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Are we conscious?

by Sikz
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Sikz
#1
Oct5-03, 01:47 AM
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Something taken for granted, it seems, is that people are conscious in the first place. How can you possibly know that you are conscious? Consciousness, presumably, is a thing of the present- not the past or the future. I am not conscious tomorrow and I am not conscious yesterday, but rather I am conscious now. However, any information I analyze to discover if I am cinscious becomes outdated; by the time I can think of it it has already passed into memory and the past and is no longer a present reality.

What's more, the present can be seen quite clearly to not exist at all! If the present existed (exist, in this case, is defined in a rather abstract way. If time were a line, anything that exists can be measured as a distance on this line between two points- since geometric points are known to be only specifications of points on a place's perimeter and not existant things in themselves), we would have to pass through it. The future would become the present and then the past, as it does now, but it would have to be the present for an amount of time, meaning that more than one event in the future would pass into the present and exist there at the same time. What's more, it cannot be "present for an amount of time" becasuse that would imply that time is passing through the present and therefore time periods could be measured off within it. If time periods can be measured within the present, then obviously the present has been divided into past and future.

So apperently there is no present- it is like a border between countries, only an abstraction that seperates two things that, in actuality, touch (in this case past and future, in the case of our metaphor the two countries). If consciousness exists in the present, and the present does not exist, then it follows that consciousness does not exist either.

In the case that consciousness exists in the past, we are conscious of events that have already happened. While it is true that we have memory of them, we are not consciously experiencing them, but only drawing on them for data. The very fact that we recognize them as in the past proves this (in fact, the past may not exist either- for surely you cannot prove that an event in the past actually exists? But that is for another discussion...). In the case that it exists in the future, the same principle can be applied. Since we can imagine the future while knowing that our imaginings are not true (rather, are most likely untrue), and that they have not "yet happened", we must not be conscious in the future. It is impossible to know that the future has not yet occurred unless we have something to check it against, and the fact that we do have something to check it against proves that we have experienced that thing. To experience something you must be conscious during its occurence, and thus we cannot be conscious in the future.

According to our argument, then, we are neither conscious in the past nor the future, but rather in the present. We have also established that the present does not exist. It would appear, then, that we are not conscious. Unless someone would care to prove all of this wrong?
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FZ+
#2
Oct5-03, 09:08 PM
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A flaw can be that, IMHO, consciousness is defined in relation to us. Whatever we are, that is consciousness.
Sikz
#3
Oct5-03, 10:28 PM
P: 235
Interesting... But what, precisely, do you mean by "what we are"? Obviously you don't mean WHATEVER we are, for in that case consciousness could be defined in part as "comprised of atoms" or "curious". I take "what we are" to be refferring only to our relationship to consciousness itself; We are conscious, nonconsciousness can be found by analyzing what we are not.

However, using this definition we arrive at the knowlege of what IS conscious and what is NOT conscious, but we still lack an objective definition of consciousness itself. In the question "Is water wet?" the answer is obviously yes, for wetness is defined as the presence of liquid, and water is a liquid. However, consciousness is not defined as "the presence of us", so our answer is not so obvious. Consciousness appears to have an actual definition independent of "us" (for example, a rabbit may be conscious although a rabbit is not one of "us"- "us" in this case being defined as human beings), therefore the only way to know if this definition truly applies to us is by figuring out the definition itself and then checking it against ourselves.

How we would go about defining consciousness I am not sure... If anyone is interested we may attempt it, but I believe we should start it in a new thread. Simply reply here if you think we should attempt that investigation.

hypnagogue
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Oct5-03, 11:08 PM
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Are we conscious?

Sikz, when we say consciousness exists in the present, what we mean is that it exists in the subjective present, which really encompasses a brief duration of time, as opposed to an objective present, which would indeed be instantaneous.

This brief duration of subjective time is called 'the specious present.' You can read more about it here. Here's a quick argument for the existence of the specious present, from the cited source:

If the experienced present were only a durationless instant, then we would not see pictures on the television screen or VDU of a computer, since these are built up from a moving electron beam. More generally, we would not see anything at all, since light itself is a motion.

