Consciousness isn’t all about you, you know

In an interesting article by Peter Halligan and David Oakley in NewScientist it is suggested that even if

consciousness occurs too late [in the process of a human action] to affect the outcomes of the mental processes apparently linked to it…it provides an evolutionary advantage that developed for the benefit of the social group, not the individual.

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/280979559_Consciousness_isnt_all_about_you_you_know

I’m curious to get the thoughts of those here on this suggestion.

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28 thoughts on “Consciousness isn’t all about you, you know

  1. I’ve always felt that evolution produced not homunculiod “selves,” but rather a system of representations of ourselves, and others, as “selves.” This very much connected to the theory of mind literature, with a cooperative twist, “cooperative theory of mind” that facilitates cooperation and coordination of human behavior.

    This viewpoint also leaves open the possibility that, while consciousness isn’t causal with respect to present behaviors of which we are immediately aware, it may help lay the representational groundwork for the unconscious processes that will produce behaviors in the future. So it does play a causal role – but vis future behavior, not present behavior.

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  2. Reciprocating Bill,

    This viewpoint also leaves open the possibility that, while consciousness isn’t causal with respect to present behaviors of which we are immediately aware, it may help lay the representational groundwork for the unconscious processes that will produce behaviors in the future. So it does play a causal role – but vis future behavior, not present behavior.

    That was my thought, too. I haven’t read the article yet — do they address this possibility, or do they appear to overlook it entirely?

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  3. Reciprocating Bill: This viewpoint also leaves open the possibility that, while consciousness isn’t causal with respect to present behaviors of which we are immediately aware, it may help lay the representational groundwork for the unconscious processes that will produce behaviors in the future.

    This.

    Consciousness is part of learning, the so-called Lamarkian mechanism. It enables us to project the consequences of various alternatives.

    And it no all or nothing. It exists on a continuum. We had a thread a short time ago about the capability of “imagining” consequences, and how this capability exists in very small brains. It’s certainly well developed in rats.

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  4. petrushka,

    I agree with those who are skeptical of group selection.

    So do I, but I have no idea whether Neil does — just that he regards the article as “sophistimicated bullshit”.

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  5. 1.The major claim of the OP seems to be about group selection.
    2. Selectionist stories tend to be just so stories. See Stephen Gould on the Giraffe’s neck.
    3. There’s a whiff of political wishful thinking in the excerpt. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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  6. The Hohwy book Predictive Mind proposes the opposite theory: Since independent sources of evidence lead to better decisions, our thoughts are private so that the social decisions we help make will benefit from many sources of independent evidence.

    Of course, the reasoning for including this idea was clear: pad the book.

    A two page article would not seem to be able to fulfill such a purpose, so the reason for publishing is not immediately obvious.

    Oh, wait, I see it is in New Scientist.

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  7. It is one thing to assert we can consciously help the group; quite another thing to say we evolved in order to do this.

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  8. consciousness occurs too late [in the process of a human action] to affect the outcomes of the mental processes apparently linked to it

    Seems like an overstatement. There are clearly cases where decision-making involves the conscious mind. It’s probably more of a “tip of the iceberg” situations. The consciousness delegates and collates information from many different systems. Here’s a technical overview:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dh4LikiGBrQ

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  9. it provides an evolutionary advantage that developed for the benefit of the social group, not the individual.

    There’s a distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness. Self-consciousness may have evolved in order to model how others view you and how you view others, a distinct advantage to social organisms. Basic consciousness, though, seems to occur more widely.

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  10. keiths: That was my thought, too. I haven’t read the article yet — do they address this possibility, or do they appear to overlook it entirely?

    I don’t think so – but it is staring out at them from their own words:

    Relevant information is broadcast from the unconscious to form the contents of conscious experience. This means that self-awareness, thoughts, feelings and intentions are simply broadcasts of unconscious brain outputs.

    “Broadcasts?” What does that even mean? Is this reflected in additional neural organization (e.g. that would be absent were there no “broadcasts”)? What consumes the broadcasts? What function is served?

    It seems to me that they are touching upon – or stepping right past – re-entrant aspects of neural organization that may be key many levels of cognitive functioning.

    Somewhere I read that there is ten times the neural traffic from the cerebral cortex to the thalami than there is from the thalami to the cortex – all of which is entangled in the reticular formation, which is key to regulating attention and the contents of consciousness. I find that very striking.

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  11. See, atop the brainstalk and under the noodlepacks are two rumballs. Everything harvested by the eyestalks and earwigs and bodybag echoes through the rumballs, which hum and sing and strobe and scan the noodlepacks through massive bundles of sparky angelhair. Yet ten times more information descends from the noodlepacks into the rumballs than the reverse (hence the phrase “the remembered present”) as the noodlepack-rumball echochamber is gaited by the reticularactionbaiting system, which is stretched over the brainstalk and rumballs like a cheap stocking. I know, you’re thinking that the frontal noodlepacks and the mesobrainstalk danglingbasil also grow echoing motorplants through more massive bundles of sparky angelhair. And you’d be right. All goosed and framed and valence-tagged by intrinsic mammaryanimal noodlepaths for SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, PLAY, ATTACHMENT, PANIC, and so forth.

