Thursday, September 13, 2018

What's the good of consciousness?

A question has hit me today that I would really want to have a good answer to: What’s the point of consciousness? I can see the point of reasoning and knowledge. But one can reason and have knowledge without consciousness. What would we lose if we were all like vampire Mary?

One could suppose that the question has a false presupposition, namely that there is a point to consciousness. Perhaps consciousness is just an evolutionary spandrel of something genuinely useful.

Still, it seems plausible that there be an answer. I can think of two.

First, perhaps consciousness is needed for moral responsibility, while moral responsibility is clearly valuable. But this won’t explain what the point of brute animals being conscious.

Second, maybe contemplation of truth is valuable, where we use “contemplation” broadly to include both sensory and non-sensory versions. And while one can have unconscious knowledge, one cannot have unconscious contemplation. But why is contemplation of truth valuable? Intuitively, it’s a more intimate connection with truth than mere unconscious knowledge. But I fear that I am not making much progress here, because I don’t know in what way it’s more intimate and why this intimacy is valuable.

Perhaps there is a theistic story to be told. All truth is either about God or creation or both. Contemplating truths about God is a form of intimacy with God. But creation also images God. So contemplating truths about creation is also a form of intimacy with God, albeit a less direct one. So, perhaps, the value of consciousness comes from the value of intimacy with God.

Or maybe we can say that intimacy with being is itself valuable, and needs not further explanation.


Martin Cooke said...

Similarly, why is love valuable?

Love without consciousness is a bond, like a chemical bond, and it can serve a point, e.g. in helping with team work, but ...

Ortzi said...

I don't see how reason & knowledge would aid in any sense when it comes to contemplating beauty, love or joy, or am I missing something?

Whilst JBP likes to emphasize conciousness in the Adam & Eve narrative through a psychological lense, I don't know if there's anything to that or if it's an exercise in connecting unrelated dots.

steve said...

Isn't there value in having some creatures who are able to reflect on experience? Have the ability to reflect on goodness and beauty, rather than raw experience without interpretation and gratitude?

Wielka Miska said...

I don't know why consciousness could be valuable in terms of evolutionary fitness, but in general the value of everything physical seems to presuppose consciousness. Why a book or a video game is valuable? Because I can use it to generate valuable quaila.

Michael Staron said...

Consciousness seems valuable insofar as it grounds other things. Enjoyment and pleasure seem valuable and only exist as states of consciousness. Also, appreciation seems to involve conscious states, and therefore consciousness seems important for love, right?

James Goetz said...

I for one prefer consciousness of myself and my surroundings.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Wielka Misko:
Surely not! Trees and mountains are valuable even if no one interacts with them.

Mr. Cooke:
I take the value of love as quite basic. Maybe so is the value of consciousness?

Mr. Staron:
Maybe, but I find it very puzzling why enjoyment and pleasure are valuable. My best story is that they are perceptions of the good. But why is it valuable to consciously perceive the good rather than simply unconsciously know it?

Atno said...

I'm not sure if one can really reason and have knowledge without consciousness. Can one have a concept (say, of circles, of humanity, etc) or follow a syllogism without some sort of consciousness, unless I'm missing out something. It seems there is "something it is like" to contemplate a concept and entertain propositions and arguments, and it seems to me like an essential part of reasoning; I think the Chinese room thought experiment would cut against Vampire Mary.

Martin Cooke said...

Prof Pruss

I think you are right. Evolution just needs the bonding, which has all the value of ants. Evolution does not need love per se. Similarly it has no use for consciousness per se. More generally still, what is value, under evolution? Things pass on their patterns or they do not; none of it matters. Everything that exists was fit enough; nothing that does not was. So instead of thinking of the values of love and consciousness as basic, one could think of love and consciousness as basic and as giving value its meaning.

Martin Cooke said...

I wonder how basic consciousness is, though; or whether it is something similar that is basic. I am thinking of how we have feelings and such when we are dreaming. Are we then conscious?

Maybe it is awareness, or life, that is basic. Consider the sequence: viruses, bacteria, amoebas, worms, birds, cats, humans. Is it most important where life begins, or which ones have feelings, or where consciousness begins?

Love does not seem so basic, in evolutionary terms. But maybe it is the capacity to love that is most basic, really. Maybe conscious AI is possible but is nothing really because such beings have no capacity to love.

Consider how odd it is to think of bacteria as living beings, instead of as diseases, or just very complex dirt. In this world it is life that is important, and yet biology has 50 definitions of "life".

Evolution punishes the fittest species, such as top predators (all lean and mean), which by being forced to become fitter and fitter become evolutionary dead-ends.

A stream of consciousness, falling into the sea of weblog ...