Thoughts on Consciousness in Human Beings and Other Animals

*Note to readers. This is my opinion only. I do not believe in God, nor in an afterlife. I am not necessarily right of course. If you disagree with me, that’s fine. This is just my own thinking about something complicated. If you believe in God and the soul and the specialness of human beings, you might prefer not to read this as you’ll probably just be annoyed!!

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This post is not a whinge as such, nor even a proper blog post. Rather, it is perhaps a work in progress, a placeholder to store my thoughts about that most intriguing of subjects – what is consciousness?

When I first began to take an interest in animal welfare and animal rights, I quickly ran into a conundrum. While human beings are ‘conscious’, self aware beings, there is no clear consensus about whether other animals are also conscious.

It became apparent that it is all too easy for people to dismiss the inner experience of other animals on the basis that they do not possess some property that peculiarly makes us human. Implicit in this idea is that human beings are somehow better, separate from and altogether on a different plane of existence from all other animals.

I realised that one way to defend animal interests is to find out whether indeed animals ARE conscious, whether they share with us some common quality of being that leaves us unable to completely stand apart from other life. I embarked on a long inquiry and over the course of 18 months learned a great deal. Of course, the field is extraordinarily broad, complex and deeply multidimensional and my understanding is still at a very rudimentary stage, but I think I have enough knowledge now to make an informed claim about the matter.

The first thing I learned is that although science is rapidly closing in on how the brain works and how consciousness operates mechanically, exactly WHAT consciousness is remains something of a mystery. It seems possible to defend many different ideas – we have a soul, consciousness arises from wide-scale integrated networking, there are multiple drafts of ourselves at any time but the qualia of our experiences do not really exist, and so on.

Nonetheless, I think there have been great strides in recent years and a couple of authors I have read make the best sense of all. While the broad ideas they have developed may not be exactly right, I think they must be very close.

And while too I don’t think I have quite understood them, I think my own synthesis of my learnings is similarly not too far away from the reality.

I should remark a couple of caveats before I set out what I understand from the science and my own introspection. These caveats serve to constrain to an extent just what kind of idea I have in mind when I describe consciousness.

First, I limit myself to what can be empirically tested and observed, that is it is only through our own sensory impressions/perceptions of the world that we can make any sense of it. . I am therefore more of an an empiricist than a rationalist – only by observation and experience can we deduce any truths about the nature of existence. I acknowledge that we are perhaps too limited in capacity to be able to do this with any great precision, but nonetheless I note the remarkable success of science to date in explaining our universe. I note also that any other form of inquiry ultimately delivers an entirely subjective outcome.

Yes, there could be a God. Perhaps we live in some kind of computer simulation. Maybe it is all the Buddha dreaming, or we are simply in one of a million universes foaming in and out of existence. The problem with these notions is that none are able to be demonstrated in any concrete way. We may as well propose that the sky above hides the Asgard of old and that Thor it is that causes the lightning and thunder.

I am constraining myself therefore to scientifically proposed and tested hypotheses and measured outcomes. And I ignore entirely the more extreme proposals of quantum physics for the simple reason that I just do not understand it.

This means that I also accept that there is no personal God as traditional religions would have us believe. I am not entirely resistant to the idea that the universe may have a metaphysical origin, however I think that it is easiest to argue for a universe that is what it looks like. Experience and empirical analysis appear to my mind the most effective tools for evaluating our world.

Secondly, I accept evolution as a fact and that the life we see around us has evolved over billions of years from simple proteins and amino acids into the complex multi-cellular forms of today. Every analysis of life reduces to the same simple components and processes – nothing new is introduced at successively higher levels of organisation.

My third and final point would be that in a universe without a God, in which things are largely what they seem and in which evolution is a fact, I think there can be no conclusion other than to accept that there is no underlying truth, purpose or meaning to the universe. At least, not one that is communicable to us. I completely reject any notion that human beings are ‘special’ or have any kind of anointed status. What sets us apart from other animals is simply a quirk of evolution and circumstance. Imagine our brains in a body with flippers rather than hands…

With these caveats in place, let me proceed to make a minor point of definition.

In terms of sentience and consciousness, I disagree that the two are synonymous. Generally speaking, sentience appears to mean the capacity to feel or perceive by way of sensory organs. Consciousness appears to mean something rather similar, but I think most people would think it requires something more, perhaps a mindfulness of perception.

For my purposes, I wish to draw my own distinction. Whether this is reasonable is probably open to discussion, however I think my basis for doing so is more informed than it is uninformed. I therefore offer the following definitions of common terms to better reflect my own understanding.

  • Sentience is the capacity for an organism to respond to sense impressions.
  • Conscious awareness is the capacity for an organism’s nervous system to respond to sense impressions and adapt behaviour accordingly by way of a representational internal model of attention. This reflects Jesse Prinz’s Attended Intermediate Representations theory and Michael Graziano’s Attention Schema theory.
  • Introspective consciousness is the capacity for an organism’s nervous system to respond to sense impressions and adapt behaviour accordingly by way of a representational internal model of attention and to generate an internal introspective self. This builds on Graziano’s model and introduces Julian Jaynes’ theory of consciousness as a linguistic phenomenon.

