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consciousness

Eugene Khutoryansky ekhutory at glibm8.cen.uiuc.edu
Wed May 21 17:28:27 EST 1997



Hi.  I just happened to notice this thread when looking through some 
newsgroups.  I think you may be interested in the following which regards 
this issue.  This is an excerpt from an article regarding ethics which can 
be found at

http://members.aol.com/okhutor/essay/morals.html

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

What we think about a moral argument can greatly
depend on how we attempt to determine if another
being is conscious. I will now address this issue. I
first need to say that we can not establish very much,
if anything, with 100% certainty. Perhaps your whole
life has been a dream. We can not know with 100%
certainty that this statement is not true. Nevertheless,
we establish degrees of belief. If someone were to
ask you, for example, to express as a percentage
your degree of belief in that it will rain tomorrow, you
could answer 60%. For other things, we are more
certain. If someone asked you to express as a
percentage your belief that the sun will rise
tomorrow, you could answer that it very near 100%,
but not quite. If someone asked you what your
degree of belief is that your entire life is a dream, you
could answer that it is very close to 0%. 

What we need is a method for establishing a degree
of belief in if another being is conscious or has the
ability to feel suffering. I need to say that when I use
the word "conscious", I do not use it in the way it is
generally used. I use it in a broader sense so that it,
for example, includes a person who is asleep and
dreaming. While dreaming, this person is capable of
feeling happiness, sadness, pain, and suffering. In this
sense, I say that the person is conscious. 

Earlier I said that it is not currently possible to explain
what suffering is because we can only understand this
by experiencing suffering ourselves. Suffering, for this
reason, is currently indefinable. Dictionaries attempt
to define it, but they do not do a very good job. The
same is true of consciousness. It is not currently
possible to "explain" what consciousness is or feels
like. It is only through our perception of our own
consciousness that we come to understand what it is.
Nevertheless, we need a method for attempting to
determine if another being is conscious. Regardless of
what this method is, we should apply it equally to
everything. It would not be fair, for example, if we
had a different standard for rats than we did for
human infants. 

Before we proceed, we should be aware of the
blunders which some human beings have made in the
past with regards to this issue. When the Europeans
first encountered people from parts of Africa other
than north Africa, some Europeans concluded these
people are not conscious beings. That is, a few of the
Europeans concluded these people from Africa do
not "feel" anything any more than does a rock or a
plant. Clearly, we should not repeat their mistake.
Their mistake was not simply due to a lack of
information. It was due to the criteria by which they
determined consciousness. We have to make sure
that the criteria we come up with gives us the result
that, based on the information these Europeans had
at the time, these Africans were indeed conscious. 

This automatically rules out one criteria which people
like to use. This is the criteria of language. The
Europeans in the previous example believed that
these Africans did not have a language. These
Europeans thought that the communication they were
hearing was just a series of grunts which indicated
things like the presence of danger or the location of
food. These Europeans were, of course, wrong
about this. However, based on the information these
Europeans had at the time, it would not be possible
to convince them that this communication was in fact
a language similar to their own. The fact that we can
not understand the communications of another being
should never lead us to believe that this being is not
conscious. 

Language is not an acceptable criteria even if its
definition is relaxed so that it includes any form of
communication. This criteria would be so general that
we would have to conclude that some plants are
conscious as well, since some plants "communicate"
with each other through releasing chemicals. In fact,
we would have to conclude that all computers with a
modem are conscious. Language, regardless of how
strictly it is defined, is totally useless in determining
consciousness. 

Another thing I would like to point out is that
consciousness is not the same thing as intelligence or
the ability to reason. A severely mentally retarded
person is just as conscious as is any other human
being. It is possible for you to be conscious even
while you are not "reasoning" about anything. In fact,
you could be conscious even if you do not posses the
ability to reason logically. Similarly, a computer can
be extremely good at logical reasoning while at the
same time possessing no consciousness whatsoever. 

