Monday, March 17, 2008

What Is Consciousness?

 
There are two broad traditional and competing metaphysical views concerning the nature of the mind and conscious mental states: dualism and materialism. While there are many versions of each, the former generally holds that the conscious mind or a conscious mental state is non-physical in some sense. On the other hand, materialists hold that the mind is the brain, or, more accurately, that conscious mental activity is identical with neural activity.

Consciousness
There were lots of interesting things going on at SciBarCamp over the weekend but I want to pick out one topic that came up several times.

At one point there was a group of us talking about a number of different things when the topic of consciousness arose. One member of the group happened to mention that humans were special because they are "conscious."

Now, I happen believe that there's no such thing as "consciousness" in the sense of something tangible that we can point to and say. "That's consciousness." I think it's merely a descriptive term for brain activity. It's an epiphenomenon. Consciousness may be an important and useful word for describing the phenomenon but that's all it is. I don't know whether an octopus is conscious, or a dolphin, or a dog, or a chimpanzee. The reason I don't know this is because nobody can tell me what consciousness is.

Nobody in the group seemed to share my view. They all seemed to think that consciousness was something tangible and real—something that set humans off from the rest of life. Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute, was particularly vocal about this. He expressed a great deal of surprise at the fact that anyone could question the existence of consciousness. In fact, Smolin insisted that the onus was on me to prove that consciousness doesn't exist.

I tried out some of my standard approaches on the group. For example, I asked them whether the character Data on Star Trek (TNG) was conscious. (The question applies equally well to any sophisticated robot.) Several people said yes. To me, this means that they define consciousness as simply complex electronic activity. If a robot/android can possess consciousness then how, exactly, do you define consciousness as anything else?

Other weren't sure whether Data was conscious or not. Unfortunately, they weren't able to explain why Data was not conscious and the other members of the Star Trek crew were conscious. At that point the group broke up because sessions were starting. My suspicion is that some people at the meeting were true dualists and they had never thought seriously about any other possibility.

The question is complex. Even a cursory review of the Wikipedia entry will be enough to confuse almost everyone [Consciousness]. What surprised me the most about the group I was talking to is that they seemed to take for granted that there was such a thing as a meaningful definition of consciousness that could be used to separate humans from all other animals. Some of them seemed to be genuinely puzzled by the fact that they couldn't define consciousness. It was as though they had never thought about the problem before.

The question came up again in the afternoon when I attended a discussion led by Robert Sawyer. Sawyer is a science fiction author, and a very good one at that. One of his books Calculating God is an excellent story about discovering God. I highly recommend it. His latest book is Rollback and I will be buying a copy as soon as I get to a bookstore.

I've met Robert Sawyer before. He's been to Skeptics meetings and to the Centre for Inquiry. He's a smart guy, and he knows it. I like people like that.

Sawyer is currently working on a series of books where the World Wide Web acquires consciousness. He organized a session to talk about his books under the title "World Wide Web Gaining Consciousness." As he explained it, this was supposed to be a brainstorming session to help him with his book. It was also pretty good publicity.

Sawyer began by explaining that consciousness evolved in humans about 40,000 years ago. We know this, according to Sawyer, because that's when we see the first signs of human adornment. Apparently, the ability to be self-aware is the hallmark of consciousness. In his book, the World Wide Web becomes self-aware and conscious.

There was a lot of discussion about what it meant for the WWW to be conscious. There were some questions about how the characters in the book knew that the WWW had become conscious. This was quite interesting. Most of the people in the room seemed to be having some difficulty understanding what it meant for Web to be conscious.

At one point I asked whether consciousness was ever defined and whether the characters in the book discussed the idea that there might not be any such thing as consciousness. Sawyer responded that, of course, everyone thinks about such things and so will his characters. I mentioned that some people don't seem to know about the difficulty in defining consciousness and don't seem to have thought about the fact that it may not actually exist.

I called for everyone to raise their hands if they had thought about the idea that consciousness may not exist. Everyone raised their hands. This is when Sawyer said that it's not a good idea to think you are the smartest person in the room, Larry.

It was embarrassing. The result of the survey indicated that everyone in the room had pondered the consciousness problem and all but one (me) had reached the same conclusion after careful thought. Consciousness, which none of them could define, exists and furthermore, it evolved uniquely in humans in the recent past.1 Whatever it is, the same kind of consciousness was also able to arise spontaneously in a network of fiber optic cables.

I admit I was wrong. The evidence is clear. All smart people have thought about these things. Most of them have made a "conscious" decision to be dualists and reject the notion of consciousness as a mere epiphenonenon. The lunch group seems to have been an exception.

Later on the the same session, another science fiction writer named Peter Watts mentioned that consciousness arose by natural selection. I pointed out that there was another possibility; namely that it could evolve by accident. This would be similar to how it evolved in the World Wide Web. (Sawyer did not indicate that natural selection was involved there.) Peter assured me in no uncertain terms that he knew as much about evolution as I did.

Science fiction writers sure know a lot of things.

In case you want the see another version of this story go to Robert Sawyer's blog and read what he has to say about this discussion [SciBarCamp].


1. I wonder how this actually worked. Since consciousness evolved it must have a genetic component. Otherwise it's not evolution. Presumably a mutation causing consciousness arose some 40,000 years ago. It rapidly spread though the population in a short period of time. It must have been interesting times. In some families you would have had a mixture of children; some were conscious and some were not. How did they tell which was which?

50 comments:

  1. Sawyer is most probably wrong about the events of 40ka. He's sticking with the traditional upper palaeolithic revolution paradigm, which many papers has shown to be old hat (or at least more complicated). For example:

    d'Errico, F. et al. (2003) Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music - An alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory, 17, 1-70.

