Attributions of Consciousness

Like economists, I often find it easiest to think about things by constructing very obviously over-simple models which I accept will need further adjustment. So recently I watched this video and it made me think about the way we attribute ‘consciousness’ or ‘life’ to things. And I thought, let’s do some obviously over-simple models!

Reading a lot of philosophy, especially the classics of the modern period in Europe (Locke, Hume, Kant), we might get the impression that the basic model of human perception is something like:

1) When we look at something, we suppose it to be a (by default non-conscious) object.

2) Some things though are obviously conscious.

The second point is obviously rather vague, and I think there is a vagueness here, a feeling that this isn’t a central or especially important topic. In recent decades the topic of consciousness has come under greater scrutiny, but largely as part of an attempt to make it fit into the framework of a physical theory that takes itself as, in general, dealing with non-conscious things. There’s been a sense that the question “why do we think other people are conscious?” is an interesting question, but not a central or super-important one.

Now I want to suggest a different model, where attributing consciousness is central. The model is something like this:

1) When we perceive movement, we by default attribute consciousness (or ‘life’, or some such vague idea of being something more than just a rock).

2) When we perceive that a certain movement can be entirely comprehended by us, we retract that attribution of consciousness.

What I mean by point 2. is something like: if we work out that the movement is simply in a straight line in one direction, we retract the attribution of consciousness. If we see that something only moves in the direction something pushes it in, then we do the same. If we see that something only moves in one or two precisely specified ways, we do the same.

In this way we arrive fairly naturally at seeing that, for example, the falling of an object we drop, or the arcing of an object we throw, is not the ‘act’ of a living conscious rock. In the same way, the robot wizard at a fairground may deceive us for a moment, but when we see that it only ever moves in a certain set of small arm movements and eyebrow raises, we stop seeing it as conscious.

On the other hand, things that move in ways that don’t follow any simple geometric pattern – things that scuttle from place to place, pausing to look around – and things whose unpredictable movements don’t respond to any apparent ‘mover’, continue to inspire in us a sense of their animation, their vitality, their spiritual or psychic nature. On the one hand, this means animals, people, and so forth, while on the other, it means complex “physical” phenomena like rivers and the wind. Plants are complicated because they ‘move’ over a proccess of days, not seconds. Hence animism, etc.

(No doubt specific visual cues are also important – we are prone to attribute a mind to something if it seems to have a face and a human body, and more generally if it is bilaterally symmetrical, which in general only animals are, but this is more a quirk of our set-up than a general principle of reasoning).

As history progesses, of course, our ability to ‘explain away’ the apparent consciousness of things gets ever greater. At a certain point, a few centuries ago, this prompted a sort of crisis, a revolution in which it was accepted not just that some things were not conscious, but that the observable world in general is not conscious, that its workings and processes are ‘mechanical’ and can be understood by a sort of theoretical construction that has been purged of notions related to consciousness. This scientific revolution has been enormously productive and useful, but it has left unresolved issues about how we can reconcile this universally ‘physical’ nature of the world with the obviously mental and conscious nature of at least one thing in it (i.e. me). We are now raised in a society in which, by the time we leave childhood, we have accepted that consciousness is only to be attributed to humans and (with some doubts) to animals.

So that’s the picture, the model of how people in general seem to actually proceed. From where I’m sitting, it looks a pretty good model (well, I would say that), since it 1) connects up, I think, with everyday experience – like the visceral response that the baby kicking in the video produced, or if we just imagine how we would naturally respond to seeing a vague shape moving on the floor), 2) it gives us at least a moderately good fit with how history seems to have gone, and 3) it’s an evolutionarily plausible model of human thinking, being simple and generally prone to giving useful advice for action. It may not be always correct reasoning, of course, but that doesn’t affect whether it’s what we do.

