Lee Pierson

"What is Consciousness For?"

444 posts in this topic

Isn't it true that when there is only one correct choice, a conscious rational mind will, when faced with the same identical facts and understanding of the facts, always make the same choice? To make a different choice would be irrational. So, given the fact that this rational mind will always make the same choice when faced with identical facts, this "choice" is deterministic in the same way that a computer's choice is.

This does not represent my understanding of the Objectivist view of volition. The primary choice is to focus one's mind, or not. This is an irreducible choice, one which sets the context for higher-level choices that follow. The fact that a man was in full focus and drew the correct rational conclusion from a given set of facts, does not guarantee that he will be in full focus if later confronted with the same set of facts. If not in full focus he may not draw the same proper conclusion. The primary choice to focus is most definitely not deterministic as is the operation of the computer instructions. "Deterministic" and "volitional" are two fundamentally different modes of action.

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If determinism is the Laws of Identity and Causality, then why do we need the concept of determinism?

We need it because volition exists.

If volition did not exist, we could not have the concept of determinism. There would be nothing to distinguish determinism from.

Those two laws already explain the nature of entities and their actions.  The nature of everything in the universe we know of - with NO exceptions - obey these laws.  Why do I need a concept to distinguish everything in existence from one attribute of one entity when I already have laws that explain everything? 

We need it because volition exists.

Determinism and volition are both examples of causality, but they are so significantly different from each other, that distinctions between the two need to be made.

Why does Objectivism never mention that determinism only applies to non-volitional actions?

It doesn't have to. Determinism means non-volitional.

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The problem with your conclusion is that the term "distinguish" when applied properly to what bacteria do does not imply consciousness; it simply refers to differential responding. 

It does definitely imply consciousness, because differential responding is necessary to establish than an entity is conscious. It is not, however, sufficient to establish the existence of consciousness. In addition, one needs to show that the entity takes self-generated actions on the basis of the distinction and that the action is self-sustaining.

But the living organisms that possess the faculty of consciousness need to exercise it in order to survive.

Motile bacteria definitely do need awareness of the world external to them -- because their food is external to them -- in order to survive.

Plants react differentially to sunlight and darkness, but they do not consciously respond. They take up what they need from the soil, while leaving what they don’t need behind, but that does not imply that they are conscious.

Quite true. A plant is like a human being in a "vegetative" state -- i.e., in a coma -- i.e., unconscious. It can survive by staying where it is only if what it needs to live is available where it is, and it can continue to take internal actions that sustain its life (such as photosynthesis for a plant or blood circulation for the comatose man).

Bacteria react differentially to food and non-food (by the way, some bacteria synthesize their “food” by photosynthesis),

I know. That is why I explicitly distinguished bacteria (that don't photosynthesize) from cyanobacteria (that do photosynthesize).

but that does not imply awareness; there is no reason whatsoever to think that they have any  conscious experiences, e.g., that they feel any pleasure or pain.

Whoa! Are you now redefining "consciousness" to mean "the ability to feel pleasure and pain" rather than to mean "the faculty of awareness?" If it is still the latter, as you originally said it was, the former is beside the point.

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And how do we know that the bacteria only ingests food and not non-nutritive material? 

We don't. The bacteria might very well ingest non-food.

The result would be (1) death from lack of food or (2) death from ingesting harmful materials or (3) no effect either pro- or anti- the organism's life.

One thing is for sure: the bacteria with any tendency toward (1) and (2) would have lost out long ago, by natural selection, to the bacteria that were aware of the difference between food and non-food.

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Isn't it true that when there is only one correct choice, a conscious rational mind will, when faced with the same identical facts and understanding of the facts, always make the same choice?

No.

In addition to the facts, a rational person needs (1) the intellectual context (previous knowledge) to integrate the facts into a conclusion and (2) a motivation (personal reason) to expend the mental effort to form the conclusion rather than using the same mental effort to think about something of greater personal importance. Lacking the necessary context, a rational person can choose the wrong conclusion. Lacking the necessary motivation, a rational person can choose not to think about the subject at all and make no conclusions or choices about it.

