Consciousness: Seeing yourself in the third person

Re: Patricial Churchland’s presentation on December 1, 2005 at the Inaugural Symposium of the Picower Institute at MIT. Two things Churchland said (at least according to my notes) lead me to an interesting take on the phenomenology of the self. She noted that the brain, without access to anything but its inputs and its outputs builds a model of the external world that includes a model of itself in the external world. She also noted (or was it Christoph Koch) in the Q&A period that there may be some advantage to a neural structure or system that “believes” it is the author of certain actions and behaviors; and there may be some advantage to an organism that includes such a neural structure or system.

Here’s where that takes me. Churchland pointed out that, ceteris paribus, selection favors organisms with better predictive ability. So, the ability to predict and / or reliably affect (relevant aspects of) the behavior of the outside world arises over the course of evolution. In particular, the need to predict (model) the behavior of conspecifics, and the development of the ability to do so has significant favorable consequences. The ability to predict and / or reliably affect (relevant aspects) of the behavior of conspecifics includes the ability to predict interactions among conspecifics (from a third-party perspective).

Once there is a model that predicts the behavior of conspecifics, there is a model that could be applied to predict ones own behavior from a third-party perspective as if one were an external conspecific.

One may suppose that the model of conspecific behavior that arises phylogenetically in the brain consists in the activity of different processes from the phylogenetically established brain processes that internally propose and select among courses of action. That being the case, the model of conspecific behavior constitutes an additional (at least in some ways independent) source of information about ones own behavior, information that could be used to improve ones ability to predict and reliably affect the behavior of the world (thus improving one’s fitness).

I take it as given that independently evolved and epigenetically refined processes that internally propose and select among alternative courses of action take as inputs information about the internal state of the organism and information about the external (black box) world. I further take it that ones own behavior has effects that can and ought to be predicted. Thus, ones own behavior should be an input to the system(s) that internally propose and select courses of action.

Now, information about ones own behavior can be made available within the brain via (at least) two possible routes:

(1) Make available (feed back) in some form an advance or contemporaneous statement of the behavior the brain intends to (is about to, may decide to) perform (close the loop internally).

(2) Observe ones own behavior and process it via the system whose (primary, original) purpose is to predict the behavior of others (close the loop externally).

Assuming, as proposed above, that the total information available from both routes together is greater than the information available from either one alone, selection favors an organism that is able to use information from both sources. However, there is little point to developing (i.e., evolving) a separate system to model (predict) ones own behavior, within an organism that has already a system to predict a conspecifics behavior on the basis of observables. It is better to adapt (exapt?) the existing system.

But, note: certain information that must be inferred from external inputs (abduced) about conspecifics and is thus inherently subject to uncertainty is available more reliably from within the brain. It is thus advantageous to add a facility to translate internally available information into a form usable within the model and provide it as additional input to the conspecifics model.

To the extent that the model preserves its significance as a model of external behavior as extracted from the external (black box) world, internally provided information will be processed as if it came from outside. But, such internally provided information is different in that it actually originated inside. Thus, it needs to be distinguished (distinguishable) from the information that really does come from outside.

The significant consequence of the preceding is that the introduction, as a matter of evolutionary expediency, of internally originating information into a system originally evolved to model the external behavior of conspecifics results in a model that treats the organism itself as if its own agency originated externally, literally outside the brain. This formulation is remarkably similar to some characterizations of the phenomenology of self-consciousness.

Once such a system is in place, evolutionary advances in the sophistication of the (externally shaped) model of (in particular) conspecifics can take advantage of and support the further development of the ability to literally re-present internal information as if it originated externally.

There is nothing in the preceding that requires uniquely human abilities. Accordingly, one may or may not wish to call this “self consciousness”; although I might be willing to do so and keep a straight face.

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