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"What is Consciousness For?"


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#1 Lee Pierson

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 06:39 PM

The title of this topic is the title of a manuscript by Monroe Trout and myself, now under
consideration for publication in a psychology journal, the Journal of Mind and Behavior. In the
meantime, we have placed the article in the Cogprints archive (http://cogprints.org/4482/), where it has sparked some responses on the Web--interestingly, e.g., on some robotics
sites. It also received some intelligent commentary on a psychologist's site,
as well as on a philosopher's site, (http://www.consciousentities.com/), to which I replied. (That site also has some well-written summary articles about many currently discussed phenomena and perspectives on consciousness, such as blindsight and split brain phenomena.)

Here is an abstract of our paper:

"The answer to the title question is, in a word, volition. Our hypothesis is that the ultimate adaptive function of consciousness is to make volitional movement possible. All conscious processes exist to subserve that ultimate function. Thus, we believe that all conscious organisms possess at least some volitional capability. Consciousness makes volitional attention possible; volitional attention, in turn, makes volitional movement possible. There is, as far as we know, no valid theoretical argument that consciousness is needed for any function other than volitional movement and no convincing empirical evidence that consciousness performs any other ultimate function. Consciousness, via volitional action, increases the likelihood that an organism will direct its attention, and ultimately its movements, to whatever is most important for its survival and reproduction."

Note that although we do say that all conscious organisms possess volition,
we do not say that they all possess it to the same degree. Conscious
non-human animals do not have the self-consciously deployable form of
volition necessary for conceptual thought that we humans have.

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

"Doesn't help me to see where I'm goin' if I can't change course." This
quote was taken from a source mentioned elsewhere on the Forum in an
entirely different context (guesses welcome). Nonetheless, the quote is suggestive of a useful
thought experiment: imagine that you have all of your conscious experiences,
but no volitional power to put your intentions into action. Wouldn't that
make you a mere "couch potato," whose conscious awareness does you no good whatsoever?

Comments, whether you have or have not read the paper, are encouraged—but if you haven’t read it, you may find me telling you that the answer to your comment lies therein!

#2 Paul's Here

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 07:31 PM

The title of this topic is the title of a manuscript by Monroe Trout and myself, now under
consideration for publication in a psychology journal, the Journal of Mind and Behavior. In the
meantime, we have placed the article in the Cogprints archive (http://cogprints.org/4482/), where it has sparked some responses on the Web--interestingly, e.g., on some robotics
sites. It also received some intelligent commentary on a psychologist's site,
as well as on a philosopher's site, (http://www.consciousentities.com/), to which I replied. (That site also has some well-written summary articles about many currently discussed phenomena and perspectives on consciousness, such as blindsight and split brain phenomena.)

Here is an abstract of our paper:

"The answer to the title question is, in a word, volition. Our hypothesis is that the ultimate adaptive function of consciousness is to make volitional movement possible. All conscious processes exist to subserve that ultimate function. Thus, we believe that all conscious organisms possess at least some volitional capability. Consciousness makes volitional attention possible; volitional attention, in turn, makes volitional movement possible. There is, as far as we know, no valid theoretical argument that consciousness is needed for any function other than volitional movement and no convincing empirical evidence that consciousness performs any other ultimate function. Consciousness, via volitional action, increases the likelihood that an organism will direct its attention, and ultimately its movements, to whatever is most important for its survival and reproduction."

Note that although we do say that all conscious organisms possess volition,
we do not say that they all possess it to the same degree. Conscious
non-human animals do not have the self-consciously deployable form of
volition necessary for conceptual thought that we humans have.

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

"Doesn't help me to see where I'm goin' if I can't change course." This
quote was taken from a source mentioned elsewhere on the Forum in an
entirely different context (guesses welcome). Nonetheless, the quote is suggestive of a useful
thought experiment: imagine that you have all of your conscious experiences,
but no volitional power to put your intentions into action. Wouldn't that
make you a mere "couch potato," whose conscious awareness does you no good whatsoever?

