Does consciousness do anything, or is it simply there? How does it fit in with evolution? Is it possible for it to be a part of the story of evolution at all given that it seems to be non-physical?
Removed from consciousness, in a purely physicalist, purely function sense, what do emotions, drives, and instincts do? We believe that evolution shaped these as tools to mold the behavior of organisms towards the "correct" choices for favorable outcomes. Instincts and drives are a bit harder to pin down what they are, in particular humans who are varying levels of uncomfortable with the very idea that they have such a thing, and aren't blank slates. They're sort of larger, more nebulous things, and it's hard to talk about exact moments when they push our behavior one way or another, but we do believe that's what they do; they've somehow shaping our physiology, our neural activity and our chemical signals and other physical mechanisms, to push us towards making one decision in a situation versus another.
Emotions are a bit easier to talk about. In strictly physical terms - again removed from consciousness, from the actual ineffable feeling of them - they put us more directly into identifiable states, like love, anger, jealous, sadness, etc. Chemical signals flow around and "patterns of activity" fire across our neurons. We're not sure what patterns exactly and how to decode, but something is happening in there. With our fMRI and our electrodes, we have some very incomplete understanding.
Shocking The Ghost
It appears as best we can tell that these emotions serve an evolutionary function of pushing our behavior around. When evolution wants us to avoid something, it hurts us. When it wants us to seek something out, it gives us pleasure. And so on.
We feel like this is a very satisfying picture. We're figured it out. We just need to fill in the details.
But wait, isn't this weird? Why does evolution need to push us? Why do emotions need to push anything? What is it pushing against exactly? Why aren't the signals that move around merely informational? Why don't we just.....do?
Perhaps consciousness has a place after all. Suppose it could do something, that it's not just an immaterial appendage, hanging out observing. Suppose it can push back. Suppose nature for some reason needs to get it to cooperate.
I speculate that the function of these negative and positive feelings, these impulses and chemical cascades that cause one to feel compelled toward or away from some behavioral choice, are coercive over consciousness.
Gilbert Ryle - mentor to famous loudmouthed zombie Dan Dennet - thought we were confused, and desirively called consciousness the "Ghost In The Machine". But consciousness is definitely there - for some of us, anyhow. I'm proud to say I have a ghost. I call this hypothetical coercive effect of emotions on consciousness "Shocking The Ghost".