What potential exists for improvements in the functioning of consciousness?
The paper addresses this issue using global workspace theory. According
to this model, the prime function of consciousness is to develop novel
adaptive responses. Consciousness does this by putting together new combinations
of knowledge, skills and other disparate resources that are recruited
from throughout the brain. The papers search for potential improvements
in the functioning of consciousness draws on studies of the shift during
human development from the use of implicit knowledge to the use of explicit
(declarative) knowledge. These studies show that the ability of consciousness
to adapt a particular domain improves significantly as the transition
to the use of declarative knowledge occurs in that domain. However, this
potential for consciousness to enhance adaptability has not yet been realised
to any extent in relation to consciousness itself. The paper assesses
the potential for adaptability to be improved by the conscious adaptation
processes that constitute consciousness. A number of sources (including
the practices of religious and contemplative traditions) are drawn on
to investigate how this potential might be realised.
An improved capacity to develop novel adaptive responses has often been
given as the reason why evolution favoured the emergence of consciousness.
Consciousness is increasingly seen as a process that confers evolutionary
advantage by enhancing the ability of an organism to discover new and
better behavioural adaptations (Baars 1988; Dennett 1991; Metzinger 2003
and DeHaene and Naccache 2001).
Global Workplace (GW) theory attributes this capacity of consciousness
to its ability to assemble novel combinations of knowledge, skills and
other resources for the development of new adaptive responses (Baars 1983,
1988 and 1997). This enables consciousness to, for example, recruit the
resources needed to construct composite mental representations of alternative
responses and their consequences, enabling the most adaptive response
to be identified.
This paper explores the extent to which the adaptability conferred by
consciousness can be enhanced in humans. In particular, it seeks to identify
the potential for changes in the functioning of consciousness to improve
its ability to discover better behavioural adaptations.
Addressing this issue has been greatly assisted by the recent development
of information processing theories of the functioning of consciousness.
An understanding of consciousness from an information processing perspective
enables us to assess its potential for further improvement. We can judge
how well consciousness performs its functions, and whether changes in
the processes that constitute consciousness could overcome any limitations
and enhance its ability to adapt behaviour effectively.
This paper uses the information processing framework embodied in GW theory
to assess the potential for improvement in consciousness. Of the competing
information processing accounts of consciousness, it currently attracts
the widest support (Baars 2002; DeHaene and Naccache 2001; Kanwisher 2001;
and Dennett 2001).
The paper focuses on those improvements that can emerge through the processes
of cultural evolution, rather than through genetic change. It therefore
considers only changes that can be learnt and can be transmitted culturally.
We begin in Section 2 by outlining and developing the main features of
Baars GW theory that are relevant to our task. This analysis of
GW theory is drawn on in Section 3 to identify how the functioning of
conscious processes might be improved to enhance the adaptability and
evolvability of humans. The search for potential improvements is aided
by developmental research that identifies how adaptability is significantly
enhanced in other domains when declarative knowledge is used to assist
adaptation. In section 4 we use GW theory and other sources to begin to
identify practices and experiences that could enable humans to acquire
skills and capacities that would realise the potential to improve the
functioning of consciousness.
Religious and contemplative traditions have accumulated a substantial
body of declarative and procedural knowledge about how to modify the functioning
of consciousness. This knowledge has the potential to significantly increase
human adaptability and evolvability. By enabling conscious processes to
be modified, it opens the way for declarative modelling to optimise the
functioning of consciousness. This would enable the full capacity of consciousness
to discover new adaptations to be used to adapt and enhance consciousness
itself. However, the development of these capacities would not just significantly
enhance adaptability - it would also change what occupies the GW through
time, and therefore what an individual is conscious of. It would change
the experience of what it is to be a human being.
However, the explanations and interpretations developed by the contemplative
traditions to account for the practices they use and the experiences and
capacities they produce are prescientific. Their theories have not been
disciplined by the scientific method. In particular, they have unnecessarily
introduced a plethora of theoretical entities unknown to empirical psychology
and science that have little predictive value. Nor have the theories taken
advantage of the powerful models and understandings embodied in standard
learning theory, clinical psychology, information processing models of
cognition, and other areas of cognitive neuroscience.
It can be expected that these deficiencies will be corrected as the knowledge
accumulated by the contemplative traditions is integrated into the framework
and practice of scientific psychology. As this integration proceeds, it
is likely that far more powerful models of the phenomenon and associated
processes will be developed, and that these in turn will enable more effective
practices and interventions to be developed. Such a re-interpretation
of pre-scientific declarative and procedural knowledge in the light of
the conceptual frameworks and models of other domains is an important
step in the declarative transition in any domain. In particular, it enables
discoveries, models and understandings from other areas to be applied
to the domain in question, and vice versa. Science has been the key vehicle
for this process in the most recent 400 years of human evolution. This
paper is a contribution to the early stages of this interpretation and
integration process for consciousness (see Walsh and Shapiro 2006 for
a recent overview of progress).
The integration of the discoveries of contemplative traditions with scientific
psychology can be expected to greatly assist and accelerate the unfolding
of this declarative transition across humanity in general. The successful
accomplishment of the transition would open up adaptive possibilities
of great evolutionary significance. It would, for example, provide humans
with the possibility of choosing to pursue evolutionary goals directly,
rather than continuing to pursue proxies for evolutionary success. It
would also enable these goals to be pursued more creatively and successfully.
Furthermore, as the transition extends to more aspects of consciousness,
humans would increasingly be able to choose to adopt particular modes
of consciousness to match the needs of different circumstances, just as
we now can choose to adopt particular physical postures to match the needs
of different physical tasks.
You can download the full paper as a *.pdf