Comments, whether you have or have not read the paper, are encouraged—but if you haven’t read it, you may find me telling you that the answer to your comment lies therein!

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I'm not sure what the point is here. Consciousness is "for" awareness of the external world, if I can put it that way. Single celled animals have no volition, they simply respond on a sensory level. "All conscious processes exist to subserve that ultimate function"? How's that? My nerves exist solely to transfer information from one nerve ending to the spinal cord. If you're only referring to processes that are conscious (it's not clear to me), can you list some processes of consciousness that meet your assertion? "We believe that all conscious organisms possess at least some volitional capability." Where's the evidence for such an assertion? "There is, as far as we know, no valid theoretical argument that consciousness is needed for any function other than volitional movement ..." This is not a matter of theoretical argument but of empirical evidence. If I put my hand in a fire, there is no volitional action on my part that I must perform to feel pain or remove my hand from the fire. It is a reflex action. I think your presentation is rationalistic. Or perhaps I don't understand what you're saying.
ANTHEM
"It is my eyes which see,
and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth.


It is my ears which hear,
and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world.


It is my mind which thinks,
and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth."


---------

"Life, if well spent, is long." - Leonardo

--------------------
(Avatar shows the Milky Way and our place in it.)

#3 Brian Smith

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 10:09 PM

Is the next paper going to be: "What is existence for?"
Eschewing logic for facts is empiricism, not rationality
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To Identity and her Laws
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Apprehensible, by senses and reason, to all.

#4 Lee Pierson

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 11:05 PM

I'm not sure what the point is here.  Consciousness is "for" awareness of the external world, if I can put it that way.  Single celled animals have no volition, they simply respond on a sensory level.  "All conscious processes exist to subserve that ultimate function"?  How's that?  My nerves exist solely to transfer information from one nerve ending to the spinal cord.  If you're only referring to processes that are conscious (it's not clear to me), can you list some processes of consciousness that meet your assertion?  "We believe that all conscious organisms possess at least some volitional capability."  Where's the evidence for such an assertion?  "There is, as far as we know, no valid theoretical argument that consciousness is needed for any function other than volitional movement ..."  This is not a matter of theoretical argument but of empirical evidence.  If I put my hand in a fire, there is no volitional action on my part that I must perform to feel pain or remove my hand from the fire.  It is a reflex action.  I think your presentation is rationalistic.  Or perhaps I don't understand what you're saying.

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Well, I don't think that the use of the "R" word ("rationalism") is called for here. You should not expect an abstract of a paper to contain the evidence for its contention. You'll have to consult the paper for that!

And yes, consciousness is "for" awareness--but what is awareness for, in an evolutionary, adaptive sense? Our answer is: for volitional movement, which presumably would include neither the movements of single-celled organisms nor reflex movements. As far as is known, consciousness plays no role in such movements. The single-celled organism presumably has no consciousness, and the reflexive response of a higher organism to fire apparently occurs before the organism's consciousness of pain.

#5 dondigitalia

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 11:18 PM

The single-celled organism presumably has no consciousness, and the reflexive response of a higher organism to fire apparently occurs before the organism's consciousness of pain.

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Are you equating consciousness with conceptual consciousness?

According to Objectivism, consciousness begins on the level of pure sense data. I don't think you mean to say that the reflexive response to fire occurs before the fire is even sensed. If it does occur before the fire is sensed, then what causes it; and if we can reflexively pull away from it before sensuous contact, then how come I've gotten burned so many times?

#6 Paul's Here

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 12:02 AM

Well, I don't think that the use of the "R" word ("rationalism") is called for here. You should not expect an abstract of a paper to contain the evidence for its contention. You'll have to consult the paper for that!

