Seed Magazine has an excellent article by Nicholas Humphrey on understanding consciousness and why current attempts may be failing because we’re asking the wrong questions.
Humphrey suggests four questions which he feels are more relevant to the problem, and, with a rhetorical flourish, suggests some answers to them.
However, one of the most interesting parts is where he discusses philosopher Jerry Fodor’s interest in what consciousness is useful for:
Fodor has stated this aspect of the problem bluntly: “There are several reasons why consciousness is so baffling. For one thing, it seems to be among the chronically unemployed. What mental processes can be performed only because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness contribute to their performance? As far as anybody knows, anything that our conscious minds can do they could do just as well if they weren’t conscious. Why then did God bother to make consciousness?”
Fodor is undoubtedly asking the right question: “Why did God‚Äîor rather natural selection‚Äîmake consciousness?” Yet I’d suggest the reason he finds it all so baffling is that he is starting off with the completely wrong premise, for he has assumed, as indeed almost everyone else does, that phenomenal consciousness must be providing us with some kind of new skill. In other words, it must be helping us do something that we can do only by virtue of being conscious, in the way that, say, a bird can fly only because it has wings, or you can understand this sentence only because you know English.
Yet I want to suggest the role of phenomenal consciousness may not be like this at all. Its role may not be to enable us to do something we could not do otherwise, but rather to encourage us to do something we would not do otherwise: to make us take an interest in things that otherwise would not interest us, or to mind things we otherwise would not mind, or to set ourselves goals we otherwise would not set.
Even if you don’t agree with Humphrey’s take on consciousness (of course, in consciousness research, it’s de rigeur to disagree with almost everyone) it’s a thought-provoking and clearly written piece.
As an aside, the cover story on the same issue of Seed Magazine is a piece by Jonah Lehrer on IBM’s large-scale low-level brain simulation project Blue Brain. It’s not freely available online, however, so you’ll need to hit the news stands or the library to have a read.
Link to Seed article ‘Questioning Consciousness’.