Minds: Death, anaesthetic, babies, animals and Sonic the Camcorder-Doom player.

…or Physicalism vs. panpsychism vs. pantheism: Death Match Doom
I’ve opened this thread primarily to differentiate three of us: Myself, || Gyan ||, and Aeschines, specifically on the subject of “mind”, “consciousness”, this “first person subjective experience” which all of us waking, mentally developed humans have (no solipsist I!), and maybe other individuals as well. For the purposes of this thread I am not distinguishing between the words mind, consciousness, sentience, awareness, subjective experience, first person perspective, Point Of View or any other nominally similar term, unless there is some fundamental distinction anyone wishes to establish.

I will try as best I can in my OP to summarise the three positions, as I understand them. If I misrepresent them in any way, I will happily stand corrected. Then, I will explore five different issues which I consider to be vitally important in clarifying those three positions.
[ul][li]SentientMeat is a physicalist. However, since panpsychism can also be categorised as a form of “dualistic physicalism”, in this thread I will refer to myself as a supervenience physicalist, or SP. This is a monistic thesis, that only physical things like atoms, waves/photons, fundamental forces and spacetime, and their necessarily accompanying spatial configurations or processes, are necessary. “Consciousness” is a physical process whereby atoms, waves/photons or forces are continually input to a certain kind of cognitive apparatus, itself made out of atoms and located somewhere in spacetime. Consciousness is caused by those computational processes, and does not occur or exist without that cognitive apparatus.[/li]
[li]Gyan is a panpsychist. His is a dualistic thesis, that everything in the universe has a mental and physical component, and that that fundamentally distinct mental component can never be observed. [/li]
[li]Aeschines is a pantheist. His is a monistic thesis, that everything is God (or “the Divine”).[/ul][/li]
I await any corrections or clarifications, but will press on to the five issues. I will ask you to number which of the 12 propositions of mine you don’t agree with (not necessarily disagree with), in your opinion (ie. your guess, your position, your “If I had a gun to my head” fence-jump).
[ul][li]Death: Today I am alive, not dead. I started being alive in 1973. Let us hypothesise that at midnight on this New Years Eve, cephalic necrosis occurs and I am brain-dead, ie. non-alive. My period of life would be 1973<t<2005. For the period 1973>t>2005 I would be non-alive. Now, what about the consciousness? [/li]1) I contend that some transition in the status of my consciousness occurs at midnight. Agreed, Gyan and Aeschines?
2) I further contend that that transition is such that my consciousness is diminished in my non-alive period. Agreed?
3) Indeed, I say that it becomes absent, ie. diminishes to nothing, when I am non-alive. Yes?
[li]Anaesthetic: Let’s say that instead of undergoing cephalic necrosis at midnight, a quantity of sevofluorane is administered, and I undergo an operation. Again, I contend that some transition in the status of my consciousness occurs at midnight. It becomes diminished. I become unconscious. (I won’t say completely absent at this point since some basic brain function is still extant).[/li]4) Agreed?
[li]Babies: Just as midnight 2005 signalled some transition in my consciousness, so did the year 1973 (or, perhaps, the period 1973-1977, say).[/li]5) Agreed?
6) It intensified.
7) It emerged where there was none before 1973.
[li]Animals: I, an adult human, have this thing called “consciousness”. [/li]8) There are some things on this list whose consciousness is different to that which we adult humans have.
9) Some things on that list have diminished consciousness compared to us.
10)Some don’t have any.
[li]Sonic and camcorder-Doom: I can control a bulldozer, a real machine, in a real environment. I can also control Sonic the Hedgehog on my computer screen: he is a virtual machine which is caused by (not merely “correlated with”) the physical processes in the silicon chips and memory of my computer. Similarly, when I play Doom, the computer causes a virtual environment to appear on the screen solely by physical processes. The computer can also “autoplay” these games, controlling those virtual machines (Sonic, or the gun-wielder) in those virtual environments. I could, conceivably, have a first computer building the virtual environment and a second, connected, computer running the virtual machine in it. That virtual environment could be extremely detailed.[/li]11)Agreed?
I could replace the first computer with a digital camcorder (or even two), thus providing visual and auditory sensory input from the “real” world.
12) The second computer would then be functionally equivalent to some of the organisms on the list.[/ul]Please understand that I’m not out to … A-HAA! … trick you with small print here. This is a genuine attempt on my part to pinpoint exactly how we disagree: indeed, we may even find that we are, utterly trivially, using different linguistic referents for our cognitive outputs - ie. we’re saying the same thing with different words.
I am, ultimately, trying to establish the limits of your imagination - and I don’t mean this in any derogatory way. I am asking you to imagine “what it is like to be” a corpse, or an anaesthete on the operating table, or a newborn, or a chimp/bird/fish/bee/plant/amoeba/RNA molecule, or Sonic the Hedgehog playing camcorder-Doom (noting that the solipsist’s imagination is so poor that he cannot even imagine consciousness in other people). I personally imagine that being some of those entails “nothing” by way of subjective experience, some “something”. We might explore my reasons after I have identified where we differ in those 12 propositions, but I suspect we’ll have enough to deal with in this thread just from the OP and a further thread will be necessary in due course.

Anyone else who disagrees with any of the 12 can join in, too, but I will probably only have time to respond to my two friends Gyan and Aeschines.

You pre-empted my thread by a few days (I’m not complaining). I’m currently reading the Consciousness section from the latest edition of the reference work Cognitive Neurosciences (III; Editor: Gazzaniga; Amazon link). Now, I’m halfway done, have free time, and expect to be done by this weekend. Till then, I’ll remain dormant in this thread.

Just a clarification: Pantheism and Panpsychism aren’t exclusive. You may put me down in the former category, as well. All these beliefs are tentative and subject to change, of course.

Well, OK - just post whenever you can, of course. However, I suspect that that neuroscience book might be a little more advanced in scope than this thread, in which I’m simply trying to ascertain our differences without necessarily exploring them. I’d be very grateful if you could just provide even a vague idea of where in those 12 propositions you feel we diverge, if any.

Mundane, Personal, Relevant

Well, I am neither Gyan nor Aeschines, and I’m only pretty sure that I’m a physicalist, so I’m not sure I can add what you want in the thread… but I think it can help me solidify some positions for myself, so I’m going to try to respond anyway :slight_smile:

So, to the list: Agreed on all points. Your consciousness will cease to exist when you die. I’m not sure what happens to your consciousness (whether it is completely absent), because I don’t know exactly what happens when the anaesthetic is administered (in a purely physical sense). Your consciousness did not exist before you had a brain for it to exist in.

As for the differences in consciousness for other orgranisms, I don’t know that cyanobacteria don’t have consciousness, it just seems very, very, very unlikely that they do.

To make my post more than just “Yup, you’re right,” and to attempt to determine if I’m really a physicalist…

What is a perfect equilateral triangle? I can describe one (it’s a figure with three sides that are exactly equal and three angles that are exactly 60 degrees), but I highly doubt that I’ve ever seen one. It also seems like this description–this essence, if you will–was a valid description of something before any human made it. Similarly, what is the number 7? 7 things were 7 things before we called them 7 things. You mentioned Sherlock Holmes as another example that you weren’t sure about over in the (badly misnamed) "Ask the Creationist thread, but I’m comfortable that he had no existance (or even Lib’s “essence”) before Doyle created him, at which point he became a pattern in Doyle’s brain which has since transfered to paper, silicon, and cellulose (and, of course, other brains), but has always existed as a physical thing. Math, however, makes me wonder if everything is physical.

Feel free to point me to another thread if this sort of discussion has already occurred somewhere that I missed.

I’d consider myself a physicalist-deconstructionist. That is, every abstract concept or even entity that one can describe the world with is merely a placeholder for its sub-components. At some point, of course, one can come across basic particles and exchanges of information but the default is to assume that even these have subcomponents. But the premise of physicalism, that no non-physical entities need to be proposed in order to explain the workings of the universe, is unobjectionable to me.

I believe that a lot of the disagreement about “what happens to your consciousness when you are under anaethesia” is a relic of constructing consciousness rather than continuing to treat it as a collection of processes and phenomena. Consciousness is the way in which we interact with the environment: our mental state is yet another part of our environment we must consider in making our decisions.

So, when you come out of anaesthetic, you start to receive information from the outside world, and your neurons begin to process it. Even though your “consciousness” is interrupted, you may remember information from before the operation because your neurons saved information about it which did not disappear even when you were not interacting with your environment.

Also, a trivial nitpick in that we don’t really know when consciousness starts: it could be way before birth for all we know: after all, it is still possible to interact with one’s own mental state and the state of the womb while still inside it.

