27 March 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The importance of understanding consciousness

Two essays

Dear friends,

This week we are lucky because we also have an essay by Mark, who as you
know also proposed the subject of this Sunday's discussion. That means
you have two essay to read which is quite opportune given the bad
weather we are having in Madrid and did not know what to do Friday and
Saturday evening.

So without further ado, happy reading.

Take care




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(MARK) The Importance of Understanding Consciousness

The study of consciousness has been increasing over the last 10 – 15
years, and some consider it to be – along with the quest for the Theory
of Everything – to be one of the last Holy Grails of modern science.

A discussion of consciousness need to consider the subject of the 'mind
/ body' problem. This is sometimes referred to as dualism or 'Cartesian
Dualism', an idea strongly associated with the 17th Century French
Philosopher Renée Descartes (although dualistic concepts date back to
Plato and Aristotle). He postulated that the mind is a thing that thinks
and does not occupy space, whereas the body does not think and occupies
space. He argued that a body is 'divisible', that is, you can divide it
into smaller and smaller parts; whereas the mind cannot be divided
(physically); and therefore they are completely separate ontologically.

Dualism is no longer considered a valid platform by the majority of
scientists when addressing the question of consciousness, although a
dualistic logic often intrudes into discussions of consciousness. Mental
states and processes are viewed as biological states and processes, and
the Study of Consciousness needs to be based on 'hard' science, or a
materialistic approach.

OK. What is Consciousness? This is a million dollar question. The best
way define it for our purposes is to consider its high-level
characteristics. That is, consciousness is the feeling of awareness or
sentience that we have when we are awake (or dreaming). It corresponds
heavily to a feeling of 'self' or identity as an individual existing
within an environment, the ability to think and consider, and make
choices within that environment.

What are some of the characteristics of consciousness? - It is a
first-person phenomenon, and can only be 'felt' by the individual who is
conscious. Third person entities – such as cleverly programmed computers
or robots - can appear conscious, as they appear to 'think' and interact
with their environment in a rational way, however we cannot know if they
are conscious. We can only know that we are conscious. - Consciousness
states are qualitative. That is they have a certain feeling: happiness,
anger, boredom etc - Consciousness is 'cumulative', in that for each
conscious entity at any time there exists only one 'conscious feel'that
sums all its inputs, memories, feelings into one conscious state or
conscious feel.

An understanding of necessary preconditions for consciousness in the
human brain may allow humanity to address important ethical questions.

What level of consciousness is required to feel human, or conversely,
what level of consciousness is required for society to consider an
entity 'human' or at least having a level of consciousness that would
indicate special treatment. Most of us have few qualms over stepping on
a cockroach; however stomping on a kitten is less automatic

What is the level of consciousness in animals? Or severely ill or
disabled humans? At what point between a zygote and an adult human does
consciousness materialise? The ability to be meta-cognitive?

Another question: is consciousness a purely human trait? Most pet-owners
would argue that dogs and cats would have some degree of consciousness.
That is, they (the pet owners) can perceive when their pets are happy or
sad; and that they are clearly interacting with their world with
apparent purpose. Due to the first-person nature of consciousness, we
can never know the full extent of a dog's or cat's consciousness; but it
is probably safe to say they have some 'level' of consciousness. It is
an interesting thought experiment to sequentially consider other
organisms and wonder where consciousness switches off … or is it an
infinite sliding scale. For example:

- Humans - clearly conscious and self aware
- Chimpanzees – almost certainly conscious and have been shown to be
self-aware. That is, they are one of the few animals that recognise
themselves in a mirror.
- Dogs – probably some consciousness, but not self-aware
- Mice – Feel pain, nurture their young, can 'learn' … but are they
- Cockroach – ??
- Virus – Viruses are considered 'alive' but exist at the molecular
scale. Clearly not conscious.

This also raises the question of whether consciousness needs a 'critical
mass' in order to exist. In the physical world, there are many examples
where an object will suddenly change state. For example, when a piece of
combustible material is heated above its flash point it will
spontaneously combust. Other changes of state display a more gradual
characteristic. Perhaps consciousness requires a sufficiently complex
neural network (with the requisite energy input) to spontaneously appear.

