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Aug 22 2012

Who’s conscious?

A recent meeting of neuroscientists tried to define a set of criteria for that murky phenomenon called “consciousness”. I don’t know how successful they were; they’ve come out with a declaration on consciousness that isn’t exactly crystal clear. It seems to involve the existence of neural circuitry that exhibits specific states that modulate behavior.

The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states. Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and non- human animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus).

This is where they’re losing me. So, basically, they’re saying that aspects of consciousness are about 600 million years old? There is a bit of a slip in the text; some states and circuitry are present in insects, but then it goes on to declare certain subsets of animals to be conscious, which do not include insects. So what do insects lack that makes them not conscious? Or are they?

They seem to have reached an agreement that a mammalian neocortex is not necessary for consciousness, which seems entirely reasonable to me. But that doesn’t suffice to say what anatomical substrate is required for consciousness. It is basically a declaration that narrow, mammal-centric views of how the brain works are not adequate, and that opens the doors to considering the possibility of consciousness in non-mammalian organisms, but I’m still not clear on exactly how we’re going to measure consciousness.

Anyway, here’s their conclusion.

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non- human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Wait, I missed something again. What are the “neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states”? They don’t say. What are the anatomical substrates that are present in humans and not cows or mice? (Hint: I don’t think there are any qualitative differences). So this document has just declared that cows are conscious? Please tell McDonald’s.

It’s nice that the octopus gets singled out as a conscious creature, but under these definitions, it seems to me that every animal with a nervous system above a nerve net (wait…is there reason to exclude those?) is conscious. Vegans will be happy to embrace this statement, but I’m left unsatisfied by the lack of concrete explanations.

Also, here is an interesting summary of evidence for sophisticated intentional behaviors in octopus. Notice that intent and mental states are inferred from observations of behavior, not by slicing open a few ganglia and noting the existence of consciousness circuitry.

The octopus is the only invertebrate to get a shout-out at all. And plenty of research has been accumulated to back up this assertion. A 2009 study showed that some octopuses collect coconut shells to use as portable shelters—an example of tool use, according to the researchers. Other research has documented sophisticated spatial navigation and memory. Anecdotal reports from researchers, such as Jennifer Mather, describe watching octopuses in the wild make errands to collect just the right number of rocks to narrow the opening to a desired den. And laboratory experiments show a distinct change in behavior when octopuses are kept in tanks that do not have enough enrichment objects to keep them stimulated.

Shorter Cambridge declaration: animals other than humans look like they might be conscious, so let’s admit that neural circuits other than those in the mammalian neocortex are involved. And that’s all.

68 comments

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  1. 1
    Mike

    Have a heart PZ, they’re trying to pick up water with tweezers.

  2. 2
    David Gerard

    I assumed it was saying “no, brains don’t work by magical dualist woo, and if you say ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ or ‘qualia’ again when you mean ‘I refuse to be convinced of the bloody obvious,’ we’ll throw you to a high school biology class for dissection.” But maybe that’s just me.

  3. 3
    Lars

    It’s better than nothing.

    Well, at the very least it’s not _worse_ than nothing. I think.

  4. 4
    generallerong

    Wondering how the forced birthers are going to torture this into justifying abortion repression.

  5. 5
    Steve LaBonne

    Theology masquerading as science. Where do scientists get off pontificating in “declarations”?

    Stay in the lab, folks. There’s lots more to be learned before such generalizations can be founded in real knowledge.

  6. 6
    qwints

    PZ, I don’t understand your point about cows and mice. The declaration says “all mammals … also possess these neurological substrates.” I read this as saying that whatever physical construct generates consciousness in humans also exists in cows and mice. It seems obvious that this declaration is indeed declaring that “cows are conscious.”

    What’s not clear to me is what an “affective state” is.

  7. 7
    Cuttlefish

    We’ve called people conscious and unconscious before we had brain scanners; what we mean by consciousness is defined in the behavior of whole organisms interacting with their environments. Reductionist attempts to define it in terms of brain activity will, I suspect, always fall short; the context of our actions–including our thoughts and emotions–is not to be found in the brain.