What are the implications if this is a good working model of how we reason? Well, probably many, but they’d need sustained analysis to be drawn. Given that generally philosophers face a pressure to vindicate our natural ways of reasoning, to avoid lapsing into scepticism, it would have big implications for philosophy of mind, since it would give a new view of the constitutive conceptual basis of our very idea of ‘consciousness’. It would potentially open up a whole new way of thinking that would contest the physicalist paradigm we’ve had since the scientific revolution. It would also have big implications for theology, since consciousness seems an important point to get clear on in order to define “God” (nobody is allowed to say “but we can’t define God”,  if someone uses the word “God” to mean ‘I washed my hair this morning’ they’re using it wrong, so there is a definition of some sort). It suggests some interesting things about the idea of conscious and non-conscious entities – such as that our idea of the non-conscious is tied to what we can understand and predict, while our idea of the conscious is tied to what we can’t entirely understand and predict – a sort of comparative characterisation of what, surely, is an intrinsic property – that is, whether or not X is conscious is an intrinsic property of X, nothing to do with comparing it to anything else, so if we are in fact basing our attributions of consciousness on a sort of comparison between ourselves and it, something seems to be amiss.

But that’s gonna require a lot more discussion. For now I’m just throwing out the idea that we have two basic processes at work, one of which attributes consciousness to anything that moves, the other of which retracts that attribution for movement which follows intelligible rules.

15 Responses to “Attributions of Consciousness”

  1. Awais Says:

    It’s an interesting model, but it seems to me to be too over-simplistic, and i still have doubts that it is the actual process by which we attribute consciousness to others.

    Talking about myself, the mechanism i believe people attribute consciousness to others is that of logical analogy with their own behaviour: we attribute consciousness to objects to the degree to which they approximate human behaviour. This is what i think to be the key-mechanism, and i believe it explains things better than considering unintelligible movement as the basis.

    When you say that this attribution is a two step process, do you also mean that these two processes take place in the mind consciously or unconsciously? It doesn’t make much sense if you say it is conscious, since i have never, even as a child, had the first relfex thought of believing a rock or a football to be conscious if i saw it flying towards me and the thrower was not in sight. Nor have i ever heard anyone else speak or write about such an experience. Similarly, people are not ‘deceived’ by robot wizards even for a moment; they are awed by what it can do, but they don’t attribute consciousness to it, not even momentarily. It is like seeing a magic trick you can’t explain. You are awed by it, but you don’t think it actually is magic. And if process 1 is unconscious, process 2 must be unconscious too, since the ‘working out’ and retraction is to be applied to the subject of process 1. However, if process 2 is unconscious, does it mean that this process is actually influenced by one’s knowledge of science? The process 2 was less selective in the ancients who believed in animism, and is more selective in modern people who have a knowledge of science? Isn’t logic supposed to be something worked out by a conscious mind? And yet if process 2 is conscious, then process 1 has to be conscious too, something for which i don’t see a basis, either in experience or observation.

    Even if this model is true, is only just provides the answer to why we attribute consciousness to others. I can see no implications of this model to the actual philosophical question of “what is consciousness?” and its hard problem ‘why does sensory experience exist?’Because of the subjective nature of consciousness, there is no conclusive means of determining whether an organism is really conscious or not. It may mimic human behaviour, we may attribute consciousness to it, but how do we really know it is conscious? [some would consider this question moot.] The question would not be solved until we find some scientific, objective way of detecting consciousness. But no physical coorelate of consciousness may exist and we may never find out. The point is: determining the mechanism of attribution of consciousness is a psychological question. It does not answer the philosophical question. Just because humans attribute consciousness to something, does it really make it conscious? I think not necessarily.

    The historical aspect that you have mentioned, i am not so sure about it either. For instance, pagan beliefs like animism didn’t have a basis merely in inexplicable movement, because animism attributes ‘souls’ or ‘spirits’ to everything in the external world, whether animate or inanimate. By your model, animism should not extend to inanimate objects. Yet, it does. Secondly, many ancients didn’t attribute consciousness to movements they couldn’t explain. Rather they assumed the existence of unseen movers (wind god, river god) which created the movement or phenomenon which was unexplained. Lightening was not seen as conscious; they made up a God for it. I think the basis of this belief was more philosophical than psychological.

    And no, it would have no implication on theology because it still doesn’t explain what consciousness actually is, or that human attribution of consciousness also means a philosophical proof of presence or absence of consciousness.

    There were just a few thoughts i had on the matter which i decided to share with you.

  2. Awais Says:

    Also, you mention both ‘consciousness’ and ‘life’ in the the process 1 of your model, equating them in a sense. Both are very different things, and treating them as same makes the model only more vague.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Thanks for the comments. I think my response will make sense only against the background of the following idea: nobody can define consciousness very well. If they can, and it’s an obvious thing that everyone agrees on, I’ve missed it. Two things follow from that:

    1) As you say, this psychological model need not tell us anything about what consciousness really is. But I don’t think we have a good independent idea, and so we should accept that this process of attribution is one key part of our data for examining the concept. If we separate the question of how we attribute consciousness from the question of what ‘really is’ conscious, then we need to do so on the basis of an independently established understanding of what consciousness is. I don’t think we have that.

    To give a parallel, when Locke and Berkely and Hume argued about perception, they recognised that ideas such as reality, matter, substance, property, idea, etc. are not already precisely defined, and so models of how people apply them are part of what we appeal to in defining them.

    2) As you say, I blur life and consciousness together. That’s because I think there is some blurring there. Once we’ve defined both, and moreover defined both in ways that an ancient babylonian could understand (since the notions presumably existed thousands of years ago), then we can distinguish them.

    On the specific points you mention: I’m sure there were variations and complexities, but my impression is that things which inexplicably move, like wind, weather, the son and moon, rivers, were generally more prone to being venerated or personified than other things. You’re right that often this took the form of saying that a ‘wind god’ produced wind, but that seems fairly similar to personifying the wind to me.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    On the issue of whether these processes are conscious or unconscious, I suppose I’d say they are in general ‘conscious’, but not transparent. That is, just as I look at some geometrical problem and just ‘see’ the answer without being able to explain how I do it, so similarly I am aware of what ‘seems’ conscious and what ‘seems’ not, but not fully aware of how I reach those conclusions. And often the processes happen incredibly fast – with a flying football, it would take only a fraction of a second to work out that its movement follows a straight line path curved by gravity – indeed such processing (stage 2) would probably be involved simply in seeing it’s movement, and so there would be no ‘gap’ during which stage 1 made me think it conscious.

    As for knowledge of science, I think this can operate subconsciously – or more precisely, a cultural worldview based on it can be instilled in way that will have unconscious influences.

    I’m surprised you don’t think a robot wizard can ever be convincing. It seems to me that a life-size doll, seen under bad conditions (in the dark, in a cave) can be convincing for a moment, despite not moving, so I would have thought a moving equivalent could sometimes be convincing under the same circumstances. Obviously if you first see the surroundings that lead you to expect it, you’ll approach it with a prior belief that it’s not conscious. Even then, if it was more complex than you had expected, if it turned to you and narrowed its eyes and said your name or something, it would be able to make you feel creeped out and nervous.

    Finally, I’m not sure I understand the criterion you propose. What does ‘approximating human behaviour’ look like? Is it an innate concept – in which case it should specifiable in other terms – or is it our learnt impression of how humans actually behave? If the latter, doesn’t this put the cart before the horse, since it assumes we’ve already attributed consciousness to humans?

  5. Lindsay Says:

    Alderson, I think you and Awais are both on to something: people tend to attribute consciousness to things that move autonomously, and that interact with their environment rather than going through a preset series of motions.

    One thing Awais might be trying to get at with his comment about “approximating human behavior” might be the attribution of intelligence, which I think goes beyond the attribution of consciousness. (All intelligent beings are conscious, but not all conscious beings are intelligent.) To attribute intelligence, we look for things we recognize as communication or invention. It’s in trying to identify these that anthropocentrism comes in — since we typically proceed from the assumption that we are conscious and intelligent, we look for evidence of intelligence in other beings mostly by looking for behaviors that remind us of those things we do that we associate with intelligence.

    [D]oesn’t this put the cart before the horse, since it assumes we’ve already attributed consciousness to humans?

    (I think you can blame Descartes, with his “I think, therefore I am” for the a priori assumption that humans are conscious.)

    But I do not think we attribute consciousness equally to all humans! Humans whose cultures, languages and ways of living do not resemble those Westerners are used to have traditionally been deemed “savages,” indistinguishable from animals (which were also, at that time, considered insensate. You can blame Descartes for that as well). Also, even within Western culture, not all people were awarded the same degree of intellect, volition or even spirit. Women were thought to be incapable of strenuous mental work up until the 20th century; black people were considered to lack self-control, or any thought process beyond immediate physical appetite (this was one of the rationales for enslaving them: slaveowners argued that they were necessary to keep the slaves from living like animals), and were also not thought able to feel things as keenly as white people; Native people were thought to be lazy and mentally stagnant because their societies didn’t match white people’s ideas of what functioning human communities looked like; lower-class people during and after the Industrial Revolution were thought to lack sufficient intelligence and self-discipline to prosper under capitalism, and so on.

    Attributing consciousness or intelligence depends on one’s ability to recognize them. Who is usually in a position to judge another’s mental capacities? Someone with power over that other person — or, at least, they’re the ones whose appraisals tend to be written down and acted on.

  6. Lindsay Says:

    There’s also something the philosopher Ian Hacking talks about in this lecture (video, huge download) — something called Kohler’s phenomena, which were observed by the Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler in 1929. Today we’d probably call them instances of “Theory of Mind” in action; they all involve instantly knowing, from a person’s behavior, what they’re thinking.

    Kohler’s phenomena depend on the other person having emotional and behavioral reactions similar to your own, or at least familiar to you, though. Hacking talks about what happens when Kohler’s phenomena are not there, in interactions between autistic and nonautistic people:

    Kohler pointed to a wide range of phenomena in which we “see” but do not infer what a person is doing. Among these are … seeing [a] child wants to touch [a] dog but doesn’t dare, seeing that [a] friend is startled by something, and seeing where that something must be, seeing that a man is upset by an unwanted task. Let us call these “Kohler’s phenomena.” You can think of innumerable examples. These phenomena, so familiar to most people, are precisely what is not familiar, automatic, immediate or instinctive for most autistic people. Expert observers report that autistic children … do not readily understand what another person is doing; that is, they do not recognize intentions. Conversely, most people cannot see via the behavior of severely autistic people what they feel, want or are thinking. Even more disturbing is an inability to see what they’re doing; what their intentions are. Their intentions make no sense. With the severely autistic, it may seem as if they don’t even have many intentions.

    He’s describing something that’s familiar to many autistic people: having people see only our behavior and, because it makes no sense to them, failing to conceive that any motivation might lie behind it. We move, we act — thereby meeting the criteria you lay out in the post for ascribing consciousness to an entity — but our movements and acts have no recognizable goal, and thus people assume we lack intelligence, and lack all but the most rudimentary stages of consciousness. Our emotional responses are similarly discarded as meaningless, because we do not react in the same way most people do to the same things. Things in the environment that most people might not even notice scare us or irritate us, but because the stressors don’t make it onto most people’s radar, we are assumed to be throwing a fit for no reason. So our movements, our behaviors, and even our emotional responses and attempts to communicate are discarded as meaningless and we are believed not to be conscious or intelligent to the same degree that most people are.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Lindsay you are of course right that Descartes is a key source for this sort of thing, though my inner Marxist compels me to protest that ‘blaming him’ misses the point that his philosophy acquired fame and success because it gave voice to the socially ascendant tendencies, in particular the rise of science. But that’s beside the point…

    And I agree that a large part of attributing consciousness is about making connections with ourselves and our own behaviour/recognising the objects of someone else’s behaviour as having a similar meaning for us. I was mainly focused on attributing consciousness per se, rather than degrees or content, in the way that we typically suppose, say, a mongoose scurrying around the floor to be conscious even when we can understand very little of what it’s motives or perceptions are.

