Lee Pierson

"What is Consciousness For?"

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In a previous post I identified in the Pierson-Trout paper several fallacies in the first of the four points used to support their hypothesis of the supposed "existence of causally efficacious volition in non-human conscious animals." In this post I will now focus on point 2.

2) The subjectivity and intentionality of conscious experience seem pointless outside the context of volitional action. Automatic actions do not require guidance by subjective, intentional information, because they can be accomplished by physical chain reactions alone; they need not be consciously controlled.

The use of "subjective" here is as noted earlier in the paper, as in "feeling pain, feeling anger, feeling oneself exerting mental effort, seeing a red apple, or suddenly becoming aware that 'I am late for work'." It is not stated here in the paper which subset of these "conscious experience" are meant to apply to the supposed volitional non-human animals, but the reader at least would be well advised to note how some of this "subjective ... information" is in the form of self-awareness. And the authors later state that only humans are aware of their own conscious processes, "with the possible exception, in a primitive form, of dolphins and certain primates." So without clearly specifying in point 2 what "subjectivity ... of conscious experience" and "subjective ... information" actually means, we have a package deal in the argument which includes self-awareness along with the primitive feeling of pain.

The term "intentionality" in point 2 is a common technical buzzword used by modern writers on the philosophy of mind. The only explicit reference in the paper as to the term's meaning is of a negative kind, namely that "[p]urely physical phenomena lack 'intentionality' (i.e., they are not 'about' anything) (Brentano, 1874)." As has been noted by several Objectivist philosophers, "intentionality" is a vague and improper term that spreads confusion. Brentano introduced "intentionality" based on an idea from Aquinas, giving the notion a primacy of consciousness interpretation.

Having this as a base, note then the point 2 argument asserts that this "subjectivity and intentionality of conscious experience seem pointless outside the context of volitional action." Why is this so? Because, we are told, that "[a]utomatic actions do not require guidance by subjective, intentional information." This actually makes a bit of sense (with a projection of meaning into the content of "subjective" and "intentionality") when considering the level of self-awareness, where volition is active, but hardly in relation to just "feeling pain." As Ayn Rand made crystal clear in so much of her writings, the pleasure-pain mechanism serves as an automatic guardian of the animal's life, functioning along with the automatic faculty of perception. This "conscious experience" is the link between the nature of the animal and the nature of reality. And even the more primitive organisms, with a consciousness that functions on the level of sensations, they too are guided by the pleasure-pain mechanism. To claim, as does the argument in point 2, that its package deal of nebulous "subjective, intentional information" would be "pointless" if not volitional because "they can be accomplished by physical chain reactions alone," is nothing but a blatant unwarranted assertion that assumes what has not been shown. And, to add insult to injury, the base of "subjective" and "intentionality" as used in the argument are at best ill-defined, and, at worst, a smoke screen that hides the lack of an actual argument.

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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.

I left out an important word here! This above statement should read: I will at this time answer some of the points raised, but my silence on any particular point raised by any critic should not be taken as agreement.

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Instead of getting bogged down and tangled up in a complex web of interrelated abstractions why not just distinguish between conceptual consciousness and all other forms of consciousness? Then it could be hypothesized that in order to have volition an organism must posses the faculty of conceptual consciousness. As it has been repeatedly pointed out, a hardwired response to a stimulus is not a choice. Since non-conceptual consciousness is in effect hardwired and only conceptual consciousness is able to override pre-existing programming, only so called, "conceptual conscious" beings are capable of volition.

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In this post I address the third of the four arguments in the Pierson-Trout paper which the authors use to support their hypothesis of the supposed "existence of causally efficacious volition in non-human conscious animals."

3) It would seem likely from the principle of evolutionary continuity that other conscious animals have some form of volition. Like any sophisticated adaptation, such as the eye, volition would probably not have evolved in one sudden stroke. Non-human mammals, particularly primates, have many neural and behavioral similarities to humans, further suggesting that they may have some form of volition.

This argument is factually incorrect. Even Darwin knew that evolutionary continuity requires structural continuity, but it does not neccessitate functional continuity. For example, the complex and coordinated structure of the animal wing is a counterexample to functional continuity. It is true that the evolutionary development of the eye undoubtedly started with the functional capability of some photosensitive cells, but there was no functional flying capability in the evolutionary stages of development of the animal wing. The initial tiny appendages, and the later greater size of wings in species that were selected over eons, did not enable the species to fly; flying was an emergent property that was suddenly acquired when the wings eventually reached a certain structural sophistication to make them aerodynamically sound.

That there exists any evolutionary continuity for the brain does not imply that volitonal capability has any continuity across species, just as the rudimentary or primitive wing, or some graduated percentage of a wing, did not provide rudimentary or primitive flight. The third of the four arguments in the Pierson-Trout paper is, then, also fallacious.

