The scientific study of consciousness or subjective experiencing is a rapidly expanding research program engaging philosophers of mind, psychologists, cognitive scientists, neurobiologists, evolutionary biologists and biosemioticians. Here we outline an evolutionary approach that we have developed over the last two decades, focusing on the evolutionary transition from non-conscious to minimally conscious, subjectively experiencing organisms. We propose that the evolution of subjective experiencing was driven by the evolution of learning and we identify an open-ended, representational, generative and recursive form of associative learning, which we call Unlimited Associative Learning (UAL), as an evolutionary transition marker of minimal consciousness. This evolutionary marker provides evidence that the evolutionary transition to consciousness has gone to completion and allows reverse-engineering from this learning capacity to the system that enables it – making possible the construction of a toy model of UAL. The model allows us to identify some of the key processes and structures that constitute minimal consciousness, points its taxonomic distribution and the ecological context in which it first emerged, highlights its function and suggests a framework for exploring developmental and evolutionary modifications of consciousness. We point to ways of experimentally testing the relationship between UAL and consciousness in human and in non-human animals and discuss the theoretical and ethical implications of our approach. The framework we offer allows the exploration of the evolutionary changes in agency, value systems, selective processes and goals that were involved in the transition to subjective experiencing from a perspective that resonates with the approaches of bio-semioticians.
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