Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey wrote an interesting article for Seed Magazine asking why we have consciousness, or more specifically, why did nature select for this peculiar quality we call consciousness? What relative advantages to survival does phenomenological experience offer us?
Humphrey notes that it is “widely assumed by theorists [that] the phenomenal richness of consciousness is of no practical value whatsoever” – that everything that can be accomplished with consciousness can be accomplished without it. Humphrey counters that the role of consciousness might not be that it “enable[s] us to do something we could not do otherwise, but rather [that it] encourages us to do something we would not do otherwise: to make us take an interest in things that otherwise would not interest us, or to mind things we otherwise would not mind, or to set ourselves goals we otherwise would not set.”
My own thoughts on the subject are related to, but not identical to, Humphrey’s view. What I believe Humphrey is touching upon is the idea of consciousness as an ongoing, artistic experiment.
The following analogy is, perhaps, a bit too simplistic and mechanistic, but it’s the best I can come up with. We can think of consciousness as akin to an artistic creation that is continuously in the works. Phenomenal objects—sensations, images, memories, cognitions and fantasies—are part of a highly fungible palette of mental materials. Conscious and unconscious organizing and regulating operations function as the artist’s tools, while consciousness is the display canvas. Internal representations are neither wholly governed by externalities, nor are they wholly independent of external influences—they are in flux—undergoing continuous destruction and recreation. The moment-to-moment condition of that canvas is part of a feedback loop entailing a process of experimental creation, revisionary destruction and recreation.
The advantage to such a process IS that it allows for experimentation that could not so easily take place if we always insisted on real world experimentation. I might not want to drive my speeding car into a tree to determine the possible outcomes of hitting a tree at 90 mph. Since the world of internal objects and imaginary representations is far more fungible than the world of real objects, an imaginal world provides us with greater latitude for experimental and creative activity. It does so without subjecting us to the high costs and dangers of such experimentation in the real world. The canvas of consciousness seems to serve in a participant role within a creation-destruction-revision feedback loop that insulates us from many real world costs.
Of course, the high-fungibility of phenomenal objects and their organizing mental operations contributes to the chronic misrepresentation of reality. Mental representations are not, in and of themselves, the things they represent and so they always contain misrepresentations (My wife’s fluctuating images of my face are not my face, nor are they perfect facsimiles of my face. But the capacity to internally represent external reality opens the door not just to error, but to both conscious and unconscious experimental discovery of possibilities that exist beyond immediate externalities. We can and do play, in effect, with mental representations — experimenting with the imaginal world in ways that inform us of possibilities — both good and bad. The capacity to safely posit and test alternate versions of reality is of enormous and continuous value to us. I would argue that it is so automatic and so integral to the fabric of our phenomenal experience that we don't notice that it is happening all the time.
Could all of this experimentation be accomplished without a canvas — without a mental sandbox or phenomenological scratch pad? I doubt it. I think some sort of canvas expands the latitude of experimentation and possibility by providing a temporary holding space for experimental versions of reality — preserving the availability and fungibility of our hypotheses for further experimentation and revision. We need a place to erase reality and redraw it or the procreative possibilities of our existence are limited by a far more slow process of biological adaptation to our environment. To experiment internally without display on the canvas of consciousness seems as impossible as experimenting in the real world without a real world. How do you test a hypothesis without positing a thesis somewhere? That somewhere, I believe, is our phenomenological awareness.
H/T: Vaughan at Mindhacks