March Meet Up: Consciousness

Every month we center on a particular theme which we discuss once a month.  This month’s topic will be split into an “open” group (a meet up where anyone and everyone can join) and a “closed” group (for members only).  This month’s blog post will, of course, be about this month’s open discussion group, so there will be no blog post for the topic next month, since it will be the same topic.  However, we will be starting a book/reading  discussion next month as well, so expect to see a new blog post topic about that.  In any case, this month’s topic was consciousness.  We focused on how we define consciousness, animal consciousness, machine consciousness, philosophical ideas about consciousness and “higher” consciousness.  So, without further ado:

What is consciousness?

Consciousness isn’t just being awake, although we typically use it synonymously with that definition (He’s not conscious!  Wake him up!).  There doesn’t seem to be much agreement about what it is.  Instead, it appears to be a philosophical primitive, or something that most people have an intuitive and shared understanding about when we use the word.  Basically it’s defined as the ability to be aware of external objects as well as internal states.  More specifically, it is characterized as having:

  1. Sentience
  2. Awareness
  3. Subjectivity
  4. A sense of selfhood
  5. Executive control system
  6. Wakefulness

I had a hard time distinguishing those terms, a lot of them are really similar, if not the same.  One could easily make the argument that we ought to combine several of those, or even add to or subtract from it.  In any case, I looked into how they are defined and came up with these descriptions of each:

1. Sentience: The ability to feel, or experience sensations (individually called qualia) subjectively.  It is distinguished from thinking or reasoning. It is distinct from creativity, intelligence, sapience, and self-awareness.  Sapience (not a necessary characteristic of consciousness) is the ability to act with appropriate judgment, more colloquially known as wisdom.

2. Awareness: The ability to perceive (or even experience or feel) events, objects or patterns.  It may be conscious, unconscious or even subconscious and, to this extent, animals have this capability as well.  It may be internal as well as external.

There was an interesting and very understandable confusion regarding sentience and awareness (understandable because I, too, had trouble distinguishing them!).  Sentience is the ability to interpret sensations whereas awareness is about perceptions.  Colloquially, these two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but in a philosophical or biological context, they are quite distinct.  A sensation is a subjective experience, like an emotion or an image in one’s mind.  It’s internal.  A perception, on the other hand, is an (arguably) objective experience.  It’s related to things that exist outside of the mind, externally, like seeing an apple or watching a movie.  How that movie makes you feel is your sensation of it, but the act of watching the movie itself is a matter of perception.

3. Subjectivity: Being a subject – me, I, myself, etc. – or the sense/feeling of being someone apart from others (I am me, and you are you, we’re not the same). The subject is the “form” or body that contains those things, and subjectivity is the feeling or understanding of that itself.  Subjectivity is a constantly changing quality and it is up for debate as to how permanent or transient it is, an issue tied into the idea of the “self”.

4. Selfhood: the subject in the subjectivity is the self.  Being aware of the self means knowing that you are a separate entity from the other entities around you.  It means being able to introspect, or to examine one’s conscious thoughts.  This thing that thinks is the self.  The capacity to identify with past actions and consider future actions just as well as we can one’s present is the capacity to have self-hood.

This was also, even more understandably, a confusing distinction.  Some argued – and I partially agreed – that we could put them together.  The only real distinction was this: is it possible that certain organisms have subjectivity – feelings of subjectivity but not selfhood?  Can other animals, for example, recognize that they are separate from other beings but not be able to recognize that sometimes, or examine this understanding?

5. Executive Control System: the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning, and execution.

6. Wakefulness: even our sleeping self, our unconscious self, is said to be different from our awake self, so wakefulness is an essential part of consciousness.  For example, if I murdered someone while sleepwalking we would not considerate it an act of self, at least not so much as if I did it awake and conscious.  As Locke has postulated, it “would be no more right, than to punish one twin for what his brother-twin did, whereof he knew nothing, because their outsides were so like, that they could not be distinguished.”  Whatever actions that one had done but had no conscious awareness of cannot be said to be appropriated to the person, at least not in the same way as if they were aware of it.