Let's take another thought experiment. It is a reasonable assumption
(when dualism is rejected) that consciousness is a higher-level brain
function, or that it is 'happening' in the brain / nervous system. The
brain is a complex neural network containing functional areas that
neuroscience is still trying to figure out. Its ability to re-wire
itself as a result of learning (or re-learning after trauma) is still
not understood. As to its complexity, it is sobering to learn that there
are more combinations and permutations of neural pathways in each of our
brains than there are atoms in the universe. Be that as it may …
functionally each neurone can be modelled electronically, so imagine
sequentially replacing each neurone in the brain with an electronic
model. You would get to a point where you would end up with an
electronic neural network as complex as the human brain. If so, could it
be conscious?

Consider also the internet. It is a giant network that is growing in
complexity and speed every year. It also has substantial 'persistence'
and memory, and there are many nodes that already have the ability to
learn. It is doubtful if it is conscious, but could it get to a
sufficiently complex state that it would become conscious of its own
existence. If it did, would we, as humans, be morally obligated to
afford it certain rights. Many philosophers think that if we (mankind)
ever made a conscious machine, we would first not know that it was
conscious and secondly subject it to continuous torments and experiments.

OK … now to the question of the importance of consciousness. Should the
belief – and more importantly the evidence – that a person is conscious
have any bearing on how that person is treated? As an example, take the
case of Terri Shiavo in Florida, a woman who was accepted by the medical
staff as being 'brain dead' and in a persistent vegetative state, be
afforded the rights of clearly conscious humans? Clearly she would have
died but for the existence of a feeding tube; however some brain
activity was present. Similar questions are raised when considering the
right to life of an embryo. Many philosophers and scientists consider
memory as a vital component in forming the 'self' and perhaps
consciousness. Clearly foetuses have no memory: what does this indicate
about their rights?

How do we recognise consciousness for the purposes of making ethical
judgements. One test – not really useful – is the Turing test. From Wiki:

The Turing test (named after computer scientist Alan Turing, who first
proposed it) is actually a test to determine whether or not a computer
satisfied his operational definition of "intelligent" (which is actually
quite different from a test for consciousness or self-awareness). This
test is commonly cited in discussion of artificial intelligence. The
essence of the test is based on "the Imitation Game", in which a human
experimenter attempts to converse, via computer keyboards, with two
others. One of the others is a human (who, it is assumed, is conscious)
while the other is a computer. Because all of the conversation is via
keyboards (teletypes, in Turing's original conception) no cues such as
voice, prosody, or appearance will be available to indicate which is the
human and which is the computer. If the human is unable to determine
which of the conversants is human, and which is a computer, the computer
is said to have "passed" the Turing test (satisfied Turing's operational
definition of "intelligent").

As no-one has yet invented a 'consciousness meter, such theoretical
tests as the Turing Test, the Mirror Test or the Delay test are really
only indicators. Modern medical imaging techniques are useful diagnostic
tools, however the 'seat' of consciousness in an organism (sometimes
referred to as the Neuronal Correlate of Consciousness – NCC) is still
unclear. So the existence and extent of consciousness – as a higher
order brain function – is still not able to be determined with real

…running out of steam here …



(LAWRENCE) The importance of understanding consciousness

Consciousness is a very big subject and a cursory check in a search
engine would leave you in no doubt about the veracity of this statement.
It is important for philosophers, scientists, neurologists,
psychologists and psychiatrists, and every one else who is interested in
human existence. This should spell bad news for us since a lot of things
have already been written about consciousness and maybe nothing new can
be said. It is probable good news, since we might not have heard all the
arguments. And therefore more to gain as individuals.

The question itself is very important for us since it is a genuine
philosophical question and not a neurological or biological question
masquerading as a philosophical question. In a way, our subject is not
about consciousness, but about two very relevant philosophical concepts:
value judgments (the importance of) and epistemology (understanding).
The fact that what is at issue is consciousness makes this question that
more relevant.

A classical philosophical question would be: what is consciousness? At
face value this might look like a legitimate question for us to ask and
I would have no objection to give a working definition for our purposes.
John R Searle (1) gives the following definition which, although it
might serve our purposes, it might not solve any problems. "What we need
at this point in our work is a common-sense definition of consciousness
and such a definition is not hard to give: `consciousness' refers to
those states of sentience or awareness that typically begin when we wake
from a dreamless sleep and continue through the day until we fall asleep
again, die, go into a coma or otherwise become `unconscious'." (2)

However, is the question "what is consciousness?" a useful philosophical
question? I do not mean to deny over two thousand years of philosophy
and philosophers who have thought that consciousness is a legitimate
subject for philosophy. But rather is it the type of question best
answered by philosophy? Look at it this way, what is the heart? Or what
is blood? I am sure that over those two thousand years or so someone
might have asked the last two questions. However, it was only when
medical scientists started studying the heart and blood that "what is
the heart?" and "what is blood?", found their natural habitat. This is
not to say that the heart and blood are not also the legitimate subjects
of philosophy. I would suggest that they are in medical ethics, genetic
discrimination, health policies and so on. Moreover, a cardiologist or a
haematologist are no more qualified to tell us than a philosopher can
whether people susceptible to heart disease ought or ought not to be
given medical coverage or whether it is acceptable to discriminate
against such a person.