    In recent years, there has been a tendency to correlate the origin of modern culture and language with that of anatomically modern humans. Here we discuss this correlation in the light of results provided by our first hand analysis of ancient and recently discovered relevant archaeological and paleontological material from Africa and Europe. We focus in particular on the evolationary significance of lithic and bone technology, the emergence of symbolism, Neandertal behavioral patterns, the identification of early mortuary practices, the anatomical evidence for the acquisition of language, the development of conscious symbolic storage, the emergence of musical traditions, and the archaeological evidence for the diversification of languages during the Upper Paleolithic. This critical reappraisal contradicts the hypothesis of a symbolic revolution coinciding with the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe some 40,000 years ago, but also highlights inconsistencies in the anatomically-culturally modem equation and the potential contribution of anatomically "pre-modern" human populations to the emergence of these abilities. No firm evidence of conscious symbolic storage and musical traditions are found before the Upper Paleolithic. However, the oldest known European obiects that testify to these practices already show a high degree of complexity and geographic variability suggestive of possible earlier, and still unrecorded, phases of development.


    also:

    Zilhao, J. (2007) The emergence of ornaments and art: An archaeological perspective on the origins of "behavioral modernity". Journal of Archaeological Research, 15, 1-54.

    The earliest known personal ornaments come from the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa, c. 75,000 years ago, and are associated with anatomically modem humans. In Europe, such items are not recorded until after 45,000 radiocarbon years ago, in Neandertal-associated contexts that significantly predate the earliest evidence, archaeological or paleontological, for the immigration of modern humans; thus, they represent either independent invention or acquisition of the concept by long-distance diffusion, implying in both cases comparable levels of cognitive capability and performance. The emergence of figurative art postdates c. 32,000 radiocarbon years ago, several millennia after the time of Neandertal/modern human contact. These temporal patterns suggest that the emergence of "behavioral modernity" was triggered by demographic and social processes and is not a species-specific phenomenon; a corollary of these conclusions is that the corresponding genetic and cognitive basis must have been present in the genus Homo before the evolutionary split between the Neandertal and modem human lineages.


    Robin Dunbar has also done some pretty interesting work, called the social brain hypothesis (though he is an evolutionary psychologist I'm afraid!):

    http://www.liv.ac.uk/evolpsyc/Ann_Rev_Anthrop.pdf

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  2. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDMonday, March 17, 2008 5:33:00 PM

    There are quite a number of concepts that most everybody believes in, although they are poorly defined: consciousness, intelligence, free will. These concepts will never be disproven; rather, they will be redefined. "Consciousness is X. What, you say you can disprove X? Ok then, consciousness is something other than X."

    They're made out of meat

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  3. For a branch of philosophy exploring X, that X does not in fact exist, is hardly a solution.

    Any object/phenomenon can be explained in terms of others, in this way it is only too easy to arrive at the conclusion "X is an illusion," but it's an unsatisfactory conclusion.

    The Churchlands were interested in doing this with "love," accusing this object to be merely an idiom for something chemical, and furthermore an inconsistent and imprecise idiom.

    Unfortunately our entire vocabulary is made up of idioms, to varying degrees, and necessarily the philosophers end up working on the most idiomatic of these.

    Consciousness exists, and we should move on. More interestingly is _how_, in what varying forms, to what extent?

    If you encounter a new bug under a rock, your theory grows, not just by classifying the bug, but the theory itself changes, and enough of these little changes forces a major expansion to the theory itself.

    Building androids will enhance our understanding of consciousness, but it will necessarily change it too. The question is not "is X conscious" but rather how will our own understanding and capabilities be enhanced.

    It's very simple.

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  4. I was talking about something along these lines last week with a co-worker. I have a hypothesis (I have no idea how to go about testing it) that not all humans are conscious/sentient/self-aware. I suspect that the trait arose naturally, creating a need for an important survival trait to arise equally naturally; the ability to effectively mimic self-awareness.

    If I'm right, this only makes the definition of "consciousness" even more nebulous.

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  5. I have been puzzling about consciousness for some time. Still no answers, but I have a set of questions:
    1) What is consciousness? Don't know - but I think it may be a collection of behaviours in other people (including awareness, reaction, and projecting awareness into the future) which I recognise and have now internalized so I recognize it in myself... this suggests that consciousness might be more developed in social animals (see 3 below)
    2) Are babies conscious? I think they have the capability, but it is unexercised.
    3) Are some other animals conscious? I think so, almost certainly ones who show similar "conscious" behaviour to humans, like other apes, elephants, and dogs for example. Are dogs more "conscious" than wolves?
    4) Is there a spectrum of degrees of consciousness spread over the various species? Probably yes, but how you measure it, or what behaviours count, is still unclear to me. I'm aware of the mirror test but I'm not sure if this is a valid test (mirrors are hardly natural)
    5) Are wolf children conscious? Search me guv; children 'lost' early seem to have greater difficulty learning to become human, but I believe they have raw consciousness.
    6) Is there some brain structure common to all animals showing consciousness? I wonder if mirror neurons might be part of the answer? It is almost certainly much more complicated.
    7) Is consciousness related to speech? I am retty certain you can be conscious without speech, but speech ability massively improves the quality of consciousness. Is there any qualitative difference in the "consciousness" of deaf, dumb or blind people?
    8) Are people conscious? Only part of the time ISTM - much ordinary life is handled by habit. It is probably why we are so impressed by people who can think deeply over an extended period without being distracted.
    9) Are there cases of brain injury which might throw some light on the question of consciousness? I think so, but I am only superficially aware of the work in this area.

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  6. What Is Consciousness?

    For me the subject of consciousness generates major category conundrums. In one sense our whole world is consciousness, (or better ‘conscious cognition’): from intimate internal experiences, through perceptions revolving round the senses, to elaborate theoretical artifacts that interpret those perceptions; all these things are part of the consciousness experience and we can only connect with the putative world beyond via the medium of conscious cognition. Consciousness cognition is not a thing that takes its place amongst the many things of the world; it is not simply another category that exists side by side with things like cars, atoms, and animals, but rather it is a kind of super category that embraces all things. How can we point to consciousness when it is consciousness that’s doing the pointing? How can you define consciousness when it is consciousness that is doing the defining? How can we declare consciousness doesn’t exist when it is consciousness that is declaring it? How can consciousness detect itself when it is consciousness that is doing the detection?

