> If I insist that it is impossible to know whether and in
> what way an entity is conscious without actually *being*
> that entity oneself, then to be consistent I have to admit
> that anything and everything might be conscious. OK; I
> admit it; technically, I'm a panpsychist. However, I can
> treat this belief in the same way as I treat a belief in
It's possible that a fundamental division between us is the
quest for certainty. It's a mistaken idea, with IMO, a tragic
history, to worry about absolute certainty. It's unattainable
in any event. So on a literal level, I agree: to be consistent
we have to admit that anything and everything **might** be
But that's absurd. I say that it is absurd to entertain highly
unlikely cases as being true, unless one is making some important
philosophic point of some kind.
I am glad that you then say that you treat your "belief" in
panpsychism the way that you treat belief in solipsism; namely
---if I may be so bold as to come out plainly and say it---you
just don't buy it. That is, you think it highly unlikely to
> Looking at the world around me, other humans behave in roughly
> the same way I do, so by analogy with my own experience, I
> assume they are conscious. Rocks, on the other hand, display
> no behaviour, so I assume they are not conscious.
Yes, exactly. We are in the position of people in the 14th
century who had only a vague idea of what warmth and heat was.
But just in the way that a one of them might presciently maintain
that (a) warmth is a real, not merely subjective phenomenon,
yes, a 1st person experience but much much more importantly
some kind of scientific phenomenon in the world and (b) someday
careful investigators (i.e. scientists) will someday pin it
down, so today are *we* about consciousness: although *certainty*
will never be achieved, some day an extremely careful
examination of a physical object---the way that it manipulates
information---will reveal whether it is conscious or not.
In the meantime, we can only guess. Just as a 14th century person
might say "well I don't know *exactly* what warmth is, that
iceberg, by God, is *not* warm, and someday what I am saying
will be quantified", so we can say "rocks are *not* conscious, and
someday it will be proved". (Again, with the caveat that
all knowledge is conjectural, and nothing is ever "proved"
More likely, of course, in keeping with my temperature analogy,
it will one day be proved that rocks have almost zero consciousness,
ants have a piddling amount, and dogs are very conscious.
> Animals fall somewhere between humans and rocks, so I assume
> they have varying levels of consciousness depending on the
> complexity of their nervous system. The implicit theory behind
> this classification scheme is that consciousness is associated
> with the sort of information processing that occurs in organisms
> with central nervous systems.
We agree completely here.
> Using empathy as a substitute for direct experience, I can't
> be absolutely sure of this, of course, but then I can't
> be absolutely sure that the world doesn't disappear when
> I turn my back on it, either.
Yes, and so don't worry about it. You can't be "absolutely sure"
> Now to my aliens. It is a nuisance when discussing philosophy of mind that
> we cannot switch our consciousness off in order to study it as disinterested
> observers. Addressing this problem, my hypothetical aliens are intelligent
> but non-conscious or differently-conscious. I did not state this in my last
> post, so you may have assumed that any intelligent entity would be
For all practical purposes, and maybe for *all* purposes, we can
safely assume that any naturally evolved process that makes maps
of its surroundings, cunningly contrives to control its environment
to the point that it can survive, responds intelligently to challenges
---such a being is almost beyond doubt conscious. The only counter-
examples I know of are extremely contrived, extremely bizarre, and
involve almost infinitely much in the way of memory resources and
> Maybe this is so; maybe it is even the case that any aliens able
> to study us at all must have enough in common with us to recognise us as
> fellow conscious entities. However, for the sake of argument, I wanted to
> eliminate the kind of empathy that allows us to believe that other humans or
> animals are conscious. The point I wanted to make is that *only* through
> empathy (as a substitute for direct experience) would the aliens recognise
> us as conscious. There is nothing they could go on from our behaviour alone,
> no matter how well they understood it, that would provide them with an idea
> of what it is like to be human from the point of view of a human.
Okay, but I'd say that *all* they have to go by is what all the
rest of us have to go by: behavior. You think that someone or
something is conscious only by virtue of its behavior. You said
so above. Empathy is a *consequence* of observing such behavior;
I'm not sure why you want to accord it a special role.
> Even if they had derived some rule through contact with multiple
> species, eg. "any organism able to count to ten is conscious",
> this would only be understood as an abstraction unless they were
> in some way able to empathise with us.
Well, :-), those extremely capable aliens of yours will have
a more elaborate theory than "it can count to ten"! Let's
say that they have a complex theory involving the kinds of
circuits an entity has, the way it channels information,
the kinds of maps it makes of the world around it and, key,
the way it includes a place for itself in that map. Moreover
---vitally---their theory accords *extremely* well with their
informal (and our informal) observations.
(Oh, yes, there may have been a few surprises: they might have
discovered (in conformance with their theory which they believe
almost as we are wed to the heliocentric theory), that oddly,
it turned out that chipmunks were hardly conscious, or some
other unanticipated consequence.
>From your last sentence, you seem to want to demote certain
kinds of theories as being "only abstractions". But our
theories provide our best explanations, and on this usage
of words, are all that we have. And the best theories,
like the theory of evolution or the heliocentric theory, are
rightly taken by us as "factual", (never forgetting for an
instant that all knowledge is conjectural).