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In this post I address the third of the four arguments in the Pierson-Trout paper which the authors use to support their hypothesis of the supposed "existence of causally efficacious volition in non-human conscious animals."
3) It would seem likely from the principle of evolutionary continuity that other conscious animals have some form of volition. Like any sophisticated adaptation, such as the eye, volition would probably not have evolved in one sudden stroke. Non-human mammals, particularly primates, have many neural and behavioral similarities to humans, further suggesting that they may have some form of volition.

This argument is factually incorrect. Even Darwin knew that evolutionary continuity requires structural continuity, but it does not necessitate functional continuity...

That there exists any evolutionary continuity for the brain does not imply that volitonal capability has any continuity across species, just as the rudimentary or primitive wing, or some graduated percentage of a wing, did not provide rudimentary or primitive flight.

[boldness in the above quotations added] Note that this analysis misrepresents our argument by changing our "seem likely" and "suggests..." to "necessitate" and "imply," thereby creating a straw man to beat up on.

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This argument is factually incorrect. Even Darwin knew that evolutionary continuity requires structural continuity, but it does not necessitate functional continuity...

That there exists any evolutionary continuity for the brain does not imply that volitonal capability has any continuity across species, just as the rudimentary or primitive wing, or some graduated percentage of a wing, did not provide rudimentary or primitive flight.

[boldness in the above quotations added] Note that this analysis misrepresents our argument by changing our "seem likely" and "suggests..." to "necessitate" and "imply," thereby creating a straw man to beat up on.

Your response doesn't address what Stephen was addressing. He stated "even Darwin knew that evolutionary continuity requires structural continuity, but it does not necessitate functional continuity," not that you were making that argument. So the next question is that if evolutionary continuity does not necessitate functional continuity, what are we to make of your statement that evolutionary continuity seems likely to require functional continuity? If A does not necessitate B, can A seem likely to require B?

Imply means "indicate by inference, association, or necessary consequence." Suggest means "to mention or imply as a possibility; to offer for consideration or as a hypothesis." Please explain how these set up a straw man.

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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.

Why would a dog appearing to pause and ponder not constitute at least some prima facie evidence in favour of it possessing some power of choice?

After all, our knowledge of the existence of consciousness and volition in other humans is based on precisely this kind of inferential evidence.

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Why would a dog appearing to pause and ponder not constitute at least some prima facie evidence in favour of it possessing some power of choice? 

After all, our knowledge of the existence of consciousness and volition in other humans is based on precisely this kind of inferential evidence.

To "ponder" is the action of a reasoning mind; we ask another human why he paused and pondered and he tells us he stopped to think. Ask the same question to the dog and we will wait a rather long time for an answer. Anthropomorphic evidence is not evidence of a reasoning mind, or a volitional one; it is evidence of anthropomorphism.

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Why would a dog appearing to pause and ponder not constitute at least some prima facie evidence in favour of it possessing some power of choice? 

After all, our knowledge of the existence of consciousness and volition in other humans is based on precisely this kind of inferential evidence.

If you see a dog pause and "ponder," why would you assume that it is pondering in the first place. Why not just pausing and looking? Why not pausing and listening? Why not just pausing before continuing to walk? What evidence do you have that it is pondering? Facial expression? Body language?

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To "ponder" is the action of a reasoning mind; we ask another human why he paused and pondered and he tells us he stopped to think. Ask the same question to the dog and we will wait a rather long time for an answer. Anthropomorphic evidence is not evidence of a reasoning mind, or a volitional one; it is evidence of anthropomorphism.

To play the devil's advocate before you get a rejoinder from others, don't we need to learn the dog's "language"? If you asked someone who spoke Chinese, for example, he may not understand you or you may not understand his answer.

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To "ponder" is the action of a reasoning mind; we ask another human why he paused and pondered and he tells us he stopped to think. Ask the same question to the dog and we will wait a rather long time for an answer. Anthropomorphic evidence is not evidence of a reasoning mind, or a volitional one; it is evidence of anthropomorphism.

To play the devil's advocate before you get a rejoinder from others, don't we need to learn the dog's "language"? If you asked someone who spoke Chinese, for example, he may not understand you or you may not understand his answer.

I follow Ayn Rand's view of language.

Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of convening concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts.

As humans we developed the science of linguistics, which thoughtfully provides me with a means to translate the concepts communicated by the person speaking Chinese. No science has ever provided the same for bow-wow'ese, which combined with other voluminous evidence disallows me from attributing concepts or volition to my dog Cali, as much as I dearly love her .

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In this post I address the fourth, and final, argument in the Pierson-Trout paper which the authors use to support their hypothesis of the supposed "existence of causally efficacious volition in non-human conscious animals."

