Consciousness is a Partial Order

THURSDAY, MAY 8, 2008

Consciousness is a Partial Order

I will now state the obvious about consciousness in animals: 

Consciousness is not exclusive to human beings.

This seems absolutely obvious to me, though some disagree. The argument for consciousness in other animals goes something like this:

Begin with Descartes’ skepticism: we know only that we are conscious; we cannot be certain that other humans think as we do. Next, we grant the possibility that other minds do think as we do AS we notice a remarkable fact: if other minds do in fact think, then they must perceive us similarly to how we perceive them. That is, although others are but images, sounds and textures to us, we would be similar images, sounds and textures to the minds within others, were these minds to think as ours does. From this perspective it is entirely reasonable to believe that other humans are conscious. (A super genius is more justified to be a solipsist, perhaps, but most of us are not).

To extend this to some non-human we still require some behavior on its part that we relate to: a behavior which, in us, is correlated to some thought, feeling or idea.

An example used in the philosophy of mind is the example of a dog chasing a squirrel. The squirrel jumps behind a tree just as the dog’s view is obscured by a bush. Then the dog runs to the tree and starts jumping against the trunk, barking up into the branches. In this case we say the dog thinks the squirrel is in the tree. It is less a statement about knowing what is going on in the mind of the dog and more a statement about recognizing and relating to motivation and intention, in noting to some extent the dog behaves as we do. Not entirely, but so much more than the tree or the rocks in ground, of which we can only figuratively ascribe intentions to. It is not figurative to say “the dog wants to catch the squirrel.”

This example can also substantiate the claim that some linguistic capability exists in other animals (without mentioning signing chimps or talking African gray parrots). With some mental conception of the world, e.g., having a concept of a squirrel or a concept of tree, we can argue that the dog has a linguistic representation of the world, although the language hasn’t matured to the point of being used for communication.

That consciousness exists in nature in more or less a continuum, which extends from flies to philosophers, is obvious to me. There exists a postmodern trend to challenge linear, hierarchical, simplified models, as well as anthropocentrism. In the case of consciousness I think the anthropocentric view is warranted. Also, a partial order exists, whereby we rightfully say “the dog is more conscious than the fly,” “the philosopher is more conscious than the dog,” (and ergo the philosopher is more conscious than the fly, but we knew this). Still we find that the dog and the cat have different ways of thinking, and frequently it is hard to compare the two with a binary, so instead we will say consciousness exists as a partial ordering, both on the set of species and on the set of individuals.

Some have argued that animals operate according to instinct alone, whereas humans have a second level of thinking called the conscious state. These people are misguided. The distinction between instinct and consciousness is difficult to pinpoint in humans, instead these terms are useful only in recognizing that certain thoughts and actions of humans seem much more automatic (e.g., catching a dropped egg), or cannot be fully explained (e.g., not trusting a new acquaintance), or are explained in terms of a primitive desire becoming dominant (e.g., as one might explain an act of adultery, “…I couldn’t help myself”). The distinction in humans between instinct and not-instinct is not clear. Nor do we believe that a human engaging in an act of instinct is temporarily unfeeling (the adulterer is capable of much feeling during the “helpless to raw desire” episode).

But what do they mean, “all animals act according to instinct alone”? This is to say the behavior of animals indicates that both slugs and chimpanzees act according to the same natural mechanical drive, whereas humans are radically different. This is clearly false. If a plague had wiped out all animal species but homo sapiens before the advent of language we might be in a place today to assert “consciousness is unique to humans; in fact humans are radically different from every other form of life we know of.” But this is not the case! We see facets of our own consciousness in the behavior of plenty of species of animals, be it language, community, desire, pain, capability to learn, etc.

The other problem with having such a blunt definition of instinct is that it cheats animals, each species, of having nuanced levels of consciousness. Indeed, a dog knocking a table out of the way to move through a doorway is less instinctual than is the decision to pee in 10 places instead of just one. Dogs have thoughts and actions which can be described as more instinctual or less instinctual, and this is a finer, more useful definition of instinct, than is “all animals act according to instinct alone.”

Of course, if consciousness is a partial order on the set of species then humans are the maximal element, and as such it is easy to distinguish this species from others, by defining instinct to be the level of consciousness strictly less than that of humans. This arbitrary distinction does not change the fact, argued above, that animals exhibit plenty of evidence for thinking in ways similar to how we think.

One thing that is particularly interesting in acknowledging the partial ordering of consciousness is the possibility for creatures which are greater than human. As I see it there is no finite limit to this ordering either. We can always conceive of a creature whose language is richer than ours, whose memory is fundamentally keener, with emotional states that make Mozart’s passion for music look like a cow’s desire for grass. 

This leads me to the next assertion, slightly less obvious or well formed: intelligence is to the fine tuners at the base of the violin, as consciousness is to the tuning pegs. They are really the same thing, but on different scales. A topic for another post…

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