Lee Pierson

"What is Consciousness For?"

444 posts in this topic

Then how can you ask "What is consciousness for?"  Remember, consciousness is not an independent feature of reality, it is an attribute of specific types of entities.

What is the problem with asking about the adaptive function of consciosness?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
You are equating "self-generated action" with volitional "control over some of those actions."  This is an unwarranted assumption.

"…self-generated action by an organism in regard to consciousness…" was the assumption.

Man has no control over the perceptual or sensory levels of consciousness.  If animals share only the perceptual/sensory level of consciousness with man, then why would one assume they have volitional control over those aspects?

Let me try this just one more time.

Both man and the other animals which have brains, neurology and sensory apparatus similar in construction must be assumed to also have some similarities in function. Both man and those animals can be demonstrated to engage in similar actions, such as rapid-eye-movement while asleep, "looking or not looking" around (which is perceptual control and selection—not of content, but of operation, i.e., using the visual organs to "look" at something). Similar physical and physiological attributes are presumed to act in similar ways. If I can "look around"

with my eyes, and it is "volitional" in the sense of being initiated and directed by me, then what grounds do I have to assume that those other animals don’t also have that ability? I’m talking about only the operation of an animal’s sensory organs by the animal itself as a form of choice, or selection, by that animal. (But, of course, there are also an animal’s motor activities initiated and directed by them, which is also "chosen", i.e., animal-selected.)

This has been addressed several times before.  Selection among alternatives does not imply volition.

Selection among alternatives doesn’t imply volition—it is volition; or rather, the evidence that volition exists. Who is doing the "selecting"? An animal moving it’s eyes to look among reality’s alternatives is selecting where and at what to look. I don’t know what else to say, or how to better say it. Since you, youself, apparently agree that animals have a perceptual choice, any further discussion of this is pointless rationalism.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Both man and the other animals which have brains, neurology and sensory apparatus similar in construction must be assumed to also have some similarities in function. Both man and those animals can be demonstrated to engage in similar actions, such as rapid-eye-movement while asleep, "looking or not looking" around (which is perceptual control and selection—not of content, but of operation, i.e., using the visual organs to "look" at something). Similar physical and physiological attributes are presumed to act in similar ways. If I can "look around"

with my eyes, and it is "volitional" in the sense of being initiated and directed by me, then what grounds do I have to assume that those other animals don’t also have that ability? I’m talking about only the operation of an animal’s sensory organs by the animal itself as a form of choice, or selection, by that animal. (But, of course, there are also an animal’s motor activities initiated and directed by them, which is also "chosen", i.e., animal-selected.)

One cannot answer the question "What is consciousness for?" if one does not first discover what consciousness is. You make the same mistakes in regard to consciousness that have been made by other posters here right from the beginning. What separates man's consciousness from the sensory-perceptual level of other animals is the ability to regulate the operation of his own consciousness by volitional control. Self-generated action is the condition of life, not the defining characteristic of volition. An animal's actions are self-generated, as opposed to inanimate matter, and its awareness of reality is what allows it to regulate its actions. But on that sensory-perceptual level of animals that regulation is automatic, not the volitional control of man. An animal can learn and regulate its future actions according to that knowledge, but to call that automatic process a "form of choice" is to obliterate the meaning of choice in the volitional sense of man.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

[

quote=Stephen Speicher,Sep 26 2005, 07:30 PM]

What separates man's consciousness from the sensory-perceptual level of other animals is the ability to regulate the operation of his own consciousness by volitional control.

I have no problem with this. I agree completely. My problem is in how to explain the fact that the other "higher" animals, aside from exhibiting conscious awareness, also exhibit a clearly apparent control--i.e., "choice", or animal-directed, or "self-directed" aspect--over their perceptual means of that awareness.

