In a recent post I talked about trying to model people’s attributions of consciousness, not just as a psychological endeavour, but with the thought that since the notion itself is very nebulous, an understanding of what it does may illuminate the question of what it means.
The the idea that emerged from the discussion there was of a sort of competition between different ways of explaining things – on the one had, can we attribute beliefs and desires to something in a way that allows us to see how its movements make sense, vs. can we explain its movements simply by a rigid law or combination of rigid laws.
In this post I want to be a bit more detailed, and try to elaborate a little on how I see these two sorts of explanation as competing and interacting and potentially dissolving into contraditions.
So rather than talking about attributing consciousness, I’m going to talk about attributing two major features of consciousness, desires and beliefs (although ‘awareness’ of things might be a better word than beliefs, which sounds rather linguistic, like saying a sentence to yourself).
Now here’s some more of that over-simple modeling. We might suppose that in general, it makes sense to attribute awareness of X to Y when X seems to have an influence on Y’s movements (or changes, or actions, etc.). If I follow the rabbit, but then run right into a brick wall, we naturally suppose that I’m aware of the rabbit but not the brick wall. Conversely, it makes sense to suppose that we attribute desire for X to Y when Y moves in a self-directed way (i.e. nothing is pushing or pulling Y) and moves towards X.
As an object displays more or less sensitivity to other objects, we might consider it more or less aware – more or less sensitive to, perceptive of, the environment. And as an object displays more or less self-generated motion, we might consider it more or less strongly desirous of things, more or less vehement in its strivings.
Finally, we might suppose that non-consciousness, or lack of consciousness, represents the extreme end of each of these contiua: on the one hand, we suppose something totally lacking in awareness, “blind” to its environment, when it seems totally ‘unresponsive’ and is unaffected by things changing around it. And conversely, we suppose something totally lacking in desire, totally unconcerned with and uninvolved with, its surroundings, when it seems totally passive, never doing anything on its own until acted upon.
Now perceptive readers may have noticed that the above account makes no sense – it’s rather inconsistent. Consciousness, after all, is being associated with an observable being that is simultaneously independent of its environment (moves on its own accord, showing that it has desires) and responsive to its environment (aware of things, takes them into account). Non-consciousness, on the other hand, is associated with an observable being that on the one hand never moves of its own accord (because lacking in desire), and on the other hand never responds to its environment (because unaware). These two both basically amount to ‘it is affected by and unaffected by its surroundings’.
Of course, ‘inconsistent’ is just the pessimistic way of looking at things. We should instead say that this account is ‘flexible’, in that we can apply it in different ways to the same things. To take a simple example, let’s consider gravity.
A stone is in the air, and its support is removed. It falls. We can contrast two alternative accounts of this. One says that the stone is acted upon by the earth – in response to the pull of gravity, it is passive. But at the same time, it has none of the ‘passivity’ of the mind, in being ‘aware’ of, receptive to, the pull of the earth – no, it has no understanding of what’s happening, it just gets pulled.
The other account says that the stone is like a very crude animal. It has one desire – to seek the centre of the earth. It doesn’t understand anything about that desire, it just feels it. And it has only one sense – the sense of what direction the centre of the earth is in. It can’t perceive anything else, just this ‘something’ that it longs for. As a result, it strives to move downwards.
Now, it’s important to stress that these two accounts are empirically indiscriminable. We have no observations that support one rather than the other. Yet we think one of the two is clearly correct, and the other one distinctly kooky.
Or at least we do in the modern world. In other societies – well, who knows? It’s an interesting question. The ancient society that European philosophers tend to have the greatest familiarity with, Ancient Greece (especially Athens) and here, to the best of my knowledge, the result is mixed.
Aristotle tends to talk about all things having a ‘final cause’ – a purpose that explains how they act. Is this closer to the modern notion of force, or to ‘desire’? Other Ancient Greeks talk about the universe being animated by ‘love’ and ‘hate’. Aristotle uses the word ‘psuche’, which we would translate as ‘mind’ (i.e. ‘psyche’) to refer both to what makes animals run around and to what makes plants grow – the principal of movement and life. In general, from my limited knowledge of the topic, the general tone of explanations was ‘ambiguous’ between the two – phrases like “it is the nature of rocks to strive towards the ground” are neither obviously about non-conscious physical events, nor about mental ones. This, of course, to some extent serves to resolve the ‘inconsistency’ mentioned earlier – if both explanations can be true at once, then there’s no need to vaccilate between the two, or pick one arbitrarily. Such a position could be called ‘panpsychism’, i.e. the idea that everything is conscious – although such an account presupposes the distilled notion of consciousness that we have been given by the modern period.
I want to suggest that there’s something quite sensible in this – that the modern insistence on separating the two sorts of terms absolutely, and then confining this distilled notion of “consciousness” to only what’s inside skulls was actually broadly speaking a mistake. In my next post I’ll try to substantiate that further, by analysing the notion of physical existence, and showing how it has evolved and how it is flawed.