Consciousness is not a thing

Interesting article by Karl Friston, the Wellcome principal research fellow and scientific director at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and professor of neurology at University College London.

“I’m compelled to treat consciousness as a process to be understood, not as a thing to be defined. Simply put, my argument is that consciousness is nothing more and nothing less than a natural process such as evolution or the weather. My favourite trick to illustrate the notion of consciousness as a process is to replace the word ‘consciousness’ with ‘evolution’ – and see if the question still makes sense. For example, the question What is consciousness for? becomes What is evolution for? Scientifically speaking, of course, we know that evolution is not for anything. It doesn’t perform a function or have reasons for doing what it does – it’s an unfolding process that can be understood only on its own terms. Since we are all the product of evolution, the same would seem to hold for consciousness and the self.”

2 thoughts on “Consciousness is not a thing

  1. Ed, thanks for posting a link to this outstanding article. The author is a bit disingenuous (semantic equivocation)in criticizing those who would define consciousness or other processes, given that he goes on to (essentially) define consciousness and other processes (e.g., reasoning). Once I got past that unfortunate misstep, I found the article one of the better concise clarifications I’ve read of complex adaptive systems and evolution with respect to such systems. His application of CAS concepts to consciousness and the mind had me quivering with delight. The concept of a system’s ‘temporal thickness’ is helpful and intriguing.

    While I think I grasp the rest of the article, I do not understand the following: “we sidestep the problems of calling evolution conscious. The process of natural selection minimises surprise (that is, it maximises adaptive fitness) but not uncertainty or expected surprise of the whole system (that is, adaptive fitness expected under alternative, non-Darwinian evolutionary operations).” What alternative evolutionary operations? I’m okay up to “but not uncertainty.” If you understand the point, can you restate it? Thanks.

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