Monday, January 31, 2005

Hobbits, Aliens & Morality

Actually, the impulse behind this post started with my reflections about Neanderthals. Over time (and most recently on a NOVA special) I have been exposed to the finding that modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted in Europe for thousands of years prior to the extinction of Neanderthals (only 35,000 years ago). The poignant and tragic dimensions of the story emerge as we consider how similar Neanderthals were to us, and how nearly certain it is that modern humans were the proximate cause of their dying out (through competition for resources and very likely direct warfare).

Recently, an archeological discovery was made in Indonesia of a tiny hominid relative, homo floresiensis (immediately nicknamed “hobbits” -- see the review of the initial findings by Carl Zimmer and more recent follow up). It looks like these small folks lived as recently as 18,000 years ago! Again, we find a species of hominids which were contemporaneous to us. Again, modern humans likely played a role in their demise.

If through some circumstance one of these species had lived long enough to have been part of our more recent recorded history, there is unfortunately little doubt of what the outcome would have been. Given our grim history of racism, war and genocide with regard to our own species, there seems no question that our treatment of near-humans would have been even worse, had they continued to exist up to the present day.

But putting aside what we would have done and instead considering what one ought to do, I ask: should killing a Neanderthal or a hobbit be considered the equivalent of murdering a human in a contemporary moral system?

For humans, the natural origins of our moral impulses and conceptions of how we ought to treat one another can be in harmony. Genetic science has shown that we modern Homo sapiens are a strikingly homogeneous bunch. Experts estimate we can all trace our origins to common ancestors (mitochondrial Eve, for instance) who lived a very brief 60,000 to 150,000 years ago or so.

This seems like an unqualified good and fortunate state of affairs. All of us are close relatives to each other. Therefore, as I argued in a recent post, our naturally grounded impulses to treat our own kin with kindness and generosity can readily come to the fore on behalf of all humans, as our global culture evolves.

Would we extend this circle to include near-humans, or is there a justification for “species-ism” in favoring human life?

Now, ethical treatment of animals is already a great moral challenge of our time. Here, most all agree a moral system must include an imperative to treat animals well, but at the same time it is our undeniable inclination to value their lives less than those of fellow humans. Looking at the reasons for this, we begin with our ancestral need for animal products as tools for survival. Furthermore, it makes evolutionary sense that we lack natural impulses to treat genetically distant species with care as we do our close kin. But what ought we to do? Can an argument be made that the lives of animals are as valuable as our own? Can we come up with an objective argument that they are of inferior value? I have taken a stab at this and thought about a theory which places a value on the robustness and complexity of subjective experience (see this old post). But my confidence in such a model is tentative at this point.

I come away from these musings thinking we should feel grateful that we don’t currently face the moral dilemmas which would accompany sharing our planet with near-humans. I’m pretty sure we’re still not up to it.

One parting thought: What if we were faced with aliens with comparable or even greater intelligence than us? Could we recognize their worth, or would we fall back on our natural species-ism? Of course, this could be a moot consideration if they don’t appreciate our value and have bigger guns.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Philosophical Multi-Tasking

It’s exciting to think that a new theory could have traction with regard to not just one, but several age-old philosophical problems. Sometimes the additional traction an idea gives you on multiple problems may itself seem like evidence that you are on the right track. Now, you still could be mistaken, of course. I recall David Chalmers, in his book The Conscious Mind, pointing out that just because consciousness is mysterious and quantum mechanics was mysterious, it certainly doesn’t follow that they are related problems.

Still, I will go ahead and speculate that a new metaphysical theory which revises our understanding of the natural world could provide a solution which performs such multi-tasking. The elements of this new metaphysics would include the naturalization of consciousness through adopting a panexperientialist perspective (the term panexperientialism, due to process philosopher David Ray Griffin, refers to the idea that first person experience is a fundamental and ubiquitous part of nature). It would also include a new model of causality which reveals the necessary role the attribute we know as phenomenal experience plays in the evolution of natural systems: here Gregg Rosenberg has done important work providing a detailed example of what this might look like.

I now present, with all due humility, an outline of the several outstanding problems which could be addressed if we construct a new metaphysics with these ingredients.

A. The mind/body problem: The theory will address how the “mysterious” aspect of consciousness fits into the natural world. First-person experience will be seen as a natural effect marking the work of a previously unacknowledged pole of causality which provides a binding and coordinating function in natural systems.

B. Causality and emergence: the new causal theory will replace traditional models which excluded the existence of subjects of experience. It will show how causality can work across multiple levels of nature, rather than assuming it happens only at the micro-level. The existence of a coordinating pole of causality (which is revealed to us through first-person experience) will resolve the question of how high-level features emerge in complex systems.

