What Things Are Conscious?

From Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host and creator of Closer To Truth:

I am haunted by consciousness: the great mystery of inner awareness, seemingly so commonplace, truly so astounding. When science finally finishes the puzzle of the universe, the riddle of consciousness, many believe, will remain largely unsolved.
I search for consciousness. Where to find it? Humans, obviously (though some, like solipsists, may not be sure). Animals? Which animals? Chimps, elephants, dolphins, dogs? Termites, snails, amoeba, bacteria?
What about nonbiological intelligences? Super-parallel, supercomputers of the future?
What things are conscious?
I start with science and naturalism, then seek some speculation, even a bit of the bizarre.
I ask philosopher John Searle, a strong advocate of “biological naturalism,” what is conscious.
“The principle on which one would decide is this,” he says: “Does the mechanism in question have relevantly equal casual power to the brain to cause consciousness? We’re pretty confident about primates and indeed mammals. I don’t really have any doubt that my dog is conscious. It’s often said that’s because he behaves as if he were conscious. I don’t think that’s the reason. I might make a mechanical dog that behaved as if it were conscious; well, I would know that it wasn’t conscious. The reason I’m confident that Gilbert, my dog, is conscious is because I know he has the relevant consciousness-producing mechanisms. No fancy dog neurophysiology is involved in this. I can see those are his eyes and those are his ears and this is his skin—look what happens when you pinch his skin.”
Searle continues: “At a first glance, we go on behavior; that’s our first clue. But what we really want to know is: What is the underlying mechanism of consciousness? And we don’t know enough about how the brain does it to know how far down the phylogenetic scale that consciousness goes.”
Is consciousness a gradient or are we dealing with a step function that at some point cuts off?
“There is a rheostatic feature to consciousness; there are different degrees of consciousness,” Searle says. “It can be more or less intense, like a light can be more or less bright. We know this from our own experience, such as the difference between being fully awake and alert and drifting off to sleep. But the rheostat also has an on/off switch that shows itself when we are totally unconscious. As for chairs and tables, they are totally unconscious—they’re not candidates.”
How to decide what’s conscious? “I’ll give you a test,” Searle responds. “Suppose that we had a perfect science of brain, so we know exactly how the brain produces consciousness, and suppose we found that consciousness-producing mechanism in all of the higher animals, so that we’re pretty confident that mechanism is sufficient for consciousness. We could then investigate really small animals, say, termites and snails, to search for that same (or similar) conscious-producing mechanism. If the requisite neurobiology exists in snails but not in termites, then that is evidence that snails are conscious but termites are not.”
He goes on: “Notice that you don’t have to have neurons in order to have consciousness. It’s like saying you don’t have to have feathers in order to fly. You can build a flying machine without feathers, but you must have enough causal power that you share with birds to overcome the force of gravity and the earth’s atmosphere. Analogously, if you build a consciousness machine, maybe you don’t have to have neurons—we just don’t know. Maybe neurons are like feathers: They help us be conscious, but they are not necessary for the production of the processes itself. But you would have to know that the system did have an equivalent causal power to produce consciousness. I see no obstacle in principle to producing a conscious machine because we are all conscious machines.”
To Searle, brains have a “consciousness-producing mechanism” that is sufficient, but perhaps not necessary, to generate consciousness. (“Sufficient” means that wherever the mechanism occurs—such as in biological brains—it will produce consciousness. “Not necessary” means that there could be other ways—in addition to biological brains—for consciousness to come about.)
Futurist Ray Kurzweil envisions other ways. “Nonbiological intelligences,” he says, “will far surpass human intelligence.” But will “nonbiological intelligences” be conscious with inner phenomenological awareness? That’s the question!
I ask Kurzweil: What things are conscious?
“Fundamentally, it’s not a scientific question,” he says. “We can talk scientifically about the neurological correlates of consciousness, but fundamentally, consciousness is this subjective experience that only I can experience. So I should only talk about it in first-person terms. Now, I’ve been sufficiently socialized to accept that other people are conscious, if they appear conscious. But my own consciousness is only aware of itself. There’s no way to measure the conscious experiences of another entity.”
He continues: “To go beyond that, I’d have to say consciousness is an emergent property. We’re not going to find a center of consciousness in the brain. I think an entity that is sufficiently complex and rich to embody the kind of phenomena that occur in the human brain will act in a way that’s conscious. It will talk about its own consciousness and its own feelings, and it will argue about consciousness just the way you and I are doing now.”
I ask Kurzweil if he is bifurcating the problem of consciousness into “apparent or behavioral consciousness,” where something acts as if it’s conscious, and “subjective or inner consciousness,” which is the private internal feeling that I am self-aware, a sense that only I can have.
