I’ve been playing with Quora recently. It’s a crowd-sourced Q&A site… intriguingly slick, but a let down so far. They should talk to me about how to combine queued vetting, ranked choice voting, and coalescent bubbling. In any case, the culture there encourages long form essays on sophisticated topics, so I’ve tried a few, including my answer to “What is Consciousness?” Here’s the text I posted…
Consciousness is the animating function of a living being that enables integration of sensory experience in support of informed decision making and autonomous behavior. The power of consciousness over choice and action is highly variable, ranging from feeble dormancy to persistent drive.
The operational processes of consciousness have proven especially difficult to explain in comprehensive detail. It now appears that consciousness is an emergent property of animal brains, so there is great interest in locating the neural correlates of consciousness as a way of identifying the physiological modules responsible for discrete consciousness-generating functions.
Research is constrained because the best tools currently available for examining brain activity are costly. Moreover, they fall far short of the level of precision necessary to provide an accurate picture of the brain processes that correspond to trains of thought, decision making, and sentient behavior. Nevertheless, the technology of brain study continues to advance, propelled forward by the enduring significance of consciousness as a topic worthy of study.
Consciousness has long been a compelling question, especially because of its inextricable relation to the great puzzles of free will, rationality, morality, and also — given our keen interest in knowing what it is that we are conscious of — the nature of reality itself. Over time, therefore, the human psyche has been subjected to extensive speculation and increasingly rigorous investigation.
The record of human history includes writings that refer to a spectrum of native appetites, epigenetic predispositions, emotional states, motivating assumptions, and sentimental capacities that agents are presumed to possess. That historical record also includes probing testimonies by highly perceptive, deeply self-reflective philosophers and artists. Contemporary research indicates a rising curiosity about what has been termed the “Hard Problem” of consciousness, namely, how it is possible for animals to feel qualities of phenomenal experience at all.
The etymological origin of the English word for consciousness reveals an instructive a priori assumption about what consciousness is. That assumption also suggests where long-term investigations will likely lead. The word descends from linguistic roots that convey a sense of breaking off or cutting. The same root played a role in forming words such as shed, scissor, science, precision, decide, concise, prescient, plebiscite, and conscience.
As William James wrote, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” So, it is fair to hypothesize that consciousness is implicated in physiological processes that serve to orient, channel, filter, concentrate, and focus attention on particular aspects of sensory experience. By the some token, it would be implicated in reductive processes whereby an agent forms inner attachments between aggregates of memory traces, and assigns values to the particular representations thus entailed, further refining the process of cutting off some potential mental attachments in favor of others. And so it would also be implicated in the various symbol-valuing, pattern-integrating and probability-evaluating processes that animate agents’ disclosure of their choices. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
Using language and other sign making efforts, one agent can attempt to transmit minded representations to others. This leads to ongoing semiotic processes, thereby creating social fields in which multiple conscious beings can participate over extended periods of time.
In other words, given the reasonable general assumption that minded beings use consciousness to sustain life and advance their interests, it is also reasonable to hypothesize that consciousness is an evolution-endowed capacity to make information.
There was a thoughtful counter answer from someone who liked my concluding line that, “Consciousness is an evolution-endowed capacity to make information.” Yet, he took a decidedly anti-free will perspective. We started an interesting exchange, but he had trouble with Quora’s interface and, in a huff, deleted the content of his original post. Oh well. Yes, Quora is flaky. Anyway, bits of my response in that exchange are here.
Major premise 1) To have free will would mean to be responsible for the consequences of one’s choices.
Minor premise 2) Whatever information exists that you have disclosed, its disclosure at that particular time and place occurred only because you (your physical entity) were there to act as the final gatekeeper of the information disclosed.
Conclusion 3) If you (made manifest by your physical entity) are the final arbiter of the release of information, no one else could have done it and therefore you are responsible for having disclosed it.
Comment 4) To attempt to live by excuses is to live by giving credit (or blame) for one’s actions to causes outside one’s own control. You can run, but you can’t hide. My views here align with Sartre and de Beauvior. We are doomed to freedom.
You can’t endorse the concept that “consciousness is an evolution-endowed capacity to make information” if you don’t also accept the concept of free-will founded responsibility. I can not simultaneously be the maker of information and also deny responsibility for making it.