The Guess Worker

Consciousness is our motivator


  • Consciousness is the faculty of the mind which gives us awareness of information.
  • Through consciousness we experience emotions, feelings and sensations and are aware of concepts.
  • The function of consciousness is motivation.
  • Consciousness motivates us through pain and pleasure.
  • We need motivation even to think.

Consciousness is a topic filled with a lot of confusion. This is what Wikipedia writes about consciousness: 

"Consciousness is variously defined as subjective experience, or awareness, or wakefulness, or the executive control system of the mind. It is an umbrella term that may refer to a variety of mental phenomena. Although humans realize what everyday experiences are, consciousness refuses to be defined."

Wikipedia's definition of consciousness, in other words, is of something that refuses to be defined. That's not a very satisfactory definition, is it? The confusion is understandable, though. If we assume that animals are a collection of biochemicals interacting with each other, then it is amazing to think that these biochemicals at some point, after billions of years of evolution, acquired the ability to be aware of their surroundings, of themselves and, in the case of humans, to be aware of things which their senses alone could never be aware of. It is remarkable. Why would this have happened? How on earth was consciousness created out of a bunch of mere biochemicals?

No one has the answer to this last question - as yet. And I doubt that anyone will find the answer any time soon. But there is no use in trying to discover how consciousness is created if we aren't even sure what it is. Unless we know what we are looking for, then we can't even begin to look. So the first stage must be to make clear what we mean by the term "consciousness". Once we are sure about this, we can start to think about what consciousness does: that is, we can try to explain the role it plays in the mind. And only when we understand all of this will it be worth investigating what consciousness is in terms of biochemicals and neurones.

Consciousness isn't intelligence

So let me begin by saying what consciousness isn't. It isn't intelligence. This is a concept which many computer engineers - that is, those of them who speculate on how to make robots with minds like humans' - fail to understand. It was perhaps Alan Turing, the father of computer science, who crossed their wires. According to Turing, the day when humans won't be able to tell the difference between the thinking of a human and a computer, we will be able to say that a computer can think like a human. The problem with the Turing test (which is the name given to this proposal on testing computers) is that it relies on what humans believe about a computer rather than what is actually happening in a computer's circuits. It is an example of believing that the truth depends on the observer, rather than on the principle I mentioned in my first post  - the truth is independent of what people think. All the Turing test can do is show whether a human can tell the difference between the thinking of a computer and a human. It can't show whether a computer can think like a human.

The important difference between the more developed animals (including humans) and computers is not intelligence but consciousness. Humans are conscious, but computers are not. Turing's mistake was two-fold. First, he failed to properly define the terms "thinking" and "intelligence", and without these definitions he couldn't hope to test them. Second, he seems to have entirely ignored the phenomenon of consciousness.

The second mistake is made by many people, especially scientists. The reason could be due, in part, to our living all the time with consciousness and so we don't notice its importance. Another reason may be the unpalatability of the topic - because consciousness is so poorly understood, it has taken on spiritual and philosophical interpretations which serious people, such as scientists, quite rightly wish to avoid.

Ignoring consciousness, however, does not mean that it does not exist. Consciousness is a real phenomenon, and if we want to understand how humans think, we also have to understand something about consciousness.

Consciousness is our entire existence

What is consciousness, then? Quite simply, it is awareness. It is everything we experience. The experience of pain, pleasure, anger, jealousy, love and all the emotions. It is the experience of our senses - seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. It is the experience of hearing our thoughts. In short, it is our entire existence.

Let's look at Wikipedia's definition again. Consciousness is "subjective experience". Well, when someone is conscious, he or she has subjective experiences. Consciousness is also "wakefulness". When someone is awake, he or she is conscious. That makes sense. But these words only describe what happens when someone is conscious. What about "executive control system of the mind"? At least this definition makes consciousness a faculty of the brain. But the executive control faculty - or the decision making faculty, as I prefer to call it - probably is closely connected to consciousness, but is not exactly the same thing.