“Then we have to make a philosophical judgment,” Kurzweil responds. “This really stands outside of science, but I do think it is an important judgment to make. And I do make the judgment that ‘apparently conscious’ entities are conscious. Animals, some of them, higher-order animals, certainly appear to be conscious. Maybe you can say that’s human-centric because we say they are conscious when they are exhibiting humanlike emotions, like protecting their young or showing fear, so we can empathize with them, but I do make the jump that if something appears to be conscious, I’ll accept that it is conscious. We’re hardwired to do this; we have these empathetic reactions.”
Kurzweil famously says that when nonbiological systems become sufficiently complex, they will be indistinguishable from conscious beings, leaving aside the question of whether there is true inner experience. “I would accept that they’re conscious,” he reiterates. “And that’ll be convenient anyway because they’ll get mad at me if I don’t.”
I don’t give up exploring the bifurcation between apparent consciousness and inner awareness.
Kurzweil responds: “If you limit yourself to science, which is objective observation, then there is a difference because while I can observe some other entity doing intelligent tasks (i.e., answering questions in a way indistinguishable from a human), I cannot know whether it is feeling something inside. I can’t experience that. I can only experience my own feelings. It’s a philosophical issue. So if you ask me what is my philosophy, I’d say, yes, I think other human beings are conscious and do have feelings, and by extension, therefore, if a machine exhibits human-level intelligence (i.e., passes the Turing Test), I will accept that it has feelings as well.”
He adds: “I don’t think substrate really affects consciousness. We have information processes running in our brains. They happen to run on this biochemical substrate of neurons. You could run the same processes, once you understand them, on some other substrate, like a massively parallel computer. We will do that, I believe, and it doesn’t matter that it’s not running on a meat machine; it’s running on electronics or nanotubes. But if it’s similar kinds of processes, if you believe that human beings are conscious, which I do, we’ll have to accept that these [advanced] nonbiological systems are as well.”
Kurzweil is ready for machines to be conscious, although the judgment is philosophical, not scientific, he admits.
Am I ready for machine consciousness? Apparent consciousness, sure, passing every test. But real inner experience? I think not.
Why not? Am I guilty of “carbon bias”? Or deluded by desire for something beyond body and brain? “No” to the former; I don’t care. “Perhaps” to the latter; I admit I do hope.
To test the other side, I jump to the opposite worldview: How might a Christian philosopher assess what things are conscious?
J.P. Moreland, who unabashedly believes in souls and spirits, says, “Something either does or doesn’t have a soul, but our degree of certainty as to whether something has a soul lessens to the degree that the thing is less analogous to us. Let me explain. If I’m stuck with a pin, before I grimace and shout out, I’m aware, in my own case, of feeling pain. Now, I notice that you’re very similar to me, so I assume that when you’re stuck with a pin, while I can’t observe your feeling of pain before you grimace and shout out, I ascribe to you a state called a ‘pain state’ because it is similar to the one I have had under similar circumstances. Likewise, I ascribe to you a mind very much like mine.”
Moreland continues: “To the degree that a living organism’s behaviors, in light of their inputs, is different from ours, we are justified in ascribing a differing soul to that organism. Are frogs conscious? Sure they’re conscious. There’s good evidence that they feel pain and are able to see flies. There’s no evidence that they’re capable of forming concepts and thinking thoughts, however.”
So, I ask (with some trepidation), do frogs and great apes and all such animals have souls?
“Yes, they do,” Moreland asserts. “They would all have an immaterial substance that contains consciousness and animates their bodies and makes them living. But the degree of complexity, the number of ‘faculties’ in each living organism, would vary, depending on the organism itself.”
How far down the scale of life do you go? Does every expression of life have a soul? Take one-cell bacteria or amoebae, which react with their environment. We know they’re alive. Do they, too, have very, very, very simple kinds of souls?
“That’s right, they do,” Moreland says. “They’re not conscious, but you can’t explain the interaction of their parts mechanistically. You have to have a whole that is prior to the parts.”
Does this mean that, in his system, while simple life forms all have “souls”—whatever they may be—all do not have mind or consciousness, since this “faculty” is not existent at such very low levels of life?
“Exactly right,” Moreland says.
“You mean I understand this?” I exclaim, not sure whether I should feel proud or chagrined.
“I’m not sure I understand it,” Moreland laughs.
Moreland differentiates between a “soul”—which he claims animates all life—and “consciousness”—which he says is one of various “faculties of the soul” and which animals have in differing degrees of complexity.
We all bring bias to our work. Moreland derives his views on consciousness from his belief in the Bible. Although not supported by neuroscience, there’s a kind of internal consistency there.
But how about those whose spiritual vision requires a wide-angle lens?