    And yet paradoxically consciousness itself delivers the conviction that consciousness is not all that there is: it suggests that there is a world beyond whose independent elements, if rightly juxtaposed, ensconces consciousness. So consciousness sees its ‘personal self’ as an assembly of impersonal elements thus producing that familiar philosophical tension between personality and the ‘plain things’ of which it seems to consist.

    I have never been keen on dualism myself, but it is difficult to get away from consciousness’s partitioning of the world into ‘us’ and ‘it’. What is primary then? Us or it? In an attempt to resolve the dualist dilemma, the best of bad bunch of solutions for me is to think of consciousness like a programming language whose compiler is written in terms of that self same programming language – like the programming language consciousness can be described in terms of its own theoretical artifacts that have no ‘personality’, like atoms, fields, neurons, computation or whatever. Conscious describes itself in terms of its consciousness of the unconscious and elemental. The question of which is primary, ‘us or it’, doesn’t then arise; ‘us and it’ can never be logically separated, since one requires the other.

    Now that’s what I call a philosophical dodge – declare the problem of dualism as unintelligible and therefore null and void.

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  7. This sounds like a problem of differing definitions, all right.

    I think I'm on your side, Larry, but I wouldn't argue that consciousness doesn't exist -- rather, that this thing we call consciousness is a fairly trivial outcome of complex neural activity, it's nothing special.

    I also wouldn't argue from a science fiction character. What about cats? Do people argue that cats are not conscious, and on what basis? If cats are unconscious (which seems unlikely), what animals are conscious?

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  8. Consciousness is real, even if you define it as something simple like, "an awareness of one's existence". If you don't exist, then nothing can be said to exist.

    The real question though, is whether consciousness is "special" in some sense or not. Years ago, I didn't think it was, but that has changed. The main reason is due to a very simple question that occurred to me two years ago. It can be stated this way: "What is the physical explanation for why reality is being experienced from your perspective here on earth, and not from the perspecti ve of someone or something else - for example, george bush or a chimpanzee, or an alien in another galaxy." (it's also known as the common why-am-I-me question). There is NO conceivable physical explanation for this question, therefore consciousness involves something beyond or other than what what we would currently call physical. I'm not going so far as to call it dualism yet.

    I've an extensive piece on this question, that goes into more detail: http://jeffwunder.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/why-am-i-me/

    I've also written to consciousness guru David Chalmers about this question, and he agrees that it's very troubling question - more so than qualia.

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  9. BTW, Peter Watts wrote Blingsight which has been getting some excellent reviews:

    http://www.amazon.com/Blindsight-Peter-Watts/dp/0765312182

    It, apparently, deals with conciousness and is close to the top of my Amazon wish list.

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  10. ...sorry, the link got cut off on my last post. Just go to my blog page and scroll down to the last post:

    http://jeffwunder.wordpress.com

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  11. DiscoveredJoys asks,

    Are some other animals conscious? I think so, almost certainly ones who show similar "conscious" behaviour to humans, like other apes, elephants, and dogs for example. Are dogs more "conscious" than wolves?

    Most of the people I talked to seemed to think this "consciousness" thingy was confined to humans.

    Robert Sawyer was even more specific. He said that it evolved about 40,000 years ago. Let's assume that he thinks he has consciousness. That means it arose in Caucasians since by 40,000 years ago the major sub groups of humans were already separated and they didn't mix much until very recently.

    I guess those other groups aren't conscious unless there was some pretty strange gene flow going on.

    So, not only are there no other animals who are conscious, it's likely that not all modern humans are either if you follow Sawyer's ideas to their logical conclusion.

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  12. Kauffman has spilled the beans about what he thinks of consciousness. It's not pretty. He's blaming quantum mechanics a la penrose. I think it's legitimate to call this kind of thinking "quantum magic" when quantum mechanics is abused by its use as magic wand for explaining anything exciting without any evidence. Might as well believe the Jesus crap. Explicitly non-scientific faith would be way more dignified than just evident stupidity. Seriously.

    I think Kauffman should play "twoface" in some batman movie, because he is capable of supporting systems theory form one side of his mouth, while the ugly side is spewing the worst kind of reductionism. I have hammered Kauffman for this before on this blog.

    This is the best example yet. Blaming quantum mechanics for consciousness is like saying that the answer to understanding architecture lies in the composition of the bricks. Any theory that bypasses brain structure and experimentation is just CRAP. Not even a single biological notion, for yipes sake.

    Kauffman says he does not think it's more stupid than other ideas. Oh yes it is, but I'll take that as an admition that his theory is indeed stupid.

    In fact, Kauffman has unnecesarily mystified the concept of conscience, which can be as operational as the distinction between automatic reflex and conscious use in executing our movements. What's very interesting is the separate yet inevitable connectedness between both. Not to mention environment...

    If you ask me, consciousness has something to do with the level of recursivity by which the organism is capable of perceiving itself, (for instance, "we see that we se")

    I do not want to sterilize the concept though with a premature definition. There can be several different levels of "consciousness".

    I would say that even in the smallest bacterium, there is a precursor of consciousness. At the same time, we must be able to see how even in humans, much of what consciousness is still nothing but bacterium.

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  13. Ha! I'm not so sure exists exists.

    I don’t think there’s a strong reductive relationship between brain cells and consciousness but I do think consciousness supervenes on the physical properties of the organism--on its brain cells, at least--as well as on the physical properties of the organism’s environment. I don’t mean simply that consciousness is impossible without an environment to stimulate it (although that’s probably true). I mean ... well, I can’t articulate the intuition. In any case, if it's true that consciousness can supervene on the physical, then a universal consciousness, let’s call it “God”, could supervene on the physical properties of the universe. So there.