    Your comments do make me wonder the following: is there an element of power throughout the whole thing? As in – to see something as conscious without being able to empathise/understand it, is a somewhat de-powering experience: in defeating our understanding, it shows us something unsettling, something that requires humility.

    In cases where we have a fair amount of social power, and want to resist this uncomfortable experience, we may respond by, as you say, concluding that rather than the other person/creature being conscious in ways that we can’t understand, conscious *of* things we can’t understand, it’s not conscious at all, or conscious of hardly anything.

    I’m reminded of Foucault’s book, Madness and Civilisation, about how in the past madness was regarded with a sort of awe and fearful respect, as something supernatural, perhaps giving glimpses of hidden things, but over the course of the second millenium, it was progressively downgraded, regarded as merely a disorder, a failing, which educated doctors had total authority over.

    Which obviously also relates to autism. And I can to some extent empathise with having other people ‘see’ something that just isn’t isn’t visible to me, like social judgements or intentions or the aesthetic properties of a combination of colours, being rather insensitive to such things, although obviously not as much as many autistic people.

  8. Awais Says:

    Its true that there is perhaps no exact definition of consciousness, but defining consciousness loosely as ‘self-awareness’ or ‘a first-person perspective of the world’ is in my view workable for most philosophical discussions.

    What do i mean by ‘approximating human behaviour’? Intelligence is one of the major factors, but not the only one. Okay, consider Turing’s Test for determining whether a machine is intelligent or not. Suppose you are chatting with someone who is in a different room through a text-only channel. Turing said a machine would be intelligent if you are unable to distinguish its answers from that of a human. The test has its criticism, i don’t want to go into that. But imagine yourself having such a chatting with a computer, and if its answers are human enough, you would be disposed to attribute consciousness to it. There is no movement involved here. Only a linguistic display approximating human behaviour. Consider another example. People who tend to attribute consciousness to animals do not do so because their movement cannot be explained or ‘worked out’; they do so because they feel as if the animal’s actions are similar to human actions and have certain thinking process or emotions behind it which is at a level similar to humans. My friend doesn’t think her cat is conscious because she moves in unpredictable ways. Rather, she thinks her cat is conscious because she can ascribe human emotions to it, eg the specific way it purrs when it wants to be loved etc. When we see a little creature scurrying on the floor and pausing to look around, we can attribute the thought-process that goes on in a human mind when a person pauses on a street to find the way. The approximation of behaviour leads us to assume an approximation of the mental processes going on, consciousness being one of them.

    The analogy is with our ownself. I know that i am conscious, and i am human, and when other humans behave in ways similar to mine, i can understand what thinking process might be going in their mind by comparison with my own thinking. This is how i assume other humans are conscious, not because i cannot work out their movement, consciously or subconsciously.

    The reasons behind animism and mythical gods need not be attribution of consciousness, but it could be some other thing. For instance, David Hume writes in his Natural History of Religion: “There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious.” Hence, i would consider the human tendency of Anthropomorphism coupled with their lack of physical explanation the major cause of these ancient myths/religions.

    About the history of development of the concept of consciousness, Stanford Encyclopedia has something interesting to say:

    “Nonetheless, some have argued that consciousness as we know it today is a relatively recent historical development that arose sometime after the Homeric era (Jaynes 1974). According to this view, earlier humans including those who fought the Trojan War did not experience themselves as unified internal subjects of their thoughts and actions, at least not in the ways we do today. Others have claimed that even during the classical period, there was no word of ancient Greek that corresponds to “consciousness” (Wilkes 1984, 1988, 1995). Though the ancients had much to say about mental matters, it is less clear whether they had any specific concepts or concerns for what we now think of as consciousness.”

