Posts tagged ‘defining consciousness’

What is the moral significance of consciousness? Jim Davies addressed the question in a short but thoughtful piece recently.

Davies quite rightly points out that although the nature of consciousness is often seen as an academic matter, remote from practical concerns, it actually bears directly on how we treat animals and each other (and of course, robots, an area that was purely theoretical not that long ago, but becomes more urgently practical by the day). In particular, the question of which entities are to be regarded as conscious is potentially decisive in many cases.

There are two main ways my consciousness affects my moral status. First, if I’m not conscious, I can’t be a moral subject, in the sense of being an agent (perhaps I can’t anyway, but if I’m not conscious it really seems I can’t get started). Second, I probably can’t be a moral object either; I don’t have any desires that can be thwarted and since I don’t have any experiences, I can’t suffer or feel pain.

Davies asks whether we need to give plants consideration. They respond to their environment and can suffer damage, but without a nervous system it seems unlikely they feel pain. However, pain is a complex business, with a mix of simple awareness of damage, actual experience of that essential bad thing that is the experiential core of pain, and in humans at least, all sorts of other distress and emotional response. This makes the task of deciding which creatures feel pain rather difficult, and in practice guidelines for animal experimentation rely heavily on the broad guess that the more like humans they are, the more we should worry. If you’re an invertebrate, then with few exceptions you’re probably not going to be treated very tenderly. As we come to understand neurology and related science better, we might have to adjust our thinking. This might let us behave better, but it might also force us to give up certain fields of research which are useful to us.

To illustrate the difference between mere awareness of harm and actual pain, Davies suggests the example of watching our arm being crushed while heavily anaesthetised (I believe there are also drugs that in effect allow you to feel the pain while not caring about it). I think that raises some additional fundamental issues about why we think things are bad. You might indeed sit by and watch while your arm was crushed without feeling pain or perhaps even concern. Perhaps we can imagine that for some reason you’re never going to need your arm again (perhaps now you have a form of high-tech psychokinesis, an ability to move and touch things with your mind that simply outclasses that old-fashioned ‘arm’ business), so you have no regrets or worries. Even so, isn’t there just something bad about watching the destruction of such a complex and well-structured limb?

Take a different example; everyone is dead and no-one is ever coming back, not even any aliens. The only agent left is a robot which feels no pleasure or pain but makes conscious plans; it’s a military robot and it spends its time blowing up fine buildings and destroying works of art, for no particular reason. Its vandalistic rampage doesn’t hurt anyone and cannot have any consequences, but doesn’t its casual destructiveness still seem bad?

I’d like to argue that there is a badness to destruction over and above its consequential impact, but it’s difficult to construct a pure example, and I know many people simply don’t share my intuition. It is admittedly difficult because there’s always the likelihood that one’s intuitions are contaminated by ingrained assumptions about things having utility. I’d like to say there’s a real moral rule that favours more things and more organisation, but without appealing to consequentialist arguments it’s hard for me to do much more than note that in fact moral codes tend to inhibit destruction and favour its opposite.

However, if my gut feeling is right, it’s quite important, because it means the largely utilitarian grounds used for rules about animal research and some human matters, re not quite adequate after all; the fact that some piece of research causes no pain is not necessarily enough to stop its destructive character bring bad.

It’s probably my duty to work on my intuitions and arguments a bit more, but that’s hard to do when you’re sitting in the sun with a beer in the charming streets of old Salamanca…

Picture: star. The JCS has devoted its latest issue to definitions of consciousness. I thought I’d done reasonably well by quoting seventeen different views, but Ram L. P. Vimal lists forty, in what he acknowledges is not a comprehensive list. There is much to be said about all this – and Bill Faw promises a book-length treatment of the thoughts offered in his paper – but much of the ground has been trodden before.