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  12. Reciprocating Bill:

    “Broadcasts?” What does that even mean? Is this reflected in additional neural organization (e.g. that would be absent were there no “broadcasts”)? What consumes the broadcasts? What function is served?

    I took as global workspace theory. But I agree the wording is unfortunate.
    GWS would say something like globally available neural activity IS conscious experience. It involves thalamo cortical interaction, at least for humans.

    GWS can be seen as the neuroscience version of Dennett’s mutliple drafts. I think he views it that way. Baars invented it independently.

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  13. BruceS: GWS can be seen as the neuroscience version of Dennett’s mutliple drafts. I think he views it that way. Baars invented it independently.

    I thought of Baars when reading that. But I doubt he or Dennett would assert that the global workspace doesn’t participate in cognition – quite the reverse.

    ETA: Baars’ resurrection.

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  14. Reciprocating Bill: I thought of Baars (may he rest in peace) when reading that. But I doubt he or Dennett would assert that the global workspace doesn’t participate in cognition – quite the reverse.

    The paper did not make much sense so me, either.

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  15. Its wrong. iots impossible for human action not to come from human intents.
    What they get wrong, as usual, is that its the memory that reacts . So it seems like one is not thinking etc. yet we are. the memory reacts quick and almost independent just as it does in our dreams.
    The memory is a part of our intentions. If the memory is malfunctioning then it would not include our intentions. yet just that special case.
    no social group evolution need be invoked.
    its not that mysterious.

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  16. Personally, I don’t think consciousness is either a THING that is causal or otherwise, nor do I think that it is a state that is either present or absent (at least when we are in the “awake” state, also, confusingly, called “being conscious”.

    When we do Libet-type experiments we are not “unconscious” in that latter sense. The issue is what we are conscious of, when, and for how long.

    Also intention – and attention – but they are all slightly different issues. They need unpacking.

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  17. The double subject fallacy (pdf) names the problem with sentences like the following from the article Walto provides:

    A close examination of your own conscious experience reveals how little control, if any, you have over it or its contents.

    From the linked pdf:

    Here, we present the “double-subject fallacy”: treating the brain and the entire person as two independent subjects who can simultaneously occupy divergent
    psychological states and even have complex interactions with each other—as in “my brain knew before I did”.
    […]
    There is therefore no reason or gain in describing the conscious state as belonging to the person and the unconscious one as belonging to the brain. Such DSF descriptions reinforce dualistic intuitions, while masking the fact that no new explanation has been put forward for the difference between conscious and unconscious states and their underlying neural mechanisms.
    […]
    However, dualism by itself does not bring about DSF writing; it is the intersection between the neuroscientific endeavor to explain mind–body relations in neural terms and the closet dualism of neuroscientists that gives rise to this confused way of writing.

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  18. I don’t think there’s any philosophical dualism involved. Split brains can have separate consciousnesses. I see no problem with consciousness per se being different from whatever the rest of the brain is doing (making decisions or whatever).

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  19. petrushka:
    I don’t think there’s any philosophical dualism involved. Split brains can have separate consciousnesses. I see no problem with consciousness per se being different from whatever the rest of the brain is doing (making decisions or whatever).

    That’s not what the article is about. It’s actually about a misleading writing style that you find in some neuroscientific writing such as the Walto article and many others provided in the paper.

    It’s a nice analysis of conceptual confusion I would say.

    I had to fix the link but it should work now.

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  20. BruceS: A close examination of your own conscious experience reveals how little control, if any, you have over it or its contents.

    According to some, it’s your brain that has control of your consciousness. Fortunately, though, you have control of that portion of your brain which is conscious, (aka your consciousness), and that, in turn, has control of its own contents (except for revelations). So, it’s all good. 🙂

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  21. BruceS: The double subject fallacy (pdf) names …

    Interesting.

    I’ve come across people who deny that they have free will. And their argument as to why they don’t have free will, is that their choices are forced on them by their brains.

    It seems dualistic to me. As I see it, if your brain is making choices, then you are making choices.

    Now that you bring up “double subject fallacy” — yes, I think that describes the problem well.

    In any case, a lot of philosophy seems to me to be implicitly dualistic.

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  22. Economist video on consciousness with interviews from a few of the big names. Nothing much profound or new, although it does let you see how a few of the big names look these days.

    video

    Unfortunately, for Dave Chalmers, a hard problem seems to be keeping the weight off as he ages.

    Good thing he always work black (at least in the video I have seen of him)

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