Subjects A short paper by Gray, Gray and Wegner in Science recently sets out the results of an interesting survey of how people view minds. People were asked to make comparisons amongst a strange group of 13 miscellaneous entities (see picture), rating them against a series of criteria. There is an online version of the questionnaire, with a different cast of characters, here.

The main finding is that people seem to rank minds along two scales rather than one. Analysis of the data suggested that the two basic qualities of minds as perceived by the respondents were: experience (hunger, fear, pain, pleasure, rage, desire, personality, consciousness, pride, embarrassment, joy) and agency (self-control, morality, memory, emotion recognition, planning, communication, and thought). This result is agreeably in line with philosophical thinking about consciousness; I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to claim that the ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ problems of consciousness are the problems of experience and agency respectively.

That’s nice, but having one’s preconceptions confirmed so neatly might be grounds for suspicion. Is it possible, for example, that the authors built in the distinction which emerged from the research by their choice of examples? The list of entities for the original experiment is certainly a strange one (in some respects the online version is even stranger: it consists mainly of living human beings, but also features two birds – surely unlikely to score very differently). Clearly these are meant to be a set of examples of special interest from a mental point of view, but the list is certainly not exhaustive: we could add aliens, ghosts, computers and a number of others. In fairness I must admit I don’t know exactly what an exhaustive list would be in this context: but to illustrate the possibility of skewing the results, consider what might happen if we added the following (ghost, djinn, angel, hallucination, my mirror image, chat-bot program) it seems possible that something like solidity might have emerged as another apparently salient quality of minds, which is clearly incorrect (or is it?).

It’s difficult, moreover, with this kind of research, to be sure extraneous considerations are being kept out. Take the results about God. God rates high on agency but very low on experience. I think this must be because negative items like pain and hunger feature prominently, and people found the idea of God experiencing pain unlikely. It might be that they thought of pain as the province of creatures with bodies, but I suspect that to some extent they were just distracted by the observation that an omnipotent, omniscient being ought to be well able to keep out of the way of pain – which is beside the point, strictly speaking. It’s an an odd result to get from a largely Christian group, in any case, given that Jesus surely experienced pain and hunger, if perhaps not rage.
In fact, on this showing God is more or less a philosophical zombie: all agency and no experience. This raises another issue: if you have a problem with the concept of such zombies, you might be inclined to deny that the two dimensions identified here are really independent, arguing that agency actually implies experience. Presumably you might also be sceptical about the possibility of anti-zombies – creatures with full experience but no agency. I think, though, that I’d be I’d be inclined to reverse the sceptical argument and see the research as providing some good evidence against the assertion that zombies are inconceivable. They may well, on further consideration, and given some further argumentation, turn out to be impossible (as a matter of fact I think they do); but this research makes it difficult to argue that they are outright incoherent or unimaginable. It’s not very often that you get empirical results which bear on matters of philosophical interest, so this is surely some cause for celebration.

Quibbles aside, moreover, I think the results are essentially correct. I’m wondering now if an attempt to construct an ‘exhaustive’ list of interestingly different examples of consciousness/non-consciousness might itself be a useful, if perhaps doomed, exercise.

6 Comments

  1. 1. A.G. says:

    That was pretty interesting. I agree that the results seem to confirm people view consciousness along both lines of access and phenomenological consciousness.

    I wonder about your claim though that the survey has bearing on the conceivability of zombies. Superficially, I can see the point, it’s interesting that God is conceived in terms of pure psychological mind (without body, parts, or passions but lots of intelligence). But whether zombies are conceivable seems to be an issue mostly in the context of whether physical, or functional duplicates of phenomenal experiencers are possible. I don’t see how the survey gets at this.

    It’s a really interesting idea though that a survey might be constructed to shed light on whether zombies are conceivable or whether conceivability can tell us something meaningful. I’m going to think about that one.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Yes. There’s conceivable and conceivable, of course, and the way people do think about things doesn’t necessarily prove anything about how they could think about things. But it must have at least some rhetorical force if you can show that people do normally think of phenomenal capacity as independent of access capacity.

  3. 3. Paul Martin says:

    I haven’t studied consciousness much (beyond my own I guess) but find these established categories of “experience” and “agency” close to two primary aspects I’d noticed that I thought of in terms of “motivation” and “instrumental intelligence.”

    If you use those categories, it highlights one feature of God’s “experience,” or, more particularly, motivation: divine purpose…

  4. 4. Peter says:

    I suppose there is a link between experience and motivation, but I don’t know whether they’re the same. If that were so, the survey would suggest people view God as an unmotivated agent. That might fit with certain conceptions of God (possibly the one invoked in “acts of God”, for example), but not very well with the Christian one, where God’s emotional engagement (frustrated anger in the OT, ineffable love in the NT) always seems central. Or so it seems to me.

  5. 5. DenzelWBon says:

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  6. 6. i love bulldogs says:

    You know This is so ironic. pretty much says it all.

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