The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Control Systems

The US electrical engineer William Powers extended these ideas to a hierarchical organization of control systems. First of all, he realized that a control system controls what it senses: it controls its input (the perception), not its output (the behavior). A thermostat controls the temperature, not the gas consumed by the heater. Organisms change their behavior, but they do it in order to control a perception. Behavior is the control of perception.

A control system is a blind performer of a specific function. It does not know the larger scope of its function. For example, a thermostat does not know why it is keeping the temperature constant. A control system has an internal goal (e.g., to maintain temperature constant) and its behavior is determined by the difference between what it perceives and its internal goal. Nonetheless, the control system exhibits a behavior that appears to be "purposeful".

Next, he envisioned a system which is made of a pyramid of control systems, each one sending its output to some "lower-level" control systems. The lowest level in the hierarchy is made of control systems that use sensors to sense the environment and “effectors” to act on the environment, and some "reference level" to determine what they have to maintain at a constant level. For example, a thermostat would sense the environment's temperature, effect the heater and maintain the measured temperature at a constant level. At a higher level, a control system senses and effects the reference level of lower-level control systems. An engine could direct a thermostat to maintain a certain temperature. The reference level of the lower level is determined by the control systems of the higher level.

Living organisms are made of such hierarchies of control systems. "Instinctive" behavior is the control system (organized in a hierarchy) that the organism inherits at birth. They determine internally what parameters have to be maintain constant, and at which magnitude. Behavior is a backward chain of behaviors: walking up the hierarchy one finds out why the system is doing what it is doing (e.g., it is keeping the temperature at such a level because the engine is running at such a speed because… and so forth). The hierarchy is a hierarchy of goals (goals that have to be achieved in order to achieve other goals in order to achieve other goals in order to…)

This hierarchy inevitably extends outside the system and into the environment. A machine is part of a bigger machine which is part of a factory which is part of an economy which is part of a society which is part… The goal of a component of the machine is explained by a chain of higher-level goals that extend into society. In the case of living organisms, the chain of goals extends to their ecosystem, and ultimately to the entire system of life.


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