I suspect that consciousness is a similar case. Are we justified in not
starting with a traditional philosophical question? Practically everyone
agrees that consciousness is a legitimate domain of neurology,
psychology, biology and so on. Maybe, but it does not follow that just
because something does not fall fair and square as a philosophical
matter than it ought to fall fair and square to neurology or psychology
or whatever. Indeed, scientific methodology is a legitimate concern of
philosophy of science. So we might still have a say in the matter
without reverting to tradition. I propose, therefore, that we start with
the understanding issue and not the what is? question.

This leads us to the next important question about consciousness: what
is the purpose and function of consciousness? This questions looks less
philosophical and maybe more physiological or even neurological. Having
assumed that consciousness belongs to the domain of biology then surely
it should be up to those who study biology to tell us what the function
of consciousness is. We might agree with this proposition but there is
always the problem of methodology.

Indeed I would argue that a problem for certain biological
investigations, especially those disciplines that are geared at fixing
the human body rather than making scientific discoveries, is that
consciousness does not seem to be something that needs fixing. Of
course, there are some unfortunate people who are in a coma, but even in
these cases I would argue that they are not in a coma because their
consciousness needs fixing, but because some parts of their body have
gone awry and shut down that part of the nervous system that is
responsible for human consciousness.

And this is what is at issue when we use science to consider
consciousness: it is not clear that there is an organ or part of an
organ, maybe the brain, that is responsible for consciousness. Maybe
responsible in the same way that the heart is responsible for blood
circulation in the body. At this point some would give up on the grounds
that there is nothing ontologically objective to investigate. On the
other hand, the nature of consciousness is, as Searle claims,
ontologically subjective; it exists but only in our private domain.
Ironically, this sounds very similar to Wittgenstein's private language
problem. Although we might have problems establishing a functional
private language (how do we know we are following the rules?) there is
no doubt that when we are conscious we are indeed perceiving external
experiences. I am assuming that no manipulation of the brain is taking
place here. Even though scientists do try to study consciousness,
consciousness is not itself something like an organ or a force.

The fact that a scientist cannot have access to our subjective
experiences makes it difficult to investigate objectively. Sure we can
map an image of the brain when it is doing something and tentatively say
that when this part of the brain is imaged in this way it is doing this
activity. In Wikipedia(3) there is a reference to Operational
Architectonics which is based on the theory that "whenever any pattern
of phenomenality (including reflective thought) is instantiated, there
is neuro-physiological pattern (revealed directly by EEG) of appropriate
kind that corresponds to it." This approach might look interesting
except that it is not clear that every brain pattern also causes a body
event. If I lift my right arm and an at the same time there is a certain
pattern in my brain, but would inducing that brain pattern by
manipulating my brain also result into a) my right arm rising, b) will
be a conscious act of raising my right arm? I doubt that b) is the case.
An image of my brain, when I raise my right arm is evidence of a
conscious act, but an image of my brain by itself it not sufficient
evidence of a conscious act, even if it is similar to the image taken
during the conscious act. And this is the problem with imaging the
brain, we might have similar images of two acts, but they might not be
logically identical; for that we need the conscious element in our case.
I am assuming that raising my right arm now and my arm some time later
are the same, logically the same, identical acts. I agree I am taking
liberties with the meaning of logically identical.

These practical and real issues that involve the study of consciousness
directly affect our capacity to understand consciousness. It is not as
if we are dealing with something that might turn out to be a fictitious
idea, we all agree that consciousness is real and affects us all. And
for this reason understanding consciousness is a primary objective if we
want to understand human beings and if we want to make value judgments
about human beings.