    Words.

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  14. Most of the people I talked to seemed to think this "consciousness" thingy was confined to humans.

    Strange. I guess it depends on one's definition. As far "self-awareness" goes, that would not seem to be supported by simple tests (like recognizing one's self in the mirror) that some animals can pass, including chimps, dolphins, and elephants. But in the end, there's no way to observe the subjective experience of another nervous system outside your own, no matter how simple it may seem to you. It's all in your imagination. Some have even suggested that a thermostat or an electron is conscious.

    And who knows what a common dog is aware of? I'd bet the experience and qualia associated with it's sense of smell is far richer and more advanced than anything human consciousness can manage when we're smelling something.

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  15. Most of the people I talked to seemed to think this "consciousness" thingy was confined to humans.

    Just another example of something I've noticed many times (although it is disappointing that it should happen in such a "select" group of people): people think biology is easy.

    Since it is easy, whatever facile and superficial understanding they might have developed out of flawed introspection, anecdotes and half-remembered adages is good enough, and they need not listen to the biologists, becuase those biologists are just nincompoops who got into biology because they sucked at math.

    I ask you, Larry, did the majority of the people in the room at Robert Sawyer's really arrive to their conclusions after careful thought, or did they just think that they had done so?

    My money is on the latter.

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  16. My bias is to reject narratives (ISTM concepts of "consciousness" don't have the rigor of theories or even hypotheses at this point, so perhaps we can just refer to them as stories, speculations, or less judgmentally as narratives) that posit (a) human uniqueness, or (b) Athena-from-the-head-of-Zeus sudden emergence, rather than a more continuous movement from the previous to the current situation.

    What you refer to as "dualism," and Sawyer's/Smolin's narratives, seem to me to share these difficulties (human uniqueness, sudden emergence).

    There's been a fair amount of research into non-human animal "intelligence," language and symbol use, etc., perusal of which might shed more detailed light on how other species' thought processes differ from ours. My very general impression from magazines and science shows on TV (reliable guides, surely!;) is that recent research seems to show less of a qualitative gap in cognitive processes between humans and other species than the Sawyer-Smolin narrative would suggest.

    Regarding Peter Watts, I found "Blindsight," which is available free of charge on his web site, to be good reading. It did contain some entertaining philosophy on the natures of different types of consciousness, human and otherwise.

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  17. Some vaguely related stuff from John Hawks:

    http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/neandertals/symbolism/derrico-bolles-evolang-summary-2008.html

    Mentions work by Francesco d'Errico who I referenced earlier. Anyone interested in the archaeological perspective on cognition should check out his work.

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  18. Man, Larry, these SciBar people sound completely clueless!

    I teach two courses on consciousness and evolution. You are quite correct. Any definition of consciousness that does not give it in terms of actual behavioral outputs (in animals, correlated with brain activity) is necessarily dualist. And if we give a definition in terms of behavioral criteria, then a large set of animals are conscious.

    Cryptic dualism is very, very common -- even among neuroscientists. It is very hard to stamp out. But as you have noticed, it is incompatible with evolution.

    --John

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  19. BTW Larry, you might find this upcoming paper to be of interest:

    Weaver, T.D. (2008) Close correspondence between quantitative- and molecular-genetic divergence times for Neandertals and modern humans. PNAS, in press

    Recent research has shown that genetic drift may have produced many cranial differences between Neandertals and modern humans. If this is the case, then it should be possible to estimate population genetic parameters from Neandertal and modern human cranial measurements in a manner analogous to how estimates are made from DNA sequences. Building on previous work in evolutionary quantitative genetics and on microsatellites, we present a divergence time estimator for neutrally evolving morphological measurements. We then apply this estimator to 37 standard cranial measurements collected on 2,524 modern humans from 30 globally distributed populations and 20 Neandertal specimens. We calculate that the lineages leading to Neandertals and modern humans split {approx}311,000 (95% C.I.: 182,000 to 466,000) or 435,000 (95% C.I.: 308,000 to 592,000) years ago, depending on assumptions about changes in within-population variation. These dates are quite similar to those recently derived from ancient Neandertal and extant human DNA sequences. Close correspondence between cranial and DNA-sequence results implies that both datasets largely, although not necessarily exclusively, reflect neutral divergence, causing them to track population history or phylogeny rather than the action of diversifying natural selection. The cranial dataset covers only aspects of cranial anatomy that can be readily quantified with standard osteometric tools, so future research will be needed to determine whether these results are representative. Nonetheless, for the measurements we consider here, we find no conflict between molecules and morphology.


    http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/0709079105v1

    They conclude:

    Brain size relative to body size appears to have increased in both the Neandertal and the modern human lineages (56, 57). These parallel trajectories may indicate that directional natural selection was acting on both lineages independently, resulting in differently shaped but similarly sized brain cases (58). To the extent that the measurements considered here reflect these
    changes, our results would imply that although natural selection may have produced the similarities in size, genetic drift lead to the differences in shape. We are not arguing that natural selection had no effect, just that it appears not to have played a dominant role in producing differences.

    One misconception about neutral evolution is that it is slow, because it is driven by genetic drift rather than by natural selection. However, if stabilizing natural selection is more prevalent
    than directional natural selection, then neutral evolution will actually be comparatively fast. Lynch (59) estimated that
    human cranial evolution was rapid relative to morphological evolution in other mammals, but the absolute rate was consistent with neutral evolution. It follows from these results and ours that Neandertal and modern human crania may have been released from the constraints of stabilizing natural selection that limit the rates of morphological evolution in other mammals.

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  20. I think I'm on your side, Larry, but I wouldn't argue that consciousness doesn't exist...

    As for me, I'd like to see the definition before I argued over the existence of any putative property. Saying "x exists, and we'll define it later" is not playing by the rules.

