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.

We're All Stardust | Stardust Meme on ME.ME

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.

Consciousness: Why people think it might not be everywhere

This is a part three in a series on consciousness

Last week, I introduced the intuition that things “that are not (sufficiently) similar enough to us are not conscious.” This intuition matters because, without it, there is no way to ground a restrictive theory of consciousness. Put another way, without this intuition, you would find it impossible to defend the position that anything at all is non-conscious. It is present, whether explicitly or implicitly, in every restrictive explanation someone gives for why consciousness is or isn’t present somewhere.

One could argue that the intuition could be ignored by instead falling back on some other defining feature of consciousness. For example, if you believe processing information is necessary for consciousness to exist, you might instead think the phenomenology grounding this belief (consciousness simply is information processing) justifies it, and thus justifies consciousness being restricted to information processors. Ostensibly, falling back on this belief could remove the need to rely on this intuition described above. However, this falls apart when you look at the details.

For one, there is not one definition of information processing. It could be that everything in the universe is describable as an information processor (perhaps in the way a particle or an object enacts the laws of physics in order to interact with surrounding objects). But, this ends up being an entirely non-restrictive theory. 

To counter this, one might make the definition of information processing could be made more restrictive. However, for any restrictive definition of information processing, the phenomenological grounding breaks down. It is possible for me to see how my consciousness might be, in some loose sense, information being processed. But, it is very unclear phenomenologically, why any one restrictive definition of information processing is the one correct definition. Then, without phenomenology to explain the choice of any specific restrictive definition of information processing, one would have to, again, fall back on the intuition that things that aren’t sufficiently similar to us humans are non-conscious (as that type of information processing would happen to occur in our brains but not everywhere). 

This brings us to the question: where does this intuition come from? Why believe that anything we experience is non-conscious? I believe that it is a consequence of our current physicalist worldview. If the things in our environment move like clockwork, as physics tells us, they can be predicted without any mention of consciousness. In this case, the fact that we are conscious at all is something special that needs to be explained. This explanation ends up usually being a restrictive theory of consciousness (X in the diagram below). Because most things in the universe aren’t like you, you can then use this theory to explain why these things are, in fact, non-conscious. This can be used to justify the version of physicalism you began with (the one which explains the world without reference to consciousness). This however, creates a circular chain of justification.

In next week’s post, I will conclude my thoughts on consciousness by addressing some critiques and discussing why I think this topic is relevant in the first place. 

Consciousness: The relationship with the current physicalist worldview

This is part four in a series on consciousness

Last week, I discussed how to justify any restrictive theory of consciousness (that is, any theory which says consciousness is not universal). I concluded that even if you try to ground your restrictive theory in your own phenomenology (or first hand experience), you still cannot do so without holding the intuition: things that aren’t similar to you aren’t conscious. I shall call this the “similarity intuition,” or simply “the intuition” in this post.

Put in argument form, here is a way you might try to avoid relying on the intuition.

  1. Consciousness requires X
  2. X doesn’t occur in things not similar to me
  3. Therefore, things that aren’t similar to me aren’t conscious

Now you rely on (1) instead of the intuition. But you still need a way to believe X is required. This could be done phenomenologically.

  1. My consciousness has certain essential properties that I can discover phenomenologically
  2. These properties are essential to any other consciousness
  3. These conscious properties can be mapped on to certain properties X, which are present in certain physical systems 
  4. Therefore, if X isn’t present in something, it is non-conscious

This argument appears to sidestep the intuition, but relies on it nonetheless. First, in (2) it assumes that properties essential to your consciousness are present in any consciousness. In other words, all consciousness must be similar to your consciousness; at least in so far as it has certain properties. 

The similarity intuition is more clearly present in premise (3). Any restrictive mapping of phenomenological property to a physical or mathematical system will require an intrinsically self-centered approach. This is because it consists of humans mapping their experience to their brain states. In order to justify this mapping, one has to rely on the intuition that other less restrictive mappings don’t describe consciousness. In other words, things not sufficiently similar to me (where phenomenological states are mapped to a physical system dissimilar to me) are not conscious.

One could argue more easily against the second main claim I introduced in last week’s post. Here, I linked the current physicalist worldview to this similarity intuition in a circular, self-justifying relationship. One could argue that physicalism is compatible with panpsychism, an expansive view of consciousness that sometimes describes consciousness as a physical property common to all particles or physical systems.

Moreover, some might claim that physicalism needn’t weigh in on the debate over exactly where consciousness exists at all. Simply put, the more dissimilar a physical system is from a human being, the less we know about whether it is non-conscious or conscious. 

If this were all that people claimed I would have less of a problem. But most physicalists do not only argue that there isn’t epistemic justification for believing that things dissimilar to us are or are not conscious. They don’t sit in a state of agnosticism about this. They believe that such things are, in fact, non-conscious (eg. rocks, plants, waterfalls, etc.). 

My claim is that there is an obvious connection between the common scientific-physicalist worldview, conceptualizing the world as clockwork, and the belief that most of the world is non-conscious. Furthermore, the similarity intuition is both justified by this worldview, and helps maintain it.

Some actual clockwork

I want to say here that science continues to be the best way we have for explaining much of the world. In countless ways it has made our lives easier to live. But it is also true that the questions scientists are asking do not try to answer what I am talking about. They usually ignore consciousness, and for good reason. Treating things in the world as clockwork puts us in a frame of mind to start making hypotheses, mapping out relations between cause and effect, and making predictions. This is an eminently useful endeavor. 

But success in treating objects in the world as clockwork should not permanently cloud our judgements about whether, at the ground level, everything in the universe actually is determined. And it certainly should not prompt us to permanently believe that consciousness is present only in systems similar to us; at least not without proper justification.

My attempt in this series on (non-)consciousness was to push back against a common dogma and identify a common intuition justifying physicalism. I don’t know how many readers I have convinced of this, but I hope to have at least pushed the conversation forward a little bit.


Alexander Pasch