A Function for Consciousness

One of the biggest open questions for naturalistic science is, “What function does consciousness serve?”. If evolution is true, it would have been far more efficient to endow persons with consciousness-like behaviors without having to resort to actual consciousness. This was the point of Chalmer’s zombie thought experiments. Philosopher John Searle considers consciousness to be so unlikely under naturalism, that he concludes instead that dualism is true! The Peter Watts novel, “Blindsight“, suggested that consciousness might even be a harmful parasite, due for extermination by a less conscious (and therefore, more efficient) rival.

Most naturalists don’t even try to explain consciousness. Perhaps the best attempt was by Daniel Dennett, in the aptly-named “Consciousness Explained”. Or maybe we should look to Drescher’s “Good And Real”, which elaborates on Dennett’s “Cartesian Theater” idea. But these are just attempts, and all too often, naturalists resort to eliminativism, declaring that self-awareness is simply an illusion. Raw eliminativism is weak sauce, though, because it doesn’t explain what function the illusion provides. Consciousness might be an illusion, but you haven’t yet explained what utility the illusion provides — “Was nützen mir das?”.

As I said, this is a BIG problem, and I’m always looking for plausible answers. In this recent interview, Bryony Pierce suggests one potential answer:

My view is that [consciousness] has the function of acting as an interface between cognitive and affective processes, enabling goal-directed action that is sensitive to both needs and opportunities, and grounding reasons. Practical rationality requires interaction between two things: means-end reasoning (cognition), and affective responses (in a loose sense that encompasses all feelings and sensations with motivational force).

Emotion and sensation provide information about physiological states and needs, whereas cognitive processing deals with information about opportunities in the external world. Needs are continually changing, as are opportunities to satisfy those needs, so interaction between the systems responsible for monitoring bodily states and the environment is needed if our bodies are to be able to coordinate the two. This requires a common currency, which consciousness provides.

I mentioned the grounding of reasons, too. Affective responses provide that grounding – the way we feel about anticipated outcomes is sufficient to convince us that we have reason to pursue certain courses of action. Without affective responses, we get an infinite regress of ‘why’s – there would be no reason to prefer one state of affairs to another.

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?

The New Godwin’s

Charles Stross recently revealed that he uses a software package called “Scrivener” to keep track of the complicated plots of novels he’s writing. His disclosure prompted an interesting discussion about the functions of literature, the uses of software, and Tolstoy.

One bright bulb, however, took umbrage at all of this talk of literature, and tossed a stink bomb:

What you think of Tolstoy (or pretty much any “classic”) depends on your relationship to the modern world and modern learning. If you think that fact-free noodling about the nature of man, society, god, nature, and so on is just awesome, you may find something of value in them. On the other hand, if your attitude to the world is “we’ve had 5000 years of people making shit up; how about we concentrate a little more on what can actually be establish factually rather than the opinion’s of some dude whose primary qualification is that he can write well?” then you’re likely to be rather less impressed.

To take an apparently trivial example, which is nonetheless easily understood, IS it in fact the case that all happy families are alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? Should we accept this as true just because Tolstoy says so? Or should we look into the matter rather more scientifically?

You see people using essentially the same template, only slightly reworded, to respond to a surprising variety of discussion topics. I think of it as the new variant of Godwin’s Law. The moment this argument comes into play, you know that all rational discussion has ended.

Trolling people by comparing them to Hitler is so cliched, it’s practically ironic. But you can still catch people off-guard by accusing them of superstitious thinking, and you score extra troll points by insinuating that their “superstitious thinking” is backed up by an appeal to authority. When the hapless victim protests, “I was talking about poetry/metaphor/love/art/beauty or whatever, you know they’ve swallowed your bait, hook, line, and sinker. Just feign ignorance, presuppose that their goal was to make testable hypotheses (isn’t that the goal of all poetry and romance?), then continue berating them for “making shit up”.

Mark my words: this is the new Godwin’s, and it’s catching on fast. It will soon be bigger than Hitler.

Not To Keep

From “Not To Keep“, by Robert Frost —

“Nothing but what good care
And medicine and rest, and you a week,
Can cure me of to go again.” The same
Grim giving to do over for them both.
She dared no more than ask him with her eyes
How was it with him for a second trial.
And with his eyes he asked her not to ask.
They had given him back to her, but not to keep.