Monday, January 14, 2008

Consciousness raising

Two years ago I started thinking about consciousness (my earlier posts are here and here), and ever since, what's in my mind has been on my mind.

First, some of what I've been reading lately. About a year ago, Time magazine published an article by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker titled "The mystery of consciousness". Pinker refers to a distinction made by philosopher David Chalmers, between the Easy Problem of consciousness (what are the neural correlates of consciousness?) and the Hard Problem (why do is there such a thing as subjective conscious experience?). Chalmers' ideas are intriguing; see for example his Scientific American piece, "The puzzle of conscious experience". There's also a fascinating video interview with Chalmers.

Now, on to some of my thoughts ...

First person very singular

I know that I'm conscious (in fact for René Descartes, this was the one thing that could be known with certainty). But there's no way to know that any one else is. It is conceivable that they are just biological machines with no conscious experience. They behave just like a conscious person would, and thus would pass any Turing test. There's plenty of computing going on, but nobody's home. Or as philosophers rather melodramatically put it, they are zombies.

You may be reassured to know that I don't believe this. But on what grounds can I believe that other people are actually conscious? It's really an article of faith. Along with a body, and in particular a brain, I have an inner self, therefore I take it for granted that others who are made like me and act like me also have inner selves.

A brute to the brutes?

It seems clear that other humans are "made like me" and "act like me". But broadly speaking, so are other mammals. Are they conscious? Our friend monsieur Descartes considered this issue as well. In Mind: A Brief Introduction, John Searle writes that Descartes
... thought the crucial distinction between us and animals, that enables us to tell for sure that human beings have minds and animals do not, is that human beings have a language in which they express their thoughts and feelings, and animals have no language. Their lack of language he considered to be overwhelming evidence that they have no thoughts or feelings ... If we see a dog hit by a carriage and we hear the dog howling in apparent pain, it looks like we have to assume that the dog has feelings just as we do. But Descartes says all of that is an illusion. We should no more pity the dog than we pity the carriage when it is involved in a crash. The noise might make it look as if the carriage was suffering pain, but it is not; and likewise with dogs and all other animals.
But Descartes' views were not as blunt as this might suggest: see Peter Harrison's article Descartes on Animals. Along with a careful consideration of Descartes' thinking (which relates in part to the issue of sentience), there is this tidbit:
We are reliably informed, for example, that Descartes owned a little dog—Monsieur Grat—upon whom he lavished much affection, and who used to accompany him on his walks.
I believe—as I think most people today do—that dogs are indeed conscious. But then what about birds? Fish? Insects? Corals? Plankton? Protozoa? Perhaps consciousness is some kind of continuum. This line of thought seems to weaken the connection between consciousness and neurology, and it also seems to lead towards panpsychism.

Artificial irrelevance?

If animals may be conscious, then what about machines? I have long been skeptical of artificial intelligence, in part because of the outlandish hype. According to Peter Hankins on his fascinating blog Conscious Entities, one of the leading proponents of AI, Marvin Minsky, declared in 1977 "that the problem of creating artificial intelligence would be substantially solved within a generation." (oops.)

My guess is that there will continue to be gradual progress towards developing some of the capacities that have been identified with AI. But I suspect that even with a much more modest target (i.e. omitting consciousness), Minsky was wrong by several orders of magnitude.

Consciousness consciousness

I'd be very interested in feedback on some of these questions. I've felt for some time that consciousness is the great mystery. There are many unsolved problems in science, and some of the most fascinating ones are in neuroscience. But while neuroscience informs the study of consciousness, I believe that it can only identify the neural correlates of consciousness. Consciousness itself cannot be investigated scientifically.

Or can it?

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Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...


Consciousness is the great mystery -- agree because I can't disagree for now.

Before we give up on its investigation....can we investigate what purpose it serves? Perhaps therein will lie some answers?

2:26 AM, January 19, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

If we believe that consciousness is the product of natural selection, then it must confer an advantage, i.e. greater fitness. It's hard to understand what the mechanism would be, but if we could compare conscious and non-conscious organisms we might be able to make some progress. The trouble is, we have no way of detecting consciousness!

I did find a piece on the evolution of consciousness by philosopher Peter Carruthers, which looks quite interesting.

12:16 AM, January 20, 2008  
Blogger Raywat Deonandan said...

Perhaps the universe permitted us to evolve consciousness so that it might know itself.

4:19 PM, January 24, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

That's an intriguing thought, building on panpsychism. I hope the universe isn't too disgusted with the mess we've made of our planet.

7:49 PM, January 24, 2008  
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6:17 PM, May 31, 2010  

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