I still think, however, that answering the question of functionality of
consciousness will give us the answer, or least enlighten us, on the
question of what is consciousness? And while I do not have any answers
to what consciousness is, I do have some personal ideas on the
methodology of investigating the issue of functionality. And I think
philosophy has a legitimate interest to look at the scientific
methodology because it is this very methodology that will lead us to
understand philosophical questions such as, what is consciousness? You
will recall that I do not think that philosophy can answer the what is?
question directly, but understanding the functionality question, will at
the very least, shed some light on the what is? question.

The issue of ontological-subjectivity:ontological-objectivity nature of
consciousness is not that problematic as some people think. Certainly
not that important to the issue of functionality. We can still
distinguish conscious experiences, whether we know what it is or not. I
would postulate that consciousness has to be ontologically subjective
because ontologically, consciousness is the product of our genes and
evolutionary process. Consciousness is not something that we pick up
from the environment nor something we have to be trained for. And
nothing is more subjective than our genes. So if we accept that
consciousness is something that comes with the genetic package we
possess, I am prepared to bet one of my genes that consciousness has
something to do with our personal survival strategy. And it does not get
more subjective than that.

There is also reference in Wikipedia to Dawkins's (3) interactive view
of experience: "In a way, what sense organs do is assist our brains to
construct a useful model and it is this model that we move around in. It
is a kind of virtual reality simulation of the world."" I submit that
any scientific study of consciousness must include the study of a) the
whole nervous system and not just the brain part of it and b) the
function of the human body (as a model of a conscious living system ).
Although I have not had the opportunity to read all the material on
consciousness that is available on the internet, I have only come across
Dawkins's description that also refers to our sense organs apart from
the brain.

If we are to understand consciousness, and certainly the functions of
consciousness, we have to start by looking at the genetic and
evolutionary functions of consciousness followed by the function of
consciousness in the context of how our body functions. After all, our
body is our main vehicle to implement any survival strategy. Personally,
I would try to understand consciousness not as a subjective experience
function but rather as an information and communication function of
certain living systems. I know I keep repeating this theme in my essays,
but consciousness is a genetic and evolutionary process because
information and communication are the key factors in a survival strategy.

When I tap at my keyboard writing an essay and you reading my words on
your screen or printout we do not do this just for the fun of it or as a
random event. No, we go thought these elaborate physical and epistemic
programmes to consolidate our human relationships and consolidate our
sense of cooperation which is so real and necessary for human survival.
I am not going to go through the whole causal chain of why cooperation
and collaboration are useful to us partly because you already know why
and I have discussed this many times already.

The main argument about information and communication is as follows. In
order to survive, not only physically but also genetically, we need to
interact with our environment. Information gathering and communication,
sometimes in the form of actions, are things our nervous system is very
good at. However, both activities have to be synchronised in real time
including information and communication activities we are aware of and
those that happen automatically. I submit that consciousness takes care
of those information and communication activities that have not been
evolved into an automatic process. How this synchronisation is done is
something that ought to concern scientists. In the meantime, our body
has no problem converting stored energy into leg and muscle movement
automatically, but only through conscious application can we seek and
obtain food; a very good example of interacting with the environment (or
the waiter).

There are other things we can do to help us understand consciousness.
Unfortunately, ethical constraints would probably limit us from
performing certain types of experiments either on human beings and even
animals. For example, tampering with the nervous system of healthy human
subjects to see what effects this would have on their consciousness. Nor
can we genetically engineer subjects to show the role genes play on
consciousness. And animals experiments have their limits because they
are not really able to communicate to us their ontologically subjective

Another way we can try to understand consciousness is to explore the
idea of modelling consciousness. And I only mention this in passing.
Earlier I said that the human body is a practical model of a living
system with consciousness. But given the constraints and limitations we
have with experimentation on human beings we have no choice but to widen
our methodology. Personally I am inclined to look at mathematical
modelling as a reliable methodology not only because there is already a
lot of data available on how the human body and nervous systems function
and can be used in a mathematical model but also because it can handle
dimensions much better than physical objects. This is not to say that it
is an easy job nor something we can do now, it is just faith on my part
in the methodology. Some might even advocate using, for example,
computers either as a possible alternative consciousness system or to
model consciousness.

As far as machines having consciousness are concerned I am not totally
convinced about this. It is true that machines, even biological
machines, may replicate or mimic human consciousness they, nevertheless,
fail at least on one test. The ethical relationship between human and
human which cannot be the same as between human and machine. For
example, we just cannot eliminate another human unless it is self
defence beyond reasonable doubt. However, we can pull the proverbial
plug from any machine without any compunction. But more seriously, human
relationships are about personal survival and more importantly genetic
survival, and we just cannot mate with a machine which puts them at a
real disadvantage. But these issues are more likely to be a distraction
in my opinion.