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  21. Larry,

    I must say that I find your discussions on "consciousness" can be both enlightening and infuriating. Enlightening because, after you define your terms, you raise some good points. Infuriating because your use of the words can be fluid at times.

    For instance, I would certainly support you when you say that consciousness is not tangible. But when you say that consciousness "may be an important and useful word for describing the phenomenon", it boggles my mind how you can then say that it doesn't exist. Maybe it doesn't exist like cows exist, but it exists like "fear" or "sharpness" exist. Intangible and intractable, but still referring to a real phenomenon.

    At the very least, saying things like "consciousness doesn't exist" is just begging for confusion unless you say what you mean by "consciousness" and, more importantly, "exist".

    The problem is exacerbated by woolly-headed people who use "consciousness" as a stand-in for "free will" on the one hand and the fact that studying the difference between a conscious thought/act and an unconscious one is a real field of study. It sounds like everyone is using different definitions, so before making inflammatory comments, maybe you should do as Smolin suggested and define your terms.


    Most of the people I talked to seemed to think this "consciousness" thingy was confined to humans.

    If you're right, then I agree they're engaged in some egotistical special-pleading. But perhaps your impression is based on a confusion of terms.

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  22. What's weird about "free will"? of course we are not unconstrained but still most of what happens with us has to do with inner biological dynamics.

    Notice that by this notion an autonomous (self-preserving) robot can also have "free-will". Both are observed against an environmentla background weher we observa that most of what they do has to do with themselves and their highly structured inner dynamics.

    This is quite different from observing for instance a diffuse chemical reaction

    I don't call it free will though. I call it autonomy.

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  23. Only humans are conscious?

    And this from a room of enlightened scientists, not religious fundamentalists proclaiming that we are not animals, we are made in God's image?

    This strange idea that humans are somehow qualitatively different from other creatures is one of the most persistent, preening, and demonstrably false fixations in recorded history.

    Just recently, we tried, and failed, to demonstrate our singular status through the use of tools, ability to learn, mourn our dead, use language, etc The only thing, I think, that sets us apart is the ability to use TV clicker.

    Hey - just look at my beautiful dog's face when she farts in the room and she knows that we noticed. :)

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  24. The funny thing is, I read Robert Sawyer's blog post first and despite not having attended that session and not knowing who was present there I knew he was talking about you...

    Star Trek's Data seems as conscious to me as humans are, which I suppose means that you can reduce consciousness to neuronal pathways reconstructed electronically. But then again, Data isn't *real*. We still haven't built a robot like Data.

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  25. Now, as for animals, I had to go and find a link to back this up, but if self-awareness is the hallmark of consciousness, then at least one elephant passes the test:
    http://www.world-science.net/othernews/061030_elephant.htm

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  26. eva,

    Now, as for animals, I had to go and find a link to back this up, but if self-awareness is the hallmark of consciousness, then at least one elephant passes the test

    Are you saying that the test is the sole criterion, or is there more to it? We could probably whip up a simple robot that could "recognize" itself in a mirror. Does this mean it is as "conscious" as a human?

    While I think it's a good idea, in principle, to use behaviour and not language to evaluate organisms to prevent some human-centric speciesism, it really drops the ball on computer "intelligence". A robot may have heuristics to respond to mirrors, but that hardly makes it self-aware or conscious (whatever that might mean when dealing with computers).

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  27. I don't know if it implies consciousness, that's why I very carefully picked my words to say "IF self-awareness is the hallmark of consciousness"...

    And in the comment before that I already said that it might be possibles to reproduce consciousness in a robot.

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  28. Eva says,

    The funny thing is, I read Robert Sawyer's blog post first and despite not having attended that session and not knowing who was present there I knew he was talking about you...

    Insult acknowledged.

    Knowing both Robert Sawyer and me it's not hard to predict that we would clash. I know it's going to be hard for some people to believe this but Sawyer has an ego that's much larger than mine.

    I have never seen him even consider the possibility that he might be wrong about something.

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  29. Over on Sawyer's blog I asked him for his definition of consciousness. I'm sure he'll be responding soon.

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  30. Why have we forgotten BF Skinner, and the clarity with which he tackles the question of consciousness, free will etc., in his freewheeling volume, "On Behaviorism." What makes humans so special that the laws of nature we apply to study the world at large must not applied when we cross into the human brain?

    Truti

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  31. What makes humans so special that the laws of nature we apply to study the world at large must not applied when we cross into the human brain?

    It's not humans, but the entire "subjective experience" question that appears to be so intractable. It doesn't really matter whether you personally feel that it is unique to humans or not (or to yourself, if you're a solipsist). Redness, the smell of coffee, pain and pleasure, and even the overall feeling you get when you comprehend a new scientific or mathematical idea. "Experience" would be a better word to summarize it.

    It's a chicken and egg problem. Subjective experience seems to be utterly incompatible with the physical world, and yet, all perception and knowledge of the physical world is utterly dependent upon it. Everything physical (including particles, waves, neurons, neurotransmitters, etc) are ideas and thoughts in your mind, and yet your mind seems to be built out of these ideas and thoughts. Which one is more fundamental? It's old realism vs idealism debate. The problem with pure idealism, is that it hasn't led to anything practical (so far), so realism is favored as the most fundamental. Nevertheless, subjective experience is always there, underneath everything...

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  32. I wouldn't be bothered by Smolin, most everything he does is tinted by orthodoxy. (I.e. trying to base quantum gravity on background independence when string theory already is background independent by way of scaffolding, proposing multiverse evolution when black holes no longer is considered to have the necessary properties, et cetera.) He lives on contradiction.

    I've also written to consciousness guru David Chalmers about this question, and he agrees that it's very troubling question - more so than qualia.

    Adding another meme into the mix doesn't make these undefined and unmeasurable so called "properties" any more real.

    Whether consciousness can be well defined or not, there are similar behaviors that seem to extend over species. We could look at selfawareness or understanding (use of intention) in learning.

