A possible reason for consciousness

The MindHacks blog had a link to a interview of Nicholas Humphrey by Alan Saunders in Philosophers Zone (here). Here is another interesting observation from the recording. He is giving a possible reason for consciousness.

…What these experiments establish is a lot of other evidence which corroborates it, is that perception, the representation of things in the world, their characteristics, their physical characteristics, is going on independent of sensation. So that raises the huge question of, OK, well then what is sensation for? In the old days people didn’t need to ask that question because they said, ‘Well sensation is what gives the information for perception. You first have an image, your eye,you sensed that as a set of coloured sensations. You then build up your infer the existence of the objects out there in the world. We now know you don’t need that first step, you can go directly to perception. So, what is sensation for?

…Sensations have some very strange and wonderful properties, chief of which perhaps is their extraordinary thickness in time. Sensations are not instants, they’re not physical instants. Every sensation seems to last for more time than it actually occupies. And so instead of moving through life like a kind of point on a single trajectory, we move through it as a substantial entity. I’ve used the analogy we move through life as in a kind of time-ship which has both a prow and an after-end to it, and space inside to move around.

…So I’ve been trying to come up with a new story about why consciousness should matter and why it should have evolved. … the new line I’m taking is not to be looking for things which consciousness helps us to achieve. It doesn’t give us any particular new skills, it’s not like for example the wings of a bird enables the bird to fly. Your understanding English enables you to understand what I’m saying now. I don’t think consciousness enables us to do anything, what I think it does is it encourages us to do things which we wouldn’t do otherwise; to think about ourselves and relate to the world in ways which we wouldn’t do otherwise.

In other words, consciousness changes our psychology, not in the sense of giving us new cognitive skills, but changing our sense of what it is to be ourselves and what it is to live in the extraordinary world which consciousness delivers to us. Basically, it makes ourselves think of ourselves as being of hugely greater metaphysical significance (we don’t of course use that word ) but simply thinking of ourselves as mattering, of our lives as mattering, and indirectly of course, of other people’s lives as mattering because we have been privileged to have been given this miraculous phenomenon at the centre of our lives.

I have to say that this sounds like an interesting side effect of consciousness rather than a reason for its existence. However, it is worth thinking about.

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