Why consciousness may have evolved to benefit society rather than individuals

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Why did the experience of consciousness evolve from our underlying brain physiology? Despite being a vibrant area of ​​neuroscience, current research into consciousness is marked by disagreement and controversy – with several rival theories in conflict with each other.

A recent scoping review of over 1000 articles identified over 20 different theoretical accounts. Philosophers such as David Chalmers argue that no scientific theory can really explain consciousness.

We define consciousness as embodied subjective awareness, including self-awareness. In a recent article published in Interalia (which is not peer-reviewed), we argue that one reason for this dilemma is the powerful role played by intuition.

We’re not alone. Social scientist Jacy Reese Anthis writes, “much of the debate about the fundamental nature of consciousness takes the form of intuitive jousting, with different sides reporting their own strong intuitions and playing them off against each other.”

Dangers of Intuition

Key intuitive beliefs—for example, that our mental processes are distinct from our physical bodies (mind-body dualism) and that our mental processes give rise to and control our decisions and actions (mental causality)—are supported by a lifetime of subjective experience.

These beliefs are found in all human cultures. They are important because they serve as foundational beliefs for most liberal democracies and criminal justice systems. They are resistant to rebuttal. This is because they are strongly supported by social and cultural concepts such as free will, human rights, democracy, justice, and moral responsibility. All of these concepts assume that consciousness is a central controlling influence.

Intuition, however, is an automatic, cognitive process that has evolved to provide rapid, familiar explanations and predictions. In fact, it does so without our needing to know how or why we know it. The outputs of intuition therefore shape how we perceive and explain our everyday world without the need for extensive reflection or formal analytical explanations.

While useful and indeed crucial to many daily activities, intuitive beliefs can be wrong. They can also interfere with scientific literacy.

Intuitive accounts of consciousness ultimately place us in the driver’s seat as “captain of our own ship.” We think we know what consciousness is and what it does simply by experiencing it. Mental thoughts, intentions, and desires are seen as determining and controlling our actions.

The widespread acceptance of these implicit, intuitive accounts partly explains why the formal study of consciousness was relegated to the margins of mainstream neuroscience until the late 20th century.

The problem for scientific models of consciousness remains to accommodate these intuitive accounts within a materialist framework consistent with the findings of neuroscience. Although there is no current scientific explanation for how brain tissue generates or maintains subjective experience, the consensus among (most) neuroscientists is that it is a product of brain processes.

Social purpose

If so, why did consciousness, defined as subjective awareness, develop?

Consciousness probably evolved as part of the evolution of the nervous system. According to various theories, the primary adaptive function (providing an organism with survival and reproductive advantages) of consciousness is to enable volitional movement. And volition is something we ultimately associate with will, agency, and individuality. It is therefore easy to think that consciousness evolved to benefit us as individuals.

Cave dwellers gathered around a campfire

But we have argued that consciousness may have evolved to facilitate important social adaptive functions. Rather than helping individuals survive, it evolved to help us broadcast our experienced ideas and feelings out into the wider world. And this could benefit the survival and well-being of the broader species.

The idea fits with new thinking about genetics. While evolutionary science has traditionally focused on individual genes, it is increasingly recognized that natural selection in humans operates at multiple levels. For example, culture and society influence traits that are passed down between generations – we value some more than others.

Central to our story is the idea that sociality (the tendency of groups and individuals to develop social bonds and live in communities) is an important survival strategy that influences how the brain and cognitive ability develop.

Embracing this social evolutionary framework, we propose that subjective consciousness has no independent capacity to causally influence other psychological processes or actions. An example of this is the initiation of an action. The idea that subjective consciousness has a social purpose has been described previously by other researchers.

However, the claim that subjective consciousness has no causal influence does not mean that the reality of subjective experience is denied or that the experience is an illusion.

Although our model removes subjective consciousness from the traditional driver’s seat of the mind, this does not mean that we do not value private internal experiences. It is precisely because of the value we place on these experiences that intuitive accounts remain compelling and widespread in social and legal organizational systems and psychology.

Although it seems counterintuitive to attribute agency and personal responsibility to a biological makeup of neurons, it does make sense that highly valued social constructs such as free will, truth, honesty, and fairness can be meaningfully attributed to individuals as responsible agents in a social community.

Think about it. While we are deeply rooted in our biological nature, our social nature is largely determined by our roles and interactions in society. As such, the mental architecture of the mind should be highly adapted to the exchange and reception of information, ideas, and feelings. Consequently, while brains as biological organs are incapable of responsibility and agency, legal and social traditions have long held individuals accountable for their behavior.

The key to achieving a more scientific explanation of subjective consciousness is to accept that biology and culture collectively work together to shape how brains evolve. Subjective consciousness comprises only one part of the much larger mental architecture of the brain, which is designed to facilitate the survival and well-being of species.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The authors are not employees of, consultants to, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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