How Consciousness Works

#Science

Fri, Aug 23rd, 2013 12:00 by capnasty NEWS

We know what consciousness is, but the question nobody seems to really be able to answer is: how does consciousness work? In this fascinating, if lengthy article by Michael Graziano on AEON Magazine, a look at "the mystery that confounds scientists and philosophers" and whether or not a new theory has finally figured it out.

Some people might feel disturbed by the attention schema theory. It says that awareness is not something magical that emerges from the functioning of the brain. When you look at the colour blue, for example, your brain doesn?t generate a subjective experience of blue. Instead, it acts as a computational device. It computes a description, then attributes an experience of blue to itself. The process is all descriptions and conclusions and computations. Subjective experience, in the theory, is something like a myth that the brain tells itself. The brain insists that it has subjective experience because, when it accesses its inner data, it finds that information.

I admit that the theory does not feel satisfying; but a theory does not need to be satisfying to be true. And indeed, the theory might be able to explain a few other common myths that brains tell themselves. What about out-of-body experiences? The belief that awareness can emanate from a person?s eyes and touch someone else? That you can push on objects with your mind? That the soul lives on after the death of the body? One of the more interesting aspects of the attention schema theory is that it does not need to turn its back on such persistent beliefs. It might even explain their origin.

The heart of the theory, remember, is that awareness is a model of attention, like the general?s model of his army laid out on a map. The real army isn?t made of plastic, of course. It isn?t quite so small, and has rather more moving parts. In these respects, the model is totally unrealistic. And yet, without such simplifications, it would be impractical to use.

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