Flanagan and a Possible Purpose for Consciousness

by Rob McLarty on April 10, 2015

Owen Flanagan, in his article "Conscious Inessentialism and the Epiphenomenalist Suspicion", talks about the possible role consciousness plays in our species, developed through evolution. Exemplified by the experiment of Libet (361-362), he believes that consciousness is like a final approval of an action that the brain has already initiated but has not yet executed. Once approved, the action is done; if not approved, consciousness allows for the possibility of holding back before any damage is done...

I rather like this explanation as it makes sense to me, especially in terms of evolution. Unlike the Epiphenomenalist who believes that consciousness is a sort of evolutionary accident - a feature which hitched a ride on the evolutionary train but serves no actual function (like the appendix) - I believe, as Flanagan seems tom, that consciousness was specifically selected for as a means of better survival. "Consciousness is a matter of good evolutionary design" (360).

It could be imagined that consciousness has been selected for because those individuals who hesitated and double checked their actions, before executing an action, were the ones who survived and transmitted their genes. For example, being hungry (maybe even starving) and seeing an easily killed child animal cross my path (readily available food and an end to my hunger), I would see and opportunity to kill and eat this animal without any immediate problems, thus eliminating my lack of energy. If I was not conscious (i.e., I did not hesitate and consider my action to kill the animal before actually executing the action) then I would probably be killed later when the mother of the child sees what I have done to her offspring. Thus my line of genes would be at an end. Quick, non-hesitant action might kill the animal and achieve much needed food for my survival more efficiently, but in the long run it puts me in greater danger. So the hesitation actually helps and is good evolutionary design.

Now it could be argued that, say, a robot could be programmed to analyze its surroundings and make probability judgements based on how much energy it had left, how much time it had remaining before it required more energy, what the risk of acquiring some particular energy would be, weighing this risk next to the amount of time its current supply of energy would sustain it for, etc.. The robot could probably avoid the trap of ingesting energy that could possibly destroy it (as with the animal mother; or in this case maybe an angry battery salesman) without actually being aware or conscious of what was happening (i.e., it is all a result of innate programming). But the point is, as Flanagan makes it, that it is not that it is possible for beings such as ourselves to do the things we do without consciousness (implying that consciousness has no purpose) but that it was necessary for us to have developed consciously (i.e., consciousness was purposely selected for since those of our ancestors without consciousness did not survive).

In the game of evolution, consciousness is a good card to hold. In the example of the robot, we have created something which has no risk of being destroyed (because we are always around to look out for it). Even if there was a risk (as in the example), it might be able to avoid THAT particular risk, but could not adapt to different situations. The creatures in evolution which could hesitate and consider things in different situations survived; the robot, left on its own in the world, would probably die (when the angry salesman wanted his batteries back). Thus, although consciousness is not needed for individual existence, it is essential for the survival of a species in an ever changing and potentially hostile environment.

Works Cited:

Flanagan, Owen. "Conscious Inessentialism and the Epiphenomenalist Suspicion" in The Nature of Consciousness, Ed. Ned Block, Owen Flanagan, and Guven Guzeldere. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998. 357-373.


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