Is ‘consciousness’ simple? Is it ancient?
Assigning less than 5% probability to ‘cows are moral patients’ strikes me as really overconfident. Ditto, assigning greater than 95% probability. (A moral patient is something that can be harmed or benefited in morally important ways, though it may not be accountable for its actions in the way a moral agent is.)
I’m curious how confident others are, and I’m curious about the most extreme confidence levels they’d consider ‘reasonable’.
I also want to hear more about what theories and backgrounds inform people’s views. I’ve seen some relatively extreme views defended recently, and the guiding intuitions seem to have come from two sources:
(1) How complicated is consciousness? In the space of possible minds, how narrow a target is consciousness?
Humans seem to be able to have very diverse experiences — dreams, orgasms, drug-induced states — that they can remember in some detail, and at least appear to be conscious during. That’s some evidence that consciousness is robust to modification and can take many forms. So, perhaps, we can expect a broad spectrum of animals to be conscious.
But what would our experience look like if it were fragile and easily disrupted? There would probably still be edge cases. And, from inside our heads, it would look like we had amazingly varied possibilities for experience — because we couldn’t use anything but our own experience as a baseline. It certainly doesn’t look like a human brain on LSD differs as much from a normal human brain as a turkey brain differs from a human brain.
There’s some risk that we’re overestimating how robust consciousness is, because when we stumble on one of the many ways to make a human brain unconscious, we (for obvious reasons) don’t notice it as much. Drastic changes in unconscious neurochemistry interest us a lot less than minor tweaks to conscious neurochemistry.
And there’s a further risk that we’ll underestimate the complexity of consciousness because we’re overly inclined to trust our introspection and to take our experience at face value. Even if our introspection is reliable in some domains, it has no access to most of the necessary conditions for experience. So long as they lie outside our awareness, we’re likely to underestimate how parochial and contingent our consciousness is.
(2) How quick are you to infer consciousness from ‘intelligent’ behavior?
People are pretty quick to anthropomorphize superficially human behaviors, and our use of mental / intentional language doesn’t clearly distinguish between phenomenal consciousness and behavioral intelligence. But if you work on AI, and have an intuition that a huge variety of systems can act ‘intelligently’, you may doubt that the linkage between human-style consciousness and intelligence is all that strong. If you think it’s easy to build a robot that passes various Turing tests without having full-fledged first-person experience, you’ll also probably (for much the same reason) expect a lot of non-human species to arrive at strategies for intelligently planning, generalizing, exploring, etc. without invoking consciousness. (Especially if your answer to question 1 is ‘consciousness is very complex’. Evolution won’t put in the effort to make a brain conscious unless it’s extremely necessary for some reproductive advantage.)
… But presumably there’s some intelligent behavior that was easier for a more-conscious brain than for a less-conscious one — at least in our evolutionary lineage, if not in all possible lineages that reproduce our level of intelligence. We don’t know what cognitive tasks forced our ancestors to evolve-toward-consciousness-or-perish. At the outset, there’s no special reason to expect that task to be one that only arose for proto-humans in the last few million years.
Even if we accept that the machinery underlying human consciousness is very complex, that complex machinery could just as easily have evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, rather than tens of millions. We’d then expect it to be preserved in many nonhuman lineages, not just in humans. Since consciousness-of-pain is mostly what matters for animal welfare (not, e.g., consciousness-of-complicated-social-abstractions), we should look into hypotheses like:
first-person consciousness is an adaptation that allowed early brains to represent simple policies/strategies and visualize plan-contingent sensory experiences.
Do we have a specific cognitive reason to think that something about ‘having a point of view’ is much more evolutionarily necessary for human-style language or theory of mind than for mentally comparing action sequences or anticipating/hypothesizing future pain? If not, the data of ethology plus ‘consciousness is complicated’ gives us little reason to favor the one view over the other.
We have relatively direct positive data showing we’re conscious, but we have no negative data showing that, e.g., salmon aren’t conscious. It’s not as though we’d expect them to start talking or building skyscrapers if they were capable of experiencing suffering — at least, any theory that predicts as much has some work to do to explain the connection. At present, it’s far from obvious that the world would look any different than it does even if all vertebrates were conscious.
So… the arguments are a mess, and I honestly have no idea whether cows can suffer. The probability seems large enough to justify ‘don’t torture cows (including via factory farms)’, but that’s a pretty low bar, and doesn’t narrow the probability down much.
To the extent I currently have a favorite position, it’s something like: ‘I’m pretty sure cows are unconscious on any simple, strict, nondisjunctive definition of “consciousness;” but what humans care about is complicated, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of ‘unconscious’ information-processing systems end up being counted as ‘moral patients’ by a more enlightened age. … But that’s a pretty weird view of mine, and perhaps deserves a separate discussion.
I could conclude with some crazy video of a corvid solving a rubik’s cube or an octopus breaking into a bank vault or something, but I somehow find this example of dog problem-solving more compelling: