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Evolutionary theory of consciousness: a comprehensive model

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journal contribution
posted on 26.08.2015, 17:05 by Sergio GraziosiSergio Graziosi

This paper uses a theoretical and deductive approach to address the hard problems that arise when trying to explain what consciousness is and how it works. The starting question is: why did consciousness evolve? I argue that it is possible to propose an initial answer to this question by hypothesizing small and incremental additions to primordial, genetically-encoded and fixed reactions to perceived stimuli. This approach follows the well-accepted, prototypical pattern of evolution as driven by natural selection. Organisms that rely on learning new behavioral strategies need to constantly evaluate sensory information in order to gradually understand the world they live in: they actively evaluate perceptions, so as to build a map of relations between present/past perceptions and link them to internal motivational states; this ability is essential to predict the consequences of possible actions and to inform future decisions. Building on this principle, I propose a conceptual model of consciousness, subdividing it into distinct computational modules and functions that may be identified and studied separately. This same subdivision allows for significant gains in conceptual clarity: it makes it possible to address the differences between most mainstream theories of consciousness by showing how many theories appear to model only subsets of functions; for example, some theories focus on perception, while others model awareness and attention, thus they inadvertently fail to describe the full picture. At the same time, the full model proposed here allows us to explain the existence of the problem of phenomenal experience: I will show why any system that follows the proposed signal-processing principles would necessarily find the same difficulties that we encounter when we introspectively analyze the nature of perception.