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?

1 thought on “A Function for Consciousness”

  1. This was a thought provoking read, I too am suprised that most science minded folk and programmers want to insist it is a feedback loop neural network which at some certain degree of complexity, has this self-awareness and sentience emerge. Emergence doesn’t cut it for me, I think penrose mentioned structures that could potentially resemble quantum nano-tubules but I never saw anything scientific published on that hypothesis so I doubt it. One thing is for sure, the mind/body problem is far from solved.

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