Here is my (tentative) way of looking at consciousness.
Mind is a biological function (like circulation or digestion) and the brain is the principle organ that accomplishes this function. Brain ‘does’ mind. Mind is not the only function of the nervous system but it is the major function of the forward parts of the brain. Brain ‘is for’ mind. This is in the same sense that a heart does circulation and a heart is for circulation.
The mind function consists of: building, maintaining and refining a model of reality; using the model to predict, plan, decide, initiate and control responses to reality; and storing/maintaining an edited version of the model as a memory of experience for comparison and learning. This model includes a self in the world. This modeled world is not the same as reality. Neither is the modeled self the same as reality. The more effectively reality is modeled, the better the model. Consciousness is the edited model, prior to, during or immediately after it is stored as a memory.
The edited model has a focus and a larger outline. In other words, a large part of the model is in the edited version but with sparse detail, while one aspect is in detailed focus. Introspection happens when the focus of consciousness is the edited version itself. Introspection is not inspection of reality or of the brain’s model of reality or of the process of forming that model but it is inspection of the edited version of the model prepared for memory.
The model is a pseudo real time model. It contains a modeled ‘now’. ‘Now’ in the model is simply the immediate past (from memory) of the model projected by prediction into the immediate future giving a model of ‘now’. The same or similar modeling processes can stimulate the past and the future as well as the pseudo now. This appears in consciousness as a past-now-future continuum with additional flash back, flash forward, and timeless imaginings occasionally superimposed.
Modeling is constrained by the architecture of the brain and by the primitives (like movement) it builds and elaborates on. The modeling process creates discrete objects occupying locations in three dimensions. The modeling process attaches properties to the objects (and other elements) of the model such as colour or pitch. The modeling process models motor activity from goals, intention, initiation, to action and outcomes. It monitors for surprises or inconsistencies in order to correct its control of perception and motor activity.
We can think of the brain, doing its modeling, as the ultimate artist creating the continuous qualia of our lives. We can also think of the brain, doing its modeling, as the ultimate scientist continuously comparing its prediction with what reality gives it in the next fraction of a second and correcting its model of reality accordingly.
Very little of this modeling process is available in the edited version for consciousness/memory. Even in the areas of focus, the process is hidden except for shorthand indicators (fringe perceptions) like: this is the past, a decision is made, that was good, that is known. If an attempt is made to follow the process through introspection, the result is educated guesswork.
How does the brain create this model? It does not create a continuously changing model but a series of ‘snapshots’. These are melded together in working memory to give the impression of a stream of consciousness. Activity in the brain builds up to each installment of the model. This activity amounts to an increase in the synchronization over larger and larger areas of the brain. The synchronization appears to connect all the components and levels of analysis into one whole – a particular pattern of neural activity. And it is the wherewithal to recreate the pattern that is stored and then further processed.
The synchronization is achieved by the interaction between the thalamus and the cortex. Almost all inputs into the cortex pass through the thalamus and almost all cortical areas send signals back to the thalamus. The thalamus appears (in a rough way) to initiate and control cortical activity. The different areas of the cortex are connected to one another as well as to the thalamus. This gives billions of interlocking and overlapping, parallel feedback loops. Massive, overlapping parallel feedback loops in some arrangements can settle quickly on a stable condition. This would give synchronization in a model that was the ‘best fit scenario’ incorporating sensory input, memory, actions in progress etc.
This way of looking at consciousness gives an identity between the whole of the mind (modeling) and the activity of part of the brain (modeling) – they are one and the same without a trace of duality.
Other philosophical problems can be approached. Epistemology would change from search for knowledge to search for understanding. Modeling does not result in knowledge but in understanding. The criteria of a good model is not ‘truth’ but relevance, consistency, extent, and predictive accuracy. A good model is very much like a good scientific theory – it is reliable but not ‘truth’ in a pristine sense. The modeling process is capable of choice but it would not be free from constrains although, under introspection, it would appear to be freer than it was. As the modeling is affected by the attitudes, values and goals of the brain and the attitudes, values and goals are affected by the modeling, the whole system is responsible for its actions and therefore can be morally judged. All our philosophical attitudes would have to shift to accommodate this new way to look at our thought but there need not be a radical change.