I know that sentience traditionally has been defined as the capacity to subjectively experience but I am of the opinion that there are three ‘levels’ of capacity in living things, so I prefer to define sentience as the basic or underlying capacity upon which the successive levels build. It is the foundation if you will.

Sentience therefore is a fundamental building block and is probably shared by all life, though I confess to not being certain whether we can call a single celled creature sentient, or a plant sentient. For the sake of argument, let us accept that any creature that senses its environment and responds behaviourally is sentient.

Conscious awareness is the capacity to represent internally those sensory stimuli detected by a brain. Simple animals, and maybe plants, most likely have no inner experience and simply react to stimuli. They are sentient, but not conscious. Conscious awareness requires that a brain generate internal representations of external/internal objects or sensations. These are what is generally recognised as qualia, for example, heat, colour, sound, emotions. I think it safe to say that all mammals, probably all birds, and more than likely reptiles and fish have this experience. I’m not sure about insects – my own take on this is that insects are sentient, cognitive but not conscious creatures.

Thus, the minds of consciously aware creatures must have access to qualia, although here I am a little unsettled as I am sorely tempted by Dennett’s eliminativism. I will need to think some more on just what qualia might represent or how they might be instantiated, but I am inclined to side with Jaegwon Kim that such qualia are epiphenomenal.

We know from physics and ideas about causal closure that no immaterial mind stuff can affect the physical (at least, as far as we know from science to date), and hence any qualia or mental event cannot of itself have causative effect. Dualism of any sort is effectively disposed of, at least so far as I am concerned. And it is on this basis that Kim similarly dismisses dualism and claims instead that qualia of this kind must be epiphenomenal. However he qualifies this claim somewhat by suggesting that it is only irreducible qualia such as sensations that we might classify as epiphenomenal – other qualia such as beliefs or cognitive artefacts are reducible to physical processes. This is entirely consistent with my current view as exposed in this post.

So, most animals are aware of the world in some way, they experience it through internal representations that we may take to have the nature of qualia and therefore we can assume these animals to feel pain, experience emotions, see the sky as being of some particular quality that differs from that of a tree and so on.

If an animal should behave in a way that suggests an experience of the world and adapt its behaviour accordingly (for example, seek to avoid pain) it seems most parsimonious to conclude that it is indeed conscious and having that experience. After all, the vocalisations by which we come to know of the inner experience of other humans are no more than behavioural responses. All animals, humans included, appear to illustrate conscious awareness by way of behavioural responses so why should any particular behaviour be taken as having some preferential quality?

This now brings us to introspective self consciousness, something I suspect is almost certainly unique to humans, but not exclusively our domain as evolution might endow this upon other creatures in time. This is rather more complicated, but I am guided here by Julian Jaynes’ ideas (see his seminal work, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”). It is clear from introspecting upon our own thoughts and subjective experience that consciousness of this kind depends entirely upon language. Yes, our cognitive capabilities are clearly better, but that is simply a process thing. Our brains just do that stuff better. There are other animals that in their own ways demonstrate some rather impressive cognitive capacities (take Corvids for example) so I am not prepared to embrace an absolute ‘apartness’ for humans on that basis.

No, language is what gives us an apartness and more specifically it is written language. Written language is the decider. I should like to expand upon this claim but it is rather more difficult to address in a simple overview such as is in this post. It might be something to return to in time. Let’s simply agree that here I argue that language both spoken and written generates introspective self consciousness.

Now in considering the impact of language I believe that Julian Jaynes has made a contribution to the study of consciousness that has not been properly appreciated. He argues that language has given rise to the internal introspective “I” form of consciousness that we humans possess. He may not have it exactly right, but I think he is clearly on the right track. And he suggests that this form of consciousness is a relatively recent development, perhaps as recently as just a few thousand years ago. If he is right in this, we have only been ‘conscious’ for a very short time.

What I mean by language giving rise to introspective consciousness is that if we consider what it is to be in our own heads, it is our internal narrative that we think of. It is the sense of being “me”, being some “thing” that entertains ideas, that plans actions, that can report upon my state. But this is a very shadowy and shallow thing indeed. Much of what I think many of us take to be “us” in action is in fact not at all consciously appreciated nor driven.

For example, we do not appear to have access to our thoughts. We know we have them, and we can report upon them, but we do not have access. It is of course hard to say what we mean by thoughts, but here I mean them to be those neural activities through which we evaluate our relationship to the world and decide to respond in some way. Whether that be simply to turn the radio up louder, or to put on a coat or to develop a theory of consciousness, the act of responding to the world requires that we think.

