Defining Consciousness by Patrick Phillips

Posted on February 2, 2020

What is it like to be you? (And what on earth am I talking about?)

The most important part of communication is language. I know we are both using the English language in this case, but is my notion of any given word or sentence the same as yours? My model of the English language is muddled bundle of words attached to concepts. It seems to me very unlikely that the concept invoked by any given word would be the same across people. In fact, for people who come from different places, different backgrounds, or maybe didn’t even learn English as a first language, it seems much more likely that two people would have radically different concepts attached to the same words.

For example what do you think of when I say ‘fork’? When I hear ‘fork’ I think of maybe a fork on the table, a fork in the road, a fork in a river, a fork, a fork. Even if we first agree we are talking about the fork we put on a table and eat with, how do we know we have the exact same concept even then? Would your fork still be a fork if it is the same shape, but made out of diamond and used to scratch my hair? What if it is made out of diamond and used to scratch my hair and is 30 feet long? Ignoring the absurdity, is that just a massive fork or something altogether different? Is there a minimum number of prongs to be classified as a fork? Is it only two or three? Is there a maximum number, maybe four? It can certainly be made of wood, metal or plastic, but what about the shape of a fork made out of snow? Is that a sculpture of a fork, or a fork itself? After rigorous and meticulous dialogue we could probably agree on a precise set of possible definitions of fork, maybe dependent on a precise set of contexts. But now consider an even more abstract word; what about pinning down the essence of a thing us self-ascribed philosophers deem a ‘subjective property’ like beauty. Well lets just not start, but it seems far from easy to me (and maybe even impossible).

The first lesson we should draw from talking about forks is that there is a clear difference between word and concept. The word is just a label, the concept is what the label is for. The second lesson we must recognize is that it can be incredibly difficult to match concept to word. Quite often two people will use the same word for a different concept (or even worse, people will quit often use a word with no clear concept in mind at all). Unfortunately we must leave this brief discussion of meaning behind, and move on to the more difficult task at hand: the ‘hardest problem of consciousness.’ This problem is really just pinning down what we mean; what concept are trying to invoke when we say the word ‘conscious.’

What is it like to be a bat

Thomas Nagel

A common definition, first given by Thomas Nagel, claimed being conscious is having “something that it is like to be.” The phenomena of having experience, of seeing, of hearing, of thinking thoughts, and having something that its like to be you; that is the concept, and the label is "consciousness". Nagel takes a bat as an example, saying he believes that there is something that it would be like to be a bat, i.e. there is some experience the bat has. You may not be able to imagine exactly what its like to use sonar to explore the world around you, what its like to have a pea sized brain, what its like to fly, but as long as you think that there is some experience the bat has, you think that the bat is conscious. You could also make the claim that there is nothing it is like to be the bat, maybe because the bat is too simple or too small or lacks some other characteristic that gives it experience. This definition is related to the distinction between first person and third person. In particular, the ‘something that it is like to be’ is analogous to first person experience. Consciousness, by this view, is what you, with your eyes, your ears, and your mind see, hear, and think. In your case, it’s what its like to read these words from your fluorescent screen, to struggle with what they mean, and then get distracted by the next thought that appears.

A difficulty with “something that it is like to be” as a definition of consciousness is that we (you and me) can only know what it is like to be human. In fact we only know what it is like to be ourselves, we have sample size 1. I could imagine what it’s like to be you, but of course my imagination can only go so far. In general, it seems easier to imagine what a creature closely related to ourselves experiences. For example its relatively easy to recognize that a hominid like a gorilla or other ape would also have “something that it is like to be” and we could maybe glimpse what that first person vantage looks and feels like. This is because that ‘something’, we imagine, is very akin to the ‘something’ each one of us is personally familiar with.

My intuition says a bat also has consciousness. The bat’s consciousness, the thing it is like to be a bat, stretches my imagination more, however it too I can imagine has some experience, even though in this case I have more difficulty glimpsing what that first person experience is like. Imagining what it is like to be a bat stretches our mind more because it is not as ‘human’ as you or me or even an ape, and human experience is again our baseline metric of consciousness. We are our only reference point. Ultimately, all we know of consciousness of first person experience is the impression of it we construct in our head.

Now why would we expect our intuition about what things do and do not have first person experience be at all correct? I fail to imagine what its like to be a tree or a fly or a million of other things. But why should I be so confident in my imagination? It has proved me wrong many times before, and on much less difficult problems. I think there are good arguments that say our imagination really does go wrong in the case of a fly, for example see my post on Panpsychism.

My last quandary: is even this notion of consciousness precise enough? Let’s start with another question, is consciousness a matter of having and not having, or a matter of degree? Does a bat have less consciousness than us or does it just have a different type of consciousness? I suspect that either interpretation is in its own merit valid and self-consistent, again we just have to agree on a definition of before we can make falsifiable claims.

I’d love to hear what you think about the notion of consciousness I presented, and whether or not it matches your internal model of consciousness. This definition is by no means correct; it’s a definition after all. But I think it is important to know what we are talking about when we talk about it, so I would at least argue this definition is more correct than giving no definition at all.

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