And yes, consciousness is "for" awareness--but what is awareness for, in an evolutionary, adaptive sense? Our answer is: for volitional movement, which presumably would include neither the movements of single-celled organisms nor reflex movements. As far as is known, consciousness plays no role in such movements. The single-celled organism presumably has no consciousness, and the reflexive response of a higher organism to fire apparently occurs before the organism's consciousness of pain.

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The last I looked, this was a forum and you were free to provide any supporting evidence to your audience. Were you just advertizing your paper here or trying to get a discussion of your ideas? Perhaps you can provide some clues as to the nature of your evidence.

It is circular reasoning to say that consciousness is "for" awareness or volitional movement. "For" (as used above) means indicating a purpose or goal. A purpose or goal presupposes consciousness. (Unless your talking about non-conscious goals such as a rock rolling down a hill will end up in the river.) An indication of the problem in your formulation can be seen in your statement "Consciousness makes volitional attention possible." I would hold that volitional attention IS consciousness (for those organisms capable of it). Remember, consciousness is an attribute of entities. To discuss goals for attributes as if they were entities by themselves makes no sense to me.

On what basis do you exclude sensory awareness from consciousness? If that is the case, then you'd have to exclude the sensory awareness of higher animals from consciousness. If that's the case, what are you conscious of and by what means?

"The reflexive response of a higher organism to fire apparently occurs before the organism's consciousness of pain"???? :) So why does the reflex work the way it does? You mean whether I put my hand in a fire or I put my hand in water produces the same reflex? Besides, my point was about your statement that "all conscious processes exist to subserve [making] volitional movement possible." Feeling pain is a conscious process, and the aspect of consciousness that creates pain does not require any volitional movement on my part. The feeling of pain is a non-volitional process experienced when the organism is in danger.
ANTHEM
"It is my eyes which see,
and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth.


It is my ears which hear,
and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world.


It is my mind which thinks,
and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth."


---------

"Life, if well spent, is long." - Leonardo

--------------------
(Avatar shows the Milky Way and our place in it.)

#7 Lee Pierson

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 12:05 AM

Are you equating consciousness with conceptual consciousness?

According to Objectivism, consciousness begins on the level of pure sense data. I don't think you mean to say that the reflexive response to fire occurs before the fire is even sensed. If it does occur before the fire is sensed, then what causes it; and if we can reflexively pull away from it before sensuous contact, then how come I've gotten burned so many times?

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The reflex response occurs before any awareness, not just before conceptual awareness. The response is mediated neuronally below the cortical level. It's fast, but evidently not fast enough to keep you from getting burned. Without the fast reflexive response, though, you might have been burned to a crisp!

#8 Paul's Here

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 12:23 AM

The reflex response occurs before any awareness, not just before conceptual awareness. The response is mediated neuronally below the cortical level. It's fast, but evidently not fast enough to keep you from getting burned. Without the fast reflexive response, though, you might have been burned to a crisp!

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Doesn't that provide some evidence that the reflex is associated with the harm that might accompany continued exposure to that environment and the subsequent pain that would result? Doesn't that show that there may be a biological correlation between certain reflexes and pain. Aren't there neurological disorders where people can't feel pain and they don't have this same reflex? I've seen people who can stick pins in their hands with no reflex to pull away because they don't experience pain.
ANTHEM
"It is my eyes which see,
and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth.


It is my ears which hear,
and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world.


It is my mind which thinks,
and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth."


---------

"Life, if well spent, is long." - Leonardo

--------------------
(Avatar shows the Milky Way and our place in it.)

#9 PhilO

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 12:45 AM

Doesn't that provide some evidence that the reflex is associated with the harm that might accompany continued exposure to that environment and the subsequent pain that would result?  Doesn't that show that there may be a biological correlation between certain reflexes and pain.  Aren't there neurological disorders where people can't feel pain and they don't have this same reflex?  I've seen people who can stick pins in their hands with no reflex to pull away because they don't experience pain.