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Whoa!  Are you now redefining "consciousness" to mean "the ability to feel pleasure and pain" rather than to mean "the faculty of awareness?"  If it is still the latter, as you originally said it was, the former is beside the point.

Please read what I wrote. "E.g." means "for example," not "definition." In any event, "awareness" entails having conscious experiences (such as the feelings of pleasure and pain), and there is not the slightest reason to believe that bacteria have any conscious experiences of any sort. Now, if you don't know what a conscious experience is from your own case, and realize that it is highly unlikely that a bacterium has any such thing, I'm not sure that either I or anyone can help you. As some others noted, a nervous system is almost certainlly a necessary condition of consciousness. Actually, a relatively small grouping of neurons in the brain stem has been found to be necessary for consciousness in humans; a lesion in that area causes loss of consciousness.

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Please read what I wrote. "E.g." means "for example," not "definition." In any event, "awareness" entails having conscious experiences (such as the feelings of pleasure and pain), and there is not the slightest reason to believe that bacteria have any conscious experiences of any sort.

I gave several reasons why I believe bacteria are conscious. Please deal with my reasons and don't just merely ignore and dismiss my reasons and continue to assert that I am wrong.

Now, if you don't know what a conscious experience is from your own case, and realize that it is highly unlikely that a bacterium has any such thing, I'm not sure that either I or anyone can help you.

Does this mean you are not going to deal with my arguments and show why they are, in your opinion, wrong?

As some others noted, a nervous system is almost certainlly a necessary condition of consciousness.

What constitutes "having a nervous system?"

Are you claiming that an organism without what you regard as a nervous system is not conscious?

Are you now changing your definition of "conscious" from "having the faculty of awareness" to "having a nervous system?"

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I gave several reasons why I believe bacteria are conscious.  Please deal with my reasons and don't just merely ignore and dismiss my reasons and continue to assert that I am wrong.

Does this mean you are not going to deal with my arguments and show why they are, in your opinion, wrong?

What constitutes "having a nervous system?"

Are you claiming that an organism without what you regard as a nervous system is not conscious? 

Are you now changing your definition of "conscious" from "having the faculty of awareness" to "having a nervous system?"

I have already explained that the differential responding of bacteria is the result of physicochemical processes, not consciousness. (this in regard to your "reasons")

What is the point of your continuing "definition" mantra? Consciousness is defined ostensively; I have not suggested otherwise.

And yes, I am claiming that an organism without a nervous system almost certainly cannot be conscious, that is, have conscious experiences (obviously, that does not mean that having consciousness is defined as having a nervous system). Do you really believe that bacteria have conscious experiences (woo, woo!), or is it that you believe that something can be conscious without having conscious experiences (that would be in disagreement with the ostensive definition)?

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What is the point of your continuing "definition" mantra? Consciousness is defined ostensively; I have not suggested otherwise. 

Tthe best way for us to determine the truth or falsity of your hypothesis is to either use the "standard definitions" for the key concepts involved or provide evidence and rationale for creating new ones. For example you define volition as, "non-deterministic, non-random choice." How did you come up with that definition and why do you believe that definition is correct? When I search various dictionaries I find that volition is defined as, "the act of making a choice" or, "the act of making a conscious choice." I find no mention of the choice having to be non-random and non-deterministic.

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I have already explained that the differential responding of bacteria is the result of physicochemical processes, not consciousness. (this in regard to your "reasons")definition)?

Human consciousness is, in part, the result of physiochemical processes. They are not mutually exclusive categories, so demonstrating that a process is biochemical does not make it non-conscious.

What is the point of your continuing "definition" mantra? Consciousness is defined ostensively; I have not suggested otherwise.

Please do not dismiss an important point by belittling it as a "mantra." Clear definitions and consistent use of concepts are required for clear thinking and avoiding fallacies of equivocation.

Consciousness is defined ostensively; I have not suggested otherwise.

"Consciousness" -- the axiomatic concept -- is defined ostensively. "Consciousness, -- the faculty of awareness -- the subject of this thread, is not. It is defined by genus (faculty) and differentia (of awareness).

