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Consciousness and its hard problems: separating the ontological from the evolutionary

Consciousness and its hard problems: separating the ontological from the evolutionary

Few of the many theories devised to account for consciousness are explicit about the role they ascribe to evolution, and a significant fraction, by their silence on the subject, treat evolutionary processes as being, in effect, irrelevant. This is a problem for biological realists trying to assess the applicability of competing theories of consciousness to taxa other than our own, and across evolutionary time. Here, as an aid to investigating such questions, a consciousness “machine” is employed as conceptual device for thinking about the different ways ontology and evolution contribute to the emergence of a consciousness composed of distinguishable contents. A key issue is the nature of the evolutionary innovations required for any kind of consciousness to exist, specifically whether this is due to the underappreciated properties of electromagnetic (EM) field effects, as in neurophysical theories, or, for theories where there is no such requirement, including computational and some higher-order theories (here, as a class, algorithmic theories), neural connectivity and the pattern of information flow that connectivity encodes are considered a sufficient explanation for consciousness. In addition, for consciousness to evolve in a non-random way, there must be a link between emerging consciousness and behavior. For the neurophysical case, an EM field-based scenario shows that distinct contents can be produced in the absence of an ability to consciously control action, i.e., without agency. This begs the question of how agency is acquired, which from this analysis would appear to be less of an evolutionary question than a developmental one. Recasting the problem in developmental terms highlights the importance of real-time feedback mechanisms for transferring agency from evolution to the individual, the implication being, for a significant subset of theories, that agency requires a learning process repeated once in each generation. For that subset of theories the question of how an evolved consciousness can exist will then have two components, of accounting for conscious experience as a phenomenon on the one hand, and agency on the other. This reduces one large problem to two, simplifying the task of investigation and providing what may prove an easier route toward their solution..

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