4) Why would the "Blind Watchmaker" of natural selection torture conscious organisms with pain if they could do nothing, beyond what they do automatically, to avoid the pain? The conscious experience of pain would have no function without the adaptive benefits of volitional action.

Torture is a human action, not an act of natural selection, scare quotes on "Blind Watchmaker" and anthropomorphic projections notwithstanding. At best the inclusion of "torture" is irrelevant; at worst it is a blatant appeal to emotionalism.

The pleasure-pain mechanism in an animal is a biological adaptation that provides the base for an automatic means to value that which is good for the life of the animal, and to disvalue that which is bad. It provides a direct and automatic value associated with pleasure or pain as that which the animal acts towards or against, respectively. To accuse Nature of torture, and to deny the adaptive benefits of the conscious experience of pain without volition, is to wag a finger against reality for providing the animal with the means for its survival.

Natural selection is simply the causal actions of life over time, and natural selection inexorably links the pleasure-pain mechanism to the animal's survival. If animal consciousness is to have any adaptive benefit it is because of the knowledge it provides, and the conscious experience of pleasure and pain automatically connects the nature of the animal to the nature of its environment.

The animal's association of feelings related to pleasure or pain with past actions is what motivates the animal's actions in future contact with reality. This is the cause of the animal's automatic action in goal-directed pursuit or avoidance. To attempt to erase the animal conscious experience in the absence of volition, reflects an ignorance of the purpose of consciousness and of the biological mechanisms endowed by natural selection.

I have now directly addressed all four of the arguments offered in support of animal volition in the Pierson-Trout paper. I have found each of the arguments to be fallacious, seriously wanting in intellectual justification. As I have stated before, all of the evidence supports non-volitional causal mechanisms in non-human animal action, with no contrary evidence, and therefore it is arbitrary to advance the notion of volition in animals.

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Note from moderator:

In the next day or two I would like to close this very long thread. If any of the participants have any final words to present, this would be the time do so.

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This has been one of the most interesting threads I've been involved in. I learned a lot and I hope I contributed something to those who followed the thread.

Thanks to everyone.

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In this post I address the fourth, and final, argument in the Pierson-Trout paper which the authors use to support their hypothesis of the supposed "existence of causally efficacious volition in non-human conscious animals."

Stephen’s recent post misses the point of our "fourth argument," perhaps in part because this important point is developed in some detail elsewhere in our paper, so I will now give a brief description of the essential argument.

I actually agree with Stephen's earlier assertion (which he has not since recanted) that the trend of neuroscientific and other evidence is to support the idea that the automatic behaviors of animals are physically determined. The findings of neuroscience indicate that the physical system of the brain itself can handle automatic action. The kind of deterministic, associationistic responses that B. Royce observes in his cat can readily be attributed to physical neural processes alone; nothing more is required. (Keep in mind that “physically deterministic” here means that physical causes alone determine automatic action. To whatever extent animal behavior is physically deterministic, to that extent no non-physical causes such as conscious action can be operative).

But this is where the advocates of physical determinism for animal action are hoist by their own petard: if cat behavior is entirely automatic and physically deterministic—which in the cat’s case means entirely causally explainable by physiological processes, particularly neural processes--then why does the cat consciously feel pleasure and pain? Why does the cat have such conscious experiences--since the brain can react automatically, differentially, and deterministically to noxious stimuli perfectly well without them. They have no possible causal role in a physically deterministic system. It is not necessary for the execution of the “wired in” automatic functions of the nervous system that the animal consciously feel pain, or have any other feeling (note that reactions to painful stimuli often occur before the conscious experience of pain, e.g., one removes one’s finger from the top of a hot stove before feeling the pain of burning). There is no sensible explanation within the physically deterministic theory for the occurrence of conscious experience.

So, then, what are conscious experiences for? They are crucial for the guidance of actions outside the realm of the physically determined, namely, consciously chosen actions. The one causal efficacy of consciousness that we humans know from our own direct experience is conscious choice. Such choice includes not only the choice to think, but also the choice to look at something, to scrutinize something, to actively listen to something, to actively touch something, to smell something, to taste something--and all of these choices are informed by conscious experience. (The neural processes that are involved in the pickup of perceptual information from the environment are automatic, but there is more to perception than automatic neural processes.) Conscious animals do not have our power of conceptual thought, but they do share the power of perception (and/or sensation, but I do not want to get into that distinction here). Arguably, they can choose to attend to one object of perception rather than another on the basis of their conscious experiences, and that attention can in turn lead to the selection of one action rather than another. If they could not do that, their conscious experiences would be superfluous.

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------------

The one causal efficacy of consciousness that we humans know from our own direct experience is conscious choice. Such choice includes not only the choice to think, but also the choice to look at something, to scrutinize something, to actively listen to something, to actively touch something, to smell something, to taste something--and all of these choices are informed by conscious experience.

