2007-09-28

Consciousness: Judgment vs. Property

"What is consciousness" is one of the Big Questions of science. To me, it is an interesting question because prima facie, it is about one thing, but looking at it more deeply it is about something else. At first, the question appears to need an answer like "Consciousness is the property of living things where...". That presumes consciousness is a property of a thing. However, consciousness has not been shown to be a property of a thing precisely because it has not been defined sufficiently. So, a more useful interpretation of the question would be "What do we mean when we say something is 'conscious'?" It may seem like a small change, but it is actually a large shift in perspective. The second interpretation does not make the assumption that the consciousness is a particular property of a thing. It turns the question around to seek an explanation of why we think things are conscious.

We presume consciousness where there is both the appearance of unpredictability and the appearance of non-randomness. These two appearances combine to give the appearance of free and purposeful choice. We perceive "free" choice because our inability to predict what will happen gives us the intuition that whatever we see, something else could have happened. We perceive "purposeful" choice because even though we cannot predict the outcome, it does seem to us to have some order or reason to it; that is, it does not appear completely arbitrary.

In that sense, the judgment "conscious or not" ends up being more of a judgment of "like me or not." One tends to think of oneself as being an "actor" (a cause of change as opposed to "just" a responder to changes), and so other things that appear to be "actors" are judged "conscious" (i.e., like ourselves; our peers).

The implication is that consciousness is not so much a property of something observed as it is a judgment by the observer. Consciousness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Most people have a pretty easy time imputing consciousness to the other people they meet. When those people look and act much like oneself, it is very easy to make that judgment. People differ on whether or not, or to what degree, various other living things are conscious. My hypothesis is: that is directly related to how much they perceive themselves and the other living things to be similar. Imagine an experiment where people were asked a series of questions to assess how much they consider people and other living things to be similar, but did not bring consciousness into it. Then, separately, get them to take a position on what consciousness means and whether or not, and to what degree non-human living things are conscious. I suspect there would be a strong correlation between identifying with and imputing consciousness to other living things.

Another interesting question this perspective suggests is: what is the minimum amount of information a person needs to come to the conclusion that a thing they are interacting with is conscious? Backing off from the full immersion of having a face-to-face conversation with someone, what can we get rid of and still have a person perceive the other party as conscious? Said another way, what cues do we use to come to this conclusion? Are there subsets of that set that still result in the same judgment?

The (in)famous Turing Test is a particular example of an experiment based on the assumption that people can impute consciousness based entirely on a conversation by teletype. The question raised here is: what other limited interactions would people be willing to use to make the judgment "conscious or not"? And, how would they judge the same thing with full interaction vs. with that limited interaction? Would the answers be the same.

The perspective I'm exhibiting here is "consciousness is a psychological phenomenon to be studied in the observer". Most of the writing I've seen on the topic is from the perspective "consciousness is a property of things." I think this shift of perspective could be very valuable in the study of the topic.

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