    Lars, I actually do think it’s worse than nothing. It’s looking for our dropped keys under the lamppost where the light is good, instead of in the bushes where we dropped them. The search wastes time (if this particular question is the only goal, which I grant is likely not the case–we will learn cool and useful stuff) and focuses our attention somewhere away from where the answer is.

  8. 8
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    Wondering how the forced birthers are going to torture this into justifying abortion repression.

    Dammit! Beat me to it.

  9. 9
    Vijen

    Of course the ideas of these neuroscientists are crap. But so is PZ’s conception of consciousness. Notice that I am NOT decrying PZ’s consciousness.

    So what is necessary to consciousness? Consciousness! There isn’t anything more elementary. It’s ALL made of consciousness.

    Empirical investigation is the only way to discover this. Everything you know about the world is dependent upon what you know about yourself. Research your own subjectivity, or you’re just pissing into the wind.

  10. 10
    neuroturtle

    @Quinn Martindale

    We’re not supposed to use the word “emotion” when we talk about non-human animals, to avoid anthropomorphism. Instead, we use the term “affective state.”

  11. 11
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Who’s conscious?

    I’m working on NOT being so. Pass me another beer!

  12. 12
    David Marjanović

    It seems to involve the existence of neural circuitry that exhibits specific states that modulate behavior.

    Uh, a limbic system?

    All chordates are conscious, except adult sea squirts presumably? That’s fine with me, except I’m really not a neuroscientist. So, I’m inclined to agree with this:

    Theology masquerading as science. Where do scientists get off pontificating in “declarations”?

    I’ve never before heard of a scientific conference producing a declaration.

    So what is necessary to consciousness? Consciousness! There isn’t anything more elementary. It’s ALL made of consciousness.

    Show me.

  13. 13
    ashleybell

    ….Too much like the question of free will… Too many things to define about the argument before we can really talk about it. For instance, my prerequisite for consciousness would be self awareness which itself isn’t necessarily the only definition we can have of conciousness

  14. 14
    anteprepro

    So what is necessary to consciousness? Consciousness! There isn’t anything more elementary.

    Yeah. Fuck neuroscience. You know better than those people that think that brains actually do things other than decorate the insides of our skulls. Consciousness isn’t a product of neural activity. It’s MAGIC! Magic all the way down!

  15. 15
    robro

    But we already knew that cephalopods were conscious…right? And brilliant.

  16. 16
    Nick Gotts

    So what is necessary to consciousness? Consciousness! There isn’t anything more elementary. It’s ALL made of consciousness. – Vijen

    What a useless piece of nonsense.

    Empirical investigation is the only way to discover this. Everything you know about the world is dependent upon what you know about yourself.

    Crap. It was when systematic methods for reducing the influence of subjectivity were discovered that science took off.

    Research your own subjectivity, or you’re just pissing into the wind.

    Hey, why did we bother to send that rover to Mars. We could have discovered what the rocks there are made of by researching our subjectivity!

    Oh, wait. That’s a load of dingos’ kidneys.

  17. 17
    karpad

    This sounds like a meaningful distinction that is entirely arbitrary.

    I love those

  18. 18
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Inverts besides cephalods display learning behavior.

    Salticids

    Jackson,R.R.and S.D. Pollard. 1996. Predatory behavior of jumping spiders. Annual Review of Entomology 41: 287-308. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.41.010196.001443

  19. 19
    Disagreeable Me

    It seems quite obvious to me that consciousness is a continuum. There is no sharp dividing line between what is conscious and what is not conscious.

    Degree of consciousness is likely to be correlated with neural complexity rather than being dependent on any specific structure (although it might be connected to a specific structure in a given species or taxon).

    Not that I’m providing any evidence to back this up. This is speculation and of course research needs to be done. Nevertheless it seems to me to be the most reasonable assumption to start from. Why would you doubt it?