Consider for a moment that in thinking, we are never conscious of the thoughts themselves, only of the perceptual imagery that accompanies this process – verbal imagery (words in our mind) or visual imagery (pictures, diagrams in our mind). Too, we don’t think in words just which words to think, that is to say we do not plan our sentences by carefully describing in words what other words we will place in what order to produce our sentences, rather our sentences spring into being fully formed. If I think, “I am going to bed now” it is an expression of an idea or thought already formed. It has to be for the simple reason that if all conscious reports are produced by the brain, the actual neural circuitry must have done its job before it issued the orders to the motor cortex to cause us to make the words needed to report. We cannot issue the report until the work has been done.

Yes, I know that in complex or abstract thought we do actually use sentences, words, to construct other sentences, but I suggest this is an iterative feedback looping process by which we seed the underlying neural activity. This idea that our brains can respond to an internal iterative looping process simply means that we can respond to our own speech, our own narratives, as though they were issued by others. The brain mechanism that enables us to hear others’ words and act upon these also acts as an internal feedback loop in responding to our own speech. This mechanism most likely rests upon the recently discovered “mirror neurons” although I acknowledge there is still some degree of controversy over just what these are and whether they truly exist. I suggest this mechanism, this feedback loop, is precisely what Professor David McNeill has dubbed Mead’s Loop, based upon the ideas of the early 20th Century philosopher, George Herbert Mead. Mirror neurons in Mead’s Loop are “twisted” to respond to one’s own gestures as if they were from someone else.

We can see then that verbal reporting, or internal narration, is not really the physical act of thinking itself, but rather a descriptive or metaphorical representation of the neural circuitry in action. Thoughts are not directly apprehensible at all. The metaphorical representation however is exactly what we apprehend and what we take to be “us”.

Thus, the process by which our brain processes its sense data and other information is not actually what we mean by introspective consciousness or what we think of colloquially as “me”. The model of awareness that we share with other animals gives us the sensation of qualia, and I think this is ably described by Graziano and Prinz, but the sense of “I” is generated by way of language and metaphor.

Another way to think of this is to imagine what would be in our heads without language. What would be left of you, had you no language or learning to operate upon? I suggest no “you” at all, beyond the immediacy of existence. In this respect, it is instructive to recall Helen Keller’s words in her essay “Before the Soul Dawn”:

“Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.

I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.”

And her awakening upon beginning to know language, when she first appreciated the relationship between a finger-movement against her palm and the idea of ‘water’:

“That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought”.

(As an aside, notice here the striking contrast between the non-world of conscious unconsciousness first described and the bounding, fulsome world of metaphor that springs forth in that final paragraph).

Without language, there can be no “me”. If we do not have language and hence an introspective “I” in our heads, what then might we have? The answer appears to be that we do not have anything at all. At least, not of that nature. Our brains construct Graziano’s model of attention sure enough because without that we are not going to be able to adapt our behaviours, but beyond that we simply do what we do. And that in itself is pretty much what we do most of the time anyway – we don’t accompany our every moment with a running commentary upon which our actions depend. Rather, we just do things.

With language of course comes a more complex “me”. But “I” am still simply a narrative, a description of how my brain works. The linguistic “I” exists to permit social communication, to permit more adaptive flexible behaviours. It is an evolutionary adaptation which confers not some ineffable spirit but rather a metaphorical representation of representations. If you think about this kind of consciousness, it becomes apparent that it has a spectrum quality, that it must exist as a continuum across place, time and culture. Introspective consciousness depends upon cultural context, knowledge, local customs and frameworks of behaviour. This consciousness is a cultural construction derived from the necessary evolutionary pressures of social cohesion.

In other words, there is NO “me”, certainly not in the rather spiritual way that most of us think of ourselves. We do exist as organic beings with brains and nervous systems and a disposition to behaviours in response to stimuli. But there is no spirit, no essential me-ness, inside our heads. “I” am an illusion. A useful illusion, but an illusion just the same. Around us are other illusions – organisms responding in complex ways to changing environmental conditions, always with a cultural context to those behaviours and apprehensions of the environment.

The problem here of course is how we apply an ethical framework to creatures that respond to stimuli in complex ways but for which no actual causative agent exists. How do we determine what values or behaviours are right? How can we even know what ‘right’ is? What individual or personal responsibility exists if we can do no more (or less) than our nervous system decides to do?

Personally I am very happy to work on the illusory basis that I exist, I experience the world and I am responsible for what I do. But if people generally were convinced of the physical reality that none of that is true, where to then for meaningful ethical frameworks? In an uncaring world without objective meaning, any behaviour is OK because it carries no moral value.

I have no answer to this. I therefore believe that moral and ethical frameworks have no intrinsic properties but can only derive from some cultural process, be that democracy or autocracy. There is no higher authority to which we might appeal, beyond the obvious notion that for survival and social cohesion, “good” must be considered to be something that assures a fitness advantage.

And thus “right” and “wrong” depend entirely on place and time, and the workings of history.

There is no ME, and right and wrong depend for their truths upon a social contract between consciously introspective organisms.

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