By making reference only to the ostensively defined (by introspection) concept of consciousness, you cannot prove that bacteria are conscious. You also cannot prove that other people are conscious.

And yes, I am claiming that an organism without a nervous system almost certainly cannot be conscious, that is, have conscious experiences (obviously, that does not mean that having consciousness is defined as having a nervous system).

WHY? An assertion like that requires evidence lest it be dismissed as arbitrary.

Do you really believe that bacteria have conscious experiences (woo, woo!), or is it that you believe that something can be conscious without having conscious experiences (that would be in disagreement with the ostensive definition)?

Rational readers will be persuaded by fewer "woo, woos" and more "why, whys."

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Now, if you don't know what a conscious experience is from your own case, and realize that it is highly unlikely that a bacterium has any such thing, I'm not sure that either I or anyone can help you.

As moderator I have both publicly and privately warned against this sort of contentless ridicule and belittling on this thread. I am done with warnings about and deletions of inappropriate postings. If the participants in this thread cannot focus on the ideas and refrain from personal remarks, I will move this entire thread to its own forum and put it under moderator review. Moderator review means that when a post is made I first have to approve it before it actually appears on THE FORUM. This will greatly slow down the normal give and take of a thread, but it will insure order. I realize that the issues being discussed are somewhat contentious, but I will take this drastic measure if any further inappropriate remarks are made.

And, please note, this is not open to debate.

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[Deleted - personal snipe.]

This thread has now been moved to a moderated forum. Any posts to this thread will not show up immediately as the posts need to be approved before appearing on the thread. I will try to get to any posts as promptly as I can -- please be patient.

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Human consciousness is, in part, the result of physiochemical processes.  They are not mutually exclusive categories, so demonstrating that a process is biochemical does not make it non-conscious.

Please do not dismiss an important point by belittling it as a "mantra."  Clear definitions and consistent use of concepts are required for clear thinking and avoiding fallacies of equivocation.

"Consciousness" -- the axiomatic concept -- is defined ostensively.  "Consciousness, --  the faculty of awareness -- the subject of this thread, is not.  It is defined by genus (faculty) and differentia (of awareness).

By making reference only to the ostensively defined (by introspection) concept of consciousness, you cannot prove that bacteria are conscious.  You also cannot prove that other people are conscious.

A concept includes all its characteristics, not just its definition. When one makes reference to a concept, one is not referring only to its definition. When I mention an example (e.g., experience of pleasure or pain) or characteristic (arising from neural activity) of consciousness, you ask if I am redefining consciousness--but, obviously, an example is not a definition. I am holding to Ayn Rand's ostensive definition, and agree with her that no other definition is possible.("Consciousness is the faculty of awareness" is not a proper definition, because, for one thing, "awareness" is a synonym of consciousness.)

It is not true that you cannot decide whether bacteria are conscious based on the ostensively defined concept of consciousness. We know that, e.g., dogs are conscious because of behavioral and neurological similarities to ourselves that are not shared by bacteria.

That consciousness arises from a neural substrate is supported by an immense amount of evidence, including that I alluded to in my previous post. Consciousness can be abolished by various kinds of lesions in the nervous system. You yourself say that "human consciousness is, in part, the result of physiochemical processes." Which ones?

The question remains: do you really believe that bacteria have conscious experiences?

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It [differential responding] does definitely imply consciousness, because differential responding is necessary to establish than an entity is conscious.  It is not, however, sufficient to establish the existence of consciousness.  In addition, one needs to show that the entity takes self-generated actions on the basis of the distinction and that the action is self-sustaining. 

Why do you believe that "differential responding" + "that the entity takes self-generated actions on the basis of the distinction and that the action is self-sustaining" means that an entity is conscious?

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Tthe best way for us to determine the truth or falsity of your hypothesis is to either use the "standard definitions" for the key concepts involved or provide evidence and rationale for creating new ones. For example you define volition as, "non-deterministic, non-random choice." How did you come up with that definition and why do you believe that definition is correct? When I search various dictionaries I find that volition is defined as, "the act of making a choice" or, "the act of making a conscious choice." I find no mention of the choice having to be non-random and non-deterministic.