  20. 20
    captainahags

    Antiochus Epiphanes: Don’t have time to read it right now, but is that about the portia spiders? I’m not a huge fan of spiders, but the behaviour they display is downright cool.

  21. 21
    Doug Hudson

    This seems like a “no shit” kind of statement. Of course animals are conscious! Anything that can deliberately interact with the environment is conscious! (Which means all animals and quite possibly some plants).

    Unless by conscious they mean “self-aware”. That’s a bit trickier. Especially since science hasn’t actually proven that HUMANS are actually self-aware. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I know there have been studies suggesting that brain activity occurs BEFORE “the conscious mind” is actually aware of the resulting thought, suggesting that the entire idea of “consciousness” is an illusion created by the brain.

    Anyhow, seems like a bunch of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo to me. As ashleybell commented, it reminds me of the whole “free will” debate.

  22. 22
    scientificusernamelol

    I’ve decided to De-lurk to comment on this post. What a disappointment. As a recently deconverted fundie apologist I just don’t understand why there’s assumed to be anything special about human brains and therefore human consciousness among scientists. That seems like a Genesis thing. We are animals and we don’t have the biggest brains on planet earth. We communicate using mouth noises we arbitrarily assign as names within our culture and can make lots of artifacts but that’s about it. Our superiority over the rest of the animal kingdom is the smoke and mirrors of language and technology which arises entirely out of hands, verbal communication and teamwork. I consider it entirely non-controversial to admit that pretty much any animal with sensors like eyes and an information processesing center has the experience of a movie screen in their head, that they are conscious. Dogs dream. Animals look you in the eye. I say if you have the biology to suffer then you have consciousness. Human primates rule because of our hands for working, our mouths for talking, our superior teamwork, and our fairly big size compared to most land animals not because we’re the only creatures on the planet with ‘special’ consciousness other animals haven’t evolved.

  23. 23
    joed

    Is there a difference between “conscious” and “self-conscious”?
    I don’t understand the article but seems to me that a domestic house cat will play with a mirror but will not recognize self in the mirror.
    Where humans and primates to some degree will recognize self.
    I am not sure which consciousness the article was trying to describe.
    I am probably way off with this comment.

  24. 24
    generallerong

    And what about them thar mirror neurons? They got anything to do with this?

  25. 25
    roland

    Notwithstanding the presence of neocortices in the human animals exhibiting the intention to set criteria for consciousness, their experience of the associated affective state may not have reached the threshold for consciousness. Consequently, the weight of the evidence indicates that I am not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate bullshit.

  26. 26
    Amphiox

    If Octopuses can be considered conscious through inference from behavior, then so should Portia spiders.

    And any number of other non-chordate critters.

  27. 27
    Doug Hudson

    @25, the ability to generate (figurative) bullshit may be what makes humanity truly unique.

  28. 28
    Physicalist

    . . . cows are conscious?

    Of course they are. Only crazy dualists (like Descartes) would claim otherwise.

  29. 29
    Amphiox

    Stay in the lab, folks. There’s lots more to be learned before such generalizations can be founded in real knowledge.

    Sorry, but from I sit this looks to be perfectly in line with the scientific method. It is hypothesis generation, and declaration of a tentative local consensus to broader the scientific community so that others may consider it and test it.

    The difference between these scientific “declarations” and religious ones is that with the scientific ones, it is assumed from the get-go that not everyone who hears it is supposed to just accept it, and some will even, *gasp*, disagree and actively try to test and refute it.

  30. 30
    Amphiox

    As a recently deconverted fundie apologist I just don’t understand why there’s assumed to be anything special about human brains and therefore human consciousness among scientists.

    It is not “assumed”. It is observed. Behaviourally humans possess a suite of cognitive and social traits that are either not seen in any other organism, for vastly superlative to all other examples. We have by far the most complex social organizations and the most varied suite of social interactions. Our intergenerational cultural transmission is orders of magnitudes more in depth and enduring than any other organism. We have fully syntactic language, and a greater diversity of such languages than any other species. We play into adulthood more than any other species. We teach more than any other species. And so forth.

