Re: Book preview: Theory of Nothing

From: Russell Standish <>
Date: Tue, 30 Aug 2005 09:18:00 +1000

On Mon, Aug 29, 2005 at 12:45:01PM +0100, David Pearce wrote:
> 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.

Thanks for this comment, it is an important point. Indeed dreams seem
to be precisely the area where the Anthropic Principle breaks down (I
think). Although, something is still lingering there, as usually you seem to
wake up just before being killed by that monster chasing you...

I'll have to think some more about how to address what dreams mean in
this context (even if the answer is I don't quite know yet).

> 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?

I don't think the moral question of how to treat babies and other
non-human species hinges on whether they have consciousness. However,
it is true that this area of moral enquiry has deep problems of its
own, independent of the issue of self-awareness.

Obviously, this is issue is parallel to the issue of free will and
moral responsibility. Do you think I should be mounting a similar sort
of lambast against the idea of connecting our moral behaviour towards
other creatures to their consciousness (or lack thereof)?

> Tellingly, perhaps, our most intense experiences - e.g. extreme
> agony, orgasm, blind panic, etc - are marked by an absence of
> self-consciousness.

I vaguely recall a New Scientist article about this recently - I'll
look it up...

> 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.

I suspect that Cetaceans as a group are quite possibly self-aware. We
know bottlenose dolphins are. Recently, Orcas were found to have
"culture" (a trick of vomiting up squid parts to attract birds for
capture was passed on between individuals).

> 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.

Is pain linked to consciousness? Who knows? Certainly, quite simple
animals experience all the physiological hallmarks of pain. But maybe
they aren't conscious of the pain, because they aren't conscious at
all. Does that mean we are free to inflict pain on these creatures?
Who knows? Unfortunately, I don't see that the considerations of the
"everything list" actually adds anything of substance to the debate -
hence my preference to remain silent.

> 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.

Pain can be graded, I agree.

> One can be dimly self-aware or acutely
> self-aware.

I've never noticed this distinction. I've always been self-aware, or
not aware at all.

> And there are even cases of awareness even while under
> surgical general anesthesia - though fortunately they are quite rare.
> [etc]

True, but then one is aware. It is apparently a very alarming
experience, as anaesthetists usually add a paralysis drug to prevent
dangerous movements on the operating table.

> Apologies if I've misunderstood the argument here.
> Dave

I believe anaesthetists talk about levels of awareness when referring
to physiological signs. One can be partially aware of one's
surroundings - like the noise that you only suddenly became conscious
of because something changed to cause you to pay attention. The
feeling of "being drugged" after waking up with too little sleep is
like this - you are barely aware of your environment, because you're
too tired to pay attention to it. This is how I imagine anasthetists
"level of awareness" - the amount of the environment one is
consciously (or even unconsciously?) responding to. But to be
self-aware is a binary thing, as selfness is very much a unified
thing. Similarly, consciousness seems to be an all-or-nothing thing to

Greenfield, as I understand her, would argue that all animals have
some degree of consciousness, regardless of their intelligence
levels. This seems to be a totally different sort of claim from
anaesthetist's level of awareness. And one that I cannot understand at


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A/Prof Russell Standish                  Phone 8308 3119 (mobile)
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Received on Mon Aug 29 2005 - 19:48:07 PDT

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