Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Consciousness: an Explanation and Definition

What is consciousness? Many have weighed in on this question. Recently I discovered a possible explanation for the rudiments of consciousness. That explanation, presented here, differs from others I have seen (notes below).

You will need to understand the context, the kind of being in which this “consciousness” occurs. Living Things (LTs) are assumed to exist in a general model of life which I am describing. You do not need to know much about that general model (which I call the Resource Patterns Model of Life) except to understand the requirements imposed upon Living Things, and the capabilities given to them. Living Things:
  • must consume some resources in order to survive.
  • have a chance to survive by finding and exploiting resources in their environment.
  • have one or more senses, bringing in information about their surroundings.
  • can act by choosing, in each moment of time, one of the acts possible for them as given by their makeup.
As such, I believe you will agree, a Living Thing must have some sort of internal information processing system. This information processing system uses inputs (senses), along with any wisdom or intelligence it can muster, to produce outputs (its choices of how to act in each moment).

Now we step beyond this brief outline of inputs and outputs to propose a somewhat more detailed model of the process inside one of these information processing systems. See Figure 1. Notice this summarizes activity in only one moment of time. The process repeats itself. After finishing the final box on the right it returns to the first box on the left, again and again throughout the life of the Living Thing.

Figure 1. Information processing in a moment of life of a LT. Does Box 5 suggest our experience of consciousness?
Except for the following points, I will hope Figure 1 explains itself to you.
  • Boxes 2 and 4 are each drawn in the shape of a drum. This shape is borrowed from computer notation where it signifies a database in which data can be stored and searched. Each of these databases may be empty, at the start of life anyhow, but may contain a large amount of data, an amount which could grow throughout a lifetime.
  • After Box 1, when the immediate situation is sensed, but before box 5, when the LT decides what to do, the LT may remember (Box 2) previous experience which resembles this current situation and it may categorize (Box 4) this situation as governed by rules which either suggest or require particular responses. But the line directly from Box 1 to Box 5 allows for quick reflexive decision when there is no time to be careful.
  • About Box 3, the process shown in the middle, this works on a slower schedule. It is not moment-by-moment, in step with the other boxes in the chart, but occurs over longer times. Gradually, with “intelligence” which I will not pretend to describe here, a LT may reflect upon its experience and decide to behave differently in the future.
  • In Box 5, I say the LT decides what act to “attempt” rather than to “perform” because such a decision may fail. Between Box 5 and Box 6 the real world acts. For example a decision in Box 5 to step forward may be blocked by sudden insertion of some physical barrier, an unexpected event to the Living Thing, .
  • In Box 5 a LT may decide to wait, to make no outward move in the current moment.

The activity in Box 5 includes the building blocks of primitive consciousness, I propose. What is consciousness, in its simple form, if not these four concurrent processes?
  1. a current sensing of inputs (input from Box 1)
  2. recognition of familiar objects and processes (input from Box 2)
  3. awareness of rules, of “shoulds” (input from Box 3),
  4. decision about how to act. That is choice of an act from among a known set of possible acts (output from Box 5).
This proposal has developed, effectively, a definition of basic consciousness, being the concurrence of the four processes listed. In my exposure to date most scholars who address the subject of consciousness seem to proceed without seriously attempting a definition. It is perhaps very hard to define unless we approach the question from this other direction, as I here propose.

Once again, notice the context of a Living Thing. The context makes this description of consciousness stand apart from other descriptions I have seen. A Living Thing must consume resources in order to survive. A Living Thing may be able to accomplish this consumption by responding to its circumstances with appropriate choices of actions. A basis of consciousness, as defined above, almost falls out from this context, from the information processing necessary between senses and choices.

Notes: Other sources on consciousness

  1. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, (1991). I read this book over 20 years ago and remember only a few of its contributions. But I do not think I owe credit to Dennett for the insight expressed above.
  2. Interviews with several scholars conducted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn on the YouTube channel Closer To Truth. Search that channel on consciousness. So far I have watched a handful of these (as of January 2018). My view shares much with the view expressed by Rupert Sheldrake.
  3. Other YouTubes by scholars on consciousness. My watch history shows about 15 such views during the past two years. Feel free to ask if you need more specifics. Again, I recall none to which I believe I owe credit for the insight above.
  4. [added July 17, 2019]  John Searle speaking at CRASSH, Cambridge, UK, 22 May 2014, “Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology”, YouTube.