What is Consciousness?
Is consciousness capable of definition by anything other than pulling together a list of its potential functions? And keeping ‘in mind’ that the tool ‘we’ are using to compile the list is the subject of the list, does this call into question mankind’s definitive ability to define itself as a conscious entity in any sophisticated way?
In The Ego Tunnel, Metzinger considers current prime candidate functions of consciousness:
The emergence of intrinsically motivating states, the enhancement of social coordination, a strategy for improving the internal selection and resource allocation in brains that got too complex to regulate themselves, the modification and interrogation of goal hierarchies and long-term plans, retrieval of episodes from long-term memory, construction of storable representations, flexibility and sophistiation of behavioural control, mind reading and behavioural prediction in social interaction, conflict resolution and troubleshooting, creating a densely integrated representation of reality as a whole, setting a context, learning in a single step and making information “globally available” to an organism.
For me, I look to my own experience of my consciousness to start to sort through and prioritize this list.
My ‘brain chatter’ – the near constant commentary/ questioning/ planning/ worrying little me that feels like it’s in my head – seems to be busy in two main areas, with an increasingly important third area.
The first area is a lot about modelling, planning, trouble-shooting and conflict resolution. The conceptualisation of future scenarios and the plotting of courses to enable their achievement to my own set objectives or goals. These things at both mundane (‘when am I going to be able to pick up a present for my wife? What would she love?’) and more sophisticated levels (‘how am I going to achieve my life vision?’)
This area automatically seeps into the second area: the social interaction/ co-ordination/ people-response modelling piece. The present for my wife example above reflects this: my choice of present is heavily influenced by me going through a process of imagining what she’d love. From the psychometric profiles I undertake, I know I am heavily biased to this area in my ‘operating systems’. In a goal-driven context I constantly think about the impact actions will have on others. Their responses. Counter-responses. Different outcomes and planned scenarios. I endeavour to influence as many of the semi-controllable variables in the pursuit of my stated goal as possible.
The third, and increasingly important, area for me is a space I’m carving out from the energy dedicated to the other two functions. The pursuit of, and dedication to, attention. The presenteeism in the passing moments of my life. Whatever I can do to enhance this area at the (prioritized) expense of the other two areas is currently a very valid overriding objective.
The fascinating, and in some ways disconcerting, aspect of this latter area for us sophisticated, conscious human animals is how little ‘we’ are actually needed in being present and attentive. The absence of chatter and modelling and worrying and second-guessing is notable. In fact, the organ at the culmination of a very sophisticated nervous system becomes a far more dominant view of ‘me’ vs. a constructed self with intrinsic wants, desires and flavours.
Metzinger again puts everything into context: ‘let’s not forget that evolution is driven by chance, does not pursue a goal, and achieved what we now consider to be the continuous optimization of nervous systems in a blind process of hereditary variation and selection. It is incorrect to assume that evolution had to invent consciousness – in principle it could have been a useless by-product.’