An why do "we humans know from our own direct experience" that conscious choice is causally efficacious? It is because we have the power of self-awareness. We are aware that we are conscious of the objects out there.

(The neural processes that are involved in the pickup of perceptual information from the environment are automatic, but there is more to perception than automatic neural processes.) Conscious animals do not have our power of conceptual thought, but they do share the power of perception (and/or sensation, but I do not want to get into that distinction here). Arguably, they can choose to attend to one object of perception rather than another on the basis of their conscious experiences, and that attention can in turn lead to the selection of one action rather than another. If they could not do that, their conscious experiences would be superfluous.

To "choose to attend to one object of perception rather than another on the basis of their conscious experiences," an animal would have to be self-conscious. The evidence shows that an animal perceives two objects and then uses that conscious experience to direct its action. Where is the choice? A cat sees a horse and a rat. It chases the rat. Ever see a cat chase a horse?

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But this is where the advocates of physical determinism for animal action are hoist by their own petard: if cat behavior is entirely automatic and physically deterministic—which in the cat’s case means entirely causally explainable by physiological processes, particularly neural processes--then why does the cat consciously feel pleasure and pain? Why does the cat have such conscious experiences--since the brain can react automatically, differentially, and deterministically to noxious stimuli perfectly well without them.

No it can't because the pleasure/pain mechanism IS the "entirely automatic and physically deterministic" MEANS by which physiological processes are translated, automatically, into life-preserving actions.

Ayn Rand explained the automatic function of the pleasure-pain mechanism in lower animals this way:

This method [of a concrete-bound, perceptual level mentality], of course, is as near to a perceptual level of epistemology as a conceptual, human consciousness can come. It consists of treating memories as percepts, as "package-deal" irreducible primaries, and of forming value judgments by a primitive, animal-like standard of "pleasurable'' or "painful," these two standing for "good" or "bad," without any further analysis or understanding, without any knowledge of why something is good or bad, why something was pleasurable or painful. This is exactly what an animal's "pleasure-pain mechanism" would do. In the case of an animal, this mechanism works as an immediate response to immediate concretes and is assisted by memory. An animal's memory is purely associational, and thus an animal can be trained by a repetition of pleasurable or painful experiences, of rewards or punishments (the repetition makes the animal memorize or associate).

To continue with Lee's post --

They have no possible causal role in a physically deterministic system. It is not necessary for the execution of the “wired in” automatic functions of the nervous system that the animal consciously feel pain, or have any other feeling (note that reactions to painful stimuli often occur before the conscious experience of pain, e.g., one removes one’s finger from the top of a hot stove before feeling the pain of burning).

The pleasure/pain mechanism is necessary so that an animal's automatically stored and retained past perceptions -- i.e., memories -- can automatically guide the animal in the here and now.

There is no sensible explanation within the physically deterministic theory for the occurrence of conscious experience.

The pleasure/pain mechanism is the automatic causal mechanism by which past perceptions can automatically generate self-sustaining, self-generated actions in the present.

So, then, what are conscious experiences for? They are crucial for the guidance of actions outside the realm of the physically determined, namely, consciously chosen actions.

But that only pertains to human beings as far as we have any evidence for.

The one causal efficacy of consciousness that we humans know from our own direct experience is conscious choice. Such choice includes not only the choice to think, but also the choice to look at something, to scrutinize something, to actively listen to something, to actively touch something, to smell something, to taste something--and all of these choices are informed by conscious experience. (The neural processes that are involved in the pickup of perceptual information from the environment are automatic, but there is more to perception than automatic neural processes.) Conscious animals do not have our power of conceptual thought, but they do share the power of perception ...

That is not being argued or disputed.

Arguably, they can choose to attend to one object of perception rather than another on the basis of their conscious experiences, and that attention can in turn lead to the selection of one action rather than another. If they could not do that, their conscious experiences would be superfluous.

The biologically built-in pleasure/pain mechanism combined with stored memories leads an animal to attend to one object rather than another in his current environment automatically without any need for choice.

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In connection with the above two posts I add this about my cat: if I throw two small objects of the same size and shape in front of my cat, he freezes. Normally, he would go after either one if thrown separately, because he "likes" doing so. Two objects at once is like a contradiction presented to his brain and, having no power to choose, he lays down as if bored.

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Well, I have exceeded the time I had indicated, and I am now officially closing this thread. I want to thank all of the participants for their involvement, especially Lee Pierson who has taken the brunt of the criticism. I know firsthand that that is not an easy position to be in.

This has been a very long and contentious thread, and despite some overheated discussion I hope that all of our members have enjoyed it and hopefully learned something in the process. Thanks again to all.

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