Marilyn Schlitz, president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, says, “Consciousness is a whole. I see consciousness as a process of reflection and correction and calibration and emergence—an emergence toward something. There’s a telos about the manifestation of life. It’s the wholeness of the planet. It’s the wholeness of every living creature that acts in a mindful way. Consciousness is that frame of organization. Think about the tremendous diversity of life forms and how there are synergistic relationships among them. I see consciousness in the system. A colony of ants has a capacity to be conscious, as they work together toward a particular outcome. Ant behavior is very intentional.”
I ask how consciousness differs up and down the phylogenetic scale.
“Part of the narcissism of the Western worldview is the assumption that we’re on the top of some hierarchy,” Schlitz says.
“I feel that way,” I whisper.
“So you represent that!” she says with mock horror. “Me, on the other hand, I have a more humble view of myself.”
“Your humbleness is your arrogance,” I offer gently.
Brushing off my feeble attempt at humor, Schlitz puts this question to me: “If you were to accept the idea that cows have consciousness, wouldn’t that alter your behavior toward meat eating? You start to see that they’re very social and playful and engaging, and they love to frolic with one another—if they were smaller, they’d probably be household pets. But because our worldview sees humans as the conscious class, we have created a way in which we can then send cows to slaughterhouses and eat them, without any reflection on the atrocity that we’re committing to their consciousness.”
Now less hungry, I ask: How far down the chain of life do you go?
“There are different levels of consciousness, different complexities of consciousness,” Schlitz says. “I believe that any living form has some aspect of consciousness.”
Every single living thing conscious? Consciousness is the whole? Many share Schlitz’s worldview, melding ancient wisdom traditions, New Age mysticism, and modern science.
Frankly, it’s not my way of thinking. But that doesn’t much matter. Whatever expands the footprint of consciousness, I must give a second look.
There’s another view even more extreme. It’s called “panpsychism” and claims that everything has something of consciousness—inanimate as well as animate, rocks as well as rodents. Mind is everywhere.
Rupert Sheldrake, a biochemist turned parapsychologist, proffers some highly unorthodox theories, which are handily dismissed by mainstream science. He remains unruffled, claiming to see a deeper reality.
“I think we have to ask: What does consciousness do?” Sheldrake says. “It enables different possibilities to be held together and chosen among. Therefore, any system in nature which has possibilities that are not fixed would have some measure of consciousness. Consider the sun or the galaxy. If consciousness emerges from patterns of electrical activity in our brains, as most materialists assume, since the sun has vastly more complex patterns of electrical activity than our brains, why shouldn’t that too be associated with consciousness? Why shouldn’t the sun have a mind? And if the sun has a mind, why not all the stars? If all the stars have minds, what about huge collections of stars like galaxies, which have vast plasma currents of electricity surging through their arms and central regions, linking together all parts of it?”
“So you’re building a hierarchy of different kinds of consciousness?” I inquire. “Each one you believe to be truly consciousness—not metaphorically conscious, but really conscious?”
“Really conscious,” Sheldrake stresses. “And with the same kind of consciousness—I think all things that have consciousness are in the same state. They have a physical reality like a brain, a body, the sun, its electrical fields, rhythmic patterns. These always relate to future possibilities that are closely coupled to the system in the present. And it’s those future possibilities that are the realm in which consciousness operates. So consciousness is not like a mysterious entity that somehow comes in and is sort of dualistically welded on to a body for a while. No, consciousness is more like a cloud of future possibilities that surrounds every physical thing.”
He adds: “There are obvious differences in consciousness. Human consciousness differs from dog consciousness, and, well, Chinese consciousness differs from American consciousness. There may be many, many forms and levels of consciousness. Even atoms and molecules may have limited forms.”
“So you have a nesting of consciousnesses?” I ask.
“Nature is nested in its organization,” he says. “My body, like yours, contains organs—heart, lungs, and so forth. Those contain tissues, those contain cells, those contain molecules, those contain atoms. Nature is nested in its structure. Let nature sort out the collected minds, the larger group consciousness, and so forth.”
Does that make Sheldrake a panpsychic, imputing consciousness at some level or other to everything?
“Yes,” he admits, not defensively. “I think there’s some kind of mindlike aspect to almost everything, but not necessarily consciousness as we know it. Consciousness is about choice. It’s about choosing among possibilities. It’s about holding together possibilities. And it’s the meeting through which creativity can come into being. Remember that the whole of the universe is evolutionary. The whole of the universe is creative in that sense, where new things are happening. Where does such novelty come from? I think there’s a kind of consciousness at all levels in the universe, or some kind of mind.”
I can’t help recalling how Searle, like most philosophers, rejects panpsychism, refuting the idea that “proto-consciousness” resides in every particle. “I’ve heard that hypothesis before,” he says. “I think it’s hot air because you’ve got to know what’s meant by ‘proto consciousness.’”
So, scanning broadly, what things are conscious? Here are six categories, arrayed in a spectrum from ultra-exclusive human-centric to ultra-inclusive panpsychic.