    Most of this (maybe even all) are probably differences in degree, not in kind.

    But it is still a difference. A difference that bears explanation.

  31. 31
    Steve LaBonne

    @29 It is hypothesis generation…

    It might be would-be hypothesis making, but as PZ outlined, there’s really no there there. And anyway, “declarations” sound more like territorial markers than floating of hypotheses.

  32. 32
    Steve LaBonne

    HTML fail. Sigh.

  33. 33
    Amphiox

    Human consciousness is observed to be more extensive by far than any other animals.

    This is an observation that requires explanation.

    One possible explanation is that it is merely an observation bias, and we haven’t simply figured out how to observe consciousness in other species to the degree we can in other humans, and ourselves.

    Another possibility is that we simply happen have more of a broadly shared trait than other species, analogous to bats having better hearing than we do, or eagles better eyesight, or blue whales being just bigger.

    Another possibility is that there is an aspect of consciousness in humans that is a species-specific adaption, unique to our lineage (including some of our extinct relatives), like woodpecking in woodpeckers, or the Bombadier beetle’s explosive defense mechanism.

    But whatever the reality turns out to be, it remains an observation that needs to be explained.

  34. 34
    Amphiox

    It might be would-be hypothesis making, but as PZ outlined, there’s really no there there. And anyway, “declarations” sound more like territorial markers than floating of hypotheses.

    That still makes it a legitimate part of the scientific method. Half-assed, ill-formed hypotheses are still hypotheses. And sometimes the state of current data means that a half-assed hypothesis is the best you can hope to have for the moment.

    But for the scientific method to work, you have to have some kind of hypotheses. You can’t just say, “well, we don’t know enough to even guess, so it’s back to the lab to cast about randomly in the dark”. You can’t do that. You have to commit to something upon which to base future experimental design. Even if you know that what you are committing to is likely wrong.

    And criticism’s like PZ’s are also a legitimate part of the scientific method. Indeed, the eliciting of such criticisms should be viewed as one of the goals and expected outcomes of making such declarations.

  35. 35
    Doug Hudson

    Amphiox, what definition of “consciousness” are you using?

    Everything you describe in 30 is the result of the human ability with language (and I have seen it theorized that increase in brain size / grey matter was the RESULT of language, not the cause…)

    Our ability to use language certainly makes it easier to discuss “consciousness”, but is it really an element of “consciousness” per se?

    That’s why I was wondering what you meant by “consciousness”–I suspect this is an area where confusion over terms is very easy. (Much like the whole Free Will thing).

  36. 36
    scientificusernamelol

    “It is not “assumed”. It is observed. Behaviourally humans possess a suite of cognitive and social traits that are either not seen in any other organism, for vastly superlative to all other examples. We have by far the most complex social organizations and the most varied suite of social interactions. Our intergenerational cultural transmission is orders of magnitudes more in depth and enduring than any other organism. We have fully syntactic language, and a greater diversity of such languages than any other species. We play into adulthood more than any other species. We teach more than any other species. And so forth.”

    None of these observed behavior traits add up to anything significant enough to demand special un-animal consciousness. Language is glorified communication by sound. Any animal that is social has culture and communication. Playing into adulthood has to do with a genetic predisposition for juvenile behavior or tameness that we are exaggerating in our own species over the generations by preferring mates who are beautiful and fun over ugly and serious. Same thing has happened making wolves into dogs. None of these things require special consciousness just special tools for the consciousness to manipulate.

  37. 37
    joed

    cats are conscious but they will not recognise their self in a mirror, but they will see something reflected.
    Humans, and other primates to some degree, will recognise self in a mirror.
    This I think is what makes humans so very different from any other animal. Is their an intrinsic value to self-consciousness?
    A tale told by an idiot
    full of sound and fury
    signifying nothing.

