Re: Book preview: Theory of Nothing

From: David Pearce <>
Date: Mon, 29 Aug 2005 12:45:01 +0100

May I just make some comments on one particular claim in Russell's
Theory of Nothing:
"Self-awareness is a necessary feature of consciousness"
This would be extremely important if true; but there are problems....

1. Each night we go psychotic in our dreams. Rare lucid dreams aside,
the reason we don't realise we are only dreaming is precisely because
of our absence of self-awareness or critical self-insight. The
relevant module of the brain has effectively shut down. Yet it would
be misleading to call dreams "non-conscious"? Some dreams e.g.
nightmares, can be intense and frightening while they last.

2. More seriously, the idea that self-awareness is a necessary
feature of consciousness has profound implications for the moral
status of babies, the severely mentally handicapped - and most
non-human animals. Clearly, they don't have a sophisticated sense of
self. Arguably they lack all self-awareness. But surely, if they have
nociceptors and a central nervous system, then they do feel pain -
sometimes intensely?

Tellingly, perhaps, our most intense experiences - e.g. extreme
agony, orgasm, blind panic, etc - are marked by an absence of
self-consciousness. Conversely, some of our most sophisticated forms
of self-awareness have a very subtle phenomenology indeed [e.g
examples so called "higher-order intentionality" - I think that she
hopes that he believes that I want...etc etc]
Generalizing to other creatures with central nervous systems, one may
be sceptical that whales, say, are very intelligent. They may or may
not possess rudimentary self-awareness. But it's at least possible
that they experience pain more intensely than we do - their "pain
centers" are larger for a start.
Self-awareness may be intimately linked to intelligence; but it's not
clear (to me at least) that consciousness per se is linked to
intelligence at all.

3. Also, I think it may be premature (re Russell's comment in ToN on
Susan Greenfield) to say that the notion of levels of consciousness
is devoid of meaning.
Yes, there is an absolute "binary" distinction between consciousness
and non-consciousness.
But this absolute distinction doesn't entail that the idea of degrees
of consciousness itself is meaningless. Thus pain can be mild,
moderate or intense. One can be dimly self-aware or acutely
self-aware. And there are even cases of awareness even while under
surgical general anesthesia - though fortunately they are quite rare.

Apologies if I've misunderstood the argument here.
Received on Mon Aug 29 2005 - 07:46:42 PDT

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