...

When events occur sufficiently fast, such as the movement of the electron beam over the television screen, we simply fail to perceive the temporal order of certain components of our experience. In these cases, we see things as simultaneous when they are not simultaneously presented to our sensory apparatus, and that is the basis of the true doctrine of the specious present.
As for defining consciousness, I think the philosopher Thomas Nagel has come up with a very nice definition: if a certain creature is conscious, then it is like something to be that creature. For instance, we can say we are conscious of the color red, because it is like something to see red (it is the experience of redness). If a creature has no subjective qualia, then the creature does not really experience the world consciously, and we cannot meaningfully say that it is 'like something' to be that creature.
Sikz
#5
Oct5-03, 11:27 PM
P: 235
Absolutely, I'm afraid I totally overlooked that about the present. Thanks.

As for Nagel's definition of consciousness... hmmm... Obviously a computer could find that a triangle is LIKE a square, since they both have straight sides, among other things. But I don't believe that's what you are talking about or what he meant.

What you/he mean(s), I take it, is that "This tastes yellow" is an indication of consciousness, because a connection has been drawn between two sets of data that are objectively dissimilar and in fact incomparable at all, being of entirely different natures. The closest thing a nonconscious entity (such as a computer, presumably) could do to that is finding similarities in unrelated things based on their code in binary or their location in memory. However, conscious beings draw the connections between the things themselves, not their memories, so our example is irrelevant.

I can find no fault in Nagel's definition, and thus I soppose we shall accept it, if there are no objections? If not, we have answered our orignial inquery since human beings DO fit our definition of consciousness, and are therefore conscious.
hypnagogue
#6
Oct5-03, 11:58 PM
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From your description, I don't know if you quite have the correct conception of the phrase. For instance, applying it to a computer, we would not ask something like "can a computer find relationships among...?" but rather "what is it like to be a computer?"

Basically what you are doing is putting yourself in the shoes of the creature in question, and asking if there is anything to be 'seen' from those shoes. If there is something to be 'seen,' then it is that creature's consciousness. If there isn't, then the creature has no consciousness in the first place.

It may be helpful to read Nagel's essay: What is it like to be a bat?
Sikz
#7
Oct6-03, 12:08 AM
P: 235
Ah yes I see what you mean.
Iacchus32
#8
Oct7-03, 08:18 PM
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Originally posted by hypnagogue
From your description, I don't know if you quite have the correct conception of the phrase. For instance, applying it to a computer, we would not ask something like "can a computer find relationships among...?" but rather "what is it like to be a computer?"

Basically what you are doing is putting yourself in the shoes of the creature in question, and asking if there is anything to be 'seen' from those shoes. If there is something to be 'seen,' then it is that creature's consciousness. If there isn't, then the creature has no consciousness in the first place.

It may be helpful to read Nagel's essay: What is it like to be a bat?
What is it to be like a rock? Don't rocks tend to hang out together?

There must be something conscious about the experience of being a rock, even if it "emanates" from some place else, I guess? ...
Sikz
#9
Oct7-03, 09:35 PM
P: 235
One would think so... Even with no nervous or sensory system you would still "be"- you might FEEL existance, so to speak.

