Next week I’m presenting a Summer School on Evolution and the Function of Consciousness organized by Stevan Harnad in Montreal. The paper is co-authored with Zack Robinson and Corey Maley. Comments welcome, especially if they come before the summer institute.
Abstract: Assigning a biological function to phenomenal consciousness appears to be needed to explain its origin through evolution. For evolution by natural selection operates on organisms’ traits based on the biological functions they fulfill. And yet identifying the function(s) of phenomenal consciousness has proven difficult. Some have proposed that the function of phenomenal consciousness is facilitating mental processes such as reasoning or learning. But mental processes such as reasoning and learning seem to be possible in the absence of phenomenal consciousness. It is difficult to pinpoint in what way phenomenal consciousness enhances such processes. In this paper, we explore a possibility that has been neglected to date. Perhaps phenomenal consciousness has no function of its own because it is either a byproduct of other traits or a (functionless) accident. If so, then phenomenal consciousness has an evolutionary explanation even though it fulfills no biological function.