Consciousness is an umbrella term that may refer to a variety of mental phenomena. Here I totally disagree. If we want to understand anything about consciousness we need to be more precise. We won't get very far if the word representing the attribute we are investigating means many different things to different people. Instead of saying that consciousness refers to a variety of different things, let's insist that consciousness refers to only one thing. Let's start by saying it is a faculty of the mind.

What do I mean by this? What is a faculty of the mind? Another example of a faculty is memory. We could describe memory as being a division of the mind devoted to a specific function. Let's use this last sentence to define all faculties. Consciousness, then, is also a division of the mind devoted to a specific function.

Consciousness doesn't seem to have a job

The problem with this assertion, though, is that unlike memory, consciousness doesn't seem to have an obvious function. It doesn't seem to have any particular job to do. Let's assume, though, it does have a job, only that it's not immediately obvious what it is. If so, what could that job be?

Through consciousness we feel pain and pleasure. Why? The answer is: pain and pleasure motivate us. We are motivated to take actions which either lead to pleasure or lead us to avoid pain. It is the same for all conscious animals. A hungry cat is motivated to look for food, and an extremely hungry cat is highly motivated to look for food. In this way conscious motivation increases an animal's chances of survival. What we can say, then, is that consciousness is the faculty of the mind which provides the function of motivation.

This is such a simple and obvious answer that it is surprising that so many people - scientists and philosophers alike - don't get it. There is, in fact, a good reason why they don't get it: this simple answer doesn't seem to make sense. When I wake up in the morning, I am conscious and I usually remain conscious during the whole day, until I go to bed at night. Even though I may go though many emotions and have a variety of pleasures and pains, for much of the time I don't seem to be motivated by anything in particular. I am just conscious without being motivated. So, it would seem, consciousness can't be a motivator.

But could it be that consciousness really does motivate but we just don't recognise what it's doing? Humans spend a lot of time simply being aware of their surroundings. We also spend a fair amount of time being aware of our thoughts and feelings. Why do we do this? The reason is our minds are occupied with seeking the most important or most interesting information either from the world around us or from within. The most important information available is something well worth concentrating on and exerting energy over. It could be danger or alternatively opportunity. Interest is an emotion which motivates us to focus our attention on the information which causes this emotion.

In our conscious hours, then, our minds are constantly trying to gauge which information, from a range of information, is the most important. How does it do that? By using the consciousness: how strongly we feel our emotions, pleasures and pains determines how motivated we are going to be to take appropriate action. Our behaviour depends on how we feel.

Motivated to daydream

That's all very well, but what if I am daydreaming, or musing on human psychology or thinking up what I am going to write in this post? How can thinking like this have anything to do with motivation? When we think, we just think - surely we don't need to be motivated. Well, yes, we do. We are driven to think by our consciousnesses. We get pleasure, interest and satisfaction from thinking. Boredom is an emotion which drives us to find something of interest. If there is nothing interesting going on in the world outside, we might find a solution in daydreaming, in musing on human psychology or in thinking about what to write in an article.

In other words, we can't think unless we are motivated. And motivation is provided by the consciousness. But I believe there is something rather more subtle that we are motivated to do when we humans think consciously. Thinking is a process which results in the formation of new concepts. Concepts - which we can call ideas - can be very useful. They get stored in the memory and then are used again, usually to solve problems which have been encountered before.

Let's say I am struggling to solve a crossword puzzle. Ideas about various solutions to the clues keep popping into my head. This means that concepts are being brought into the consciousness as I'm thinking. Why does this happen? Consciousness is an expensive faculty of the mind in terms of energy use - it takes a lot of energy to concentrate. The mind is not going to use the consciousness unless it fulfills a useful function. In some way consciousness must help in finding answers to the clues.

So consciousness plays an important role in the formation of new concepts. But how? The answer is, again, by providing motivation. Consciousness drives the mind to put in effort to find new concepts. The result is increased concentration and an intensified search for relevant information which could assist in the formation of the new concepts.

But the role of consciousness in concept formation is an involved topic. So I'm going to wait until my next post when I'll explore it further.

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