Consciousness Catch-22

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

I was listening to a lecture by Christof Koch this morning, and I had a thought that I haven’t come across before regarding consciousness studies. There may be a very high technical bar for ethical studies into the nature of consciousness, higher than I expected before.My issue may just be the stretchiness of the term ‘consciousness’, but there might be something of substance in here too. Can we study anything besides humans in order to understand consciousness? If not, then we have to have safe temporary ways to manipulate consciousness in humans, which would mean safe, temporary ways to control neurons in humans. We won’t have that for a long time. By the way, I’m not talking about being awake or asleep. I’m talking about a more important type of consciousness. This type:

Are the “pains” that usefully prevent us from allowing our limbs to assume awkward, joint-damaging positions while we sleep experiences that require a “subject” (McGinn, 1995), or might they be properly called unconscious pains? Do they have moral significance in any case? Such body-protecting states of the nervous system might be called “sentient” states without thereby implying that they were the experiences of any self, any ego, any subject. For such states to matter — whether or not we call them pains or conscious states or experiences — there must be an enduring, complex subject to whom they matter because they are a source of suffering.

Akbar Ganji says suffering is the source of rights. I think that’s simplistic, but it might be some part. My basic point is this: If non-human primates can do consciousness-like things that are worth studying, then wouldn’t it be unethical to experiment on them? If consciousness is the substrate for suffering and suffering is the source of rights, wouldn’t they have rights like us? I’m not saying that they do have the capacity for suffering, but if they don’t, then they might not be worth studying for consciousness anyway.

In other parts of that Dennett essay I quoted above, he notes that outward behavior isn’t a good indicator of suffering in the morally meaningful sense. We can see an earthworm writhe and be unconcerned. So if we can’t tell if anything is capable of suffering, maybe its not the best line to use for choosing ethically in animal research. A lot of times when I’m thinking about people trying to free chimps or things in that vein I think “That chimp would rip you limb from limb if it got the chance.” I really don’t think a chimp would have any qualms about drilling a hole in your head and inserting electrodes if it new how. I guess what I’m thinking is that maybe its okay not to show so much consideration because they certainly wouldn’t show you any. If we were going to grant chimps human rights, wouldn’t they need to take responsibility and act like they deserve it?

Just a couple things I was thinking about. I thought it might be really interesting if a consciousness researcher managed to prove that the research he was doing was unethical.

Labels: ,


  1. I think about this problem in terms of two emergent properties: consciousness and personhood.  
    Both consciousness and personhood are graded phenomena; although we can be certain about the extremes (a chicken egg is not conscious, an adult human being is conscious), the consciousness of most animals is fuzzy. Personhood is the awareness of being a conscious being (recursive consciousness). Thus, personhood is a special case (proper subset) of consciousness. Conscious beings suffer; persons suffer more profoundly because they know that they, as conscious individuals, are suffering agents. 
    Correspondingly, I have a two-tiered ethical standard for painful/distressing experimentation on animals: 
    (1) Does the animal exhibit personhood? If so, then I wholly abstain from torturing that animal (person). I am extremely confident that adult humans are persons; I am also extremely confident that adult chimpanzees, gorillas, and other great apes are person; I suspect that less-cephalized primates (like macaques) may be persons; I am fairly confident, but not certain, that rats are not persons; and I am equally confident that perinatal humans are not persons. Yes, I just stated that, with regards to capacity for suffering, perinatal humans are approximately equivalent to adult rats. 
    (2) Does the animal exhibit consciousness? If so, then I apply the standard 3Rs – replace, reduce, refine to minimize pain and distress. I am quite confident that adult rats are conscious, as are perinatal humans. I can entertain the thought that Drosophila may be very dimly conscious; Caenorhabditis elegans are most certainly not. Thus, anyone who makes utilitarian arguments in favor of torturing rats for biomedical science should accept that similar arguments can be made for torturing abandoned newborn babies.

  2. As a self-proclaimed ethicist, I proclaim that questions as to whether the knowledge gained from an experiment justifies suffering to the subject are very complex, and cannot be answered by applying simple general rules, but must be answered on a case by case basis by an ethicist. I’m willing to answer any specific questions as to what proposed experiments are or are not justifiable for what is (in my professional opinion as an ethicist) a very reasonable fee.

  3. ^ snarky, eh? I’m amused.