  38. 38
    Doug Hudson

    @37, just FYI, it is unclear that cats cannot recognize themselves in mirrors (testing is inconclusive), and even if they can’t, that may not be a true measure of self-awareness, since cats rely on smell to a much greater extent than humans.

    Also, a number of non-primate species (elephants, dolphins, magpies) have been reportedly passed the “mirror test”.

  39. 39
    Amphiox

    @35;

    Certainly language ability is deeply intertwined with consciousness in humans. Figuring out how to separate the two in humans will probably be necessary before we can successfully do any competitive studies of consciousness between species. (I think there are some researchers who in fact define consciousness as requiring language, and therefore largely unique to humans, but I don’t think that is necessarily a useful way to go about the problem, by defining it away).

    @36;

    Ah, but here it is you who are arbitrarily and subjectively defining what is and is not “significant” enough to “demand” a special un-animal (and this too you have arbitrarily defined, since humans ARE animals) consciousness.

    But the fact is that in these spheres humans are different and we want an explanation for it. Your comment appears to display a hint of residual teleological thinking. The magnitude of a difference does not necessarily correlate with either uniqueness or significance. It is perfectly possible in evolution for a very small difference to a have unique cause. And it is also possible for very small differences to result in very significant consequences.

  40. 40
    Amphiox

    What is unique about fully syntactic language is grammar. That is why when some researchers reported reproducible patterns in dolphin clicks that might have been consistent with grammatical organization, everyone was really excited and intrigued. (Or similarly the observation of what could be rudimentary grammar in prairie dog warning barks)

  41. 41
    christophermoss

    Plainly, we are not yet smart enough to make definitive statements about consciousness. In the meantime, I suggest we might be being misled by our subjective experience of being conscious or not – be the latter sleep, coma or anaesthesia. That would make us think of it as an all or none issue, but really is there any reason not to regard consciousness as a spectrum, upon which a fully alert dog has but a portion of our own level of consciousness etc? This would allow us to admit that an ancient brain in another species might experience some degree of consciousness and also let us describe the fact that consciousness is a different matter for someone who has just inhaled cocaine when compared to someone who has suffered anoxic brain injury. I don’t want to open the doors of perception or anything, but our own on/off experience of wakefulness and sleep might be misleading us tremendously.

  42. 42
    Dick the Damned

    I’m underwhelmed.

    Any animal, except maybe sessile filter feeders, is conscious.

    The real trick is in being conscious of being conscious.

    Shouldn’t they have got a philosopher to help them out? (I plead guilty to not having read The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness* [sic], so maybe i’m not being fair.)

  43. 43
    Dick the Damned

    Actually, i’m not underwhelmed, i’m appalled.

  44. 44
    Nick Gotts

    In the meantime, I suggest we might be being misled by our subjective experience of being conscious or not – be the latter sleep, coma or anaesthesia. That would make us think of it as an all or none issue – christophermoss

    Well only if your consciousness is very different from mine. For example, in dreams I frequently fail to notice huge discontinuities and inconsistencies that would scare the shit out of me in waking life (but I also have some experience of lucid dreaming, where I am aware that I am dreaming and can to some extent manipulate the dream).

  45. 45
    aggressivePerfector

    In his debate with the archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Dawkins said something to the effect that he could only reluctantly accept that a computer could become conscious, but I find this reluctance puzzling.

    Suppose you give a computer capacity to get around and measure the world. Give it any means at all for its algorithms to evolve (could be natural selection or human programmers installing updated code, or anything). Presuming that it is large enough and sufficiently clumsy to be described as a ‘gigantic lumbering robot,’ why on Earth would you feel any inclination to deny the possibility of it becoming conscious?

  46. 46
    scottde

    Determining whether an entity is conscious is easy. Ask it: “Are you sentient?” If it answers “yes” (or the equivalent), it is. It may take some time for the test to work, given differences in modes of communication, but before very long you will get an answer (particularly if giving an answer is a requirement not to get eaten).