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Your conclusion doesn't follow. The sensory mechanism (or pathways mediating the sensory impulses) is almost certainly the same that provides information to conceptual consciousness. If the sensors/nerves are malfunctioning, neither reflexes, nor conscious action based on sensing heat, would be possible.
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#10 PhilO

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 12:52 AM

We have placed the article in the Cogprints archive (http://cogprints.org/4482/) ...

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I've downloaded the article and plan to read all of it soon, but I was interested in this, on page 1:

Volitional action (i.e., nondeterministic, non-algorithmic, non-automatic, non-random action that is freely-willed in the “libertarian” sense) exists. 2) All conscious organisms, if unimpaired, are capable of some kind of volitional action.


From this I take it, as a direct corollary, that your view is that all conscious life is non-deterministic, not simply conceptual consciousness?
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Come here to stay.

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#11 ELS

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 12:58 AM

Our hypothesis is that the ultimate adaptive function of consciousness is to make volitional movement possible.


O.K. Consciousness is for guiding action through reality. The "volitional" is the self-directed.

Thus, we believe that all conscious organisms possess at least some volitional capability.


So, you believe all conscious organisms have some self-directed action. That, of course, implies that every conscious organism has some "self" which is directing the action (not denying it; only pointing out the logical implications).

Consciousness makes volitional attention possible; volitional attention, in turn, makes volitional movement possible.


"Attention" is volitional per se, there is no "non-volitional" attention; it would be a contradiction in terms. Attention is a state of self-directed sustained consciousness toward an object, so it presupposes the existence of consciousness, but that only means that the existence of the faculty, with all of it's specific operations, makes those operations possible. So what?

Self-directed awareness makes self-directed movement possible. Nothing new to Objectivist theory.

There is, as far as we know, no valid theoretical argument that consciousness is needed for any function other than volitional movement and no convincing empirical evidence that consciousness performs any other ultimate function

.

Wrong! There is a profound difference between the use, method and scope of consciousness for lower animals possessing it, and man, whose consciousness extends, literally, in possibility, through the universe and over a lifetime of "movement" (i.e., action).

The "need" and "ultimate function" of _human_ consciousness is to integrate the actions both mental and physical of a man through an entire lifetime! This includes every and all "volitional movement"-- and requires a profound distinction between the "lower" and the "higher" organism's principles of consciousness. There is a very real hierarchy involved that requires you to distinguish the levels of consciousness and what principles determine the "ultimacy" of it's function.

Consciousness, via volitional action, increases the likelihood that an organism will direct its attention, and ultimately its movements, to whatever is most important for its survival and reproduction.


Not necessarily. Only if the organism can distinguish which actions are "most important for its survival and reproduction", will it survive; and only if it can coordinate (direct) it's movements according to it's awareness will it survive.
Someone once pointed out that there were probably many species of animals which, though conscious, did not solve the problem of survival.

Note that although we do say that all conscious organisms possess volition,
we do not say that they all possess it to the same degree. Conscious
non-human animals do not have the self-consciously deployable form of
volition necessary for conceptual thought that we humans have.


Great. Now re-think everything above this and show us the differences and degrees of self-direction involved. Then you may have a valid theory.
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#12 Paul's Here

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 01:11 AM

Your conclusion doesn't follow. The sensory mechanism (or pathways mediating the sensory impulses) is almost certainly the same that provides information to conceptual consciousness. If the sensors/nerves are malfunctioning, neither reflexes, nor conscious action based on sensing heat, would be possible.

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Did I make a conclusion or just ask questions? Your statement seems to support the general direction of my questions, i.e., that there is a correlation between the reflex action and the pain experienced. Not all reflexes are correlated with pain.

I'd have to see evidence that the the sensory pathways are the same. According to one website, a reflex involves "a reflex mechanism involves a receptor organ, and effector organ, and some type of communication network." Is the network for sensory input the same as that for reflexes?
ANTHEM
"It is my eyes which see,
and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth.


