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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Scientists Make Premature Declaration on Consciousness

Several scientists have made a declaration on consciousness.  (You can read coverage from a Scientific American blog here.)

Unfortunately, I think the declaration is more likely to promote confusion rather than clarity. What does it mean to "experience affective states?" What characterizes intentional behavior as such? These are problematic questions and I don't see this declaration helping matters. They seem to be ignoring the difficulties, not overcoming them.

One basic difficulty is that the word "consciousness" has multiple recognized definitions. For most people, I think if you told them octopuses had consciousness, they'd think that octopuses had self-awareness, higher order thoughts about their lives and experiences, and such. But that is not what the science shows. (I'm not saying octopuses don't have these things, but only that the science doesn't show it.) I suspect that the scientists making this declaration take "consciousness" to mean "phenomenal experience." But even then, the topic is incredibly problematic and the science does not really show us anything about it.

For a long time, neuroscientists have made a distinction between emotions and feelings, and have studied emotions in animals other than human beings. (E.g., see Joseph LeDoux's excellent book, The Emotional Brain.)  It's no news that all sorts of animals have emotions. The question of feelings and consciousness is more difficult, and I think these scientists are only giving the illusion of progress.