Whatever the species-specific particulars, the fact that man and the other animals nearest him have a similar set of perceptual organs and, from what we know, a similar function to those organs, requires us objectively--scientifically to assume a similar awareness--on the perceptual level. This is a volitional (entity-directed and regulated) control of the perceptual level by another species than man. It has absolutely nothing to do with man's differences with the other species of animals, i.e, his conceptual faculty.

Self-generated action is the condition of life, not the defining characteristic of volition.

I disagree. "Volition" is the ability of the organism to self-generate and self-regulate one's actions, including conscious action, whatever the level of that consciousness.

An animal's actions are self-generated, as opposed to inanimate matter, and its awareness of reality is what allows it to regulate its actions. But on that sensory-perceptual level of animals that regulation is automatic, not the volitional control of man.

Why is this so hard to see? I'm not equating any animal's consciousness with man's. I agree that man has a difference in volition with other species. That's not the point; the point is that other animals than man have some kind of control over their actions based on their perceptual awareness. That's all.

To assume on the one hand that an animal can "regulate" it's actions, as you say, implies some form of self-generated action.

What is "regulation"? How does an animal "regulate" automatically? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

An animal can learn and regulate its future actions according to that knowledge, but to call that automatic process a "form of choice" is to obliterate the meaning of choice in the volitional sense of man.

Again, Stephen, I'm not referring to the "meaning of choice in the volitional sense of man". I'm referring to what an animal below man does; which does not "obliterate the meaning of choice in the volitional sense of man" at all.

Once again, If an animal can "learn and regulate its future actions according to [its]knowledge", that is a form of choice.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
My problem is in how to explain the fact that the other "higher" animals, aside from exhibiting conscious awareness, also exhibit a clearly apparent control--i.e., "choice", or animal-directed, or "self-directed" aspect--over their perceptual means of that awareness.... Once again, If an animal can "learn and regulate its future actions according to [its]knowledge", that is a form of choice.

If you are mystified over "animal directed" actions, then instead of chalking it up to "choice" learn about the neural units of sensation and the neural basis of perception, study molecular and cellular neurobiology and sensory-motor physiology. Then go and study the vast array of scientific literature that details the automatic perceptual apparatus in humans and animals. And by "scientific literature" I do not mean the musings of armchair philosophers and psychologists.

In lieu of all that, do you really not grasp my simple explanations of the automatic perceptual-level functioning of an animal's consciousness? Why attribute to choice, which means the realm of volition on the conceptual level, to that which provides no evidence of such?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
If you are mystified over "animal directed" actions, then instead of chalking it up to "choice" learn about the neural units of sensation and the neural basis of perception, study molecular and cellular neurobiology and sensory-motor physiology. Then go and study the vast array of scientific literature that details the automatic perceptual apparatus in humans and animals. And by "scientific literature" I do not mean the musings of armchair philosophers and psychologists. 

I challenge you to adduce any scientific study or combination of studies that either

demonstrates that animal action is deterministic, or identifies exactly what csness itself, as distinct from its neural substrate, does to “regulate” animal action non-volitionally.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I challenge you to adduce any scientific study or combination of studies that either

demonstrates that animal action is deterministic, or identifies exactly what csness itself, as distinct from its neural substrate, does to “regulate” animal action non-volitionally.

Philosophically, isn't this an issue of the burden of proof?

Considering that we already know that physical matter is deterministic and that all aspects of human consciousness are automatic except for the conceptual level that animals do not possess, I would conclude that the burden of proof is on anyone who asserts that animals other than man can act volitionally.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Philosophically, isn't this an issue of the burden of proof?

Considering that we already know that physical matter is deterministic and that all aspects of human consciousness are automatic except for the conceptual level that animals do not possess, I would conclude that the burden of proof is on anyone who asserts that animals other than man can act volitionally.