    Evolved neural networks can selforganize as a response to learning information to form robust symbols. It is a complex spontaneously emergent phenomena, and the analogy between selection for robustness among symbols and fitness among alleles in evolution doesn’t seem coincidental.

    Nor is the absence of intention in basic dumb (non-predictive and non-corrective) trial-and-error learning.

    Above a certain symbolic processing threshold dumb learning in neuroscience can establish corrective feedback and enhance learning into understanding. From symbols you achieve language and understanding, even algebraic manipulation, where recursive feedback shows that the brain, or at least its epiphenomena, can be potentially as versatile as the most powerful processing system (Church-Turing).

    Alas, evolution cannot go that route, the genome remains a dumb (but adaptive) learner of the environment.

    [When I note that symbol formation is emergent, I feel like I'm calling on the ghost of Kauffman. But emergence do happen, such as chemistry from elementary particle interactions.]

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  33. Adding another meme into the mix doesn't make these undefined and unmeasurable so called "properties" an more real.

    That's just silly. I could say the same for your "memes". Every "meme" you think about is filtered though this non-existent, "property" that you are so keen on denying. If the awareness of yourself is "undefined" or imaginary, then how do you use pronouns in a meaningful way? And who does the name on your blog post refer to?

    Perhaps it's a new scientifc approach: If you can't explain something that's obvious to nearly everyone, just repeatedly deny that it even exists.

    I must admit - I'm perplexed at the number of self and consciousness deniers out there. I'm beginning to suspect that maybe solipsism is real, and they're just being honest ;)

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  34. I wonder how this actually worked. Since consciousness evolved it must have a genetic component. Otherwise it's not evolution. Presumably a mutation causing consciousness arose some 40,000 years ago. It rapidly spread though the population in a short period of time. It must have been interesting times. In some families you would have had a mixture of children; some were conscious and some were not.

    This is just a strawman, and one that could be applied against the evolution of any complex feature.

    jeff:
    Subjective experience seems to be utterly incompatible with the physical world...

    How so? All of my subjective experiences have taken place in the physical world (afaik).

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  35. I could say the same for your "memes".

    Well, you could (and they aren't well defined AFAIK), but what would be the point? To discuss a lawful property we need a rigid definition to start with.

    Every "meme" you think about is filtered though this non-existent, "property" that you are so keen on denying.

    Aren't you confusing "consciousness" with the mind? Coming back to the need for rigid definitions, I believe.

    If the awareness of yourself is "undefined" or imaginary

    Um, selfawareness is AFAIU measurable in humans, apes and elephants (arguably). Another confusion?

    And who does the name on your blog post refer to?

    A response from here on to the last part of your comment would lead to a largish comment. Suffice to say that software can stamp their name on an output without being conscious. And that is one reason why we would like to discuss definable properties.

    Sorry to be such a bore on the one point, but it is important. If someone comes up with a definition of consciousness that sustain a correlate, it would be great of course. Perhaps neuroscience will oblige.

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  36. Seems like the difficulty of looking inside for "consciousness" is that it's not there. It's like "personhood", something that's a part of the social network. It's something we grant to others and reflexively to ourselves. We have the same tug to grant consciousness to our cats and robots that we do to treat them as people, deserving of respect and empathy. We might be able to deal with people as input/output devices and deal with them quite effectively, and if we feel like something's missing, it's not something inside that's missing, it's something outside in the social realm.

    I think we see consciousness arise when human society develops because it's the development of this social web that creates consciousness.

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  37. All due respect, Larry, but I think you profoundly misunderstood the room's reaction. The question you asked was simply "How many of you have considered the possibility that consciousness doesn't exist?" You didn't ask what we'd concluded one way or the other, only whether we'd considered the question. I suspect most of those assembled would take exception to being told that they're duallists. I sure as shit ain't one; I'm mildly notorious for my unrelenting reductionism, and my latest book caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that consciousness, whatever it is, is most likely maladaptive in a Darwinian sense. (Consciousness was a major theme of the novel; trust me, I had given the subject some thought.) And you never even broached the subject of whether consciousness was unique to humans, or how recent its pedigree might be. So your claims that we'd all decided that it was a recent and uniquely-human phenomenon come way out of left field; Rob suggested those things. No one else did.

    Also, while I'd never disagree with your claim about the smarts of science fiction writers, I wasn't actually speaking as one when I told you that I knew something about evolution. I was speaking as a guy with a doctorate in Zoology and a few years' postdoctoral experience under his belt.

    Just so we're on the same page...

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  38. It may look like a word-game, but what I call conciousness is when my 'meat' pays attention to processes, thoughts, sensations produced by that same meat, or rather *in* the meat. Much as in Hofstadter's "I'm a strange loop".

    And from a very young age (I was thirteen), I have no belief in free will. The brainmeat simply lags behind all the bodymeat.

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  39. There are an awful lot of ideas being bandied about here, evidencing mostly confusion. One that hasn't sparked much commentary is the suggestion that to believe consciousness exists (or is in some sense a real phenomenon) indicates some sort of predilection for dualism. That's pretty shallow.

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  40. "The brainmeat simply lags behind all the bodymeat"

    Wrong. only non-autonomous process are the mere reflection of another process (for instance, the shadow of my hand obeys my hands movements)

    No need to talk about the brain. Even the simplest bacterium is no "shadow".

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  41. Peter Watts says,

    All due respect, Larry, but I think you profoundly misunderstood the room's reaction. The question you asked was simply "How many of you have considered the possibility that consciousness doesn't exist?" You didn't ask what we'd concluded one way or the other, only whether we'd considered the question. I suspect most of those assembled would take exception to being told that they're duallists.

    We were discussing the idea that the World Wide Web could become conscious. Robert introduced the topic by claiming that consciousness arose in humans about 40,000 years ago.

    The discussion went on for some time without anyone challenging the idea that consciousness may be an epiphenomenon or questioning the statement that it evolved in the human lineage relatively recently.

