A Basic Model for Consciousness

February 4, 2012

The nature of consciousness is a fundamental mystery of human condition, as much a philosophical and epistemological question as a scientific one. Many of the blog posts so far have explored the exact nature of consciousness; this will briefly introduce one that I find attractive: Higher Order Theory.

Higher Order Theory is basically a theory which states that the brain has thoughts, such as “I am hungry” or “It’ll probably rain tomorrow” or “William Henry Harrison was our most prolific president.” However, every now and again, the brain will have thoughts about thoughts (also called metacognition) and that produces consciousness. This theory is intuitively similar to cognitivism, which views consciousness as “the sensation of your most significant thoughts being highlighted.”

Higher Order Theory has several advantages. First of all, it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Humans certainly aren’t the only animals which are self-aware – if an animal can recognize itself in a mirror, doesn’t that count? In The Selfish Gene,┬áRichard Dawkins postulates that consciousness could’ve developed gradually, as an organism’s cognitive worldview became comprehensive enough to include itself. Secondly, it’s a model which lends itself well to definition via computer science and logic, since comprehensive work has already been done in areas such as Kleene’s Recursion Theorem, which could conceivably someday be linked to defining the theory more specifically.