26 January, 2007

Why are we conscious?

It’s a serious question. Evolution doesn’t waste our time building elaborate cognitive equipment that has no survival benefits. So why do we have it? Most animals seem to manage perfectly well without it – or at least with such tiny amounts that it barely warrants the name. Even the other great apes don’t seem to have much of it, not in comparison to us.

So many books have been written on this topic in the past few years and so many academic papers, that I’ll assume you know most of the arguments. It is now flavour of the month in psychology, neurophysiology and philosophy. (It’s something that Wifie and I often talk about since her rattlesnake encounter more than a decade ago.) Yet for all the millions of words being written, no-one seems to have any idea what consciousness is for. The best that people have come up with is that it is some kind of illusion the brain creates for us to give us continuity of identity. This kind of ‘explanation’ just begs so many questions that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

I read an article by the philosopher John Searle last week on the subject of free will. Searle has never impressed me but he’s very famous for being controversial about artificial intelligence. However, it got me wondering yet again about why we’re conscious. And then, in a flash, it hit me.

Like everyone else, for all these years, I had been asking the wrong question. The question isn’t ‘why am I self-aware?’ but ‘why am I aware of the world?’ The answer seems obvious at first. It is so that I can interact with the world – to get food and shelter and mates. What’s more, all the other animals – even my shiftless cat, Yuli – must have a similar awareness to mine. I know this because they too manage to find food, shelter and mates, and do a pretty good job of it. So what is special about my awareness? What have I got that they don’t?

What it is, is that my awareness of the world has a causal model built into it. I not only see the leaves falling but I know there are reasons why they fall. I not only see the birds arriving, I know they are here to bathe in our bird-bath. In fact, I can create long, elaborate causal chains that link this moment to many other moments in the past and the future and I can reason about them. I can guide my behaviour by reasoning about causality. That is what consciousness is all about. It is a special kind of awareness of the world that provides a model that includes causality and agency, and that I can reason about.

Of course, this gives me a huge advantage: well worth the extra cost of supporting all those energy-hungry brain mechanisms. And it explains so much that is currently a mystery. It explains what consciousness is and what it is for. It explains why I have the capacity to do linear, propositional reasoning (something that does not come at all easily to a neural network such as a brain). It explains why this kind of intelligence gives us such an evolutionary advantage. Most importantly, it explains why I have self-awareness – because my own behaviour is there in the world too and it has to be fitted into the bigger picture I am modelling. What better way to explain my actions that to postulate an ‘I’ that does things for its own reasons? What better way to explain my own actions than to extend my conscious awareness to my own internal thoughts and feelings? After all, the basic mechanism for awareness of internal activity is already, necessarily, in place in order for me to be able to reason about awareness at all.

It even explains my sense of having free will. Briefly, as Searle points out, for us to believe we have free will, there must be an experience of a ‘causal gap’ in the chain of thought that leads to our decisions – otherwise our decisions have obviously been caused by our reasoning and are not ‘free’. However, our consciousness is very, very limited. Only the merest glimpse of what goes on in the rest of our brain – which uses a kind of processing completely and utterly different from the way conscious thought proceeds – is afforded to our self-awareness. The thoughts and feelings we become aware of in ourselves are treated as premises or primitive facts by our consciousness. Pieces of knowledge, decisions, emotions, urges to action, just pop into our awareness fully-formed by the rest of the brain and our consciousness then needs to make them fit into its causal models. No wonder the mind confabulates (another thing this explains) and no wonder our will seems free.

I’m glad I’ve finally understood what it is all about. However, I don’t look forward to reading all the half-baked ideas about it that will still continue to be published until someone else with a much higher profile than me works it out too.

(I am also obliged to point out – on pain of dire and prolonged suffering – that Wifie knew it was something like this all along and just hadn’t put it into word so clearly, that’s all.)


Gorilla Bananas said...

"Even the other great apes don’t seem to have much of it, not in comparison to us."

I find that offensive. How would you know unless you were an ape?

Wifie said...

Hi. Wifie here. After the back-handed acknowledgement, I have to say the following. I had thought for some time that self awareness was not the beginning of the consciousness process. I held that awareness of others had led to the awareness of self. The awarenss of others had the evolutionary advantage of enabling cooperation and thus better survival rates.

Like gorilla bananas, I admire the great apes but even their strongest advocates admit that they have the reasoning powers of a five year old human at best. How brigh did you feel at 5, GB?

graywave said...

Look, let me say right now that I apologise unreservedly to any great apes reading this blog.

As for cooperation with others, well, bees and ants seem to get by without self-awareness...

(On the advice of my lawyers I wish to point out that I hold insects in the highest regard and in no way intend these remarks to be derogatory.)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Wifie et al. are reading some Eastern philosophy. It seems to me that if all those people that are going to be tossing these half-baked ideas around would do the same, we could wrap this up by, oh, 2025 or so. 2050 the latest.

At any rate, I believe we're getting close to the nut.

Thanks, Wifie.

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