Consciousness: What is it good for?

I’ve been enjoying Karl Schroeder’s Permanence, particularly after reading Peter Watt’s Blindsight. Both books ask some really interesting questions about consciousness, although from very different starting points.

SPOILER ALERT: What follows is central to at least the plot conclusion of Blindsight [and possibly Permanence, although I’m not finished yet]. Read on if you don’t mind plot points from either being discussed.

 Space! from Flickr

Blindsight features consciousness as an evolutionary dead end, a strange system that happens to turn up that isn’t really that useful. Watts even describes it as parasitic at one point. His conception of consciousness sees it as baggage, something not that useful, extra cognitive load that takes up energy but doesn’t improve our probability of survival.

Permanence approaches the issue from a different angle. It follows an archaeologist of alien species, who’s been looking at the ruins of different space-faring civilisations for years. As he joins the story, he’s facing the question – why can’t humans find another space-faring species they can get along with? Why did they all die out?

He posits consciousness as useful, but only in a limited way. It’s consciousness (as he describes it*) that lets us solve new and difficult problems; that ability to step back and deal with a new set of conditions; mould them to our own frames. Creating submarines, spaceships, and air conditioning; new technologies that can take us, as humans, safely into extremely different and hostile environments. But, in the very very long run, those species that adapt to the local environment are the most effective. Which, includes getting rid of consciousness – because once an organism is perfectly adapted, it no longer needs it – it’s fitted, suited, able to function without processing problems.

It’s interesting that both Watt and Schroeder end up at similar conclusions, if not exactly the same one. Consciousness as at best a tool that’s only marginally useful; at worst an outright drag. I think there is something to that perspective – our brains expend a lot of energy, and are expensive to maintain.

But I think you can make a plausible case for consciousness as connected to (it not a necessary part of) a theory of mind; and I think it’s pretty easy to link a theory of mind into the broader competition that occurs between members of the same species.


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