In any case I don't think the definition "Basically what you are doing is putting yourself in the shoes of the creature in question, and asking if there is anything to be 'seen' from those shoes." is much help, as its totally useless as far as practicle application goes. We need a definition that is more substantial and useful- but I've started a whole new thread on finding that, so don't worry about posting it here :) (naturally if there's anything you wish to post pertaining to the original subject of this thread, feel free, but if its something about the nature of consciousness it would be much better if you could post it in the "Consciuosness- I soppose we might as well tackle it..." thread)
hypnagogue
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Oct7-03, 11:37 PM
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Originally posted by Sikz
In any case I don't think the definition "Basically what you are doing is putting yourself in the shoes of the creature in question, and asking if there is anything to be 'seen' from those shoes." is much help, as its totally useless as far as practicle application goes. We need a definition that is more substantial and useful
It's useful from a philosophical standpoint-- it states clearly and concisely what we mean by "conscious." Any definition that is more substantial and useful, but is also true to what we mean by consciousness, will only be a bridge between our current scientific understanding and this "useless" definition of consciousness which revolves around the notion of subjective qualia. If you don't intelligibly account for the 'subjective' side of consciousness, then it may seem superficially that you have something really substantial and practical, but in fact you have not really gotten at the heart of the matter. Nagel's definition, at least, reminds us what the heart of that matter is.

Whether it is even possible to come to a good understanding of subjective phenomena using an objective approach is questionable. Thus, we may never come up with a really substantial scientific theory of consciousness, although there is certainly much within our potential to learn that hasn't been discovered yet (more fully mapping out neural correlates of consciousness, for one).

In any case, at this point we're not going to suddenly discover how to know consciousness objectively just by discussing known facts and tossing around ideas. There is still much to be learned about the brain itself, and we can't expect to understand consciousness and its relation to physical reality without at least comprehensively understanding the brain first. And even with a complete understanding of the brain, there is no guarantee that we could ever deduce from this a complete understanding of consciousness-- the subjective-- using purely objective means.
hypnagogue
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Oct7-03, 11:47 PM
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Originally posted by Iacchus32
What is it to be like a rock? Don't rocks tend to hang out together?

There must be something conscious about the experience of being a rock, even if it "emanates" from some place else, I guess? ...
Originally posted by Sikz
One would think so... Even with no nervous or sensory system you would still "be"- you might FEEL existance, so to speak.
There is nothing about a rock that should make us suspect that a rock is conscious, at least at this point in our understanding of consciousness. If I had to bet on the matter, I would say rocks are not conscious-- it is not like anything to be a rock. There is no viewpoint, no qualia, no feeling.

If a rock somehow 'feels' existence, then it is like something to be a rock, and it follows that a rock is conscious on some level. Of course this can't be ruled out a priori, but it is a dubious position indeed, from both logical and empirical standpoints.
Iacchus32
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Oct8-03, 12:45 AM
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Originally posted by hypnagogue
There is nothing about a rock that should make us suspect that a rock is conscious, at least at this point in our understanding of consciousness. If I had to bet on the matter, I would say rocks are not conscious-- it is not like anything to be a rock. There is no viewpoint, no qualia, no feeling.

If a rock somehow 'feels' existence, then it is like something to be a rock, and it follows that a rock is conscious on some level. Of course this can't be ruled out a priori, but it is a dubious position indeed, from both logical and empirical standpoints.
And yet, one can remain cold and completely "unmoved," just like a rock. And what do us human beings mean by building a "solid foundation" out of something? (i.e., out of rock). Hence there must be something said, about the experience of a rock.
Sikz
#13
Oct8-03, 01:06 AM
P: 235
It's useful from a philosophical standpoint-- it states clearly and concisely what we mean by "conscious."
Absolutely. I in no way intended to say that your definition was worthless, I only meant that it was useless as far as application goes. It explains what we mean by consciousness very well.

And about rocks having consciousness, obviously they wouldn't feel anything in the way that we do, but if something doesn't acknowlege its own existence, it seems odd that it would exist... What I mean is that the fact that a rock EXISTS might be its consciousness; it doesn't know intellegently that it exists, but it just DOES exist. Very hard to explain... But I think you probably got my meaning the first time around and this clarification is unnecessary. And I do agree that its a rather unprovable standpoint (unless we could come to a solution on the nature of existence, consciousness, objects... Heheh, if we knew everything we would know this too.)
hypnagogue
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Oct8-03, 01:18 AM
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Originally posted by Iacchus32
And yet, one can remain cold and completely "unmoved," just like a rock.
A human who is cold and completely unmoved is still a conscious human, assuming there's no brain damage or somesuch. As it stands, the only physical link to consciousness we know of is activity in nervous systems (specifically, sufficiently 'advanced' brains). This does not rule out the possibility that a rock is somehow conscious, but it also implies that we have no reason for believing that a rock is conscious.