Conscious animals are not just "physical matter," and many aspects of our perceptual activity (attending, searching, orienting, and so on) are not automatic, but effortful, as has been described before by myself and others.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I have a question that I'd like to pose to all - but I'd be particularly interested in Stephen and Betsy's answer. Is there a possible distinction between "the capacity to choose" and volition, such that a creature - including man, for that matter, in certain circumstances, such as young infants - could choose among alternatives, but doesn't necessarily possess volition. By "choose" I mean in this context, the ability to select alternatives where that selection is not completely determined, i.e. where it could have done otherwise?

Going back to my example of the cat on the sill and what it does next, is what it does next necessarily always full determined and automatic, such that it could not have done otherwise?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Going back to my example of the cat on the sill and what it does next, is what it does next necessarily always full determined and automatic, such that it could not have done otherwise?

"Volition" is another axiomatic concept. From "Glossary of Objectivist Definitions," edited by Allison T. Kunze and Jean F. Moroney:

"Man's volition is an attribute of his consciousness (of his rational faculty) and consists in the choice to perceive existence or to evade it.

[Axiomatic concept; not a definition.]

AR, 'The Metaphysical Versus The Man-Made,' PWNI, 25. [same as 'free will.'...}"

"Volition" does not mean "motivation." Strictly speaking, it does not mean choice of action in the face of alternatives, either. It has to do with man's form of consciousness. It means man is free to initiate a process of thought or not. Animals, are not free to do that.

Animals make their choices based on their perceptual level functioning. Given the proper environment, those choices suffice to sustain life. Man, like the animals, can also make choices based on perceptual level functioning, but there is no environment in which he can sustain his life by doing so. He has to use his free will -- his volition -- to initiate conceptual thought in order to be able to sustain a life fitting for man.

I don't know whether your cat "could not have done otherwise," but if you were to assert that it thought the matter over before acting, you would have to prove it to me.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Is there a possible distinction between "the capacity to choose" and volition, such that a creature - including man, for that matter, in certain circumstances, such as young infants - could choose among alternatives, but doesn't necessarily possess volition. By "choose" I mean in this context, the ability to select alternatives where that selection is not completely determined, i.e. where it could have done otherwise?

In Objectivism, volition is much more specific than the capacity to choose. It is the ability to make one specific choice: to raise or lower one's level of awareness; it is the choice to be in focus or not, i.e. the choice to think or not to think. Fundamentally, this is the only choice we have; all other choices are caused and necessitated by this one.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
What is the problem with asking about the adaptive function of consciosness?

If, as you stated, "Consciousness of any kind, if it is consciousness, is irreducible," then it can't be explained in terms of anything else. Would you ask "what is existence for?" As Rand maintained, consciousness is an irreducible axiomatic concept. My point being that your question about asking about the adaptive function of consciousness conflicts with your statement that it is irreducible. Rand never maintained, to my understanding, that consciousness as an attribute was irreducible, any more than she maintained that any particular existent is irreducible.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
If, as you stated, "Consciousness of any kind, if it is consciousness, is irreducible," then it can't be explained in terms of anything else.  Would you ask "what is existence for?"  As Rand maintained, consciousness is an irreducible axiomatic concept.  My point being that your question about asking about the adaptive function of consciousness conflicts with your statement that it is irreducible.  Rand never maintained, to my understanding, that consciousness as an attribute was irreducible, any more than she maintained that any particular existent is irreducible.

The irrreduciblity of consciousness does not mean that it cannot be studied scientifically. You can still study what, if any, neural processes give rise to consciousness, even though consciousness cannot be reduced to (i.e., is not identical with) neural processes. You can still study the causal interactions of consciousness with other existents. There is no problem here.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Why attribute to choice, which means the realm of volition on the conceptual level, to that which provides no evidence of such?

Another attempt at exclusion by definition, trying simply to define out of existence any possible non-deterministic choice by animals.

No one has offered evidnece that animals are conceptual, because no one has contended that.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Another attempt at exclusion by definition, trying simply to define out of existence any possible non-deterministic choice by animals.

No one has offered evidnece that animals are conceptual, because no one has contended that.