It is my ears which hear,
and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world.


It is my mind which thinks,
and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth."


---------

"Life, if well spent, is long." - Leonardo

--------------------
(Avatar shows the Milky Way and our place in it.)

#13 Lee Pierson

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 01:13 AM

The last I looked, this was a forum and you were free to provide any supporting evidence to your audience.  Were you just advertizing your paper here or trying to get a discussion of your ideas?  Perhaps you can provide some clues as to the nature of your evidence.

It is circular reasoning to say that consciousness is "for" awareness or volitional movement.  "For" (as used above) means indicating a purpose or goal.  A purpose or goal presupposes consciousness.  (Unless your talking about non-conscious goals such as a rock rolling down a hill will end up in the river.)  An indication of the problem in your formulation can be seen in your statement "Consciousness makes volitional attention possible."  I would hold that volitional attention IS consciousness (for those organisms capable of it).  Remember, consciousness is an attribute of entities.  To discuss goals for attributes as if they were entities by themselves makes no sense to me.

On what basis do you exclude sensory awareness from consciousness?  If that is the case, then you'd have to exclude the sensory awareness of higher animals from consciousness.  If that's the case, what are you conscious of and by what means?

"The reflexive response of a higher organism to fire apparently occurs before the organism's consciousness of pain"???? :)  So why does the reflex work the way it does?  You mean whether I put my hand in a fire or I put my hand in water produces the same reflex?  Besides, my point was about your statement that "all conscious processes exist to subserve [making] volitional movement possible."  Feeling pain is a conscious process, and the aspect of consciousness that creates pain does not require any volitional movement on my part.  The feeling of pain is a non-volitional process experienced when the organism is in danger.

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As i have already stated, in this context "for" refers to adaptive function in the evolutionary sense; there is no circularity here.

Where have i denied the existence of "sensory consciousness"?? The conscious experience of pain does exist and is non-volitional--but it has an important function in the guidance of volitional action.

#14 Lee Pierson

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 01:16 AM

I've downloaded the article and plan to read all of it soon, but I was interested in this, on page 1:
From this I take it, as a direct corollary, that your view is that all conscious life is non-deterministic, not simply conceptual consciousness?

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That is correct.

#15 Paul's Here

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 01:23 AM

------------------
Great. Now re-think everything above this and show us the differences and degrees of self-direction involved. Then you may have a valid theory.

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I think you're granting too much here, ELS. I have yet to see a definition of volition that distinguishes it from consciousness. Nor have I seen a presentation of the entities that possess consciousness and how that effects the theory. Volition, according to Objectivism, is an attribute of man's consciousness only. The fact that a dog can choose between two flavors of biscuit placed in front of him is not volition!
ANTHEM
"It is my eyes which see,
and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth.


It is my ears which hear,
and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world.


It is my mind which thinks,
and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth."


---------

"Life, if well spent, is long." - Leonardo

--------------------
(Avatar shows the Milky Way and our place in it.)

#16 Lee Pierson

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 01:25 AM

O.K. Consciousness is for guiding action through reality. The "volitional" is the self-directed.
So, you believe all conscious organisms have some self-directed action. That, of course, implies that every conscious organism has some "self" which is directing the action (not denying it; only pointing out the logical implications).
"Attention" is volitional per se, there is no "non-volitional" attention; it would be a contradiction in terms.

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Perhaps you have never experienced the phenomenon of a loud noise, such as an explosion, suddenly and non-volitionally capturing your attention--or have experienced the "cocktail party phenomenon," in which you suddenly become focally aware of your name mentioned in a conversation across the room that you were not attending to before.

#17 Lee Pierson

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 01:37 AM

There is a profound difference between the use, method and scope of consciousness for lower animals possessing it, and man, whose consciousness extends, literally, in possibility, through the universe and over a lifetime of "movement" (i.e., action).

