The Implications of Studying Consciousness

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.

What’s more,

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.

4 thoughts on “The Implications of Studying Consciousness

  1. Oh, Trent. What a great article. Thanks for writing this. I feel the same way about consciousness and how understanding it (or not) affects everything.

    On vegeterianism: those animals don’t suffer to ensure your supply of protein. Protein (in forms humans can use) is readily available from a vegetarian diet. Those animals suffer to ensure your lifestyle. How’s that for a head trip?

    I have no moral objection to killing animals, even knowing some of them are conscious. I eat meat and use animal products of all kinds. I do try to source meat from humanely raised animals.

    I’m surprised your standard for your view of vegeterianism is based only on how some people you know look. You said you haven’t read studies but they shouldn’t be hard to find. There are challenges to a vegetarian lifestyle (which I used to live) but the big challenges come from *actually eating vegetables* and not just crazy, processed foods. Some vegetarians and vegans do suffer health problems, not from a lack of meat but from making poor diet choices.

    Vegeterian diet is correlated to longevity. That may be because lower calorie diets correlate with longevity, and vegetarian meals are often lower in calories; or it may be because of the reduced risk of heart disease, or a mix of these and other factors. I don’t have any links to cite for you (I am remembering this from biology classes 9 years ago) but I’m sure plenty of vegetarian websites are happy to throw studies at you.

    Thank you for a great read, sir.

    • Thanks for the compliments, Drew! Glad you enjoyed what I had to say.

      I’d be interested in hearing more about the reasons you don’t worry yourself too much over killing animals. As for me, I’m not basing my evaluation of vegetarianism solely on a handful of vegetarians that I know. I haven’t done much in the way of rigorous research, but I am familiar with the accounts of people who were long-time vegetarians but who went back to eating meat because of what they felt were inadequacies with the diet. In this post I was not trying to take a strong stand for or against vegetarianism, and so didn’t delve too deeply into the issue. I probably should’ve tried to get that across better in what I wrote. Improving my writing is one of the main reasons I’m blogging, so lesson learned!

      • I guess I would still view those individuals’ accounts as anecdotal. I would question the specifics of what they were eating in their vegetarian diet and I would wonder whether those experiences are really indicators of switching to no-meat or whether they had to do with other factors.

        I believe that killing animals for food is a natural part of being humans. We are evolved to be omnivores with a small proportion of meat in our diet. Many people overeat meat or source their meat irresponsibly, but the reality of including some meat in your diet is that it’s what you were designed for. For me, consciousness doesn’t figure into it; I have always assumed that all animals are conscious, even before that was vogue in skeptical neuroscience circles; and that even lesser creatures with mere ganglia, like bugs, have a level of awareness and suffer when they feel pain.

        But you cannot live without killing other creatures.

        To me, this also connects to my questions about the nature of consciousness. Like many students of consciousness, you cheekily disown claims that clouds or plants might be conscious: better step far back from that superstitious stuff! But why? I’ll spare you the animistic stuff about conscious mountains and rivers, because even I question that now; but plants are a prime example. Plants will “scream” chemically and alert other plants when they are in distress. They will respond to danger by moving (as best they can) or changing their structure to try to avoid damage. When an organism has a fear-death, flee-pain mechanism I begin to question whether we can really call that a consciousness value of zero. It seems like pain signals would have little meaning without something to feel them.

        I should also point out that we have a communication bias: we can readily recognize and understand the responses of animals and humans, so we assume they are conscious. Our association of consciousness with brains is based on the idea that what do *do* recognize in animals and *don’t* recognize in plants is meaningful. But if a conscious AI existed in a black box with no output device and no way for us to monitor its inner activity, it would fail to pass any of our consciousness tests. Sometimes as a philosophic enterprise I wonder if many other organisms are like that AI-in-a-box.

  2. Animals suffer, not just feel pain. When I lost one of two dogs, the survivor howled night after night until we got her a puppy. This is not a response to nerve endings, this is connecting the loss to the feeling of sorrow: suffering. I understand people will argue with me on the point, but they do suffer. So do cows, horses, pigs, sheep, etc. (View from farmland.) Many people are disconnected from the process, we’ve intentionally made it that way. Why do you think people in the meat industry don’t want you to see how it’s done inside the plant. It’s inhumane, it’s suffering. If people knew, there would be a lot more vegetarians.

    I’m vegetarian and have muscle mass. I’m not espousing a moral argument upon you. It’s your choice as much as it is mine.For me, it started in 1999 when I started doing a spiritual practice. To maximize it’s effect, I stopped eating meat and contributing to animal suffering. I haven’t gone back. Without a healthy diet, one will become low energy. It’s essential to have a healthy diet while being vegetarian. Eating meat is a more lazy diet, less thinking and planning required.

    Drew and I had an interesting discussion about plants being conscience and me eating vegetable is essentially killing them. While is some ways I agree with him, plants and fruits are designed to be eaten to carry on the species. It’s their system of distributing seeds and it’s often done at the sunset of that piece of plant’s life. I am comfortable with this.

    It’s impossible not to kill. Our bodies are actively killing viruses, microbes and other things without our conscious knowledge. However, there is a difference between the will/consciousness and the unconscious actions. We are intending to kill the bugs we step on, we are killing the wasp in the house. (I try to remove them and let them live.)

    I agree with Drew that there is a bias to ourselves and our perceptions when we try to view the conscience of others. Just because it’s not the same as us doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There are many ways of being. I’m particularly interested in what is the force of will that animates us to be alive, to coordinate the body to live. What happens when people go so peacefully to death, I believe it’s the exit of the will/conscience.

    Here’s my dilemma. I am pro-choice. I do believe that the act of conception is the beginning of life/will/consciousness. It’s what animates those cells to divide, grow, become something. I would have a hard time making that decision myself (I’m adopted), but don’t believe I can dictate that to someone else. It’s hard to dictate moral upon someone else. Those we place them on have rights and morals too. I find it best to lead by example.

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