We discussed which of these characteristics were necessary, and which may be sufficient.  Often, it depends on how consciousness is being used.  For example, while the sixth characteristic (wakefulness) may be very useful in a court case, is it useful in a philosophical discussion?

Do other animals have consciousness?

Since we cannot directly communicate to them, it is hard to say how exactly they experience the world around them.  They seem to reflect certain characteristics, like sentience and perception, but what about subjectivity and selfhood?  Many of us intuitively feel that animals do, but how can we know?  You may wonder why it even matters.  One member of the group brought up how he was proud that in his home country, dolphins are now considered “non-person” beings, meaning they were not persons but there were legal norms requiring them to be regarded as persons.  Whether or not animals have consciousness is a question that led to such a conclusion; it is a pertinent question, the answer regarding which animal rights and the right treatment of animals depends on.  We can either justify the promotion of animal rights or even speciesist behavior towards them depending on our conclusions.  Question like these lead us directly to talking about animal rights.

What about machines?

Do machines have consciousness or could they, theoretically, have it?  Alan Turing came up with a hypothesis regarding consciousness and developed a test.  He posited that if a human could not differentiate between a human’s behavior and a machine’s, it could be said to have consciousness.  But is that true?  Is the ability to behave like a human indicative of consciousness?  Is it sufficient?  This question was tossed back and forth a bit in our group.  Some said yes, there is no way to distinguish between a human-like entity and an actual human one, so the best explanation is that such an entity has consciousness.  Others disagreed, saying it’s theoretically possible to give a machine enough info that it could simulate a human-like task without any actual characteristics of consciousness.  In any case, questions like these lead us to discussions on artificial intelligence.

Who cares about all this?  What about human consciousness?

Well, let’s look at it then!

Our exploration of consciousness begins with Plato and his separation of soul and body, but is properly formulated with Descartes who posited that consciousness existed in another “realm” called the res cogitans or the realm of thought.  This is called dualism.  Descartes divided consciousness (which he called mind) or mental contents from physical ones (which he called body).  In other words he considered the mind and the body separate entities, which instigated a centuries long philosophical struggle called the mind-body problem that is still going on to this day.  While many scientifically minded philosophers have wished to reduce mental states to physical ones, some physicians believe quantum theory may provide an answer to the dualist problem, tentatively called the quantum mind (which, unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to talk about… maybe in the closed discussion!).

The other side of the argument is monism, a view first posited by Parmenides but later espoused by Spinoza.  This stance posits that there is no duality or distinction between mind and body, but rather they are derived of the same substance.  Many believe that any concept of consciousness is incoherent or illusory, and thus non-existent.

In any case, the mind-body problem seeks to determine what relationship there is, if any, between mental and physical processes.

Interestingly, most of the members agreed with dualism more.  It was apparent that monism was a more scientifically inclined view, whereas dualism was more intuitive, it seemed to make more sense on the surface.

Let’s look at dualism.

There are two types:

1. Substance Dualism holds that mind or mental properties are distinct from physical one and, as such, do not adhere to the laws of the physical universe.

2. Property Dualism holds that these properties belong to one substance (rather than being two separate ones) they do adhere to universal physical laws, but physics cannot be used to explain consciousness or mind.  There are a variety of explanations in regards to the relationship of the two properties.  So, instead of being two different things, they’re just two different ways of describing the same type of thing.

Dualism essentially looks at consciousness as a separate substance from anything physical like the brain or chemicals or anything like that.  For instance, Descartes argued that mental states, such as imagining a drink, had no extension; in other words, they did not take up any space and so could not be measured in terms of height, weight, length, etc.  Physical things, on the other hand, have extension.

The members were kind of divided as to which they agreed with more, but the leanings were definitely towards property dualism.

Let’s look at monism.

There are three main types:

Physicalism holds that mind is matter held in a specific way.

1. Type Physicalism holds that mental activity is most likely equivalent to neural/electrical activity in the brain.  In other words, the feeling of fear, for example, is the same as whatever neural activity that occurs when we express the feeling of fear.  So a statement like “I’m scared” really means “My neural activity is creating certain emotional and physiological changes in my body that are impelling me to flee.”  It’s a lot easier to say “I’m scared” of course.

