Paul P. Mealing

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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.

15 comments:

Jim Hamlyn said...

Do you include any insects under the banner of animals?

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Jim,

Yes, I do, and I address insects specifically in the 'previous post' link provided in the main text.

Sorry, I had to moderate your comment, but I've recently been getting 'spammed' by someone promoting a service I don't condone: writing people's academic papers for them. They sign in under different aliases, thus getting past the spam filter.

Regards, Paul.

Jim Hamlyn said...

I like your thinking on this Paul, which means to say that I find myself agreeing with a great deal of what you say.

Emotions undoubtedly emerged a long before reason, in fact I would go so far as to say that reason is impossible without language. We face a problem though. If we assume that emotions are major progenitors of consciousness then we have to ask how consciousness emerged out of emotions. My own theory, which owes everything to the work of Gilbert Ryle and the Australian art theorist Donald Brook, conceives of the emergence of consciousness as the product of our social nature and the fact that emotions have a very public face. Where Brook's work comes in is in the relevance of skills of representation—nonverbal representation in particular. These skills must have preceded language by very long time. Indeed, we observe evidence of rudimentary forms of representation amongst many species (including many insects including, obviously, bees). Understanding nonverbal representation also provides a very clear basis for conceiving of the emergence of language and for resolving several other longstanding philosophical perplexities.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Jim,

There's someone who's name I've forgotten, but with whom I had a brief correspondence - an academic on linguistics - who believes that our first language was sign and not verbal.

Language is a whole new discussion, which I address here. It's true we think in a language and we need to think to reason, especially in argument, but logic is used by some animals, who, one assumes, don't think in a language, but just work stuff out either by observation or by experimentation.

Regards, Paul.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Was that Michael Tomasello by any chance? There’s certainly a lot of evidence that our first language was sign. I suspect though that it was probably a mixture of both sign and sound, as it still is to some extent.
You say that logic is used by some animals. I find it difficult to grasp how this can be the case because logic, as far as I can tell, is a technique of abstract concept manipulation. Highly evolved trial and error (“experimentation”, as you say), on the other hand, might well have the appearance of logic but do we need to impute skills of symbol manipulation do you think?

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Jim,

It could have been - it was a long time ago and I no longer have a record of the conversation.

I guess it depends on how you define logic. But the fact remains that animals do solve problems, which I would call logic. It may or may not involve 'symbol manipulation' or it may simply be an ability to see a consequence - how one action leads to a result.

There are lots of examples on YouTube.

In Australia, there is a famous case of a killer whale, which used to help fishermen by herding fish, and,in return, they gave it part of their catch. Obviously, there are lots of examples of inter-species co-operation, especially with humans, but this requires logical thinking: how an action leads to a consequence, which is a reward.

Regards, Paul.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Yes, that sounds right. We discussed this about 4 years ago when we had a brief exchange about anticipatory actions. A lot has happened in my thinking on the subject since that conversation and I wonder if you'd mind if I pursued it with you here?

Specifically I'd like to ask about this point of "seeing the consequences" that you mention. If we could crack that nut then I think we could probably stop thinking of ourselves as journeymen philosophers.

What do you take that "seeing" to be and in what ways might it have emerged out of feeling?

Paul P. Mealing said...

There are 2 questions there, but perhaps they can be answered with one word, ‘imagination’.

A lot of philosophical discussions on consciousness talk about ‘intentionality’, which is defined as ‘aboutness’. But, if my understanding is correct, intentionality is the ability to think about something that is not in the here and now, which I’d call imagination. The interesting thing about imagination is that it is effectively using memory in the future – we use the same parts of the brain, apparently, to create (episodic) memories as we do to imagine future events. Which is why episodic memory is tricky and elusive, because we re-imagine them.

So when an animal anticipates an outcome it is imagining a future event, which it uses in combination with memories where it has happened previously. So how did we get from feelings to imagination? Through memory, I would suggest. We simply project memories into the future, and then go further to imagine things that have never happened at all.

The point about logic is that animals don’t know they’re using logic because they don’t have that level of cognitive ability, in the same way that a lot of animals can count (keep track) up to 3 and beyond, but don’t know that they’re counting. But when an animal works out how to solve a problem, it’s using logic.

Regards, Paul.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Excellent.

I'm glad you brought up "aboutness" because it's one of many dead ends that philosophers like to lead us into sometimes. Aboutness relies on meaning which is, once again, dependent on concept manipulation (interpretation) which is the very thing that we are trying to avoid imputing here.

So, let's see if we can agree on a simple formulation of what memory might be. If an organism encounters something then certain sensory responses are triggered. If these same responses are triggered again minus sensory input then this would be what we are calling memory. Is that about right?

But how does an organism go about triggering these responses without confusing them with other ongoing sensory responses?

Paul P. Mealing said...

The same way we do, I guess. Note that in dreams we can't tell the difference: we sense things as if they are sensory inputs when they're not.

I don't know how we separate imaginary elements, be they memory or otherwise, from current sensory elements, but we all do it.

Memory (long term) works by association, so I assume that's how it works for other species. You know that our olfactory system is the only sensory input that goes directly to the amygdala, which I believe creates memories and is associated with emotions like fear and probably sexual arousal. So I expect this is an evolutionary trait that goes back a long way. Smell is much more significant in most other mammals than it is in humans, however that evolutionary remnant remains.

There is no 'date stamp' on our memories and we remember when something happens by associating it with other events that happened at the same time. Association is also how we learn: we only learn new knowledge by integrating it into existing knowledge.

You can see that I can easily go off on tangents.

Regards, Paul.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Tangents can be a problem sometimes true, but not yet – we’re still mapping the territory so maybe one or two tangents are inevitable before we can form the full circle.
We’ve made a lot of headway very quickly and I’m in agreement with pretty well everything you say so perhaps we can move on to some less familiar ground. I’d like to suggest a distinction that may be of use to us in future. Donald Brook distinguishes between two kinds of behaviour: perceptually mediated intentional actions and sensorily mediated responses. So, for example, when an amoeba behaves efficaciously we need not assume any form of anticipatory, mindedness. Likewise, when our skin responds to temperature changes or our iris dilates these are not perceptually mediated but they are sensorily mediated. Brook argues that most of our behaviour is sensorily mediated and only a small, but obviously significant to us, portion is perceptually mediated.
The general point is simple: there is an important difference of kind and not only of degree between sensation and perception. Does that sound feasible to you? If so , then we can move ahead a little to explore perception and what it would take for an animal to qualify as a perceiver as opposed to a highly evolved behaviouristic responder.

Paul P. Mealing said...

The truth is that no one knows how consciousness evolved and I don't think anyone ever will, because we don't even know what it is.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Is that you giving up already Paul, we've only just started and we were doing so well too.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Jim,

Sorry, but I have nothing more to contribute. We could spend hours on this and not gain anything knew. Consciousness is a subjective experience that evolved and that's really all we know. If we didn't experience it we wouldn't believe it existed.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Freudian slip: knew instead of new.

Have a good one. Paul.