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consciousness

Eugene Khutoryansky ekhutory at glibm8.cen.uiuc.edu
Thu May 22 19:03:29 EST 1997



On Thu, 22 May 1997, John H. Casada wrote:

> This seems to be developing into the kind of debate that will have no 
> winners.  Each side can come up with their champions that believe that 
> "all animals are conscious" and those that believe that "only humans 
> are conscious."  (The argument that if one denies consciousness to an 
> animal one must accept as certain only that he, himself, is conscious 
> does strike me as a trivial liguistic game and a trick of sophistry -- 
> don't tell me what I must think, ask me what I think and why.)  

What I am saying is that in order to be consistent, if you want to 
believe that most other animals are not conscious, then you should also 
believe that most other humans are not conscious.  Of course, if you 
choose not to be logically consistent, that is your choice.


> There 
> are some who jump lightly from the concept of "consciousness" to the 
> concept of "sensience" and treat these as equals.  I have yet to be 
> shown how the concept of sensience necessarily leads to consciousness.  
> It seems as if the acceptance or rejection of this leap rests on 
> faith, emotion, or inuition much more than it depends on "unassailable 
> logic."

I doubt we are all using the same definitions of these words.  According 
to one dictionary definition, "sentience" is the ability to detect and 
respond to outside stimuli.  But then, an electric bell would be 
sentient, and that is not what we were trying to convey.  A similar 
definition of "conscious" which was offered in a previous post lead to 
the same result.

Here is the concept I am trying to convey.  There are some people who 
believe in the existence of something similar to a "soul".  To them, 
items such as electric bells are not conscious or sentient due to the 
fact that they do not possess such a soul, in spite of the fact that it 
can detect and respond to the outside environment.  Many others, on the 
other hand, believe that "consciousness" is simply the result of complex 
electrochemical reactions occurring in the brain.  Even if you believe in 
this second view, what I am trying to convey by the word "conscious" or 
"sentient" is something similar to what is attempted to be conveyed in 
the first view.  That is, even if our consciousness is nothing more than 
complex electrochemical reactions occurring in the brain, "consciousness" 
is more than simply responding to outside stimuli.  It implies that there 
is an "observer" who actually perceives this stimuli.  An electric bell 
does not count as an "observer".  This is not a very good definition 
(since now I would have to define "observer", which I can not) but my 
point is that it is impossible to define consciousness.

Although this means that we can not "test" for consciousness in the 
manner that we usually test for the existence of other quantities, we 
should at least be consistent in our beliefs.  Some people wish to 
believe that we should assume that other organisms are not conscious 
until "proven" otherwise.  As a result, they believe that other species 
are not conscious.  However, to be consistent, they would have to 
conclude that all human beings other than them self are not conscious 
either.  This is due to the fact that it is also not possible to provide 
concrete evidence that other human beings are conscious.

The reason that I do believe that other animals (including humans) are 
conscious is through inductive reasoning.  That is, I know that I am 
conscious.  I know that other animals (including human beings) have many 
visible characteristics which are similar to the ones I have.  I 
therefore conclude that they are probably conscious.  

> 
> If we are to discuss "consciousness," then please let us agree on what 
> we are talking about. If we are going to talk about a variety of 
> phenomena that we may (or legitimately may not) think are correlated 
> with "consciousness" then let us say so.  But let's try to avoid 
> talking about "sensience" and pretending we are talking about 
> "consciousness."  Let's also learn if we are talking in code about 
> animal rights (which may reveal what "leaps of faith" we already have 
> made) or if we are really open to discussing the topic from basic 
> priciples.
> 

I needed to mention animal rights to demonstrate that there is indeed a 
fundamental disagreement, and that it is not just a dispute over the 
definitions of words.  By the way, believing that our own species has 
"rights", but that other species do not, requires a far greater leap of 
faith than does believing that there is a uniformity in nature and that we 
have equal moral obligations regarding both our own and other species.




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