"Non-random" and "non-deterministic" are certainly not controversial as characteristics of volition in the Objectivist context. The "possibility" that volition could be random or deterministic is not what this thread is about. That's another debate, one with non-Objectivist philosophers who advocate "compatibilism," and if that's what you want to advocate, I'd suggest starting another thread.

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A concept includes all its characteristics, not just its definition. When one makes reference to a concept, one is not referring only to its definition.

I agree.

When I mention an example (e.g., experience of pleasure or pain) or characteristic (arising from neural activity) of consciousness, you ask if I am redefining consciousness--but, obviously, an example is not a definition.

The reason I ask if you are redefining "consciousness" is because the characteristics you ascribe to "consciousness" sometimes seem to contradict what Ayn Rand gave as explicit examples of the concept.

I am holding to Ayn Rand's ostensive definition, and agree with her that no other definition is possible. ("Consciousness is the faculty of awareness" is not a proper definition, because, for one thing, "awareness" is a synonym of consciousness.)

I believe your usage commits the fallacy of equivocation, because it switches back and forth between the two different concepts referred to by the word "consciousness."

"Consciousness (1)" is the axiomatic concept that can only be perceived introspectively and defined ostensively. This concept is distinguished from "existence."

"Consciousness (2)" is the faculty of awareness -- i.e., the capability and use of consciousness (1). Consciousness (2) is distinguished from other, less inclusive faculties (like sight, hearing, perception and concept formation) and can be verbally defined as "the faculty (genus) of awareness (consciousness (1) is the differentia).

The difference between the two concepts of consciousness is analogous to the difference between the experience of sight -- i.e., seeing something -- and the faculty of sight that an eye doctor measures in his patients.

If we are talking about awareness in other people or the difference between man's consciousness and a dog's, we are talking about consciousness (2). We are talking about the faculty and not the axiomatic concept.

It is not true that you cannot decide whether bacteria are conscious based on the ostensively defined concept of consciousness. We know that, e.g., dogs are conscious because of behavioral and neurological similarities to ourselves that are not shared by bacteria.

We know that dogs possess the faculty because their behavior shows sign of USING it.

Having neurological similarities may not be necessary. A live animal and a dead one may have the same neurology, but the crucial difference is its functioning and how the animal behaves.

The question remains: do you really believe that bacteria have conscious

experiences?

On an extremely, extremely primitive level, yes. The reason I believe it is, in principle, the same reason I believe other people are conscious: their behavior indicates that they are aware of some aspect(s) of the external world.

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Why do you believe that "differential responding" + "that the entity takes self-generated actions on the basis of the distinction and that the action is self-sustaining" means that an entity is conscious?

Differential responding and self-generated action indicate the organism's possible awareness of the world external to it. That the action is, in fact, self-sustaining, is evidence that it is also performing the function of consciousness.

But the living organisms that possess the faculty of consciousness need to exercise it in order to survive.

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"Consciousness (1)" is the axiomatic concept that can only be perceived introspectively and defined ostensively.  This concept is distinguished from "existence."

"Consciousness (2)" is the  faculty of awareness -- i.e., the capability and use of consciousness (1).  Consciousness (2) is distinguished from other, less inclusive faculties (like sight, hearing, perception and concept formation) and can be verbally defined as "the faculty (genus) of awareness (consciousness (1) is the differentia).

The difference between the two concepts of consciousness is analogous to the difference between the experience of sight -- i.e., seeing something -- and the faculty of sight that an eye doctor measures in his patients.

I think this is an excellent explanation, and relates to something I've been thinking about while reading this thread. To use your case of our eyes, we have one word for the experience or process of using our eyes ("seeing") and another for the faculty that eyes provide ("vision"). Thus your doctor checks your "vision," and a blind person has lost his "ability to see," but not his "seeing." Furthermore, similarly to consciousness, there is no substitute for actually experiencing seeing firsthand. However, a blind person can come to understand the faculty of seeing, and can identify whether other creatures possess it, even while having no firsthand understanding of what seeing is like.