Similarly, I would agree with your proposition that consciousness in animals is similar to consciousness in humans, albeit with less reflection capacity. But similarly, when does this reflection capacity happen in humans? For all I know, IF we take the capacity for reflection and mental prowess to be the defining characteristic of a human, there might not be too much of a difference between killing a 6 month old child and killing a lower primate for food!

My turn…

It would seem so, unless you branch off into an universe, where you remain alive, somehow.

I can’t assert this. Not an agreement here.

Can’t say. No agreement.

Unclear. If it’s not completely absent, you aren’t unconscious. Clarify.

OK. So my memory would tell me, were I born in '73.

Can’t assert. No agreement.

Can’t assert. No agreement.

If you say so :slight_smile:

Prima facie, yes, but can’t really tell.

Can’t assert. No agreement.

No. My current thinking is, consciousness is universal.

Was this supposed to be ‘environment’?

Tentatively, yes, although I don’t like the ‘causation’ and the phrasing. But that’s for later.

Not completely. They all operate in the same realm. You might want to rephrase this scenario, in case the language is bungling it up.

Many thanks for joining, friends.

OK, so upon the point of death, we become differently conscious, not less (or non-) conscious? You contend that the cooling cadaver on the surgeon’s table is still conscious?

OK: Under anaesthetic, I am less conscious. Agreed?

So, again, just as I am as conscious after death, I was as conscious before conception?

So bacteria or even RNA molecules are as conscious as living me?

RNA molecules, or the stars and planets, are conscious? I must say, that’s quite a bullet to bite, and thanks for your honesty.

No: one computer runs sonic the machine in the Doom environment supplied by the other computer.

might “operation in that realsm” not be what consciousness is? I would suggest that human consciousness is merely a different operation than that of other life-forms or the camcorder-Doom machine.

Jon, thanks for your input: this is indeed a fundamental point, but perhaps a little too much to chew on here! I am currently reading “Where Mathematics Comes From” by George Lakoff and Ant Nunez - I heartily recommend it as the best $20 you will ever spend. It deals with the cognitive science of mathematics and logic.

Quite so, Ludo. A point I’ve made in other threads is that just because there is inevitable disagreement on what precisely comprises “life” does not mean that biology cannot understand and explain life in terms of physical processes.

Bought it, reading it, will likely be back when I’m done to start a new thread or resurrect an old one… :slight_smile:

Possibility exists. Not claiming it happens.

In some way, even if it’s not the same personal consciousness as earlier.


Possibly. The implicit assumption here is memory. If I don’t remember, two possibilities: it didn’t happen or I don’t remember.

I’m not sure what “as conscious” means.


So far I haven’t come up with a good definition of consciousness, such that it might resolve misunderstandings. So, I’ll give it a rough shot.

Consciousness is the domain within which all mental events occur.

As per your physicalism, a rock possesses no domain, not just a blank one. Whereas for a group of a few billion neurons, arranged in some manner, a domain pops up to be filled up with activity. This may well be true, but is predicated on displayed behavior, as sole determiner of consciousness.

Perhaps I could rephrase my question. Why don’t you think it more likely that we become less or not at all conscious at death?

The dead body has a different personal consciousness: that would indicate that the function of the physical brain matter is crucial to us having this personal consciousness when we’re alive, then?

And yet you don’t say that dead bodies are less conscious, only differently conscious. We could conceivably anaesthetise a patient until they were very close to death in terms of brain activity. At the point of death, would the consciousness leap up from that diminished level to the “different” consciousness? Surely it would make sense to conclude that the consciousness, if anything, diminishes further at death?

What’s your guess, your “gun-to-the-head fence jump”?

In the same way that you tentatively agreed that anaesthetes were less conscious than waking humans, are RNA molecules less conscious than waking humans, in your opinion?

OK, let’s work with this. Are you saying rocks aren’t conscious, but RNA molecules are?

So consciousness emerges from some specific arrangements of matter, but not others?

Because I don’t know the nature of consciousness. I have to assume beforehand, that brain entirely causes the mind.

I didn’t claim that the dead body would possess a different personal consciousness, just that I would believe it to possess some different consciousness.

If there are non-physical factors affecting consciousness, then it stands to reason that as long as the physical substrate sustains activity, it reflects/correlates mental activity. Once the link is broken, only assumptions abound.

This already assumes that brain causes mind.

The following is an intuitive belief which I won’t defend: Disconnect of memory.

What does ‘less’ conscious mean? You have this spectrum of consciousness, and I don’t have an indication of the metric.

No, I’m claiming both are.

Well, not if you guess that one becomes less or not at all conscious after death. I was wondering why you guess that neither of these occur.

Could you expand a little on the difference between “concsiousness” and “personal consciousness”? I’m not sure how this thing I’ve got, whatever it is, could ever have the “personal” removed from it without destroying the entire thing itself.

Again, I’m trying to avoid assumptions here and share what we guess to be the case. My guess, which you appear to share, is that anaesthetes are less conscious: this is not an assumption, merely a shared (if tentative) agreement. We might go on to exploring the consequences of these agreements later.

And positing a jump from diminished-consciousness-anaesthetised back to elevated-consciousness-dead “assumes” it doesn’t. Again, I’m just establishing what your position is for now. Is it your guess that such a low-to-high transition occurs at death instead of a low-to-nothing transition?

Hmm, if you’re unwilling to defend it then I suppose I won’t get anywhere asking you why you think there was a 13.7-billion-year conscious existence you’ve forgotten, rather than no such consciousness at all for those billions of years? This was a question I was very interested in, unfortunately.

Again, I’m trying to gauge your position as accurately as I can without you feeling like I’m manipulating the debate underhandedly. You seemed prepared to agree that anaesthetes are less conscious than waking humans without me supplying any definitions, metrics or the like. Would it be possible to continue without such rather distracting minutiae?

Ah, so when you said “As per your physicalism, a rock possesses no domain, not just a blank one. Whereas for a group of a few billion neurons, arranged in some manner, a domain pops up to be filled up with activity”, you were just describing my philosophy, not yours at all? If that’s so, OK - I was momentarily confused that you were espousing emergentism!

Hmm, I’m not claiming that emergentism (ie. supervenience physicalism) is certainly true - I’m rather asking why you think it’s false. Consciousness in cadavers, rocks and RNA molecules seems so unnecessary an entity in an Ockham’s Razor sense that I seek to understand why you propose them. “Because one can’t be certain they’re not there” is not a very good reason to do so, wouldn’t you say?

Because I don’t believe the brain to be a sufficient and causative agent.

Depends on what happens to Identity.

What does “less” conscious mean? Consciousness isn’t the same, but what’s less and what’s more?

Except I didn’t posit a jump back to “elevated” consciousness. Just that after death, only assumptions remain. Since I believe that consciousness is primary, consciousness is not extinguished.

Again, if consciousness is primary, memory would be the failing link, not consciousness.

That’s so.

Because it’s arbitrary.

Because physicalism supposes that behaviour is sole proxy for consciousness. Not logically sound.

Emergentism, might be true after all, but it’s logically unsound and arbitrary.

And what is in a cadaver which is?

In what way? I don’t wish to sound pushy, but more than single-line responses would be extremely helpful. What do you think is the difference between “consciousness” and “personal consciousness” in a manner which is contingent (or not) on “Identity”?

It sounds like you are retracting that tentative agreement that anaethetised humans are less conscious than waking humans. Do we again merely agree that they are differently conscious instead?

OK. There is a transition between consciousnesses, we’ve already agreed. Would you say that these were mutually exclusive in your opinion? That is, have I now got the consciousness I’ll have when I’m dead in addition to this “living” one, or will the living one be replaced by the dead one?

So I had a memory for 13.7 billion years, which was somehow wiped at birth, in your opinion?

Agreed. There is no non-arbitrary philosophy. Panpsychism is just as arbitrary, with its contention of some additional indivisible thing called consciousness which every photon and elementary particle has. (An emergentist like me would say that a computer is an arbitrating device.)

“Proxy”? I don’t understand your use of this word in this sentence. Physicalism can be said to be verificationist in its methodology regarding cognitive science, indeed science can only proceed according to what is falsifiable. You suggest that it is logically unsound for cognitive science to deal only with that which can be empirically verified, no matter how indirect (eg. statitistical psychological tests) those data might be? Again, I think you misunderstand physicalism: it does not demand or assume that everything be physical. It takes what we (largely) all agree is physical, such as cells and computers, and asks whether consciousness might be explained using only these entities. I can provide an (maybe not the!) answer to the question “How does consciousness emerge from matter?” by reference to computational processes, just as I could answer the question “How does life emerge from matter?” by reference to cellular and macromolecular processes. Does merely remaining unconvinced by my answer really require you to start positing consciousness in photons?

