Writing in Slate magazine, Daniel Bor’s article “when do we truly become conscious” offers a nice Eagle-eye view of the current state of consciousness research, with a focus on how experimental data can inform opinions on abortion, animal rights, and other political issues. He is by turns poetic, informative, and deeply personal; this juxtaposition is fitting when discussing the objective study of subjectivity.
…many fields, such as the study of what distinguishes life from nonlife, had their earlier magical states eroded by careful scientific study. Consciousness is in the midst of a similar revolution.
This is certainly true, and I’m as hopefully as anyone else that we’ll come to a deep understanding of consciousness. But I worry that Bor’s optimism on this point is misplaced. It may just be historical bias, but there seems to be a depth to the puzzle of consciousness lacking in the puzzle of life. Even if we do somehow prove that consciousness reduces to certain patterns of information which tend to be realized in certain neural configurations, I’m not sure it will be clear at that point why some types of information processing are conscious while others are not. In my opinion, this question is among the most profound that humans can ponder.
He further writes:
we are closing in on establishing a consciousness meter—a way to measure levels of awareness in any being that may be able to experience the world.
This is a fascinating development that I wasn’t aware of. Now, in fairness, I haven’t read his book, and I’m sure he didn’t have space to address every possible objection. But I’m not confident that we understand consciousness well enough to confidently abbreviate the list of things that can experience the world.
Let me explain.
When he discusses some of the wetware now thought to be necessary for consciousness, Bor is careful to clearly state that this holds for adult humans. In light of this caveat, how sure are we that ferns and rocks aren’t conscious? I don’t think they are, but if consciousness is
related to a certain kind of information processing, in which multiple strands of data are drawn together, and…is dependent on a certain kind of network architecture
then I don’t see any reason to imagine that those patterns can’t be instantiated elsewhere in the universe. This is the sheerest of speculation (and not a view I endorse, by the way), but might it not be possible that complex weather patterns flicker with a consciousness as they evolve and assume various configurations? Unless we have good reason to think that only certain information processing schemes are conscious, it remains a possibility (it’s also possible that storms are conscious in a way that bears no resemblance to human consciousness; I’ll leave debates like that for another day).
Whether I’m reveling in a glowing pleasure or even if I’m enduring a sharp sadness, I always sense that behind everything there is the privilege and passion of experience. Our consciousness is the essence of who we perceive ourselves to be. It is the citadel for our senses, the melting pot of thoughts, the welcoming home for every emotion that pricks or placates us. For us, consciousness simply is the currency of life.
I agree. These days I simply can’t imagine having a concern that didn’t eventually become a question of consciousness and its states. Any goal or aspiration I could have, no matter how lofty and abstract, could be subjected to a string of questions which would eventually terminate in an answer like “because it’ll make me or someone else happy”. For what purpose could I think about philosophy or computer science other than that I find them interesting? Why do I drink and enjoy the company of friends other than that I find conversation and interaction stimulating? If I work hard my entire to have a good job and get paid well, it can only be because I would prefer eating well to living in rags. Ditto for whatever family I may eventually have.
I’m open to counterarguments on this point, but if anyone cares about something which doesn’t affect consciousness, I have yet to hear about it.
On the abortion debate, Bor writes:
The evidence is clear that a fetus can respond to sights, sounds, and smells, and it can even react to these by producing facial expressions. The evidence is equally clear, however, that these responses are generated by the most primitive parts of the brain, which are unconnected to consciousness, and therefore these actions don’t in any way imply that the fetus is aware.
In adult humans, for normal consciousness to occur, it is now generally agreed that two sets of regions need to be intact, functional, and able to communicate effectively with one another: the thalamus, a kind of relay station in the middle of the brain that connects many regions with many others; and the prefrontal parietal network, our most high-level, general purpose section of cortex.
Only after about 29 weeks are the connections between these areas properly laid out, and it takes another month or so before the thalamus and the rest of the cortex are effectively communicating, as revealed by brain waves. So it’s highly unlikely that consciousness, at least in any form that we’d recognize as human awareness, arises before about 33 weeks into pregnancy.
On the basis of this information Bor is pro-choice, and I agree with his reasoning. I wouldn’t support an abortion in the third trimester, but two weeks into pregnancy? You’re talking about something that is hundreds of times less complicated than a tomato, not a human being.
As far as animal’s rights are concerned,
If no animals except humans have consciousness, there’s no problem, as suffering requires consciousness. But if even those animals classically assumed to have very limited mental faculties, such as poultry and fish, have a substantive awareness and significant capacity for suffering, then are we justified in inflicting all this pain and discomfort on them?
To be honest, I struggle with this one quite a bit. I don’t see any reason to presume that animals aren’t conscious, though probably less conscious than I am. Given this, I’m uncomfortable with how much animals must suffer to ensure that I have a steady supply of protein. But, from the view point of my personal health, I don’t see vegetarianism as an alternative. The vegetarians I know don’t seem to be particularly vital or energetic people, to say nothing of musculature or strength, and these things are important to me. If there have been any studies done demonstrating the effectiveness of a vegetarian diet, I haven’t read them yet.
Now, I knew about the mirror test, in which animals are probed for their ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. But I hadn’t heard of the experiments designed to test for “metacognition”, or thinking about thought, in animals:
Metacognition in other species is usually measured using a gambling task: An animal makes a decision about a stimulus and can then press either a high-risk button that promises a large food reward if the decision was correct but food restriction if it was wrong, or a low-risk button with a meager reward regardless of whether the animal is right or wrong. If the animal has significant metacognition—in other words, if it knows whether it is just guessing or if it has solid knowledge about a given stimulus—then it should usually press the high-risk button when it knows the correct answer and the low-risk one when it’s wrong.
It’ll come as no surprise that humans don’t have a monopoly on this talent.
Bor wraps his well-written and thought-provoking essay with a foray into some of the ethical dilemmas which will face the next generation of ethicists. For example, can computers be conscious, and if they were, how could we tell?
All in all, a highly recommended read.