C. Knowledge: The nature of knowledge will be understood as arising from the direct acquaintance we have with nature given our existence as a system embedded in the causal network. Because we are a natural system within the world, truly objective knowledge (as if from a perspective standing outside the world) is not achievable and may not even be a coherent idea. At the same time, it will not be an “everything is relative” stance: this is because human perspectives are extremely homogeneous leading to inter-subjective agreement on most important facts.

D. The problem of time: Time will be better understood. It will be seen that time arises from causation at the level of an individual system (experienced by that system as subjective time) and is relative to that system.

E. And yes, the interpretation of quantum mechanics: The micro-level of causality is that of quantum interactions. The experiential pole of causality implements the theory’s measurement operation. These interactions happen ubiquitously in nature, given the presence of the experiential pole in all natural systems.

I think such a theory would likely reframe the free-will/determinism debate as well (since our concept of determinism depends on the traditional notion of causality), but I’ll stop here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


{UPDATE 24 March 2008: fixed some links, but unfortunately the Desert Landscape blog referenced below is defunct and the archives unavailable}

I had been thinking that self-consciousness was a subset of all consciousness. This means that one could have an experience without it being reflected on and brought to self-consciousness.

Uriah Kriegel is a philosopher at the University of Arizona and is associate director of the Center for Consciousness Studies there. He is also the lead contributor to the Desert Landscapes group philosophy blog at Arizona. He argues that all consciousness depends on self-consciousness (defined a certain way). Having read the arguments, I believe he is right to say that phenomenal conscious experiences necessarily have what he calls a subjective character, that is, they exist for a particular subject. While this isn’t necessarily an earth-shaking conclusion, I think it is important to the project of identifying the role consciousness plays in us (and potentially elsewhere in nature).

To do full justice to Kriegel’s arguments, one must read his papers and attend to his careful definition of terms (see this one, which presents the thesis, then this one, which compares the conclusions to those of Ned Block and presents the implications for consciousness studies). Nevertheless, I’ll go ahead and paraphrase the core of the argument here and then discuss some implications.

While we can easily distinguish between experiences which are the focus of our attention or reflection, and others in the background which are not in focus, it would be incorrect to say we aren’t self-consciously experiencing the latter as well. This is meant in the sense that we are at least implicitly or peripherally aware that the experience belongs to us. It has the property of being a first-person experience. If self-consciousness is defined in this limited sense, then it can be argued that all (normal) forms of consciousness depend on self-consciousness.

The idea is that we shouldn’t let our intimate acquaintance with the human ability to introspect and become highly reflective to lead us to conceptually divorce consciousness from self-consciousness. Let me now discuss some implications for the ideas I’ve been exploring in this blog.

Having concluded from analysis of the mind/body problem that subjective experience is a fundamental component of the natural world, a central problem is to then explain how it ends up manifesting itself as human phenomenal consciousness. Here I would usually say that the human organism, through its functional organization, somehow leverages the experiential quality inherent in nature to produce our human experience. Despite the fact that the building blocks of experience are ubiquitous in nature, we shouldn’t expect everything to have a human-like mind: the full-bore version depends (somehow) on the complex organization of our bodies and brains.

In this account, the experiential quality is still kind of a passive free rider. It depends on functional organization, but no particular functional or causal role is given to it. More recently I have been focusing on the question of what work subjective experience performs in nature. This is because I’ve come to view the idea that subjective experience is epiphenomenal to be nearly as absurd as the idea that it doesn’t exist at all (explicitly or implicitly defended by some philosophers).

The discussion of self-consciousness above is helpful because it points back to the kinds of role experience might play in a system like the human brain. This role probably involves binding, integration, and/or coordination of subsidiary interactions. The idea to explore in the brain and more generally, is this: complex dynamic systems resist reductionist explanations; a binding or coordinating function over and above the effective causes of the component parts is necessary to explain them. This additional quality is what manifests itself in the first person as experience.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Faces of Nature

The devastation caused by the tsunami is taken by many commentators to be a dramatic reminder of the impersonal, mindless destructive power of nature.

Remember, though, that humanity is part of the natural world. The worldwide response of sympathy and aid needs to be reckoned with to consider what this episode means for one’s view of nature.

I do not believe developments in our world feature a higher purpose in the usual top-down theistic sense. However, I believe the story of evolution (cosmic, biological and most recently cultural) gives indications of progression – an expression of purpose built from the bottom-up.

In terms of human cultural evolution, I see a positive trend. Our expressions of generosity, altruism and cooperation (all grounded in our nature) have expanded through time to include larger and larger groups: from kin-based clans to larger tribes, to cities and nations (this point was featured in Robert Wright’s book Nonzero). The conclusion of this trend is to consider all of humanity part of our group, and to end the depersonalization of the other which is a feature of wars and of the national and religious conflicts which still trouble the world.

It’s hard not to see signs of continued movement in this direction in the wake of the tsunami.