2. Functionalism modifies this stance slightly and holds that mental events are simply functions of physical ones and serve as causal relations to other states.  They are much like what I see on a screen that comes from a software program on my computer (my computer being my brain, the software being the faculties or properties on my brain). This particular image I am looking at on the screen is not actually the software itself, but rather the medium through which the software functions.  Whereas a computer would use electricity as a conduit for function, the brain uses neural activity.  It has been suggested that mental properties supervene on physical ones, or that they must be grounded in some kind of physical property.  In other words, they require physical properties to exist, so while they are dependent on physical properties, they are not reducible to them (they are not one and the same).  So in other words, the physiological changes when we feel scared are the stuff going on in the hardware (brain), whereas the feeling of fear is what’s happening on the screen (our consciousness) that impels us to act.

3. Epiphenomenalism disagrees with those stances.  It holds that mental states are simply “byproducts” of physical brain states, nothing more.  They have no useful function and do not affect physical states.  Only physical events can have effects on each other.  So in other words, they are like weird “glitches” in the software that don’t mess up the program, but certainly aren’t doing anything useful.

We only got as far as these three types during the discussion, but I included a couple other related ideas below for you to look at as well.  It certainly raised a lot of discussion, mainly regarding epiphenomenalism.  Some didn’t understand quite what it was or how it worked, and even the most ardent scientist in the group was a bit put off by it.  It does seem a bit grim to consider that all of our consciousness experience are just unnecessary accidents, that our bodies could function just as well without them, but there are pretty solid arguments for why this may be the case.  One book I read about it was called Kluge.  Although I didn’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s conclusions, I recommend the book as an accessible introduction to the view.

In any case, here are a couple more ideas:

  • Idealism is the idea that there are no physical properties and matter is an illusion, so instead only mental ones exist.  In other words, everything we consider “real” is just a projection of our minds.  Whether or not they actually serve a useful function is debatable in this philosophy.
  • Neutral Monism holds that both mental and physical properties are actually derived from the same essential essence, but whether that essence is mental or physical is hard or even impossible to say, or irrelevant.

In a nutshell, monism takes the view that consciousness can be reduced or defined by physical properties and that any distinction between it and physical substances is illusory.  The difficulty with monism is in explaining why or how mental processes appear to be so different than physical ones, or how they were even able to emerge in the first place.

Some Problems with Both Views:

Dualism seems the most common sense solution to the problem.  After all, don’t physical states feel differently than mental ones?  Isn’t conscious experience – like how the emotions I experience or what I am thinking – distinct from inanimate matter like rocks and my toe?  We tend to associate those conscious states more with our notion of a “self” than we do with physical properties like our hair or even our organs.  On top of this, physical properties do not seem to have a subjective quality, whereas consciousness does.  For instance, when we burn our fingers and are hit with an emotion, we say that we are feeling that emotion (pain), but when nose grows in my hair or our body releases a certain chemical, we generally don’t say “we” are doing that, but rather the nose or the brain is.

This brought up a bit of discussion as well: the distinction between our physical properties and our mental ones can be pretty fuzzy, depending on the language we use and what we are talking about.  For example, when we eat a lot, we say both “I am full” and “my stomach is full.”  On the other hand, when we commit a communication faux pas, we will sometimes say “I must be going crazy” but sometimes say “My mind is playing tricks on me.”

We skipped this next part and jumped into higher consciousness, since it was of interest, but I’m going to include this information here as well:

– On the other hand, dualism can’t account for how mental events can cause changes in physical properties, like the physical creation of memories, or how physical changes can result in mental changes, like brain damage affecting personality and behavior.

A type of dualism called interactionist dualism has an answer to this.  It still holds that mind and body must be separate properties because of the extension (mental properties can’t be measured) issue, but that mental properties must interact with, or influence or affect, physical ones, since we can detect physical changes based on mental events (like when I think of somebody I don’t like and I get angry, my blood pressure increases and my heart rate goes up, etc.).  Mental and physical events interact with each other: My girlfriend sees a spider (physical) and feels a sense of fear (mental) which causes adrenalin to pour into her body and she screams (physical) which I hear and then feel alarmed (mental) and run over to see what happened (physical) and so on.

