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Cerebral CortexPrinciples of Operation$
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Edmund T. Rolls

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198784852

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198784852.001.0001

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Which cortical computations underlie consciousness?

Which cortical computations underlie consciousness?

22 Which cortical computations underlie consciousness?
Cerebral Cortex

Edmund T. Rolls

Oxford University Press

Consciousness, and especially phenomenal consciousness (why it should feel like something), is a ‘hard’ problem in philosophy. It is not clear that it is amenable to a solution using neuroscience, but neuroscience does have many relevant and potential contributions to understanding phenomenal consciousness. It is argued that one route to action is the goal-directed route, with the goals set by the selfish genes. A second route involves multi-step reasoning involving syntax to keep the different variables and steps in the plan separate and organised (see Chapter 17). This multi-step planning may suffer a credit assignment problem, in that when the plan fails, it is not clear which step or steps were faulty. In this situation it is proposed that a monitoring system with syntactic capability would be useful to work through the steps of the plan, to work out which the faulty step in the plan might be, and to correct the plan. It is suggested, but only as a plausible argument that cannot be proved, that this higher order syntactic monitoring operation might be the type of computation, with adaptive value, that might feel like something. This is Rolls’ higher order syntactic thought (HOST) theory of consciousness. It is a theory of the computations that underlie consciousness, and that type of approach does seem promising. Much processing in humans can be unconscious, and cannot be verbally reported. It may operate without the involvement of the necessarily slow HOST system with its sequential syntax. The brain does not operate as a deterministic system, because of spiking-related neuronal noise in the brain (Chapter 5). However, when the reasoning system is taking the decision, we might wish to use the term ‘free will’ to describe the operation being performed by the cortex. Other approaches to consciousness include Rosenthal’s higher order thought (HOT) theory; that oscillations somehow account for consciousness; that sensing bodily changes is required for consciousness; and that consciousness is related to operations in a global workspace.

Keywords:   consciousness, awareness, phenomenal consciousness, higher order thought (HOT), higher order syntactic thought (HOST), explicit system, determinism, reasoning

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