1) Only human beings are truly conscious—a position often driven by religious belief in an exclusively human soul.

2) Only animals with large brains are conscious—primates, elephants, dolphins.

3) All animals are conscious—with differing degrees of consciousness.

4) All life of any kind is conscious in some way—plant or animal, single cell or multicell.

5) Computational systems of sufficient complexity can become conscious—this means nonbiological systems.

6) All that exists—nonliving as well as living—has a kind of consciousness; every particle has something of proto-consciousness.

There are two key questions:

• Is biology required for the inner-experience phenomenology of consciousness?

• Is human consciousness inherently unique or in any way special (this means the raw consciousness itself, not counting the accumulations of human culture)?

If the mystery of consciousness is ever to be solved, “what things are conscious” will be a clue. Consciousness is a shortcut, to get closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with John Searle, Ray Kurzweil, J.P. Moreland, Marilyn Schlitz, and Rupert Sheldrake in “What Things Are Conscious?”—the 21st episode in the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (60th in total).
The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Thursday, participants will discuss the current episode.

P.S. Click here to visit our Closer to Truth archive.

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3 Responses

  1. castel says:

    There are things that act with significant freedom and things that do not have as much freedom to act and are essentially only acted upon. Put another way, there are things that have the freedom to choose and there are things that have less or have no freedom to choose.

    And there are also the things that, in a manner of speaking, are merely “acted upon”…

    Both of the first two types of things have some degree of consciousness because they have the input-process-output (i-p-o) capabilities. They are capable of receiving inputs, processing the inputs, and producing outputs – but only to the best that they are capable of.

    The difference between the two main categories of things is that the things that act with significant freedom are capable of the more complex inputs reception, inputs processing, and outputs generation. But basically both types have the i-p-o capabilities which is the essence of consciousness.

    Without the i-p-o capability there is no consciousness.

    A particle has its i-p-o capabilities. An electromagnetic radiation has its i-p-o capabilities. A gravitational field has its i-p-o capabilities. And etc…

    A wall is quite conscious – if you go bang your head on the wall for inputs to the wall, the wall will process the inputs as best it could and produce the outputs that a wall is capable of producing according to the degree of consciousness that a wall has.

    There has to be the corporeality in order for the abstraction to occur. There has to be a functional body in order to have a functional mind. The body and mind apprehend/comprehend the corporeal and the abstract.