The "need" and "ultimate function" of _human_ consciousness is to integrate the actions both mental and physical of a man through an entire lifetime! This includes every and all "volitional movement"-- and requires a profound distinction between the "lower" and the "higher" organism's principles of consciousness. There is a very real hierarchy involved that requires you to distinguish the levels of consciousness and what principles determine the "ultimacy" of it's function.

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I don't really disagree with you here, but it is important to realize that mental actions are meaningful to an organism's life only if, at some point, they affect the organism's movements.

#18 Paul's Here

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 01:44 AM

As i have already stated, in this context "for" refers to adaptive function in the evolutionary sense; there is no circularity here.

Where have i denied the existence of "sensory consciousness"?? The conscious experience of pain does exist and is non-volitional--but it has an important function in the guidance of volitional action.

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Yes, but you stated "all conscious processes exist to subserve [making] volitional movement possible." If pain is a process of consciousness that is non-volitional, doesn't that contradict your statement? What volitional movement was there when consciousness generated the feeling of pain?

You stated "for volitional movement, which presumably would include neither the movements of single-celled organisms nor reflex movements. As far as is known, consciousness plays no role in such movements. The single-celled organism presumably has no consciousness..." You have excluded the sensory apparatus of a single celled organism from consciousness.

If you had asked "what evolutionary role does the development of consciousness play in homo sapiens or some particular species?" then I'd understand where you are going with your theory. But to imply that consciousness has some evolutionary role apart from any species is misleading or confusing at best. What would the evolution of a dog's or horses or bee's consciousness have in common with man's consciousness? How do you just study the evolution of "consciousness"?
ANTHEM
"It is my eyes which see,
and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth.


It is my ears which hear,
and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world.


It is my mind which thinks,
and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth."


---------

"Life, if well spent, is long." - Leonardo

--------------------
(Avatar shows the Milky Way and our place in it.)

#19 Lee Pierson

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 02:04 AM

Yes, but you stated "all conscious processes exist to subserve [making] volitional movement possible."  If pain is a process of consciousness that is non-volitional, doesn't that contradict your statement?  What volitional movement was there when consciousness generated the feeling of pain?

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The volitional movement referred to would occur subseuently to the feeling of pain.

You stated "for volitional movement, which presumably would include neither the movements of single-celled organisms nor reflex movements. As far as is known, consciousness plays no role in such movements. The single-celled organism presumably has no consciousness..."  You have excluded the sensory apparatus of a single celled organism from consciousness.

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Yes, I doubt that any single-celled organism is conscious, but if somehow it turns out that some unicellular life form has a tiny bit of awareness, then yes, I would expect that it would also have a correspondingly tiny bit of volition.

If you had asked "what evolutionary role does the development of consciousness play in homo sapiens or some particular species?" then I'd understand where you are going with your theory.  But to imply that consciousness has some evolutionary role apart from any species is misleading or confusing at best.  What would the evolution of a dog's or horses or bee's consciousness have in common with man's consciousness?  How do you just study the evolution of  "consciousness"?

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Is there really a problem here? Legs evolved in various forms in various species, but always (or at least generally) have a function of "locomotion."

#20 ELS

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 02:25 AM

I think you're granting too much here, ELS.  I have yet to see a definition of volition that distinguishes it from consciousness.



How then do you distinguish the "volitional" from the "non-volitional" in consciousness? Why and where does the distinction come from in relation to consciousness per se?

Volition, according to Objectivism, is an attribute of man's consciousness only.  The fact that a dog can choose between two flavors of biscuit placed in front of him is not volition!


Why not?

"Volition" is simply self(organism)-directed consciousness. Why isn't man's conceptual level a much more powerful form of the same "lower-level" conscious process proper for his species-specific survival qua conceptual being?

I think that's what Lee Pierson is getting at. I just want more clarification on his theory to be sure I know exactly what he means.
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