06 January 2007

Let the maieutics commence

Classes start next Monday (after a 9 month break), and I've consciously remarked to myself at least three times today that I am way too giddy. I'll be paying graduate tuition, since I graduated last August, but I'm not technically starting a graduate program until September. Don't ask me where. The admissions deities will decide that. For now, I'm plodding ahead with the personalized educational program that I like to call "The Credit Binge." Of course, when I purge my 225 credits at the sacred gates of graduate institutions, they're more likely to feel pity than awe.
My point is: three cheers for education!

Warning: As I get back into school, this blog will probably morph into something that is, well, boring. We all have something to say, but none of us are obligated to listen. The great thing about blogs is that I don’t know if five people or five thousand people are holding their heads and weeping at the beauty of my verbal catharsis.

Here's a shout out to Russell for being the only person who responded to the post on animal consciousness. I guess the rest of my faithful, growing readership (all five ... I mean four of you) simply doesn't care what goes through a puppy's head when it is starving to death in some crack addict's basement. Oh well, we all have our priorities.

I suppose I'll say a few things in response to Russell. I’m grateful that Russ caught the unintentional ambiguity between (1) self-consciousness as a feeling of concern about how others perceive oneself and (2) self-consciousness as an awareness of oneself as a being distinct from other beings. I was referring to the second sense.

I suspect that many, perhaps a majority, believe that animals have self-consciousness. Russell agrees. He provides three anecdotes to support his position:
(1) The behavior of his dog, Terry, is nearly indistinguishable from the behavior of his son, Porter.
(2) A study on sheepdogs concluded that they have a capacity for memory that is roughly equivalent to that of a 3-4 year old child. For example, they can identify a fetch toy (from a pile of other toys) after having not seen it for a year.
(3) Terry (the dog) shows a sort of self-concern and/or self-preservation that is inconsistent with a lack of self-awareness.

Here are some short thoughts in response:
(1) I, too, have always thought that infants are more like animals than humans, and should be treated as such. We teach them “tricks” like walking on two legs and we condition them to repeat phrases (like a parrot). Who can deny that we speak to babies and puppies in exactly the same babble-language? And when they do something bad, we speak real English in harsh, repetitive bursts, as if they magically understand after the third repetition. Unfortunately, I think this point gives us no reason to think that either babies or dogs are self-aware.
(2) This is the best argument, in spite of the fact that memory can be characterized in ways that don’t require self-awareness. The ability to identify something like a chew-toy (regardless of how much time has passed) in the way that the sheepdog does it ends up playing an important role in this discussion.
(3) How is Terry’s self-preservation different from a thorn-bush’s self-preservation, or that of any number of toxic plants, for that matter? Those plants are the way they are because any of their potential ancestors who were palatable and nice on the stomach were eaten. The tough, poisonous plants were the ones who passed down their genetic information. Of course, someone can say the same thing about the behaviors of humans, but there is (we hope) an important difference between humans and plants, and that difference has something to do with self-awareness. What is it about Terry that makes him seem like he has that extra ingredient?

The crucial point of self-consciousness, I believe, isn’t so much the consciousness as it is the self. Consciousness is such a hard term to define that we find professional philosophers (i.e. David Chalmers) who are willing to say that thermometers are conscious. If we are going to be so broad, we might simply say that consciousness is a responsiveness to information in the environment (which, if I remember correctly, isn’t terribly far from what Chalmers says). A self-conscious thing would then be responding to information about its self. Again, we come up against an ambiguity: something that responds to itself could be as simple as a camcorder taping itself in a mirror, but something that responds to its self must be in possession of some self to which it can respond. A camcorder doesn’t have a self. Why are we willing to say that?

Is there some activity or capacity—possessed by humans and lacking in camcorders—that is a necessary condition for selfhood?

I think there is, and I’m not sure that dogs have it. Before I taint you with my views (which are probably wrong anyway), I hope a few more people will share their thoughts.


Kris said...

Kira (our family dog) totally knows when she farts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan. This is Ammon. In my opinion, the problem with determining whether something has a conscience or is self-aware is that such awareness must be communicated to the observer before we, the observers, will declare that something is self aware. Communication can be replicated and manipulated such that a thing that is really not aware of itself appears to be aware of itself. IE, the camcorder – I will submit that a camcorder is not aware of itself because it has no self to be aware of. However, because it can communicate with us, the observers, we declare that it must be self-aware. Therefore, I am comfortable with the assertion that the camcorder, while aware in sense that it can detect foreign stimuli, is not self-aware. This goes for the thermometer too. As for the dog, Kris' argument cannot be refuted, farting is unmistakably a mark of self-awareness.

Russell said...

Dan, first, thanks for the shout-out. I haven't been very diligent in checking my friends' blogs lately or in maintaining my own but I will improve.
I may have answered the wrong question, but I think I am happy with my conclusions. As Ordu said to Taran in Taran Wanderer, speaking of the answers he would find in the world, "They will probably be wrong, but that will not matter much and since you will have come to them on your own, they will be more valuable to you" (roughly quoted).

Is there some activity or capacity—possessed by humans and lacking in camcorders—that is a necessary condition for selfhood?

In addressing this issue, I seek to define a necessary condition possessed by both humans and dogs to further my argument in favor of self-conscious dogs.

The capacity to act and not be acted upon comes to mind but this seems insufficient when considered in light of a Tulip's attraction to sunlight. Is that not an action in response to a given situation? Indeed so, and yet I would not broaden my definition of self-consciousness enough to include plants. However, rather than using capacity to act of its own motivation to determine that something has consciousness, I would ask, can we use it to categorically eliminate those things not possessing such capacity?

What is the difference between the thermometer and the tulip? Or the camcorder, really. All three contain elements that will expand or contract in response to heat and cold. They will all decay given sufficient time. And if the tulip reaching for the light is proof that it is acting, then the mercury rising in response to the same influence should indicate its comparability. Indeed, is there anything that does not change of itself given the proper situation? I think not (Religious doctrines, mathematical proofs, and physical laws excluded).

So, the proof of action or inaction is insufficient.

I believe that the solution boils down to the specific capacity of choice. The story of the thorny poisonous plant is not a story of choice; it is a story of successful circumstance. The plant that did not get eaten reproduced. The plant did get eaten failed to reproduce, resulting in an unappetizing, unattractive plant. (Just as a side note, I think it humorous that there are plants that are preserved for possessing the very qualities eliminated from the unattractive plant millennia ago.)

So my argument rests on choice. Terry can make choices about whether to eat, whether to hide, whether to play, etc. But the thermometer has no choice in the matter of its mercury rising. Neither has the tulip a choice in its response to sunlight. Both Terry and Porter have the capacity for choice, which I find lacking in the camcorder and the mirror.