Brewing Up Experience: What Entities Are Conscious? (Part 1)
In this post, I tackle the perennial “problem of other minds,” especially as it applies to nonhuman animals. We never have direct access to the experience of others, but only to the contents of our own consciousness. We can observe their behavior, scan their brain activity, and (in the case of fellow humans) listen to their reports of experience. We generally reason by analogy from our own case, and conclude that other humans exhibiting similar, relatively intelligent behavior are conscious. But things get stickier as we shift to the nonhuman: to other animals, life forms, and inorganic entities with significantly different compositions, behaviors, and ways of communicating (if any).
- Brewing Up Experience: What Entities Are Conscious? (Part 1)
- Dandelion Finesse
- “An Eye Made Quiet”: My Exercise in Co-Phenomenology at Summer’s End
- Mystery or Marvel: Why is there a link between physical and conscious events? (Part 3)
- Mystery or Marvel: Why is there a link between physical and conscious events? (Part 2)
About this Blog
Being able to remain on that dizzying crest—that is integrity and the rest is subterfuge.Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”
This is a place to ponder and discuss questions that are both deeply perplexing and deeply significant for conscious, valuing creatures like ourselves. The guiding philosophy behind this endeavor may be dubbed “existential empiricism,” if you’ll permit me to add yet another ism to the memosphere. It merges the existentialist’s passion for problems that are central to the human condition with the empiricist’s rigorous, open-minded pursuit of truth on the basis of logic and evidence. Such problems include the value and meaning of life, our attitudes toward death, the nature of value and morality, the relation between consciousness and the physical world, the nature of the self, the passage of time, and paths toward the preservation and flourishing of sentient beings.
Some of these problems might dissolve through careful conceptual analysis, a la Wittgenstein; others can be solved only through further scientific investigation and theorizing. The all-too-human temptation is to slide into dogmatic thinking about these subjects, adopting comfortable positions that overstep the evidence. In “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), Albert Camus describes these absolutist tendencies as disingenuous leaps toward philosophical suicide. The honest, rational, courageous approach is to dwell in the dislocation of uncertainty and the tension of unpleasant or counterintuitive truths. It is to refrain from leaping and instead “remain on that dizzying crest” (see the section on “Philosophical Suicide,” p. 17). This does not preclude the person of integrity from finding consolation in the fruits of science and philosophy. Nor does it preclude them from assigning probabilities to claims according to the evidence. But the noble seeker must never sacrifice truth on the altar of comfort.
The phrase “vertiginous question” appears in a paper on first-person experience by the philosopher Benj Hellie (2013). The question in that paper is one that many of us have puzzled over at some point in our lives: why am I this person, here and now? As Hellie puts it, “Why is [this subject] the one whose pains are ‘live’, whose volitions are mine, about whom self-interested concern makes sense?” (7). If the Everett or “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, we could ask a similar question about the multitude of copies of ourselves strewn across the multiverse: why do I find myself in this particular branch of the wave function, and not in another? Such problems may be a matter of verbal or conceptual confusion, or they may be illuminated by future discoveries in science, as I mentioned above. Either way, they induce a sense of intellectual vertigo, being confronted on the very heights and fringes of our understanding.
If you dare, let’s mull over these vertiginous questions together, and see what progress we can make. If nothing else, we can at least find solidarity in bewilderment. Thank you for visiting!
Camus, Albert (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Retrieved online at: https://www2.hawaii.edu/~freeman/courses/phil360/16.%20Myth%20of%20Sisyphus.pdf.
Hellie, Benj (2013). Against Egalitarianism. Analysis 73 (2):304-320. Retrieved online at: http://individual.utoronto.ca/benj/ae.pdf.
And last but not least, this terrifying creation by my daughter. She photoshopped a picture of a rickety bridge I had taken—I now call it the “Blair Bridge Project”:
Yikes! Thanks for the nightmares, little one.
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