    I asked Robert whether the characters in his book addressed the question of whether consciousness even existed and he said "yes." He then added the point that everyone knew that this was a debatable question.

    I asked everyone if this was true. They all raised their hands and then went on to discuss how consciousness could arise in the World Wide Web. It certainly looks to me as though very few people doubt the existence of a thing called consciousness.

    And you never even broached the subject of whether consciousness was unique to humans, or how recent its pedigree might be. So your claims that we'd all decided that it was a recent and uniquely-human phenomenon come way out of left field; Rob suggested those things. No one else did.

    Several of us had talked about this at lunch. When I heard Robert Sawyer make his claim I reacted with incredulity—surely, I thought, nobody who has thought seriously about the problem will agree with such a ridiculous claim. The silence was deafening.

    You interpret this to mean that many people in the room disagreed but didn't want to speak out. I have a different interpretation.

    Later on, when you advocated the position that consciousness (whatever it is) could have arisen by natural selection, I pointed out that there were other possibilities, including the possibility that consciousness could have arisen by accident.

    Now you say that it could even have been maladaptive. It's too bad that you didn't bring this up in the discussion—it would have been quite relevant and might have been much more interesting than just acquiescing to Sawyer's position.

    BTW, the idea that consciousness might have arisen by natural selection and the idea that it might be maladaptive both require that consciousness have a genetic basis. Can you tell me what sort of genes cause consciousness?

    I'd be interested in knowing when you think consciousness evolved. Are grasshoppers "conscious?" How about sharks, barracuda, frogs, lizards, parrots, kangaroos, or cats? At what point in time did the consciousness genes/alleles arise and become fixed in the population?

    P.S. The debate between adaptationists and pluralists takes place within the scientific community. There are many Ph.D. scientists who believe in the supremacy of natural selection. Many of these scientists are fans of evolutionary psychology. Just because you have a Ph.D. in zoology is no guarantee that you have thought seriously about these issues. And even if you have, it was no guarantee that you accept evolution by accident.

    Robert Sawyer seems to think that just because someone has studied biology, they are an expert on everything biological. You and I know differently. I hope you'll take the time to educate Robert Sawyer on this point. (Good luck!)

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  42. bob koepp says,

    One that hasn't sparked much commentary is the suggestion that to believe consciousness exists (or is in some sense a real phenomenon) indicates some sort of predilection for dualism. That's pretty shallow.

    Here's your chance. You have a small audience of people who are interested in the subject. Please take some time to explain your point. If consciousness exists as a real phenomenon then what kind of definition are you using that avoids dualism?

    I think I understand where you're coming from but I'd like to hear it in your own words. You need to start by defining "consciousness."

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  43. One of my readers pointed out that we've discussed this before under ...  What Is the Biological Basis of Consciousness?.

    Some of you might like to refresh your memories by re-reading that thread.

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  44. Thanks for the invitation, Larry. But I'll demur from offering a "definition" of consciousness, since that would be very, very premature. I'll note, though, that there are lots of things for which we lack clear definitions -- things like science, truth, life, organism, etc, etc -- about which we can still speak intelligibly and intelligently. For example, even without proper definitions in hand, we can observe the distinction between consciousness of the sort we generally attribute (rightly or wrongly) to sentient creatures, and reflective self-consciousness of the sort that humans and probably some other highly social species have.

    I objected to the quick linkage between thinking consciousness is real and a tendency toward dualism becasue both materialsts and dualists (we could also add neutral monists) generally agree that there is consciousness in this world. What distinguishes them is that the dualists claim consciousness (or mental phenomena generally) are distinct from (not eliminable or explainable in terms of) material structures and processes. It's going to be a very rare materialist who actually denies the phenomenon of consciousness (some think Dennett is one such rare creature, but I think he waffles on this point).

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  45. As a teacher who spends most of his time with young people, it's interesting to actually watch grown-ups wrestle with ideas. One of the more comical aspects of the teaching profession, though, is a meeting scheduled after the end of the teaching day. In my experience, we don't behave very well. We've spent the entire teaching day not only trying to convey content and process, but also attempting to model adult behavior.

    So, when we finally let our hair down, who do we act like? Often, like fractious children. It is interesting that something like that happened here, apparently. Some very smart people (quite a bit smarter than me, believe me) had some trouble in actually nailing down the ideas they were interested in, simply because the way the ideas were raised gave others the impression their intelligence or education was being questioned. Once that happened, dialog went by the wayside, seemingly.

    Anyway, Dr. Moran, Dr. Watts, I can sympathize with both of you. Things like that have happened to me, especially when I was a new teacher, full of piss and vinegar.

    And, for what it's worth, while I don't share an epiphenomenal view of consciousness, I do think that Sawyer's gloss has problems, for reasons that 'stevef', 'jud' and the inimitable TL have covered. And I applaud you for sharing your experience, warts and all, even the bits that seemed embarrassing at the time. Great post.

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  46. It's going to be a very rare materialist who actually denies the phenomenon of consciousness (some think Dennett is one such rare creature, but I think he waffles on this point

    You might be surprised at how widespread the denial of self and consciousness is in the academic community. Check out David Chalmers collection of consciousness papers - especially those having to do with philosophy of the self:

    http://consc.net/mindpapers/

    It's just much easier to deny existence of a coherent subjective mind, rather than fit it into current science.

    Larry hasn't said where his ideas about consciousness originate, but I would not be surprised if they came from reading Pinker, Dennett, Churchland, etc - all of whom tend towards consciousness denial. David Chalmers, on the other hand, is apparently a "property dualist".

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  47. First, a puzzlement: I find it most mysterious that anyone can deny the very existence of consciousness. It seems to me that the existence of one's own consciousness is the most empirical of empirical facts. You can coherently deny the existence of my consciousness, or of Data's (god wot, since he's a fictional character in the first place), or a cat's, or . . .; but how do you deny the existence of your own? We can argue over all the rest--e.g., perhaps it's a mere epiphenomenon of our brains, or maybe it's a gift from god, or maybe there's only one conscious entity in the universe and it happens to be [fill in your own name]--but certainly my own consciousness strikes me as a brute fact, and I by extension therefore never quite believe anyone who claims to believe that consciousness doesn't exist at all. To that degree I think Descartes was onto something.

