The fear a fallen down taken never back the raize and then Craig Marion,
get out wi’ ye Claymore out mi pocket a’ ran doon, doon the middin stain
picking the fiery horde that was fallen around ma feet.
Never he cried, never shall it ye get me alive
ye rotten hound of the burnie crew. Well I snatched fer the blade O my
Claymore cut and thrust and I fell doon before him round his feet.
Over the last few days, I have had an interesting, though frustrating, discussion with Louie over at Everything is Pointless. He has written a series of posts exploring his position that animals, and in fact children younger than three, are not conscious beings. Over this time, my comments have apparently inspired him to write a couple additional posts, so we ended up with several concurrent discussion in different thread on the same topic.
Today he mentioned that it was starting to feel like ‘trolling’ to him – and I have to admit, I was concerned about that very same thing yesterday afternoon. Its that whole on-line communication problem – and we have quite obviously been not communicating effectively!
In any case, it has really gotten me thinking about this issue and how I feel about it, as well as what I think can be honestly and rigorously established as solid theory (I hesitate to use the word fact in any context on this topic!)
So first let me talk about how I feel – what I believe to be true (lower case t). I do believe that humans are conscious, that this is an emergent property resulting from the physical complexity of our brains. I think that this emergent property we call consciousness is one of the defining characteristics of our species and that it is important to who and what we are. I don’t pretend to know whether other species are also conscious: because I do not have the faintest idea where along the line of complexity consciousness emerges. Louie, in one of his posts, suggested that Language, or the capacity for language may be a critical component. I have thought, at times, that perhaps culture, overall, might be a good place to look for a dividing line. And much has been suggested concerning the role of abstract thought, even more generally.
So let’s look at these possibilities from a rigorous, scientific perspective. If we find a characteristic or group of characteristics completely unique to humans, then we will have a basis for supposing that consciousness is unique to humans. Problem is, all of the above mentioned items are not unique.
My original choice for a defining characteristic was culture. However, in recent years I have discovered that this is simply not true. All social animals are seen to have some level of culture, and many species are social. Some might like to point at animal culture and ascribe it strictly to instinct. I would respond in two ways to this: first, that humans are social animals because sociality is in our genes; second, some social behaviors are certainly genetic, but if you find the same ‘programming’ expressed in different ways by different groups, I would suggest that this is culture. After all, it is exactly those differences that we identify in human populations as culture, so how would one justify approaching it differently in other species?
Language, at its most basic, is a tool used to communicate meaning between different entities. At this most basic level, it is quite obvious that many many species have language: from a white tail deer flipping his tail to signify danger through computer languages that convey meaning from people to machines. If we draw it in more tightly and suggest that the real issue is language capable of expressing complex information then we leave off the deer and similar behaviors, but we are still left with whale song, elephant communication and others.
There is a further step we could take: not just complex information transmittal, but abstract information transmittal. Abstract referring to a large variety of thought processes and our attempts to share them with others: mathematics, philosophy, theology, etc. Generally, abstract thought is also applied to art, music and ritual as well. At this point, we might be tempted to conclude that this is the defining difference between humans and other species. However, I am still skeptical. Is whale song only communication or is it art (music)? Are elephants engaging in ritual behavior when they bury their herd members and return year after year to the graveyard? Is a dolphin expressing abstract understanding when it defends a human from shark attack?
I have a hard time dismissing these unknowns flat out: I prefer to leave ‘unknown’ in a special category of my mind labeled for future consideration rather than making a judgment and sticking with it. Obviously, I am talking about known unknowns: as much as I enjoy stories of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or exploring the fascinating theology of Martians I see these as flights of fancy. But when a question is known to be unanswered, I cannot in good conscience accept that just because we don’t know it is probably false.
So this leaves me with a coherent argument, at the very least: Humans are defined by several characteristics: we are generalists, tool users, social animals with the ability to engage in complex, abstract communication. We don’t know if this is true of any other species: if it is, they have never found a way to communicate with us (nor have we found a way to communicate with them). It seems to be a reasonable argument to propose that these characteristics are, at least, part of our perception of ‘consciousness’ and that (again, at least) most other species do not exhibit these characteristics.
But now we need to also recognize the known unknowns that go along with this: we sill have a very unclear idea of what human ‘consciousness’ actually is, it is simply something that we perceive and cannot explain satisfactorily; even if animals don’t experience ‘consciousness’ as we know it, there may very well be a variety of similar phenomenon that we simply do not understand; animal intelligence, likewise, can be seen as dynamic and creative even if it is not ‘the same’; and finally, that it may be possible for us to find answers for these questions and others that we have yet to identify, but in order to do so, I believe it is important to continue asking questions openly rather than unceremoniously closing the door to the possibilities.
(Originally Posted December 12, 2006)