A simple theory of consciousness

March 29, 2019

This is a text I originally posted on Quora. If you find it marginally interesting then it has fulfilled its purpose.

What is consciousness?

Consciousness is an essential tool for human social interaction. It arises as a result of living in societies of individuals with complex motives.

To explain, let’s begin with a fundamental assumption: Being social and cooperating have many benefits. On average, individuals that are better at being social will be more successful at surviving and reproducing than individuals that are less social.

Due to limiting factors (e.g. time available) individuals can only be sociable with a limited set of other individuals. It follows that to make the best possible choice about who to cooperate with, individuals must measure the social quality of other individuals. They also need to signal their own social quality.

What is Latin good for?

There are a number of mechanisms by which measuring and signaling happens, but let’s look at one in particular: sending deliberately complex messages to test whether the receiver can process them correctly. A contrived example would be posting an online dating profile in, say, Latin. Maybe this is the reason why William Rees Mogg reproduced six times language became so complex: during the course of evolution humans invented ever more grammar and synonyms to test whether their counterparts can understand them.

Anyway, if language is just one obfuscated channel via which humans send signals, emotions are another. Just think how subtle and time-consuming it can be be to read the emotions of another individual, especially an intelligent one who may have different motives than you.

Basically, humans are very complex things whose motives are often difficult to access. Yet understanding the motives of others is essential, if only to prove that we are worth cooperating with.

Onto consciousness.

Image a scenario in which there are several individuals. They have the ability to interact, cooperate, form alliances and compete with each other for resources. Let’s look at one individual, call him Bob. Bob has an incentive to cooperate with the others, especially those that are “better” than their peers. However, everyone is sending unclear signals and Bob is being confronted with a lot of incomplete information. His best bet is to run simulations of everyone in his mind, and feed these with what he can observe. That way he can try and access their motives and deal with them more effectively.

But an essential part is missing from Bob’s model of the social world: himself! So what does he do? He also runs a simulation of himself. This is what we call consciousness. It is a tool evolved for dealing with others but directed inwards.

There are several reasons why this explanation is attractive:

  1. It implies that we do not have direct access to our own motives. Instead, we use the tool of consciousness to find out what we feel and why. We are not in control of our emotions directly. We cannot decide what we feel. Instead, we act in a way that we hope will have a positive impact on our emotions. And this is how we deal with others too. We use consciousness to manage others and to manage ourselves.
  2. Conscious thought is very similar to talking to another individual. We are capable of holding conversations with ourselves in our heads just as we would with a real person. It implies that communicating with others is very similar to thinking.
  3. What better way of training the tool of consciousness, improving it and, indeed, learning to use it than using it on ourselves.

Did that make sense? Should I be clearer somewhere? Let me know.