Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Why consciousness is unique to the animal kingdom

I’ve written a number of posts on consciousness over the last 7 years, or whenever it was I started blogging, so this is a refinement of what’s gone before, and possibly a more substantial argument. It arose from a discussion in New Scientist  24 May 2014 (Letters) concerning the evolution of consciousness and, in particular the question: ‘What need is there of actual consciousness?’ (Eric Kvaalen from France).

I’ve argued in a previous post that consciousness evolved early and it arose from emotions, not logic. In particular, early sentient creatures would have relied on fear, pain and desire, as these do pose an evolutionary advantage, especially if memory is also involved. In fact, I’ve argued that consciousness without memory is pretty useless, otherwise the organism (including humans) wouldn’t even know it was conscious (see my post on Afterlife, March 2014).

Many philosophers and scientists argue that AI (Artificial Intelligence) will become sentient. The interesting argument is that ‘we will know’ (referencing New Scientist Editorial, 2 April 2011) because we don’t know that anyone else is conscious either. In other words, the argument goes that if an AI behaves like it’s conscious or sentient, then it must be. However, I argue that AI entities don’t have emotions unless they are programmed artificially to behave like they do – i.e. simulated. And this is a major distinction, if one believes, as I do, that sentience arose from emotions (feelings) and not logic or reason.

But in answer to the question posed above, one only has to look at another very prevalent life form on this planet, which is not sentient, and the answer, I would suggest, becomes obvious. I’m talking about vegetation. And what is the fundamental difference? There is no evolutionary advantage to vegetation having sentience, or, more specifically, having feelings. If a plant was to feel pain or fear, how could it respond? Compared to members of the animal kingdom, it cannot escape the source, because it is literally rooted to the spot. And this is why I believe animals evolved consciousness (sentience by another name) and plants didn’t. Now, there may be degrees of consciousness in animals (we don’t know) but, if feelings were the progenitor of consciousness, we can understand why it is a unique attribute of the animal kingdom and not found in vegetation or machines.

Monday, 12 May 2014

How should I live?

This is the 'Question of the Month' in the latest issue of Philosophy Now (Issue 101, March/April 2014). Submissions need to be 400 words or less, so mine is 400 words exactly (refer below).

How should I live?

How I should live and how I do live are not necessarily the same, but having aspirations and trying to live up to them is a good starting point. So the following is how I aspire to live, which I don’t always achieve in practice.

The most important point is that no one lives in isolation. The fact that we all, not only speak in a language, but also think in a language, illustrates how significantly dependent we are on our milieu. What’s more, from our earliest cognitive experiences to the remainder of our lives, we interact with others, and the quality of our lives is largely dependent on that interaction.

Everyone seeks happiness and in modern Western societies this universal goal is taken for granted. But how to achieve it? A tendency to narcissism, tacitly encouraged by the relatively recent innovation of social media, can lead to self-obsession, which we are particularly prone to in our youth. Socrates famously said (or so we believe): ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But a thoughtful analysis of that coda, when applied to one’s own life, reveals that we only examine our lives when we fail. The corollary to this is that a life without failure is a life not worth living. And this is how wisdom evolves over a life’s experiences: not through success or study but through dealing with life’s trials and tribulations. This is reflected in virtually every story that’s been told: how the protagonist deals with adversity, be it physical or psychological or both. And this is why storytelling is universally appealing.

So how should I live my life? By being the opposite to narcissistic and self-obsessed. By realising that every interaction in my life is an opportunity to make my life more rewarding by making someone else’s life more rewarding. In any relationship, familial, work-related, contractual or whatever, either both parties are satisfied or both are dissatisfied. It is very rare that someone achieves happiness at someone else’s expense, unless they are competing in a sporting event or partaking in a reality TV show.

There is an old Chinese saying, possibly Confucian in origin: If you want to know the true worth of a person, observe the effects they have on other people's lives. A true leader knows that their leadership is not about their personal achievements: it’s about enabling others to realise their own achievements.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Pitfalls of a Democracy

The latest issue of Philosophy Now has as its theme, ‘Democracy’, with a number of articles on the subject covering Plato to contemporary politics. In particular relevance to this post, Anja Steinbauer ‘explains why Plato had problems with democracy.’ I won’t discuss her article at length, but early on she points out that ‘…it all comes to a head with Socrates: Athenian democracy didn’t like Socrates, which is why the troublesome thinker was democratically put to death.’ The reason I paraphrase this is because it has dramatic relevance to current political events in Australia.

On a recent issue of 4 Corners, whistleblowers and video footage tell us what the government was unwilling to reveal regarding not so recent events at a detention centre for refugees on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where an asylum-seeker was killed during a riot. The programme reveals the deeply flawed inhumanity of this particular government policy which was originally introduced by the previous (Labor) government and is now being brutally pursued by the incumbent (Liberal) government. Both sides of politics endorse this policy because it’s a vote-winner and, in fact, the last election campaign was dominated by who could be more successful in ‘stopping the boats’ (containing asylum-seekers) as if we are suffering from a wartime invasion.

The relevance to Steinbauer’s insightful commentary on Plato and Socrates is that, with the explicit support of the general public, a government can execute policies that directly contravene the human rights of people who have no political representation in that country. In essence, we are guilty of inflicting both physical and emotional trauma on people; an action we would condemn if it was being done somewhere else. In short, a democratic process does not necessarily provide the most ethical and moral resolution to a dilemma.

The other side to this, is the airing of the programme itself. Only a healthy democratic society can foster a journalistic culture that can openly criticise government policies without fear of retribution.