– One problem with this, though, is that it assumes that all of our conscious thoughts are clear and distinct; meaning we understand perfectly what they are and can distinguish them from other events.  But more and more both scientific and psychological discoveries are casting doubt on this (unconscious motivations, discovery methods, automatic heuristics, cultural customs and habits, neurological errors).

– Another problem is that the idea of cause and effect necessarily implies material impact, or the two real or physical things actually contacting or touching each other, and yet if mental properties do not have extension (no height, width, weight, etc), how can they be said to “impact” physical ones?  If mental properties are different from physical ones, how they affect the physical system without going against the law of the conversation of energy (they add energy to the system without taking it out)?

– Going back to monist ideas, Type Physicalism cannot account for the idiosyncrasies in different organisms physical states when experiencing the same or similar subjective phenomenon.  For instance, if we both hear the same word, why is it that I might feel sad at hearing it but you don’t?  It’s the same physical stimulus, so why are our mental sensations of it different?  Or more aptly, when listening to music we both say we enjoy for similar reasons, why are our physical changes unique?  If two or more organisms are affected by the same external stimuli, why are there idiosyncrasies in their physical states?

– Many philosophers say the essence of consciousness is experience, which is necessarily subjective.  But if consciousness is essentially subjective, then how do we know other entities have or don’t have consciousness?  Maybe when I see a snake, I “feel” fear, I have an experience. But how do I know that you do?  How do I know that rocks don’t?  How can we know whether these experiences are the same, or even remotely similar?  This is called the problem of other minds.

Let’s talk about “higher” consciousness

This is also called the collective conscious or God or cosmic consciousness.  Generally speaking, this is considered the level of consciousness that a human can reach where he or she realizes the reality, or reality as it really is, rather than how it may subjectively seem.  This type of reality is sometimes referred to as ultimate reality.  Many believe that evolution has endowed humans with the faculties to achieve this level of reality, but that it requires practice and development but most people do not put in the concerted effort to achieve it.  One underlying assumption is that people with ordinary consciousness are only partially aware of reality; they are still ignorant of certain truth(s) and they are prone to lower, more impulsive drives and wants.

This generated a bit of discussion as well.  One asked how it could even be defined.  Wouldn’t it depend on the person using the term?  What makes it better or worse than so-called lower consciousness?  One possible answer was that the less one’s thoughts were in connection with animal impulses and drives, the higher one’s consciousness could be said to be.  Another was that the less one’s thoughts were attached to worldly things (money, possessions, etc), the higher it could be said to be.  Another argument was that higher consciousness was not necessarily better, but an inevitable outcome of ongoing evolutionary change.  It was no “better” to have higher consciousness than to be a chimpanzee as opposed to a single-celled organism, it was just a natural outcome of generations of evolution.

We ended the conversation here, but there is one more very important aspect to the scientific and philosophical question of what is consciousness, and I’d like to include it here:

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

There are various formulations of the “hard problem”, a problem that philosopher David Chalmers does not believe can be answered even if we find solutions to the easy problems (how we store information, how we report mental states, how we focus attention, etc.).  Some of these are:

“How is it that some organisms are subjects of experience?”

“Why does awareness of sensory information exist at all?”

“Why do qualia exist?”

“Why is there a subjective component to experience?”

“Why aren’t we philosophical zombies?”

Chalmers argues that it is fundamentally impossible to explain these phenomena by physical means, and that another solution altogether is necessary.  Philosopher Thomas Nagel agrees, stating that since physical events are objective and mental ones subjective, we cannot conflate them.  Philosopher Daniel Dennett disagrees, dismissing the notion that there even is a hard problem.  He speculates that once the easy problems are solved their solutions will offer a viable explanation to all the supposedly “hard” questions, and that there is no need to posit a need for other properties to explain them.  He equates the phenomena of mental events to magic tricks, tricks that the brain plays on us to make it seem as though there is something separate from the physical going on.

Thanks for reading!  If interested, please be sure to check this stuff out:

Susan Greenfield: What is consciousness?

Jane Goodall: Animal Consciousness

Sam Harris: Physicalism (vs. Dualism)

John Searle: Problems with monism and dualism

Alan Watts: Human and Higher consciousness


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