Monday, May 1, 2017

Q&A on Consciousness

What is consciousness?

It is the view from inside of a running model of the world. The self that is aware of the view is a decision making part of the model. Everything that the self is consciously aware of is data presented to the self to either enable or prompt a current decision or give feedback on previous decisions.

Is it a Cartesian Theater?
In some ways consciousness is like a Cartesian puppet theater, where the conscious self is a puppet created by group of puppet masters. The puppet masters are constantly pulling the puppet in different directions in order to get the puppet to act in specific ways.

Who are the puppet masters?
The puppet masters are circuits looking after specific tasks. For example there is a circuit to monitor the need for various chemicals within the body, identify sources of those chemicals and prompt their acquisition. These circuits are preconscious and not accessible to conscious thought.

What are the main circuits?
Animals have circuits which deal with food, poison, mating, competition, physical danger, affiliation, homeostasis and sleep.

How do the circuits work together?
They feed data into a shared model of the animal and its surroundings so that, for example the location of a food source can be compared to the location of a threat such as a predator.

Why is there a self in the model?
An accurate representation of the body and capabilities of the animal in the model enables questions; such as can the food be reached and can the predator be outrun, to be answered.

So the self is like a puppet being pulled in various directions?
Sometimes yes. The task specific circuits try to move the puppet in the direction best suited to meeting their priorities, but often the circuits will prompt different actions.

Are there rules for which circuit wins in these conflicts?
There seem to be some rules, such as an immediate response to physical danger taking priority over other actions. However, certainly for mammals, long term gene survival depends on more subtly balanced decision being made in most situations.

How are balanced decisions made?
The circuits feed data to a circuit which can compare them and assess options for action in relation to the overall needs of the animal.

But these choices are not like for like?
Because the data processed by the task specific circuits is so different in kind it has to be shared in a common a language of simple choice based options. Each element fed to the model by the circuits has a value on a scale; either positive-neutral-negative, or too little-optimum-too much.

Why does that feel like anything?
The 'what it is like ness' of experience is data in the shared language. The part of us that is aware of the ‘what it is like’ is the circuit assessing options in relation to the overall needs of the animal.

Is this not simply a way of saying it is a Cartesian theatre with a homunculus watching the world and making decisions?
No. The self's experience of the world, made of flavors, textures, colors and sounds is an entirely internal representation. Sensations such as flavor or color are not the way the animal gathers data about its surroundings, nor are they reliably consistent with the input data. They only make sense as the input to a decision making system. Experience is not a hard problem of consciousness it is the key to understanding what consciousness is for and how it operates.

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