On Philosophy

August 29, 2006

Consciousness, a Different Approach

Filed under: Mind,Self — Peter @ 12:02 am

There are many competing theories that attempt to explain what special features of some mental states make them conscious. There are higher order theories, global sates theories, and self-referential theories. In these theories various ways of structuring mental states are considered, with the idea that the proposed structure explains the essential features of conscious experience. What such theories don’t address, however, is why such organizational features result in consciousness. Many of the proposed theories are simple enough that we could implement them in a computer, for example higher order theory is as simple as one mental state being directed at another. But even if we did the computer wouldn’t be conscious. So then, what really causes consciousness?

I will begin my investigation here by pointing out that no state in isolation could be considered conscious. If we took a snapshot of your brain that snapshot wouldn’t be conscious, even though all the information about that particular moment has been captured. In other words it only makes sense to talk about a conscious state when the state in question is part of a conscious system. Thus I think that we should investigate consciousness by first examining what features a system, one that exists for an extended period of time, must have to be considered conscious. A conscious state then would simply be one state of this system; we call it conscious only in virtue of being part of this larger system, not because of any intrinsic features.

So then, what are the defining features of a conscious system? There are three key elements. One is that it must to have a “self”, a store of information about the system itself, and this information must be modified over time to reflect the experiences of the system. Secondly it must have experiences, experiences that contain information about the external world (perception), information generated by mental processes (thoughts, decisions, memories, imaginings, ect), and information about the self. Finally, the current “self” and “experience” must be causally connected to future “self” and “experience” states in the correct way. Future “self” states must be dominated by the previous “self” state (the continuity of identity over time), but experience should be able to modify the self in predictable ways, though the acquisition of new concepts, memories, desires, and goals (the thought portion of experience is obviously key to this). Future “experience” states are dominated by previous experience states, for example the content of a thought (and perception at the moment) strongly influences the content of subsequent thoughts. Obviously I am not attempting to give a complete description of conscious systems, but I would like to point out four particular contributors to the experience state. First the decision of what to pay attention to in pervious experience states controls what information (i.e. external experiences, internal thoughts, ect) dominates the experience (which only has finite capacity), although unconscious processes due influence attention, occasionally yanking it in unexpected directions. Secondly each experience state contains “echos” or “remnants” of previous experience states, which accounts for our perception of time. Thirdly the information contained in each experience state is “formatted” or structures by the information contained in the self, for example our perception is pre-fitted into conceptual categories without conscious effort. Fourth the “self” state contributes some information, accounting for self-awareness. These three factors, the self, experience, and their causal connections, are sufficient for a system to be conscious.

Obviously though consciousness is not the only part of the mind, there is also the unconscious, which is certainly an important contributor to the way we think and make decisions. I won’t go into too much detail about the unconscious, but I will say that the role it plays in this account is in controlling the way in which one “conscious” mental state becomes another over time. For example a thought may be based on previous thoughts, but what exactly determines its content is an unconscious process. The same thing can be said about decisions, concept formation, ect. See also my account of beliefs as unconscious here.

Another feature of the mind to consider is introspection, which us is handled in two ways by this account. One type of introspection is attempting to reflect upon one’s self-awareness. In this case I would say that our attention becomes focused on the self-information that is part of every experience, causing that information to dominate the experience. There is another kind of introspection, where we attempt to reflect upon our real reasons for acting, or our real beliefs, which are unconscious. Experiments have shown that such introspection is unreliable, and I would say this is because the content of experience in this case is a fictional account, which is based on our past experiences and not on the actual workings of the unconscious.

To conclude allow me to show why such a system should be considered conscious. Note that it is the system, allowed to exist for some extent of time that is to be considered conscious, not the “self” state or the experience state, or even a combination of both. Such a system, if run, would come to have thoughts about itself and its experiences, since the relevant information contributes to the thought formation process. Those thoughts in turn would have an influence on a more persistent record of information (the “self” state), which then in turn colors future experiences (it can learn, and it can learn about itself). If asked to describe its experience it could, since it is able to make a decision (a kind of thought) to speak, and the words it decides to speak can indeed describe its own experience and self, since that information lies in the causal past of the decision. I would call such a system conscious; if we were to doubt that such as system is conscious it would seem tantamount to doubting that we ourselves were conscious, since we can’t differentiate our own experience, or the reports of other people about their experience, from the experience and reports of such a system.

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