So what "is" a good criteria for developing a belief
about if another being possesses consciousness. I
have two answers. The first is the existence of
something similar to a central nervous system. This
does not necessarily say that consciousness is just a
bunch of reactions occurring in the brain. It is just that
I find it hard to believe that something like a plant,
which has nothing even remotely similar to a nervous
system, can be conscious. This does not say that it is
impossible for plants to be conscious. It just says that
it is very unlikely. (I need to mention that there are
some religions which say that plants possess a soul.
However, the people who believe in these religions
also often believe that plants spend their entire life in
a state similar to deep sleep. So even if a person
believes in one of these religions, he can still be
consistent in agreeing with what I say here.) 

The second criteria which helps us establish a degree
a belief about the consciousness of another being is
that beings behavior. If I found out that a particular
human being did not posses a brain or anything
similar to a nervous system, I would at first guess that
he is not conscious. However, if I was then to see
him engage in certain activities which human beings
normally participate in, I would have to change my
position. I would, of course, be very curious about
how a person without a brain is capable of engaging
in these activities. However, I would still have to
conclude that this person is probably conscious. If he
did possess a central nervous system, though, I
would believe that he is probably conscious even
without most of this behavior. Having either of these
criteria be met is reason for believing that another
being is conscious. Which "behavior" you choose to
make as your criteria can be different than mine.
However, we should be consistent and apply it
equally to all beings. When deciding what "behavior"
to choose, we should keep in mind the behavior the
Europeans in the previous example saw, and make
sure that they would come to the correct conclusion
based on our criteria. 

I would like to add that as far as the nervous system
criteria goes, it is not that relevant if another being has
a brain which is significantly smaller or simpler than
our own. It would not be correct, for example, to say
that a rat is not conscious because its brain is simpler
and smaller than ours. To see why this is so, imagine
that there exists an extra terrestrial which possesses a
brain significantly larger and more complex than ours.
If this extra terrestrial believed that this was a valid
criteria, he would incorrectly conclude that we are
not conscious. Whether or not another being is
conscious has nothing to do with how large or
complicated our own brain is. 



Our degree of belief about if another being is
conscious can be expressed as a percentage. I
believe that other human beings are conscious with
almost 100% certainty. I also believe with almost
100% certainty that animals such as dogs, cows, and
rats are conscious. I also believe that certain insects
are conscious, but with somewhat less confidence. If
we continue to go to organisms with simpler nervous
systems, my degree of belief continues to decrease.
By the time we get to amebas and bacteria, my
degree of belief has reduced to almost 0%. We can
repeat this process in another way. I believe with
almost 100% certainty that a four year old boy is
conscious. I also believe with almost 100% certainty
that an unborn child is conscious five minutes before
birth. If we go to earlier stages of the pregnancy, my
degree of belief will decrease. By the time we get to
a fertilized egg, my degree of belief has reduced to
almost 0%. Another person can choose to apply the
criteria more stringently. However, he should apply it
consistently and be aware of when his criteria has
become too strict in that it excludes a large number of
elderly patients or mentally retarded individuals. 

So what do we do when we are completely uncertain
about another beings consciousness? The answer is
that we should do the same thing which we do when
we are uncertain about the consequences of our
actions in general. If we believe that a certain form of
entertainment has a 5% probability of killing another
person, then it would be immoral for us to entertain
ourselves in that manner. The same result should hold
for a form of entertainment which will kill a being
which we believe is conscious with 5% certainty. On
the other hand, every time we choose to drive our
car to work, there is an extremely small possibility
that this action will end up killing someone.
Nevertheless, driving our car does not become
immoral as a result of this. The same results would
hold in a similar situation where our degree of belief
in another individuals consciousness had an equally
low rating. However, the outcome would be different
if the chances were equally low but the situation dealt
with the lives of many individuals. It would be
immoral, for example, to construct a nuclear power
plant which has these odds of having a melt down in
the future. Again, the same result holds for
uncertainty regarding the consciousness of a large
number of beings. 







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