But, volition is an attribute of man's consciousness. He can, by an act of will, activate his (conceptual) consciousness at any given time, or not.

In order to say that volition is also an attribute of animals' consciousness, one would have to show that they, too, can activate their (perceptual) consciousness at a given time, or not.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

They certainly appear to be doing that, Ken - activating their consciousness.

I used to play "fetch" with my cat. In fact from time to time she would drop the item at my feet that she wanted me to throw. I didn't train her to do that. She figured it out herself - that if she brought me an item, I would throw it. If she brought it back, I would throw it again.

I wouldn't go so far as to say there was anything conceptual in what she was doing. But she certainly seemed to be choosing, not acting in a mechanical, deterministic way.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
They certainly appear to be doing that, Ken - activating their consciousness.

I used to play "fetch" with my cat. In fact from time to time she would drop the item at my feet that she wanted me to throw. I didn't train her to do that. She figured it out herself - that if she brought me an item, I would throw it. If she brought it back, I would throw it again.

I wouldn't go so far as to say there was anything conceptual in what she was doing. But she certainly seemed to be choosing, not acting in a mechanical, deterministic way.

Did you miss the answer I gave you as to what volition consists of? Your cat may be activating/regulating it's own movements by playing fetch, but that does not mean that there is any chosen regulation of consciousness. My own introspection is enough to show me that it is impossible to regulate consciousness on the perceptual level--it all happens automatically, and I am powerless to change or stop it.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
My own introspection is enough to show me that it is impossible to regulate consciousness on the perceptual level--it all happens automatically, and I am powerless to change or stop it.

You mean, you cannot control which direction you are looking at, what voice your are listening to; you can't visually search the room for a lost objects, and so on? My sympathies to you!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

They certainly appear to be doing that, Ken - activating their consciousness. 

I used to play "fetch" with my cat. In fact from time to time she would drop the item at my feet that she wanted me to throw. I didn't train her to do that. She figured it out herself - that if she brought me an item, I would throw it. If she brought it back, I would throw it again.

I wouldn't go so far as to say there was anything conceptual in what she was doing. But she certainly seemed to be choosing, not acting in a mechanical, deterministic way.

A cool cat! I once had one that would play in the ocean breakers with me. He could let me know when he wanted to leap onto my shoulder, and all the response he needed was a slight lowering of that shoulder.

The point is, could your cat have chosen *not* to be perceptually conscious?

"Choosing," in the sense of selecting among alternatives, and "volition" are not equivalent. Animals have choice in the first sense (birds do it, bees do it, etc.). The thing about the perceptual level is, they cannot choose not to be conscious. Neither can we, on the strictly perceptual level.

Our cats were/are conscious, no doubt. Volition, though, is about will. It is about deciding to be conscious -- conceptually conscious in man's case -- *or not*. On the perceptual level, we, and animals with consciousness, are at the mercy of our sensory environment. We can't, without bringing our conceptual consciousness up to speed, purposely ignore our sensory surroundings. Animals are stuck with their perceptual mode. They don't get to initiate it, to will it into operation.

Or, if you think they can volitionally initiate their form of consciousness, again, you'd have to prove it to me.

The fact of her fun behavior is not evidence that your cat "figured it out." Unless we're speaking metaphorically, figuring something out means thinking through a problem, which I don't think you mean to attribute to your talented cat (correct me if my mind-reading is wrong).

I believe it's easy for us to get anthropomorphic about animals whose antics make us go, "Gee whiz." But when we do, we shortchange the possibilities of action on the perceptual level of consciousness.

I once saw (on TV) a robot that would pick up and dispose of trash. Crumple some paper and throw it on the floor and the robot would roll over to it, pick it up and then deposit it in a trash bin. Would you infer volition from that? (That was rhetorical, of course.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
You mean, you cannot control which direction you are looking at, what voice your are listening to; you can't visually search the room for a lost objects, and so on? My sympathies to you!