A notable exception is David Skrbina’s panpsychist view. I have been accused in the past of being unfair to panpsychism, the belief that everything has some mental or experiential properties, and I remain unconvinced, but I was genuinely interested in hearing how a panpsychist would define consciousness. I think  panpsychists, who believe awareness of some kind is a fundamental property of everything, face a particular challenge in defining exactly what consciousness. For one thing they don’t enjoy the advantage which the rest of us have of being able to contrast the mindless stuff around us with mindful brains – for panpsychists there is no mindless stuff.  But sometimes it’s coming at a problem from a strange new angle that yields useful insights.

Skrbina very briefly puts a case for panpsychism by noting that even rocks maintain their own existence with a degree of success and respond to the impacts and changes of their environment.  This amounts, he suggests, to at least a simple form of experience, and hence of mind. But mind, he says,  has two aspects: the inner phenomenal experience and an outward-facing intentional/relational aspect. Both of these are characteristic of the mental life of all things; he acknowledges at least a prima facie difficulty over what counts as a ‘thing’ here, but it includes such entities as atoms, rocks, tables, chairs, human beings, planets, and stars.  In a footnote, Skrbina cites Plato and Aristotle as allies in thinking that stars might have a mental life, together with JBS Haldane’s view that the interior of stars might shelter minds superior to our own (perhaps not quite the same view – the existence of minds within stars doesn’t imply that the stars themselves have minds any more than the existence of minds in France suggests that France has its own mentality) and Roger Penrose who apparently has speculated that neutron stars may sustain large quantum superpositions and thus conceivably a high intensity of consciousness.

Skrbina does not, of course, believe that rocks have minds exactly like our own, and suggests that material complexity corresponds with mental complexity, so that there is a spectrum of mental life from the feeble, unremembered glimmerings experienced by rocks all the way up to the fantastically elaborate and persistent mental evolutions hosted by human beings. This is convenient, since it allows Skrbina to find a place for subconscious and unconscious mental activity, which can be regarded as merely low-wattage mentality, whereas on the face of it panpsychism seems to make unconsciousness impossible. But, he says, there is a fundamental continuity, and this applies to consciousness as well as general mentality. Consciousness, he suggests, is the border, the interface between the inward and outward aspects of mentality, and since everything posesses both of those, everything must have at least a simple analogue of consciousness. It might be better, he suggests, if we could find a new word for this common property of consciousness and reserve the term itself for the human-style variety, since that would accord better with normal usage, but we are nevertheless talking about a spectrum of complexity, not two different things.

Skrbina’s exposition is brief, and he only claims to be providing a pointer toward a promising line of investigation. The idea of consciousness as the linkage or interface between inner and outer mentality does have some appeal. Skrbina’s distinction between inner and outer corresponds approximately to a view which is widely popular about there being two basic kinds of consciousness;  the phenomenal, experiental variety and the rest. Famously this kind of distinction is embodied in David Chalmers’ hard/easy problem distinction and Ned Block’s a-consciousness and p-consciousness, to name only two examples; the pieces in the JCS provide other variations.  Why not regard consciousness as the thing that brings them together, even if you’re not attracted by panpsychism?

Well, I don’t know. For one thing I think the non-phenomenal half of the mind is usually short-changed.  Besides phenomenal awareness, we ought also to distinguish between agency, intentionality, and understanding, all large mysteries which really deserve better than being smooshed together. We could still see consciousness as the thing that brings it all together, perhaps, but that doesn’t exactly appeal either: it seems too much like saying that the human body is the thing that holds our bones and muscles together; better to say it’s the thing they help to make up.

I must confess – and this perhaps is unfair – to being put off by Skrbina’s description of consciousness as the luminous upper layer of the mind. Apart from the slightly confusing geometry (it’s the upper layer of the mind, but between the inner and outer parts), I don’t see why it’s luminous, and that sounds a bit like the resort to poetry sometimes adopted by theologians who have run out of cogent points to make. Still, he deserves at least a couple of cheers for offering a new approach, something he rightly advocates.