Functions of consciousness

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Description: A major challenge for the successful naturalization of consciousness lies in locating its biological function, or functions. Although common sense suggests that conscious experience has many important functional roles in our lives, experiments and theoretical arguments challenge these everyday intuitions. Many human behaviors can occur in the absence of consciousness, and the natural world contains many creatures capable of engaging in complex behaviors, at least some of which may be doing so entirely without consciousness (e.g., mollusks, microorganisms). While consciousness is a real phenomenon whether functional or not, without any defensible function its scientific study is made even more difficult than it already is. We begin with some necessary conceptual ground-clearing, reviewing the possibility that consciousness does not have a function and dealing with ambiguities in the meaning of ‘function’ and of ‘consciousness’. We then consider in detail a range of putative functions for consciousness, covering both cognitive perspectives and proposals grounded in neural dynamics. We start with the intuitively appealing ideas that consciousness functions to initiate voluntary behavior and/or to mediate rational actions, before turning to more recent candidates, for example that consciousness functions to integrate information or to mediate planning and flexible behavior in response to novelty. Finally, we consider the possibility that consciousness, as a constellation concept,may have multiple functions. [The reference for this chapter is Seth, A.K. (2009). Functions of consciousness. In W.P. Banks (ed.) Elsevier Encyclopedia of Consciousness. Vol 1: 279-293.]

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