mind, matter, meaning and information


What is it like to be me? I might find that rather difficult to express, but it is certainly like something. I suppose it also like something to be a bat or a duck-billed platypus, but not to be a brick; why is that?

Some of the senses of these animals are so different from our own, that imagining their experiences is very difficult. As is well-known, bats have a sort of radar, or more correctly sonar, whereby they make very high-pitched sounds, and plot their surroundings by the timing and direction of the echoes. This is sufficiently accurate that they can catch their prey—moths and other insects—in flight. Recent research shows that platypi can detect the minuscule electric fields generated by their prey in water. They have specialised receptors along the bill with millions of thick nerves running to the brain. You might try to imagine how it feels to become aware of the characteristic electrical pattern of a shrimp, whilst hungrily hunting a muddy Australasian waterway—or of the echo-signature of a moth, in an old and unused barn at dusk—but probably without much success. (Especially if you lack the experience of hunting—or even of being really hungry.)

Alongside the differences, however, there are significant similarities. Both are mammals (even if one bears eggs): they are warm-blooded, have four limbs (whether adapted for swimming or flying), two ears, two eyes, a nose of sorts and a mouth, and either male or female genitalia, in corresponding places. They have hair rather than feathers or scales, and so on. There is a family resemblance. You might find the possibility that we have ancestors in common—many millions of generations ago—quite feasible. In principle, you might consider keeping them as pets, admitting them to the family circle, like a dog or a cat—which means that you are willing to engage in a certain limited sort of social interaction with them. One can conceive a certain affection for the furry little creatures. One finds oneself—at some times, to some extent—identifying with them. They differ from us in many ways, but your fellow-feeling for a bat is probably very much greater than for a brick.

Consciousness can be said to be possessed by a thing if and only if it is like something to be that thing—if it is a subject of perception. So, in supposing bats or duck-billed platypi to be conscious, I guess that it is like something to be one of these creatures, even though I might find it extremely difficult to "put myself in their shoes," and imagine just what. I do not believe that a common building brick has experiences of any kind: it is not like anything to be one, i.e. it is not a subject of perception, is not conscious.

While the status of other species, or at least some of them, is debatable, human beings are certainly conscious. But we cannot directly perceive consciousness in others. It remains conceivable, however unlikely, that other people are extremely sophisticated biological robots, or hyperactive zombies, capable of behaving just like oneself though lacking any awareness whatsoever. We have no more objective evidence for human consciousness than for that of any other species—or even a brick.

Nevertheless, for some reason we feel certain that humans are conscious—perhaps because the prototype is oneself. I feel pleasure and pain, think, and so on; other people seem to be quite like me in most observable ways and there is no reason to believe in any unobservable difference, so I suppose them to be conscious too. And the likelihood of other species being conscious seems directly proportional to their similarity to us. To attribute consciousness is precisely the same as to say "this is something (someone) with which (whom) I can, in principle, identify." It is the projection of subjecthood, of the concept of the self.

When we find something to be attractive, the projected object is evoked by certain characteristics of the screen object, to which we are "programmed" to respond. Just as the feeling of arousal, when projected, becomes a quality of the visual object stimulating it, so the concept of subjecthood becomes a quality of the object evoking that. Someone being looked at becomes more than a mere sex object when she has the concept of subjecthood projected upon her—being therefore seen as a person with feelings—instead of (or as well as) sexiness.

So, consciousness is a concept, just as sexiness is a feeling, that is projected upon the conscious and/or sexy object, by the subject. Consciousness, like sexiness, would seem to be in the eye of the beholder, a subjective attribute— in which case Turing would be correct: if a thing acts as if it were thinking, or understanding, or conscious, if it simply seems conscious, then it is conscious (for the person to whom it seems so). If you find someone to be attractive, then for you that is what they are: if someone else says "No, she is not," then that expresses only their own (lack of) response—"for me" is implied there—and it does not invalidate your feeling. Is consciousness, too, merely in the eye of the beholder? Where I, for instance, am wondering whether you might be capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, or whether I should just go ahead and act as if you had no more feelings than a brick, I guess that you would think it to be about more than merely my opinion. And if I treat you as a mere thing, you are more likely to treat me that way too. In fact, your opinion, feelings, and so on matter here too, in rather a profound way—but that does not make consciousness an objective quality, something we could expect to be able to observe either directly or via some kind of scientific procedure. Consciousness is the concept that distinguishes those entities with whom we might identify, from those with which we will not, and it therefore plays a certain important role in our psycho-social functioning, but it is neither what would generally be understood by "nothing but a concept," i.e. subjective, nor is it objective. What it is, is intersubjective.

But to justify the title of this section, we have to say a little more than that: while the concept of consciousness functions as a label to denote those things with which we might, in principle, interact socially, conscious experience itself is a stream of subjective information. Another way of saying which is: consciousness is the subjective aspect of information processing.

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .