Why Are We Conscious? Cooperation between neural signals as replicators and the emergence of phenomenal experience


A resolution to the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers, 1995) – that is, the problem of why and how it is that there is something it is like to be conscious – remains elusive.

In this talk, I will propose a novel framework for understanding the 'why' aspect of the hard problem: that consciousness emerges as a solution to competition between neural signals.

I will first argue that neural signals are replicators, and that, like other (biological) replicators (e.g., genes, chromosomes, genomes etc.), individual neural signals compete within populations of neural signals and are subject to a form of natural selection. I will then suggest that, like other replicators, neural signals and the organisms in which they are generated can accrue benefits from overcoming the competition between them and will therefore do so under the right conditions.

I will draw on the work of Szathmary and Maynard-Smith (1995; Maynard-Smith & Szathmary, 1997; Szathmary, 2015) on major evolutionary transitions to argue that the integrative, holistic, irreducible nature of qualitative experience emerges from a tendency for neural signals as replicators to produce higher-order informational structure through a form of “cooperation”. I will specify how this structure can emerge from a process of “stochastic correction” (Szathmary & Demeter, 1987) and the way in which the structure might manifest in different levels of neural coding, including a level that can be conceived of as conscious.

I will then discuss how this understanding of consciousness relates to other relevant models of consciousness – including Integrated Information Theory (Tononi, 2008; 2012; Tononi et al., 2016) and Neural Darwinism (Edelman, 1987; 1989) – and to the conceivability of philosophical zombies.

Finally, I will draw an analogy between biological organisms and their constituent parts (e.g., genes, genomes, cells, organs etc.) and global conscious experience and its constituent parts (e.g., neural signals, macroscopic neural oscillations, local states, qualia etc.) in order to (speculatively) propose a way forward in the search for an answer to the “how” aspect of the hard problem of consciousness.

About the speaker

Daniel SkorichDr Daniel Skorich is a Lecturer in the School of Medicine and Psychology at the Australian National University, and a former Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Daniel’s research interests are broadly in the domain of social cognition and social psychology, with offshoots in clinical psychology, health psychology, and computational theories of mind. His PhD research challenged existing cognitive resource-focused accounts of stereotyping and impression formation. Since completing his PhD, Daniel has developed a new model of autism – the Integrated Self-Categorization model of Autism – which brings together the disparate cognitive-perceptual and social-communicative aspects of the condition under a single explanatory framework. His current research includes the development of a dynamic model of individual and group-level face perception; a multinomial processing tree model of self-categorization in the who-said-what paradigm; and – the focus of Daniel’s School seminar – an attempt at answering the “why” question of consciousness. Daniel is also writing a book with Dr Ken Mavor – Person as Category Theory: Rethinking the Nature of the Personal Self (Routledge, 2024) – which provides an integrated account of person and group processing across a wide variety of domains and, among other things, introduces a new model of impression formation and stereotype formation.  

About Seminar Series

The School of Psychology Seminar Series involves regular formal presentations of high-quality scholarly work with broad appeal.

The wider School community is invited to attend, including academic and professional staff, special guests, visitors, as well as HDR, postgraduate and honours students.

Seminars are held fortnightly on Wednesdays 12:00-1:30 in room s402, Social Sciences Building.

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