Still addressing the understanding part of our question, there is an
other factor that might affect our understanding of consciousness. I
have already mentioned language as an analogy and in the context of
animals not being able to communicate their ontological subjective
experiences to us. But language also affects our understanding of
consciousness by the very limits of language itself. My first
observation is to ask whether our everyday language is able to provide
us with the means to explain and understand consciousness. Maybe in the
same way that our everyday language is very inadequate at explaining
quantum mechanical events. A cursory look at a text book on quantum
mechanics would illustrate what I mean. Hence, why I proposed earlier
that a more vigorous use of mathematical modelling might take us quite a
fair bit in understanding consciousness.

A less serious problem with language is that our ontological subjective
experiences have to be communicated not only in a public (ontological)
language but then it has to converted again into ontological subjective
experiences in the person we are communicating with. Thus when someone
says to us, I am feeling hot, do we also feel hot (not really I would
say) or do we activate in our brain a pattern of linguistic hot or
physical hot? In which case, do we understand other people's
ontological-subjective experiences by deduction, association or simply
refer to our own ontological-subjective personal experiences, or simply
make things up as we go along? And all of this not withstanding the fact
that we all have different language skills not to mention that we have
different worldly experiences which might influence how we describe
personal experiences.

The "importance" part of our subject is less of a technical or
scientific issue and more of a philosophical, social and political
issue. I would go so far as to say that consciousness is the one feature
that helps us to socialise with other people and interact with our
environment. This is what makes consciousness a really important subject
and not just a laboratory or hospital ward curiosity.

In the Wikipedia entry there is mention of some issues that directly
depend on our understanding of consciousness. The most important of
which in my opinion are those relating to severely ill or disabled
people, foetal development and research on humans. I have already
discussed the context of consciousness and machines. Another area of
interest is that of learning and education (I did not see any references
to this in the articles I read).

If consciousness is ontological subjective experiences and as Dawkins
indicates, it is to assist the brain to construct a model in which we
operate in, then what we learn and how we learn about our environment is
very important. Thus manipulating conscious experiences is like
manipulating our database of experiences for later actions. Remember the
model I am using for consciousness: information input (experiences) ->
conscious synchronisation (evaluation) -> communication (action). Thus
tampering with the input would inevitable affect what we consciously

To illustrate my point I'll give some examples. The first and obvious
example would be the use of drugs which not only affect the experiences
of those that use them but also their voluntary and involuntary actions;
behaving criminally, lack of responsibility or lack of personal care and
so on. Manipulated information that would give the impression that we
are acting voluntary and reaching decisions that seem rational. For
example, how many, in the present property crises, were persuaded to
over stretch their finances on the belief that they were making a wise
investment for their future?

And in the sphere of personal and academic learning we may ask: what is
the optimal state of consciousness that will help us maximise our
learning experience? I am inclined to believe that the way we answer
this question will somehow affect the methodology of teaching. To begin
with we will have to consider individual needs and not some bell curve
representation of humanity. In a competitive environment having better
learning skills would be an advantage. But to optimise everyone's
learning experience would neutralise this advantage someone might now
have over others. That is not an issue that concerns our understanding
or the importance of consciousness but a consequence of having
understood consciousness and its importance.

In one of his podcasts I heard Luciano Floridi (4) says that philosophy
subcontracted certain problems which today we call medicine, psychology,
physics and so on. But given the importance of consciousness for
philosophy, maybe it oughtn't be subcontracted, but certainly sent away
for re-processing and Beta testing.

Take care


(1) There are many works available on the internet about consciousness
which makes it impractical for me and most people to read them all.
However, the articles I read include:

- The Problem of Consciousness
John R. Searle

- ABC radio: Natasha Mitchell
Part 1 of 2 - The Nature of Consciousness debate
Saturday 28 August 2004

(1.0) And if this is not enough you can always have a look at the 4624
free online papers which have been compiled by David Chalmers and David
Bourget at the following link: http://consc.net/online

(2) How to study consciousness scientifically.
J R Searle
Department of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley 94720-2390,
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 1998 November 29; 353(1377): 1935–1942.
PMCID: PMC1692422

(3) Consciousness. (2008, March 26). In Wikipedia, The Free
Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:28, March 26, 2008, from


(4) Luciano Floridi:


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The importance of
understanding consciousness

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