Meanwhile, here is an enjoyable excerpt from Thomas Metzinger's the Ego Tunnel. Also, see his latest Edge.org answer.
We are Ego Machines, natural information-processing systems that arose in the process of biological evolution on this planet. The Ego is a tool— one that evolved for controlling and predicting your behavior and understanding the behavior of others. We each live our conscious life in our own Ego Tunnel, lacking direct contact with outside reality but possessing an inward, first-person perspective. We each have conscious self-models— integrated images of ourselves as a whole, which are firmly anchored in background emotions and physical sensations. Therefore, the world simulation constantly being created by our brains is built around a center. But we are unable to experience it as such, or our selfmodels as models. As I described at the outset of this book, the Ego Tunnel gives you the robust feeling of being in direct contact with the outside world by simultaneously generating an ongoing “out-of-brain experience” and a sense of immediate contact with your “self.” The central claim of this book is that the conscious experience of being a self emerges because a large portion of the self-model in your brain is, as philosophers would say, transparent.
We are Ego Machines, but we do not have selves. We cannot leave the Ego Tunnel, because there is nobody who could leave. The Ego and its Tunnel are representational phenomena: They are just one of many possible ways in which conscious beings can model reality. Ultimately, subjective experience is a biological data format, a highly specific mode of presenting information about the world, and the Ego is merely a complex physical event— an activation pattern in your central nervous system.
And here is a refurbish of an earlier post by me (Moving Towards Eliminativism):
Following above, I am going to try my hand at denying “consciousness,” at least as some fundamentally new property or object. I am going to try to reduce it to something simpler and say that it is nothing above that analysis. For more on ontology and reduction see my previous post on John Heil, who lays out similar key ideas.
I am essentially going to reduce consciousness to a rapid process of (self-)monitoring, (self-)representing, and action (of the self). But all of those states in a non-conscious, non-unified way. Some of those processes are self reflective. Consciousness here is the “what-it-is-like” conception. It is feels and redness. It is the presentation of sensation “as it pops up before one's self.” (That last part is tricky because there is no adequate way to say “it presents itself to itself,” or simply “it is,” neither which is quite right). I aim to deny that it is actually a property, actually a thing.
First, let us accept something. The book on the table is not actually a book. The book-qua-book has created no new properties in the world, I assume. If it does something to some person/brain/being, other than what physical objects usually do, that will be because of that person’s representation of the symbols. But if there is a new, emergent property in that representation of the book, that property is in the brain (which is the question we are asking about), and is not in the unique structure of atoms as regards the book and the properties that book manifests.
[Aside, similar to “Does the computer know how to play chess?”, the relational aspect of the letters of a book, thus atomic arrangement, should be seen within the span of human cultural creation. Thus, the relational aspects of those atoms formed in letters allows additional humans to take in that information and build a tool shed. From single-cells, the process of evolution, sensory development, human brain development, and then cultural development has created “letters” that cause robust activities in the world. That is the manifestation of the relational aspects of atoms of letters and the whole story of epistemology.]
Back to representation and to consciousness. The chess computer or Watson can represent and create "intentional" structures in the world without the arising of consciousness or of new emergent and non-reducible properties (see previous post on Deflating Consciousness). An amoeba can “represent” and create self-beneficial action as it regards the sun or saltwater, again without consciousness or seemingly emergent properties. The idea being here that evolution put, say, early bacteria into a structure that sensed (perhaps represented) external environments, and did things because of those perceivings. Biology is chemistry is physics. If something emergent has happened in the universe at that time, it is no more usefully emergent than the first creation of hydrogen atoms. The structures of the behavior readily falls from the structures of the world.
Carrying on, animals got more complicated in sensing and representing their world. Again, this is what evolution does. Animals with more complex sensory systems and informational parsing structures increased in number because those modifications were useful in their environment. In humans, our representations reach a point where we had enough internal representations of our selves at the center of a modeled world, that we also modeled that we exist, that "I" experience.
My thesis here is that such representing in higher animals, such that represents and organizes behaviors and even “thoughts” around external and internal events, is doing so in what we are calling a conscious way. But this “consciousness” is actually nothing. The rapid presentation of representational structures, as arising from sensory information along with emotional effects, presents and circles around a representation of the animal, including tons of representations of the self, of an I at the center of the world, aided by linguistic explosion. But this is not actually a different process than the particular makeup of the rapid representational structures. It simply is that very fast run-through of those countless representations. There is not some central unified vision or property within that representation. If an animal represents that a predator is near, those representations are mixed with (really inseparable from) chemically induced sensations and feelings. A new property or object has not emerged of a non-reducible quality, of consciousness. This probably parallels Antonio Damasio a bit (see the Self Comes to Mind and The Feeling of What Happens), except I am more dismissive of consciousness as a robust phenomenon.
Likewise, human consciousness has a greatly expanded self-awareness. That is, it has representations and a model (and occasional representation of that model) of "I," my self, at this computer, at this date in time, at this place in the universe. But this is merely a representational sequence, and there is no "qualitative feeling" to it.
However, the “what-it-is-like” is special. Any complex representation (or maybe series of representations) is a singular representation unlike anything else in the world. But that does not mean it is an emergent property, unless we want to say that the unique atomic structure of "that rock" is emergent. Nor is it non-reducible. The representation is cashed out in its micro-structures which have been ordered that way by evolution and the history of this individual. If a representational schema plays cool functions in the world, allows you to do badass things with that trombone over there, it is because that is what evolution does. It puts material together in cool ways that can further manipulate the world for their own benefit. But this is always reducible to the physical level which was put in its cool situation by historical accident. So nothing emergent or new was created, except in some banal sense.
But consciousness is something. Sure, just as this book is something . . . because we represent it “as something.” But we are humble about what that book is: an interesting structure of material. We do not claim it is emergent or non-reducible. Mental properties are the same. Yes, they are processes. Yes, consciousness is a state of the world (a structure of atoms in the brain organized in an interesting way). Consciousness is no more an object or a process than water going from complete solid to complete gas is a process. Or better, than the computer going from the 1st move in a chess game (with an external “opponent” occasionally moving a piece) to the last. Consciousness is not different than that computer process, except that we have a great many more representations of our selves at the center of a modeled world, representing our selves as the feeler of emotions and pains, and so on.
In humans, the rapid presentation of images and concepts and ideas creates an additional representation of a being at the center experiencing such, but that representational process does not literally create (me or I). The postulated central representation does not experience anything any more than the computer experiences a chess move. Consciousness as property or non-reducible conception does not exist, except again in the unique sense of individuality (there is nothing exactly like that set of atoms or that exact process of representations). Only you are representing the room you are in, a few body cues, a few memory insertions, and this exact sentence at this exact time. That representation is unique, and in certain ways non-reducible. In order to get all the exact processes that are you and your immediate environment, we would have to reproduce just that entire environment.
To drive the point home, there is not some point in time where an updated self-driving car will represent world/self in such a numerous way that it is now beyond representation and has entered consciousness. Those representations do not morph into “global awareness,” they merely present another aspect of the world that is, perhaps, re-represented by a future brain process. They do not reach a state of experiencing or consciousness. However, human consciousness may have a representation of self/world, that because of linguistic blossoming, far surpasses anything that a chimp or a Homo Neanderthal or a 2-year-old or an advanced self-driving car will represent.
According to this naive representer.