    Second, you want a "rigid definition" so that consciousness may be explored as a "lawful property". The failure of your interlocutors to provide a satisfactory definition you appear to take as supporting evidence for your contention that consciousness doesn’t exist. Definitions can be useful, at two levels: 1) they may enable us to clearly identify examples and non-examples of a phenomenon, and 2) they usually carry the seeds of a “theory” or conceptual framework or at least some basic notions about the phenomenon and can therefore move us closer to a more satisfactory theory. However, precisely because of point 2, definitions are also notoriously difficult to agree on, and we often can make a great deal of progress in a field without a “rigid definition” of key concepts. E.g., we did an awful lot of science about the solar system without clearly defining “planet” until recently, and people happily invented/discovered (take your pick) a lot of calculus using the concept of infinitesimals without ever clearly defining the term. At any given time each and every one of us carries around in our minds (brains, if you prefer) and uses concepts that s/he cannot define in other terms (using words), and any formal system of thought begins with undefined terms. There’s a certain bootstrapping effect to developing a good definition; we have to have some accepted examples of something to examine so that we may try to define it in words, but a definition may be necessary (or at least very useful) to identifying an acceptable set of examples. In the case of consciousness, I do think it would be useful to begin with an accepted set of examples to chew on, but no such set of examples is likely to be agreed on among a group in which some a priori deny the very possibility of even one instance.

    Third, there’s a thread running through the discussion having to do with the boundary between conscious and non-conscious entities, with at least one person believing that many modern, currently-alive human beings are not conscious (a bit scary to me, given the history in Western cultures of denying consciousness to women/Africans/Native Americans/peasants/non-aristocratic-European-males in general, and justifying brutality towards these populations on that basis), at least one putting all entities in the category “not conscious”, several attributing consciousness to all anatomically modern human beings (with some question about whether babies are conscious) while denying it to all (other) animals, and several extending it to many animals, but not sure exactly which species to include. Myself, I suspect this is the result of consciousness being a phenomenon with inherently fuzzy boundaries, akin to an ecosystem or a species, exacerbated by the fact that the only being anyone can be entirely and absolutely sure is conscious is him/herself. A rock is not conscious (I assume; there are people who would disagree); I am (again, there are those who disagree, but to me, it’s a brute fact). Somewhere in between there, the boundary is crossed, but there’s no reason it has to be a sharp boundary, any more than the boundary between forest and plain is sharp. Nor does the lack of a sharply-definable boundary argue the non-reality of the phenomenon.

    Fourth and finally (whew! that’s a relief!, you’re no doubt thinking), the idea that consciousness is somehow defined by self-awareness seems to be a notion most frequently found among students of the humanities. I don’t quite get it—if I am conscious of that prospective food over there, why is that not an instance of consciousness? Why do I have to be aware of myself being aware to be considered conscious? Whenever I run across that idea—that self-awareness is necessary for consciousness--I always have the feeling that there’s a whole conceptual framework behind the claim that I’m unaware of on accounta I opted out of humanities courses at the earliest opportunity. There may be something to it, but I suspect, when I run across this claim, that they’re using the language in some specialized academic sense insaccessible to those outside their field.

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  48. there are lots of things for which we lack clear definitions -- things like science, truth, life, organism, etc, etc -- about which we can still speak intelligibly and intelligently.


    I think the measure in science should be if a concept is fruitful. To order some examples:

    Fruitful: Science, facts, theories, evolution, population, organisms, traits.

    Not fruitful: Philosophy, truth, life, consciousness.

    All of the fruitful concepts either pertain to successful methods (science, facts, theories) or is definable in combination with a theory that fleshes out one chosen and useful definition (evolution, population, ...). The others may be tentatively definable (life, formal truth) or not (consciousness) but are at best auxiliary to a method or theory. If they aren't observable at all (and introspection doesn't count as an "observation"), what are their chances to ever be fruitful?


    Why do I have to be aware of myself being aware to be considered conscious?


    I think they latch on to the correlation between experiencing self-awareness and consciousness. And yes, it stinks of a "humans are special" basic assumption.

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  49. Awareness and consciousness are not synonymous.

    Awareness is low-level.
    Consciousness is high-level awareness.

    As my research into AI goes on, I have formulated the following theories:
    1) The brain constantly comes up with "thoughts", either by itself or as a result of input from the senses.
    2) The brain checks some of these ideas for consistency with the worldview (applies "filter").

    We're aware of all the thoughts the brain comes up with, but we're only conscious of some of them.

    As unconscious ideas don't pass through any filters, we don't analyse them.
    The ideas that are checked for consistency are those we're
    Those that are not are what we call the "unconscious mind".

    Look around in your room without giving much thought to it. I notice the paintings on the wall that have always been there, but I don't give much thought to them.

    That's awareness.

    Now I actually pay attention to them, and realise they're ass-ugly paintings with dirty frames that I should probably throw away if I bring someone in my room.

    I analyse stuff I'm aware of with my previous experience of the items I'm aware of.
    That's consciousness.

    Look at a sexy woman.
    You notice she's sexy.
    That's awareness.
    You imagine her naked.
    That's consciousness.


    Are animals aware?
    They're certainly aware.
    Awareness is a very subjective term, as it means nothing in itself.
    It just describes the mammal brain's behaviour depending on input.

    Are animals conscious?
    If their brain is developed enough in order to work beyond basic Input/Output functions, yes.

    As humans are more advanced than animals, humans are generally more conscious than animals.

    Drunk humans are not so conscious as when they're sober. They're aware, but the consciousness module shrinks.

    Some humans are more aware than others.

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