    Consciousness is inherently connected to phenomena – i.e., mass-energy. Consciousness is inherently connected to mass-energy.

    All phenomena have the i-p-o capability. Therefore, all phenomena have some degree of consciousness.

    All phenomena have their degree of conscience and self-awareness – their sense of existential duty or social responsibility. They are bothered by the inputs, they are bothered by their internal states, and so they process the inputs and their internal states and produce their outputs to the best of their i-p-o capabilities.

    On the other hand are the noumena – i.e., the abstracts. The noumena do not have the i-p-o capabilities. The abstracts do not have any degree of consciousness.

    The abstracts are things that, in a manner of speaking, are merely “acted upon”…

    Now, all phenomena (all mass-energy) are of the essence of motion. And it is evident that consciousness is inherently connected to the phenomena.

    The motions in the body and the abstractions in the mind occur in unison. The noumena occur when the appropriate i-p-o processes in phenomena occur.

    On a more religious note – according to the ideas put forth above, the spirit of man when it leaves the more tangible body of flesh and bones has got to be a mass-energy construct, no matter how ghostly and less tangible, in order to continue to function with some degree of consciousness…

  2. John Campion says:

    First, this discussion needs scoping before any progress can be made. Too many issues are being tackled at the same time.

    Second, the issue, once scoped, can be treated scientifically if technical instead of common language is used to provide the needed precision.

    Third, if we reduce the scope to manageable proportions and (for example) think about conscious visual experience, we can analyse this into three broad components – an energy component, a control component, and an “offness” component. The latter reduces further to shape and semantic elements and these can be further reduced.

    Fourth, in doing this we are able to map these elements onto brain structures at some level of description, at least tentatively and certainly with greater precision than is done at present.

    Fifth, it appears, when this is done, that consciousness is a scientific paradigm through which minds and brains may be understood. The paradigm stands in contrast to the standard information processing one which derives from machines not humans.

    Sixth, it follows that different animals have different elements of consciousness, as defined, to different degrees.

    Seventh, a cognitive architecture I have produced within this paradigm has three layers to it – a data layer, a knowledge layer and a meta-knowledge layer. The latter is particulartly well developed in humans and is what we commonly would call the “thinking layer”.

    These ideas are expanded in my book “Consciousness: paradigm for a science of real minds and brains” that may be viewed on my website.

    I would welcome comments.

  3. Jeff Guarino says:

    First off, no one knows what is conscious and what is not. A table could be conscious. You can be blind, deaf and have no sensory inputs and still be conscious. If you start off by assuming everything has a quality of consciousness, to varying degrees , then the brain and neurons and all the logic and thinking facilities have nothing to do with it. It is more quantum mechanical than classical. Everyone here is thinking in classical terms. Think about what we do know about consciousness. I am conscious. My consciousness is in my head. It moves with me when I move. No one else or no thing else in the entire universe has my consciousness except for me at any one time.

    Now think about star trek and the transportation machine, or a duplication machine. They are equivalent. The transporter decomposes your atoms and records the positions of each so that you can be reassembled on the planet surface. It is not necessary to send the actual atoms but just the information to reassemble. So the original version of you is destroyed and a new version of you is reassembled on the planet surface. Also with a duplication machine , your body is just scanned and a duplicate copy of you is made in the receiving module. There are now two copies of you and both of you will claim to be the original. Two consciousnesses where there was only one before. Now the problem with the transporter machine is that the original person dies and a new identical person is created and he thinks he is the same person but was actually just born with a fully downloaded fake memory of his past. Using this line of logic and tools we are able to make some definite assertions about consciousness. Transporters and duplication machines are really the same thing. Who knows what the chances of the original “you” being tranported are but you must certainly be destroyed first or you will just be duplicated on the planet surface.

    This whole logic is very similar to the way electrons behave. Due to the Pauli Exclusion Principal, no two electrons in the entire universe can be in the same quantum state at one time. Just like there cannot be one consciousness in two places at the same time.
    It is almost as if consciousness is behaving as a fermion particle. Of course, any amalgamation of particles can be considered to be a particle also and the quantum equations would be applicable.

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