A cadaver is still matter. If consciousness is universal, all matter possesses it.

Consciousness is just the phenomenon. Personal would be that associated with us.


There might be.

I can’t select between the two, but I would go with the latter, as a pointed-gun guess.

I certainly don’t claim it was a singular connected memory for those 13 billion years.

Panpsychism is arbitrary in that it accomodates a separate physical world as the additional component. Consciousness as an indivisible thing is an experiental observation, not a postulate.

The SEP entry disagrees with you. Read no further than the first sentence.

Consciousness can’t be explained using only physical entities. I’m going ask you to now defend the physicalist theory of consciousness.

And I am that matter now. Yet, when I asked “have I got that consciousness now, in addition to* my current ‘live’ one?”, you answered

ie. NO. Surely, if I am that same matter, I must have that same consciousness, yes? How, logically, could the ‘dead’ consciousness kick in where it wasn’t before, given that it is the same matter?

But I am that same arrangement of matter. How could it be a different consciousness (ie. associated with someone else)?

OK. Again, how can I be differently conscious (rather than unconscious) when under anaesthetic if I am the same matter? Where do I go?

I’m wondering why you claim any memory, singular or plural.

And, as we all know, experiential observations can be illusory.

So be it. As I’ve said before on numerous occasions, I’m sanguine about being called a “Metaphysicalist of the Gaps”, and every cognitive scientist whose work I’m familiar with is similarly averse to outright dogma: consider physicalism as my and their gun-to-the-head fence jump.

OK, I’ll do my best, referring whenever I can to results from the vast, interdisciplinary field of cognitive science. There is no singular “physical theory of consciousness” as such, rather there are different variations on a mode of explanation. The general mode is that mind is a computational phenomenon, in which sensory input is processed in working memory via various modules shaped by evolution. If you can imagine that animals or Sonic the camcorder Doom-player have a “Point of View”, we can discuss which modules, and of what general kind, might be required in order for them to develop into what might approach waking human concsiousness.

But it’s not the same matter. No pumping blood. Not a similar train of activity.

I didn’t note “someone else”. I’m not sure whether the cadaver possesses a unitary consciousness, just because it did when alive.


Only two things to be claimed. Either memory or consciousness.

Reinterpreted, you mean.

Hardly an explanation; also, doesn’t touch on consciousness, at all.

So the pumping blood and the like is crucial to this transition from the ‘live’ consciousness I have now to the ‘dead’ consciousness I don’t. But surely the ‘dead’ consciousness is what I have now, since I have both the matter in its ‘dead’ arrangement and the blood and stuff on top? If you removed from me the matter in its ‘dead consciousness train’, I would be only a load of pumping blood and the like.

So it might posses plural consciousnesses? But if so, how come I don’t now?

Again, if activity is the difference, I effectively am “anaesthetic-conscious” and “dead-conscious” now given that I have the same brain that the activity takes place in and becomes absent from upon anaesthesia or death.

Why not neither? Why must my existence in those 13.7 billion years be conscious or memorised?

Reinterpreted as illusory, then. I’ll give an example …

Well, OK, let’s take a similar track to what I’m doing with other-wise elsewhere. In the 19th Century, vitalism was quite popular. Vitalists might point to the explanation of “life” in terms of cellular and evolutionary processes and say “I don’t mean just the cells or the diversity, I mean the life!” They simply could not grasp that biology explained life as a mechanism, a process, instead preferring to suggest that every organism (and in some formulations, indeed, every fundamental particle) was alive in some invisible distinct way. Sound familiar?

So I ask: Are you a vitalist? Do you accept that life is understood and explained by modern life science in terms of mechanistic processes, or do you cling to an elan vital, a “spark of life” which is fundamentally distinct?

Consciousness may be reflected by activity, yes.

Nice that you have an arithmetic of consciousness. I make no claims to its validity.

An enigma.

I meant there are two possibilities to be inferred from lack of memories prior to birth. Either no consciousness was present or no memory is retained. Like how short-term memory discards the past and works only with the present, so might memory in general.

No, just reinterpreted. What I thought was a bunch of dots, is polka-dotted dog. With sufficient changes, you may revert to the earlier interpretation.

A tough one. Depends on whether neuroscience can indeed find a correlate for all activity. I’m sympathetic to vitalism, but don’t really adopt it. I hold that the boundary between life and non-life is fuzzy, and difference of a matter of degree, rather than kind.