What I mean, is that I have no control over the level to which these things function. As long as my eyes are open, I see, there are no different levels of sight I can choose from. Likewise, if something makes a sound, I cannot make a decision to hear more of it, and adjust my sense of hearing accordingly. The same goes for the other senses; they respond to stimulus automatically, infallibly, and uncontrollably. (Note, that even in closing one's eyes, one is not lowering one's level of sight, but removing the stimulus to which sight responds.)

What you are describing is directing the objects of perceptual consciousness, not regulating perceptual consciousness itself. In Objectivism, volition consists of regulating the degree to which consciousness is performing it's function, a regulation which is possible only on the conceptual level. Since you proposed this discussion on an Objectivist forum, I assume this is the context in which you wanted to discuss the relationship between volition and consciousness.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"Choosing," in the sense of selecting among alternatives, and "volition" are not equivalent.  Animals have choice in the first sense (birds do it, bees do it, etc.).

Very good points, Ken. I agree completely.

This specific point that you make here is the key one - at least for me. I don't think "our cats" are like that robot you mentioned.

Though I'm very doubtful I'd go as far as including bees. :-)

Incidentally, Lee did raise this very issue in his post #76 where he says, "I do think that a clear sub-division should be made that distinguishes human choice (which can support conceptual consciousness) from that of all other animals."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My internet connection has been down all day and is only now coming back, intermittently.

I have a question that I'd like to pose to all - but I'd be particularly interested in Stephen and Betsy's answer. Is there a

possible distinction between "the capacity to choose" and volition ... Going back to my example of the cat on the sill and what it does next, is what it does next necessarily always full determined and automatic, such that it could not have done otherwise?

Cognitively, choice is volition, with the only significant distinction to draw between the two being that volition is the broader term since volition circumscribes more than one type of choice. For instance, there is the primary choice, to focus or not, and the choice that guides a reasoning process. All choices are volitional and involve cognitive self-regulation.

The Objectivist view, as has been quoted here more often than should be needed, is that only man's consciousness is volitional -- man can freely choose -- while the functioning of an animal's consciousness is automatic. This clearly implies that it is only the actions of man that could have been otherwise. As Ayn Rand states in ITOE,

The alternative of what "had to be" versus what "didn't have to be" doesn't apply metaphysically. It applies only to the realm of human action and human choice.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I used to play "fetch" with my cat.... I wouldn't go so far as to say there was anything conceptual in what she was doing. But she certainly seemed to be choosing, not acting in a mechanical, deterministic way.

Unlike a mechanical device, your cat has a faculty of awareness and a capacity to learn and retain memories. But just because alternatives exist in reality, it is a mistake to anthropomorphize and call the action of the cat a "choice." The operation of the cat's consciousness is automatic, and its actions are determined by the sum total of the cat's awareness of its environment, its knowledge and memory capacity, its motor control system, all integrated automatically by its brain. That alternatives are conceivable by us -- the cat could have gone left or right -- does not mean that the cat freely chose between those alternatives. As I quoted to you in a previous post, "what 'had to be' versus what 'didn't have to be' ... applies only to the realm of human action and human choice."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
What I mean, is that I have no control over the level to which these things function. As long as my eyes are open, I see, there are no different levels of sight I can choose from. Likewise, if something makes a sound, I cannot make a decision to hear more of it, and adjust my sense of hearing accordingly.

I don't know about you, but I can see more by looking and hear more by listening.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I don't know about you, but I can see more by looking and hear more by listening.

Are you claiming that, aside from choosing what to look at, that you can sharpen the image that you perceive, or hear a sound with greater acuity?

If I look at the truck of a tree, I cannot see it any clearer than what my eyes will give me. Are you claiming that you can zoom in to the particles of the bark or something? Like some sort of organic image enhancing software? Or is it like going from the sense of smell of a human to the sense of smell of a dog by some act of focus?

Or were you being obtuse to give him a hard time?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Guest
This topic is now closed to further replies.