David Pearce wrote:
May I just make some comments on one particular claim in Russell's
Theory of Nothing:
"Self-awareness is a necessary feature of consciousness"
This would be extremely important if true; but there are problems....
1. Each night we go psychotic in our dreams. Rare lucid dreams aside,
the reason we don't realise we are only dreaming is precisely because of
our absence of self-awareness or critical self-insight. The relevant
module of the brain has effectively shut down. Yet it would be
misleading to call dreams "non-conscious"? Some dreams e.g. nightmares,
can be intense and frightening while they last.
This is a good point. I think there are different kinds of consciousness and
maybe even different amounts within a kind. John McCarthy has discussed how you
would make a robot conscious. His idea implies several different kinds or
levels of consciousness, e.g. knowledge of one's location, knowledge of one's
state of health, knowledge of plans, etc.
2. More seriously, the idea that self-awareness is a necessary feature
of consciousness has profound implications for the moral status of
babies, the severely mentally handicapped - and most non-human animals.
Clearly, they don't have a sophisticated sense of self. Arguably they
lack all self-awareness. But surely, if they have nociceptors and a
central nervous system, then they do feel pain - sometimes intensely?
As Bentham said, moral status doesn't depend on whether they can think, but
whether they can suffer. "Moral" status is something we grant to others; it's
essentially a social/political construct. I don't think it can have profound
implications for physics.
Tellingly, perhaps, our most intense experiences - e.g. extreme agony,
orgasm, blind panic, etc - are marked by an absence of
I agree. I would also add that all excellent atheletic performance is sans
self-consciousness. But also a lot of our most intellectual accomplishments are
unconscious, e.g. the Poincare effect. Consciousness is only a small part of
our thinking and a lot of it is dependent on language.
Conversely, some of our most sophisticated forms of
self-awareness have a very subtle phenomenology indeed [e.g examples so
called "higher-order intentionality" - I think that she hopes that he
believes that I want...etc etc]
You can string together words in a sentence like this, but before it gets very
long I think you can no longer entertain it as a thought. This points to the
language dependence of a lot of our thought. We can all understand a simple
mathematical proof. But even simple proofs we understand one step at a time,
rather than as a gestalt.
Generalizing to other creatures with central nervous systems, one may be
sceptical that whales, say, are very intelligent. They may or may not
possess rudimentary self-awareness. But it's at least possible that they
experience pain more intensely than we do - their "pain centers" are
larger for a start.
Self-awareness may be intimately linked to intelligence; but it's not
clear (to me at least) that consciousness /per se/ is linked to
intelligence at all.
Of course it depends on how you define "intelligence". I think that a certain
high level of flexibility in learning and planning requires consciousness.
Self-awareness is probably needed when this is in a social context (c.f. Julian
3. Also, I think it may be premature (re Russell's comment in ToN on
Susan Greenfield) to say that the notion of levels of consciousness is
devoid of meaning.
Yes, there is an absolute "binary" distinction between consciousness and
I'm not even sure of this. Again it will depend on what "consciousness" is. I
think we may find that admits of degrees.
But this absolute distinction doesn't entail that the idea of degrees of
consciousness itself is meaningless. Thus pain can be mild, moderate or
intense. One can be dimly self-aware or acutely self-aware.
And one can be aware of how you compare to your ideals, of what others think of
you, of what you hoped in the past, etc.
are even cases of awareness even while under surgical general anesthesia
- though fortunately they are quite rare.
Apologies if I've misunderstood the argument here.
"One cannot guess the real difficulties of a problem before
having solved it."
--- Carl Ludwig Siegel