define & execute their goals,which is otherwise not possible for other living beings. It appears that every creature lives with their built in capabilities rather than self created scientific way of modifying one's surroundings.This striking difference makes man to discover scientific gadgets & observe Universal phenomena in different angles.There are many limits to human comprehension & it is virtually impossible to obtain supremacy over nature,which binds everything in this world with its unique orientation & fixed laws of governance.

Consciousness is a fundamental pre-requirement to achieve scientific progress. If one is not conscious about nature & limitations of life,there is no possibility of progressing in science & technology.Nature is endowed with repositories of all sorts & makes humans to explore & experiment to get maximum benefits for "Intelligent Survival",which is a glaring example for differentiating between humans & others.

The next question arises as to how this special consciousness is gifted to man.The real gift to man is "Brain",the seat of intellectual pursuits & achievements.Billions of "Neurons" forming a formidable & beautiful network & configuration,controls & activates all actions & reactions of man."Soul" along with "Mind" makes man "Conscious" of his/her environments. Where from this mind is coming?No doubt,naturally the "Brain" is the root cause of "Mind". If there is no brain,sensual perceptions find a dead end & makes a man,a mere configuration of bone,muscles & blood.Brain is a very complex structure,which can never be duplicated by humans in a laboratory.The brain is a symbolic representation of whole Universe with its network.Neurologists know how this network functions magnificently & without any conscious efforts to make neurons to interact,communicate,transform,deduce & push out the information for cognizance of man.This faculty of brain is assisted by sensual perceptions & makes the mind to manifest & react to the circumstances with intelligent work of brain.The energy to the brain is derived from blood flow,which is controlled & monitored by "Heart".The heart gets its blood by the food containing nutrients,water & oxygen.The heart functions continuously,all the 24 hours in a day & throughout the year & throughout the life,without any break,unless there is malnutrition or damage caused to the heart due to circumstances beyond control.The whole system of our body functions like a machine being switched on only once,when "Soul" enters "Body" at the time of birth & gives life to it.There cannot be any other mysticism than life for us to understand the "Nature".With all these parameters working automatically,as if some external power is propelling it,makes our "Consciousness" to understand & deliver scientific results & there is absolutely no doubt that "Consciousness" is part & parcel of "Science & Technology".


"Consciousness is the "Prime Mover" of "Science & Technology" & without "Consciousness",nothing on earth can be achieved.

"With the blessings of Saptha Rishies & Almighty",

Is consciousness needed to do science?

Tailgating on Paul King's excellent answer to this question, I am inclined to argue that science is what scientists do, notwithstanding all of the support roles played by other people, machines, and algorithms. Indeed, even students of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are not always "doing science," although STEM students who are doing scientific experiments are, in fact, "doing science." At its core, science is a method of discovering and/or testing knowledge, and the vast majority of people who purport to be "doing science" are actually doing something else, albeit something that may be just as important. That is to say, like the creation of art, the "doing of science" is the province of sentient beings who are interacting with the material universe, although with very different means and very different ends.

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