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.