Unfortunately, for consciousness, the same word refers to the experience of being conscious--which cannot be explained or defined, only "pointed out" metaphorically--and to the neurophysiological makeup that gives rise to the experience. This means that the axiomatic concept "consciousness" is a synonym for "awareness" (since consciousness(2) is defined as "the faculty of awareness") but because this dual-usage is an old tradition, we have to rely on context to distinguish the meanings instead.

Is this an accurate assessment?

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The Pierson-Trout paper provides four points in support of "the existence of causally efficacious volition in non-human conscious animals," all fallacious in my view. For now I want to focus only the first argument presented, since the argument is representative of an approach that I have observed throughout the paper, and is also relevant to previous statements made here on THE FORUM. Here is the argument exactly as presented in the paper.

1) Darwin (1871/1998, p. 77) observed that "Animals may constantly be seen to pause, deliberate, and resolve." For example, a dog may occasionally appear to pause and ponder whether to chase a squirrel or to go to its master, who is calling it. Such behaviors in non-human animals appear, prima facie, to be volitional. This suggests that the burden of proof is on those who claim otherwise. We realize that it might be possible to program a robot to appear to be "pausing, deliberating, and resolving," but there is no apparent reason why natural selection would make a dog seem to be deliberating when it is merely executing a program.

First, note that the argument could stand without the inclusion of Darwin's remark. One might also reasonably assume that the remark of this famous and well respected scientist lends some credibility to the argument. However, if Darwin's remark matters here, then in fairness the context of Darwin's remark should matter too. Here is what Darwin said, in context.

Of all the faculties of the human mind, it will, I presume, be admitted that Reason stands at the summit. Only a few persons now dispute that animals possess some power of reasoning. Animals may constantly be seen to pause, deliberate, and resolve.

So the actual context of Darwin's quote is that non-human animals can reason. That being the case, this might lead one to wonder just how anthropomorphic are Darwin's quoted words in the Pierson-Trout paper. And the paper means to support volition in all non-human animals, not "some power of reasoning," Fairness and objectivity in a scientific paper demands full disclosure of the context of quoted references, to the extent that the context affects arguments being made. The proper thing to have done here, would to have presented Darwin's quote in context, and for the authors to note that they disassociate themselves from the "power of reasoning" part, yet choose to retain the validity of the "pause, deliberate, and resolve."

Second, note that the authors take their interpretation of behavior, "a dog may occasionally appear to pause and ponder," as "prima facie" being "volitional." And further, they state that "the burden of proof is on those who claim otherwise." Protestations to the contrary made earlier on this thread notwithstanding, this clearly and unequivocally takes the position that the authors' interpretation of behavior as volitional is the default position, and the actual burden of proof lies with those who interpret otherwise.

Third, the "might be possible to program a robot" example is an equivocation of purposeful human action with natural selection, based on an anthropomorphic interpretation of behavior, which itself begs the question in regard to volition in animals.

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Unfortunately, for consciousness, the same word refers to the experience of being conscious--which cannot be explained or defined, only "pointed out" metaphorically--and to the neurophysiological makeup that gives rise to the experience.  This means that the axiomatic concept "consciousness" is a synonym for "awareness" (since consciousness(2) is defined as "the faculty of awareness") but because this dual-usage is an old tradition, we have to rely on context to distinguish the meanings instead.

Is this an accurate assessment?

That's right.

It is also why clear definition and consistent usage of the concepts are critical. They help prevent possible errors like equivocation, context switching, and context dropping.

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Unfortunately, for consciousness, the same word refers to the experience of being conscious--which cannot be explained or defined, only "pointed out" metaphorically--and to the neurophysiological makeup that gives rise to the experience.  This means that the axiomatic concept "consciousness" is a synonym for "awareness" (since consciousness(2) is defined as "the faculty of awareness") but because this dual-usage is an old tradition, we have to rely on context to distinguish the meanings instead.