  47. 47
    joed

    getting mystical around here.
    I don’t think there is much debate about human self-consciousness being much much different from all other consciousness. some people try to pawn off human like self-consciousness on to elephants and parrots but they are just wishing. Perhaps dolphins have a primate like rudimentary human like self-counsciousness. the apes especially bonobos and chimps do have this. But the human is terribly more sophisticated than any chimp.

  48. 48
    Stella

    Have they stated a definition of consciousness? It looks to me like they’re mainly concentrating on affective states, and I’m not convinced that affective states are the be-all and end-all of consciousness.

    Re. cats and mirrors: I can’t tell you whether my live-in exterminator recognises herself in a mirror, but I’m fairly confident she knows it’s an image and not another cat on the basis that if she thought it was another cat she’d go nuts. I suspect smell and sound are more important factors for a cat than vision in this context.

  49. 49
    Dick the Damned

    Stella, our cat gives the mirror a sort of baleful look, as if she is thinking, “that can’t possibly be me – I don’t look like those vile things that come onto our property, slinking along on four legs! No, I can’t possibly look like that!”

    I think she treats the mirror with the same disdain that she has for the tv & computer screen. There’s nothing edible there.

  50. 50
    Paul

    Re. cats and mirrors: I can’t tell you whether my live-in exterminator recognises herself in a mirror, but I’m fairly confident she knows it’s an image and not another cat on the basis that if she thought it was another cat she’d go nuts. I suspect smell and sound are more important factors for a cat than vision in this context.

    I’ve noticed my cat using a mirror to track objects moving around the room without having to turn around (too much effort). Smell and sound are of course also cues, but her eyes have tracked me across the room through the mirror, turning around when I get close enough to jump at.

  51. 51
    Doug Hudson

    But the human is terribly more sophisticated than any chimp

    On what basis do you make that statement? Certainly, our technology is more sophisticated, but our technology is the result of thousands of generations of humans working on the problem–very few humans today actually understand more than a fraction of our technology.

    Other than having cooler toys, how are we more sophisticated? We certainly don’t have a better morality, and you’d be hard pressed to argue that the bulk of humanity is happier than most chimpanzees.

    We’re apes–smart apes with nifty toys, but still apes. The idea that humans are somehow vastly superior to our cousins has caused dreadful harm to the environment and to other animals.

  52. 52
    Doug Hudson

    Addendum: And I’d admit that while we may be slightly more sophisticated than chimps, I’d argue that we are vastly less sophisticated than bonobos. :P

  53. 53
    Amphiox

    The idea that humans are somehow vastly superior to our cousins has caused dreadful harm to the environment and to other animals.

    Well, if you want to go that way, you’ll have to quantify “vastly”.

    And that….

    That way lies madness…..

  54. 54
    Olav

    neuroturtle:

    @Quinn Martindale

    We’re not supposed to use the word “emotion” when we talk about non-human animals, to avoid anthropomorphism. Instead, we use the term “affective state.”

    Yes, a lot of people will say that. I disagree with the taboo on anthropomorphising in zoölogy though.

    The classic objection to anthropomorphising animals is that it is said to assign human characteristics to animals.

    I believe we should look at it the other way around, by accepting that our own “unique” characteristics are inherently animalistic. Emotions, intelligence, consciousness? All widespread, in many degrees, in the animal kingdom.

    Personally I am a big fan of honeybees. And having interacted with them, nothing can convince me that they are “unconscious” (unaware) or incapable of experiencing emotions.

    They may have only tiny little minds, but I have no doubt that bees that try to sting an intruder are aware of the threat, and feeling genuinely angry.

  55. 55
    joed

    @52 Speak for your self Doug!
    Class Day Lecture 2009: The Uniqueness of Humans
    By Stanford University| 1 video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrCVu25wQ5s
    Watch this short vid and if you don’t think humans are more selfconscious than chimps then tell me the research the chimps are doing.
    Actually this is an interesting video concerning this article.

