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consciousness

Eugene Khutoryansky ekhutory at glibm7.cen.uiuc.edu
Tue May 27 14:09:24 EST 1997



On Tue, 27 May 1997, David B. Hedrick wrote:

> > > Running to the dictionaries is the not the way to answer scientific or
> > > philosophical questions.  Our language is inherently biased, and checking
> > > literal definitions is not going to get us anywhere in debates such
> > > as these.  
> 
> The dictionary is the first place to check.  The most boring and
> pointless arguement is one where the difference is in the use of words -
> a semantic arguement.  If you are using a word in other than it's normal
> usage, it is up to you to point that out.  

I agree that semantic arguments are pointless and that we should all make 
sure that we are aware of each others definitions.  However, the point of 
the specific post which you replied to was that our language is 
inherently biased, and that we have to overcome this if we are to make 
progress.  Relying more on the dictionary definitions of words only 
serves to reinforce the bias of our language.  We must deviate from the 
literal definitions in order to make progress, but make it clear when we are 
doing so and explain what we mean by the words we are using.


> 
> Actually, the quality of the discussion would be greatly improved if you
> would bother to actually look up the word.  
> 
> > > As I stated in my first post, I believe that it is
> > > inherently impossible to define consciousness (at least for now).  It is
> > > only by being aware of our own consciousness that we come to understand
> > > what it is.
> 
> If you can't define it, how do you know that animals have it?  

I do not know it with 100% certainty.  In exactly the same manner, I do 
not know with 100% certainty that you are conscious.  As I explained in a 
previous post, I believe that animals other than myself (including humans) 
are conscious through inductive reasoning.  I know that I am conscious.  
Other animals (including humans) share many visible characteristics with 
me. Therefore, I conclude that the characteristic which is not visible, 
that of consciousness, is also probably the same in other animals as it is 
in myself.  This is the reason I believe that other 
species are conscious, and this is the reason I  believe that other 
humans are conscious.  I have equal reason for believing in the 
consciousness of other humans and of other species.


> You have
> taken a political position, and are now attempting to marshal supporting
> arguements.  This is a fine thing, the responsibility of every citizen. 
> But your approach of taking a position and then supporting it is more
> religion than science, and hardly appropriate for this newsgroup.  

Defending a position is in accordance with the 
scientific method.  It deviates from the scientific method only when people 
become emotionally attached to their theories and refuse to acknowledge 
that they are flawed in spite of the evidence.

> 
> > > Saying that we interpret animal behavior in "human terms" is itself
> > > biased.  What I (and others) are saying is that these characteristics are
> > > not unique to our own species.  In other words, they are not "human
> > > terms", they in fact are "animal terms", which we humans happen to share
> > > due to the fact that we are animals.  What others have done is to assume
> > > that they apply only to humans, labeled them "human terms", and then
> > > claimed that it is silly to assume that other animals possess "human
> > > characteristics".
> 
> Well, come on.  An example of anthropomophizing animals would be saying
> that my pet crawfish likes to eat earthworms.  Now, if I see you eating
> earthworms and ask you, as I probably would, whether you liked eating
> earthworms, you could give me an answer.  I could also watch your
> expression and behavior while you were eating earthworms and compare
> that to the expressions and behaviors of other people, and to my own
> experience of eating things I did and did not like.  So, the human terms
> in this case includes not only me watching you eat earthworms, but a
> lifetime of conversation and observation of other people, and my own
> experiences.  These human terms are our shared and individual
> experiences.  The crawfish certainly jumps for the earthworm, but then a
> flame will jump to the paper when it gets warmed.  Is the flame
> conscious?  Does it like paper?  Nice piece of sophistry, but that is
> all.  

The only point of the paragraph you responded to was to demonstrate that 
the terminology is biased.  Asking whether or not other species possess 
"human characteristics" is, to some extent, like asking if it is true 
that you have stopped beating your wife.  If these characteristics are 
shared by most animals, then it is pointless to call them "human 
characteristics."  To illustrate this, suppose we labeled "compassion" a 
"Caucasian characteristic" and we then asked whether or not people with 
African background shared it.  The very forming of the question is 
racist.  If compassion is a characteristic shared by all human beings, 
there is not point of calling it a "Caucasian characteristic".  To do so 
implies otherwise.

As far as your comments regarding language, they were addressed in an 
earlier post.  If you missed it, I will be glad to repost the relevant 
sections.


> 
> > > As far as animals such as worms are concerned, it should be pointed out
> > > that the differences between humans and rats are infinitesimal when
> > > compared to the differences between rats and worms.  It is a mistake to
> > > lump worms together with animals like rats, and view humans as somehow
> > > "separate" from them when discussing consciousness.  
> 
> (the above only kept for context)
> 
> > > It is far more
> > > reasonable to believe that rats are just as conscious as human beings,
> 
> I missed any supporting arguement for this.  Proof by assertion?  
> 
> > > but that worms are not (or that both worms and rats are just as
> > > conscious as human beings) than it is to believe that rats are somehow
> > > "less conscious" than humans due to comparisons with worms.  
> 
> Why couldn't there be degrees of consciousness?  Are not you less
> conscious when you are asleep or beaten unconscious?  (notice the word -
> unconscious)  
> 

If I am in deep sleep or beaten unconscious, then I am "unconscious" in 
which case it is not a a matter of degrees.  The question of degrees 
becomes a bit more valid when you are, for example, asleep and dreaming. 
According the the literal definition, you would be "unconscious" during such a 
state (and again it is not a matter of degrees). However, (according to 
the way I use the word conscious)  you are conscious when you are 
dreaming due to the fact that the "experiences" you encounter in your dream 
can be identical to the ones you encounter when you are awake.  In fact, 
you might not even be able to distinguish the two.  So in this sense, I 
say that a person who is dreaming is conscious, and again it is not a 
matter of degrees.  The person who is dreaming is far less aware of 
outside stimuli than is a person who is awake, but he can still 
experience the same types of thoughts and emotions.




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