Is this an accurate assessment?

No. The concept "consciousness" does not refer to the neurophysiological processes that give rise to conscious experience. That would be materialism. The distinction between the necessary neurophysiological substrate and consciousness itself is crucial to understanding any causal efficacy for consciousness (of course, contra Betsy, the evidence is that no organism can be conscious without neurophysiological processes). The causal efficacy of consciousness should not be conflated with or reduced to the causal efficacy of neural processes--processes which are, as far as we know, deterministic.

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Second, note that the authors take their interpretation of behavior, "a dog may occasionally appear to pause and ponder," as "prima facie" being "volitional." And further, they state that "the burden of proof is on those who claim otherwise." Protestations to the contrary made earlier on this thread notwithstanding, this clearly and unequivocally takes the position that the authors' interpretation of behavior as volitional is the default position, and the actual burden of proof lies with those who interpret otherwise. 

Third, the "might be possible to program a robot" example is an equivocation of purposeful human action with natural selection, based on an anthropomorphic interpretation of behavior, which itself begs the question in regard to volition in animals.

I will at this time answer some of the points raised, but my silence on any particular point raised by any critic should be taken as agreement. The full quote as Stephen gave it was that observation of animal behavior "suggests that the burden of proof is on those who claim otherwise." The "suggests" should not be left out when discussing the quote. I think that once the evidence from observed animal behavior is admitted, taht evidence suggests that the burden of proof would then squarely be on the contrary position. Now, the proponents of animal determinism on this thread have refused to admit even the appearance of non-deterministic choice behavior in animals, so we may not yet have reached that stage.

We said that it "might be possible to program a robot to to appear to be "pausing, deliberating, and resolving"; we made no claim that such a robot would actually be "pausing, deliberating, and resolving," so there is absolutely "no equivocation of purposeful human action with natural selection." Actually, the point about appearance was brought up only as a possible counter argument to our thesis, so if the point as we made it were fallacious in the sense that Stephen claims it is (which it isn't), that would not undermine our argument; rather it would be helpful to our cause.

I think it would be well to remind readers that our thesis is not primarily about animal consciousness, but about the nature of the causal efficacy of consciousness in general. I will post a key argument about that issue shortly.

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No. The concept "consciousness" does not refer to the neurophysiological processes that give rise to conscious experience. That would be materialism.

THE concept of "consciousness"??? What about my point that there are two different concepts referred to by the word "consciousness" and that to switch back and forth between them commits the fallacy of equivocation?

The distinction between the necessary neurophysiological substrate  and consciousness itself is crucial to understanding any causal efficacy for consciousness (of course, contra Betsy, the evidence is that no organism can be conscious without neurophysiological processes).

I didn't say that, but I do disagree with statements like this one:

[A] nervous system is almost certainlly a necessary condition of consciousness. Actually, a relatively small grouping of neurons in the brain stem has been found to be necessary for consciousness in humans; a lesion in that area causes loss of consciousness.

Instead, I agree with Peikoff when he wrote:

The lower conscious species (e.g., jellyfish or flatworms) appear to have only the faculty of sensation and act by responding to isolated, momentary stimuli; their guide to sustaining their life is the pleasure-pain mechanism built into their bodies.

I also regard jellyfish and flatworms as conscious because they take self-sustaining self-generated actions that show awareness of the world external to themselves. But jellyfish don't have brains. (click here)

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I also regard jellyfish and flatworms as conscious because they take self-sustaining self-generated actions that show awareness of the world external to themselves.  But jellyfish don't have brains. (click here)

I don't know for sure whether jellyfish are conscious, but at least they do have neurons (a "primitive nervous system") and neural activity. Bacteria don't, so it is highly unlikely that they are conscious.

And I suppose it is worth re-iterating that "awareness" is simply a synonym for consciousness, thus "consciousness is the faculty of awareness" is no definition.

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Note from the moderator:

Regarding consciousness and definitions, both sides have several times stated their view, so unless new information is presented there will be no further re-iteration of positions on this matter.

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