  56. 56
    joed

    doug where did you get this, “The idea that humans are somehow vastly superior to our cousins has caused dreadful harm to the environment and to other animals.”
    Oh and Doug I haven’t placed any sort of value on chimp/human and “sophisticate” is valueless as far as my meaning is concerned.
    so just watch the video and then make your value judgements

  57. 57
    consciousness razor

    Certainly language ability is deeply intertwined with consciousness in humans.

    Sure, but there’s no reason to think language is necessary. We wouldn’t say humans with inhibited linguistic abilities are as a result less conscious or non-conscious (except perhaps of linguistic elements, but those aren’t the whole shebang). Obviously we are aware of language and can control it, so it is one aspect of the way we experience things and it affects many of our other experiences (and unconscious states too?). And of course, humans are uniquely intelligent because of language, but intelligence shouldn’t be confused with consciousness.

    wiki:

    Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself.[1][2] It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind.

    Basically, it means the same thing as “awareness.” If you’re conscious of a rock, you’re aware of it. Maybe you’re even aware of yourself, but at least you are of it. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy like thinking the word “rock,” knowing what the rock is made of, where it came from, deciding what to do with it, etc. That’s also stuff you can be aware of, but plain old consciousness of a rock doesn’t require that. And you can be visually aware of it, say, but not of how it feels, what the sound of it is hit against another rock, what sort of emotional response you have to it — because all of those things contribute independently to any given experience. One can be present without some (or maybe all) of the others.

  58. 58
    Amphiox

    Sure, but there’s no reason to think language is necessary.

    True. That’s why I said after that it will be necessary to disentangle language from consciousness in humans in order to effectively compare consciousness between species.

  59. 59
    Stella

    Dick the Damned #49

    I think she treats the mirror with the same disdain that she has for the tv & computer screen. There’s nothing edible there.

    I’d have to agree with that. Cats are good at prioritizing.

    Paul #50

    I’ve noticed my cat using a mirror to track objects moving around the room without having to turn around (too much effort). Smell and sound are of course also cues, but her eyes have tracked me across the room through the mirror, turning around when I get close enough to jump at.

    Interesting! I need to figure out how I can test this at home. (I’m thinking bacon may be involved. The live-in exterminator will do pretty much anything for bacon.) It definitely appears that your cat knows what a mirror does, i.e. that it shows a reflection of objects, which implies she may also know the cat in the mirror is a reflection of herself.

  60. 60
    pyrion

    So how, by this definition, can we find out if a robot has gained consciousnes? Or an alien with totally different body chemistry? Consciousnes should NOT be defined with anatomical evidence.

  61. 61
    Doug Hudson

    RE: “Vastly superior”, I was alluding to the traditional belief that humans aren’t animals at all, but divinely created beings.

    This belief, shared by the major religions of the world, is still held by, I suspect, a majority of humans. I don’t have the latest poll results handy, but in the United States a significant minority, if not majority, of people do not believe in evolution at all, much less that humans are related to chimpanzees and other apes.

    I do not suggest anyone HERE holds that belief, but postulating that humans have a “special consciousness” is perilously close to establishing humans as innately special.

    Once one believes that humans are innately special (or worse, divinely special), it is all too easy to justify humanity’s reckless destruction of lifeforms and habitats, because of our supposed superiority.

    Again, I do not suggest anyone here would do so, but I try to oppose ideas of humans being somehow “special” when I have the opportunity. We are apes with nifty toys, nothing more or less.

  62. 62
    Ray Ingles

    I don’t think we’ve got a handle on consciousness yet. We’re still waiting on a Darwin or a Newton to get the right insights to make sense of the data we have. It’s clear by now it’s not magic – the brain’s where it happens, and how – but the way it happens is still a mystery.

    That’s fine. We’re not going to run out of mysteries anytime soon. It’s okay to say “I don’t know” when you don’t actually know.