And what do us human beings mean by building a "solid foundation" out of something? (i.e., out of rock). Hence there must be something said, about the experience of a rock.
No, that only says something about the human experience of a rock. It says nothing about the rock's experience itself.
hypnagogue
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Oct8-03, 01:42 AM
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Originally posted by Sikz
Absolutely. I in no way intended to say that your definition was worthless, I only meant that it was useless as far as application goes. It explains what we mean by consciousness very well.
Well, it's not my definition, it's Thomas Nagel's. I don't think we can yet come up with a definition of consciousness such that it is useful in practical applications and also is known to be valid with a high degree of certainty. The former implies an objective understanding of consciousness, but as it stands all objective accounts of what exactly is responsible for consciousness are speculative.

And about rocks having consciousness, obviously they wouldn't feel anything in the way that we do, but if something doesn't acknowlege its own existence, it seems odd that it would exist... What I mean is that the fact that a rock EXISTS might be its consciousness; it doesn't know intellegently that it exists, but it just DOES exist. Very hard to explain... But I think you probably got my meaning the first time around and this clarification is unnecessary. And I do agree that its a rather unprovable standpoint (unless we could come to a solution on the nature of existence, consciousness, objects... Heheh, if we knew everything we would know this too.)
Well, if rocks are not conscious, then they cannot acknowledge their existence one way or the other. There is nothing to do the acknowledging.

Contemplating existence as detached from any particular subjective viewpoint is difficult (if not ultimately impossible in its purest sense), since by definition we cannot think or perceive anything without doing so from our own personal consciousnesses. But this is precisely what the notion of objectivity entails-- seeing reality detached from any particular subjective viewpoint. If you accept objective existence as a truth and not just as an approximation, you should also accept that a rock can exist without being conscious.

I think there might also be some difficulty with language here. One could say that a rock's mere existence implies its consciousness (in the sense you are using), in the same way that one could say that a thermometer's measurement implies that it is aware of the temperature. I think both are subtle forms of anthropomorphism arising partially from ambiguous word usage. In one sense it is not wrong to say that a thermometer is 'aware' of the temperature, but this is really just a more ambiguous way of saying 'the thermometer encodes a measurement of the temperature in this room' or 'the thermometer allows us to be aware of the temperature in this room.' To attribute consciousness to this sort of 'awareness' on the part of the thermometer is a confusing of terms and a projection of human traits. Similarly, we might be tempted to say that a rock 'knows' it exists. But really what we should say is 'we know this rock exists, because it avails itself to our senses.'
Iacchus32
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Oct8-03, 01:57 AM
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Originally posted by hypnagogue
A human who is cold and completely unmoved is still a conscious human, assuming there's no brain damage or somesuch. As it stands, the only physical link to consciousness we know of is activity in nervous systems (specifically, sufficiently 'advanced' brains). This does not rule out the possibility that a rock is somehow conscious, but it also implies that we have no reason for believing that a rock is conscious.

No, that only says something about the human experience of a rock. It says nothing about the rock's experience itself.
And yet if consciousness were something that permeated everything, even something as lowly as a rock -- in the most rudimentary sense -- then yes, a rock belies a part of the "conscious experience."

"He who is least amongst you is the greatest" ... "and upon this rock [of faith] I will build my church."
hypnagogue
#17
Oct8-03, 11:48 AM
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Originally posted by Iacchus32
And yet if consciousness were something that permeated everything, even something as lowly as a rock -- in the most rudimentary sense -- then yes, a rock belies a part of the "conscious experience."
Yes, "if." I have never entirely ruled out the possibility, rather I have said that there is little reason to believe it at this point in our understanding. There are still logical and empirical problems with your premise.


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