Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Mind and its Place in Nature
Willem deVries


Summary by Evelynn Barclay

Mind and Consciousness

Williem deVries lead the discussion on consciousness and its relation to the world we live in. The first discussion topic of the night was an assigned reading “Strange Behavior.” This short fiction piece raises some questions about how we might define ourselves if forced to explain what makes us human to a member of another planet. The Gammas view robots as equals, and they allow them all the same rights as themselves. The Gammas are envious how the robots can be repaired with little trouble, and the robots are jealous of the Gammas’ flexibility. This causes problems for the humans who pride themselves in being above a mindless machine. The Gammas are shocked at the notion of considering robots mindless, because they can see the robots minds. The humans are incredibly puzzled and unsure of how to explain what they feel they have that robots do not. They try to explain pain and the ability to imagine. This further confuses things. The humans end up describing it as something else, and cannot pinpoint what exactly it does. Professor deVries questioned the humans’ lackluster descriptions and asked the class to explain exactly what it is that the humans have that the Gammas do not. The class was divided when the questions arose. Do robots have minds? Are they our equals? What exactly is artificial intelligence? Professor Möbius inquired if we thought robots could be angry. The class compared the Gammas to ants, living in a colony, and creating things much larger than themselves together, but not seeking meaning in the way humans tend to do. Professor deVries continued to remind us of the strength of the Gamma civilization; they have philosophers, were able to build a thriving society, and travel to Earth. When this topic ended we were left with the questions that philosophy tries to answer. How do we know we have this consciousness that as a class we could not get much more of a grasp on than the humans in “Strange Behavior”? We all feel on some level that we contain something unique, some sort of consciousness as we have come to call it, but what exactly does this entail?

Consciousness is a philosophical puzzle. Professor deVries explained to the class his profession. He senses a philosophical problem, but without knowing exactly what it is. Once it is identified, the topic moves into science. From the breeding ground of philosophy physics, chemistry, psychology and linguistics have been born. Nothing reaches beyond the scope of philosophy, every part of the world outside of us, and certainly inside of our beings, raises questions.

Consciousness can be used as an adjective. It can be used in the context of creature consciousness. In order to be knocked unconscious there must first be a level of consciousness. The important marker of this definition is that it includes all conscious creatures even if they do not have conscious mental states. Professor deVries used the example of blanking out while driving home, arriving in your driveway, unable to recall the specifics of how exactly you got there. I was able to relate to this experience, and parallel these states of consciousness to the voluntary and involuntary. These definitions lead to debate amongst the class. How does a mental state compare to a brain state? Where do we draw the line exactly? What other creatures are state-conscious?

Transitive consciousness was also discussed, which is directed at an object or content. The example of hallucinations was given. Questions were raised about the boundaries between being conscious of and being conscious that. The class discussed our ability to question our thoughts, ethics, desires and beliefs. Is this, perhaps, what make us conscious? First and second order mental states were also discussed. A first order mental state is when someone represents another’s thoughts about the world. A second order mental state is when someone represents someone’s beliefs about the metal state of another person. The behaviors of household pets were discussed. The cat that cuddles to receive food was examined, and we concluded that this is a conditioned behavior. Then the situation of sacrificial behavior from pets was examined. What drives an animal to do this? We discussed that, perhaps, this is a result of their pack mentality.

The next topic for debate was intentional versus sensory states. The example was given of thinking of a toothache and one’s tooth actually aching. What are the differences in these situations? How can it be proved that there are differences? What pain can the thought of a toothache bring? Intentional states represent something that could be an illusion. In a sensory state something exists in our consciousness or was there before. How does this relate to our overall consciousness of self? All conscious beings seem to have some representation of themselves, such as self-location, but they are not conscious of themselves as conscious. We concluded that there are multiple levels of self-consciousness in humans.

There are constraints of certain viewpoints that can be examined to build up or break down our own conclusions. The Naturalist constraint rejects the supernatural. The Physicalist constraint states that physical facts alone are significant to determine all facts concerning consciousness. The challenge that raised the greatest debate was in the situation of knowing about color and actually experiencing color. An example was given where a young lady in the future knew all the physical facts of color, but did not have color vision. She decided to have a surgery to allow her to see color. When she saw color she found something new. Can we then conclude that the physical facts about color are not all there is? The color brown was debated, and the credibility of the facts.

I found this last question to be intriguing. As a neuroscience major, the questions of consciousness are all around me. I have met a number of individuals that would argue for the facts of science. I appreciate the knowledge of science, it is in our application of these principles we find wisdom in. There is much to be said about how we are able to see, to taste, to touch, or feel internally. This is certainly a part of life that is very much part of consciousness. I believe there is a deeper level of consciousness, as we called conscious mental states in class. It is at this level we experience and integrate the world in a way that makes us individuals. While we all share a similar general basis, it is what we do with this that makes us who we are. The argument of color vision could be applied to an emotion such as love. The facts can only take us so far. I recognize the scientific aspects of memory and emotion, but all of these synaptic connections provide a basis for a higher level of consciousness.