Consciousness: Where it might not be

This is a part two in a series on consciousness

Continuing from last week’s post, I shall explore avenues on how exactly one can doubt the consciousness of objects you encounter. Again, by consciousness I mean any type of experience something or someone might have; or what it is like to be something.

From the birthplace of modern philosophy, we have irrefutable reasons to say conscious stuff exists (from Descartes) within those thinking the sentences ‘I think therefore I am’. Beyond the odd solipsist, most everyone agrees that it is also reasonable to assume that other people are conscious as well. Today, we further assume that dogs and other mammals are conscious. What about trees? Grass? Rocks? The Sun?

I have found, for most of my life, an obvious answer to these sorts of questions. While the exact nature of what consciousness is remains mysterious, it was obvious to me that it was a product of the brain. The mind is what the brain does, to use a neuroscientific quip. Consciousness is something like information being processed, or a byproduct of a working functional system. 

Yet I began to doubt these answers as I considered the unity of nature — the fact that all things, including our bodies, are made of the same particles that stars are made out of; emergent from the same quantum fields. The trajectory of history also seemed to point in the direction of decreasing human distinctiveness (from Copernicus to Darwin to Goodall to AlphaGo), an expanding circle of moral worthiness, and a wider range of animals considered conscious.

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So I investigated the actual premises — the underlying reasons — for a belief in non-consciousness. A starting point is noticing that human consciousness is profoundly altered by changes in the brain. This was noticed as far back as Roman physician Galen, who wrote about how gladiators who suffered head injuries were permanently psychologically harmed. This presaged the connections between brain activity and conscious states that modern neuroscience has done much to uncover.

From here, it could be assumed that the requirements for consciousness to exist are found in certain properties the brain has (whether as an information processor or for the functional roles it plays in living organisms). After all, if the brain is harmed, or is sedated, you lose consciousness (or at least the memory of it). Every theory of consciousness therefore gets selected first by whether it explains the consciousness of those who can say that they are consciousness. Right now that’s just us humans.

But the problem is that you can’t boot a restrictive theory of consciousness off the ground without some additional assumption: that anything that isn’t sufficiently similar enough to us humans isn’t conscious at all. Otherwise, there is no way to disprove countervailing theories of consciousness that describe non-human objects as conscious.

If you want to say consciousness emerges when brains, or similarly complex objects are formed, I can come along and say, “yes that is one example of consciousness, but consciousness also occurs when only relatively simple objects are present.” You have to fall back on an intuition that things that are not similar enough to us are not conscious. No matter what restrictive theory you have to explain consciousness, there is no way to refute a wider theory of consciousness without that intuition.

The following argument articulates how this line of reasoning works:

1. I am conscious. 

2. I can sense many things that are not similar to me (or the body I consider mine).

3. Things that aren’t (sufficiently) similar to me are non-conscious.

4. Therefore there are many things that are non-conscious. 

The argument relies on the intuition present in premise 3 to be valid (as well as a vague notion of similarity). Yet, every theory that excludes consciousness to any subset of things similar to us relies on it. Where this intuition arises from is of interest to me.

In next week’s post, I will investigate how this intuition might itself be emergent from the physicalist worldview, creating a circular argument.

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