    Well, actually, you should say, “I don’t know, yet.” Just ’cause we haven’t solved a problem so far, you can’t conclude we’ll never figure it out.

  63. 63
    eveedream

    Scientificusernamelol: “Dogs dream. Animals look you in the eye. I say if you have the biology to suffer then you have consciousness.”

    I think I love you.

  64. 64
    David Marjanović

    I suspect smell and sound are more important factors for a cat than vision in this context.

    Similarly, chimps recognize themselves in a mirror, bonobos recognize themselves in a mirror, orang-utans recognize themselves in a mirror… gorillas refuse to look in a mirror. Looking someone in the eyes is an immediate threat for them. If you use a video camera and a screen instead, and mount the camera at a slight angle, gorillas recognize themselves just fine.

    Basically, it means the same thing as “awareness.” If you’re conscious of a rock, you’re aware of it.

    It’s just one of those cases where English has a doublet of words where other languages have just one word.

  65. 65
    lpetrich

    I think that part of the problem is deciding what “consciousness” is, and how one would recognize it. Actively responding to one’s environment? (awake vs. asleep) Having a conception of oneself?

    The first definition applies over much of the animal kingdom, while the second definition is much more interesting. How can we test for its presence?

    If we try by direct access, then only I know that I’m conscious, each one of you only knows that you are conscious, etc.

    If we try by using self-description using language, then only members of our species are known to be conscious. That’s in part because only we are known to be capable of producing and understanding language with our languages’ syntactic complexity. Dolphin language is still largely an unknown, but our closest relatives are far behind us in linguistic ability. It’s possible to teach chimps and gorillas some sign language, but they only learn individual signs, with little or no evidence of an ability to string them together. The most I’ve seen is short noun phrases like “water bird”.

    So we ought to look for something independent of introspection and language. Anything behavioral? The most successful one so far is the Gallup mirror test. Do experimental subjects use mirrors to examine markings that the experimenters had painted on them?

    Human children become able to recognize themselves in mirrors at about 18-24 months of age, and Alzheimer’s-disease sufferers lose that ability. Chimps, gorillas, orangutans, dolphins, orcas, elephants, and some other species can pass that test, but many of them don’t. Rhesus monkeys usually fail that test. This is even though they can learn what mirrors do. Dogs and cats also fail it.

  66. 66
    consciousness razor

    It’s just one of those cases where English has a doublet of words where other languages have just one word.

    Yeah, I guess we decided to borrow the same word twice, from different languages. Now you’ve made me curious: does German only have “bewusst”?

    People tend to react to the words differently. “Awareness” sounds more mundane and isn’t so easily conflated with all sorts of other properties. When people hear it, most don’t immediately start bullshitting about how mysterious and magical and hopelessly unexplainable it is. I can’t really explain it. Deepak Chopra can’t have that big of an influence, especially on people who think it’s a natural phenomenon. I figure people use “aware” more in everyday conversation, in contrast to a five-dollar word like “conscious,” so it’s a little more obvious when they’ve got weird, confused assumptions about what it implies. I guess the good thing is that at least it seems to get people to think about how a brain can do that (and what else is involved), if not very clearly.

  67. 67
    Paul

    Addendum: And I’d admit that while we may be slightly more sophisticated than chimps, I’d argue that we are vastly less sophisticated than bonobos. :P

    I may just be a curmudgeon, but the constant internet atheist bonobo love-in reminds me of people’s ideas that foreigners are magic and it would totally be awesome to move to Japan (or GenericCountryInEurope, etc). They have their upsides, but I’m almost positive that the reason people think they are great is because they have too shallow an understanding of them to feel otherwise.

    Of course, that shouldn’t stop us from admiring certain behaviors in other populations.

  68. 68
    Vijen

    It doesn’t matter what you call it. “Consciousness”, “Awareness” or “Who am I?”

    It just can’t be reduced to knowledge. Third-party observations are simply not adequate, indeed not even interesting.

    You know this to be true, because you can make your own observations, directly.

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