Consciousness gives us the ability to plan, strategize, and anticipate. Consciousness researcher Mark Solms describes awareness of our actions and perceptions as contextualized affect, or put another way, consciousness exists to help complex creatures (like humans) make fast decisions to reduce uncertainty .
We might think that our conscious experience reflects an objective reality but it doesn’t. All experience is an illusion. Brains make predictions of the world and compare these predictions against data from our senses. Our senses evolved to be useful to us. They provide us with data we use to survive in our environmental niche. Our perceptions are a tiny slice of the potential realities of the universe. For example, we can only see about 0.0035% of the entire “rainbow of radiation.”
The experiences of other animals offer a window into alternative realities. “Every animal is enclosed within its own sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world,” writes Ed Yong in The Atlantic. The word for this is Umwelt, which was defined and popularized by the Baltic German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909. Umwelt is an animal’s perceptual world. “Our Umwelt is all we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion that every creature shares.”
We make good use of technology to give us insight into alternative Umwelts. Astronomers use technology that captures stimuli no animal can sense: x-rays, radio waves, gravitational waves from black holes. Biologists use electrodes to listen to the pusles of electric fish. Technology makes the invisible visible and the inaudible audible, giving us awareness of the experience of other creatures.
Consciousness has real causal powers. The feeling of needing to eat is different from simply needing to eat. Affect—the feelings coming from our bodies—drives what we do from moment to moment. What we become aware of—what attention deems as salient features of the world—are features that minimize uncertainty in the hypotheses about how to meet our needs. This means that our perceptions are oriented to what matters to us. Mark Solms explains that humans, sharks, and bats live in subjective worlds because each species is driven to select its own perceptual world. “You perceive objects and events only when you notice them, and different ones are salient to each species.”
We regularly outsource our thinking to technology. Can we outsource some of our feelings, offer us a way to build a deeper awareness of other beings—both human and non-human, creating an Umwelt-enabled empathy by manipulating our conscious experience.
Great Human Strength: Our consciousness helps us prioritize conflicting needs and decide on the best action in context.
Great Human Weakness: Our conscious awareness is a tiny sliver of the spectrum of reality.
Machine Opportunity: Designs that help us access other living beings' lived experiences so we can think and act beyond human-centeredness.
Machine Threat: Designs that reinforce human exceptionalism.