    I mentioned ‘degrees’ because consciousness involves or maybe related to a number of things like thoughts, sensations, perceptions, moods, emotions and abilities of (linguistic or other) expressions. These faculties are not as well developed in animals as they are in humans and hence when my friend attributes consciousness to her cat, she attributes it to a ‘lesser degree’ than she attributes it to other humans.

    And i take back what i said about the robot; you are right, in certain conditions it may be convincing for a moment. But then again, i believe it would be convincing because it would be approximating some aspect of human behaviour.

    Lindsay has raised very important point of how humans of other cultures were not considered conscious. And i think i agree with your interpretation of it. Good thinking.

  9. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Awais, I think what you are insisting on is the positive character of attributing consciousness – that it represents a sort of success, success in understanding a creature’s actions by analogy with my own, success in ’empathising’ in some very broad sense. Having had this discussion I think you’re right to do so. However, I still think the negative side, which my post focused on, is an important complement – the failure to understand things in a certain way.

    For example, you know those little robotic vacuum-cleaners that run around the floor? When you first look at them, they often seem like little animals, because you can sort of project mental explanations onto them: they’re running around ‘looking for’ dirt, then they bump into objects and run away, etc. But before long we realise that all their behaviour can be explained by a handful of rigidly applied rules programmed into them, and we don’t think they’re conscious.

    I think you admit something similar when you suggest that anthropomorphic gods are a result both of a positive tendency to understand things by analogy with ourselves, and also of “lack of physical explanation”.

    Re. the Turing test, I don’t think this is a big issue, but I would say that there is a kind of movement there in the changing patterns of words on the screen – there’s changes, and we ask ourselves ‘what’s producing those changes’?

    So I guess what I’m now thinking is that there’s a sort of ‘competition’ for the explanation of any given change/movement/event/behaviour by either a law-like ‘physical’ explanation, or an analogy-with-myself ‘conscious’ explanation. What about when neither is possible? I’m not sure – maybe the idea of the ‘beyond’, the ‘mysterious’, is in some sense an intermediate concept between physical and mental? I do think though, this still leaves the same basic problem that I described: both forms of explanation are potentially very flexible – we can formulate and adopt the general principle that even things we cannot concretely explain in physical terms work in physical ways that we don’t ye understand, and correspondingly we can suppose that even behaviours we don’t understand (i.e. that make no sense) are still in fact the results of consciousness. Given that, their respective spheres seem potentially ill-defined – hence, the ‘problem of consciousness’ in modern philosophy.

    “Though the ancients had much to say about mental matters, it is less clear whether they had any specific concepts or concerns for what we now think of as consciousness.”

    This makes sense to me. Prior to Descartes, there wasn’t this big idea that the physical and the mental are alien to each other, that water and rocks are to be explained in terms stripped of any suggestion of consciousness – one ancient philosopher (Heraclitus?) described atoms as being moved around by their mutual ‘loves’ and ‘hates’.

    I’m afraid I still don’t feel you’ve defined consciousness – for one thing, the two things you mention look different to me. I think a mongoose (or me when I’m half-asleep?) has a first-person view on the world, and ‘phenomenal consciousness’, but hardly any self-awareness.

  10. Awais Says:

    Positive and negative sides of attributing consciousness… hmmm… it does make more sense that way, considering both at work 🙂

    I meant to define consciousness as the ability to see the world with oneself as the subject, as an “I”, and this “I”, this sense of identity, only results from self-awareness; self-awareness being a unified sense of identity, the realization that one exists as an individual, separate from other people, with private thoughts.

  11. Awais Says:

    A mongoose (why this particular animal, btw?) would have phenomenal consciousness, i think, but would it have a first-person perspective (a sense of ‘I’)? I’m not so sure about that.

  12. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “A mongoose…would have phenomenal consciousness, i think, but would it have a first-person perspective? I’m not so sure about that.”
    Indeed. I might put it by saying that there ‘is’ an ‘I’ there, but that ‘I’ isn’t conscious of itself as being such.

    “why this particular animal, btw?”
    Because it’s February. February is mongoose month.

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