Consciousness: The F-words vs. the S-words

“Sentient” is the right word for “conscious.”. It means being able to feel anything at all – whether positive, negative or neutral, faint or flagrant, sensory or semantic. 

For ethics, it’s the negative feelings that matter. But determining whether an organism feels anything at all (the other-minds problem) is hard enough without trying to speculate about whether there exit species that can only feel neutral (“unvalenced”) feelings. (I doubt that +/-/= feelings evolved separately, although their valence-weighting is no doubt functionally dissociable, as in the Melzack/Wall gate-control theory of pain.)

The word “sense” in English is ambiguous, because it can mean both felt sensing and unfelt “sensing,” as in an electronic device like a sensor, or a mechanical one, like a thermometer or a thermostat, or even a biological sensor, like an in-vitro retinal cone cell, which, like photosensitive film, senses and reacts to light, but does not feel a thing (though the brain it connects to might).

To the best of our knowledge so far, the phototropisms, thermotropisms and hydrotropisms of plants, even the ones that can be modulated by their history, are all like that too: sensing and reacting without feeling, as in homeostatic systems or servomechanisms.

Feel/feeling/felt would be fine for replacing all the ambiguous s-words (sense, sensor, sensation…) and dispelling their ambiguities. 

(Although “feeling” is somewhat biased toward emotion (i.e., +/- “feelings”), it is the right descriptor for neutral feelings too, like warmth,  movement, or touch, which only become +/- at extreme intensities.) 

The only thing the f-words lack is a generic noun for “having the capacity too feel” as a counterpart for the noun sentience itself (and its referent). (As usual, German has a candidate: Gefühlsfähigkeit.)

And all this, without having to use the weasel-word “conscious/consciousness,” for which the f-words are a healthy antidote, to keep us honest, and coherent…

Drawing the line on human vital necessities

Karen Davis is a wonderful, tireless, passionate and invaluable advocate and protectress for animals. I share almost every one of the feelings she expresses in her comment that Marc Bekoff posted. 

But, for strategic reasons, and for the sake of the victims that we are all committed to rescuing from their terrible fates, I beg Karen to try to pretend to be more optimistic. I will explain

Karen Davis, UPC: Every single objection to the experimental use of animals – vivisection, genetic engineering, etc. – has been ignored and overridden by the scientific industry

This is true, except that there is no “scientific industry”: there is industry and there is science, and some scientists sometimes collaborate or even collude with industry. But scientists are more likely to be persuaded by evidence and ethics than are industrialists.

KD: …and this is not going to change no matter how morally obnoxious, heartless and cruel to the members of other species.

That there is a monumental, monstrous, and unpardonable amount of human moral obdurateness, heartlessness and cruelty toward other species is patently and tragically and undeniably true.

But that “this is not going to change” is just an (understandably bitter) hypothesis based on countless years of unremitting (and increasing) suffering inflicted on other species by humans.

The hypothesis may or may not be true. 

So I think we should not proclaim the hypothesis as if it were true – as true as the fact of human-inflicted suffering itself. The hypothesis cannot help the victims, for their only hope is that the hypothesis is false. And if the hypothesis is false, proclaiming it is true can harm the victims by promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy that could discourage activism as futile.

KD: The majority of human beings are completely speciesist and regard (other) animals as inferior to ourselves and fit to be exploited for human “benefit” including mere curiosity. 

This is alas numerically true. But it does not follow that the hearts of the majority cannot be reached, and opened. There are many historical precedents for this in wrongs that humans have inflicted on humans (colonialism, feudalism, slavery, bondage, genocide, warfare, torture, rape, subjugation of women, infanticide, racism). It cannot be said that these wrongs have been eradicated, but they have been outlawed in the democratic parts of the world. Nor can it be said that the majority of human beings either practices or condones them.

It is still legal, however, to do all these things (colonialism, feudalism, slavery, bondage, genocide, warfare, torture, rape, subjugation of females, infanticide, racism) to other species. And it is true that the vast majority of human beings either do some of these things or consume their products. But there is evidence also that in the global information era we are becoming increasingly aware and appalled at these practices, and condoning them less and less. It is toward this awakening that activism is having a growing effect.

KD: The majority of human beings… regard (other) animals as… fit to be exploited for human “benefit” including mere curiosity. 

True, but here (in my opinion) is the conflation that we activists should avoid at all costs:

With the vast majority of humanity still supporting the bondage and slaughter of animals, despite the total absence (in most parts of the world) of any necessity for human health and survival (-H), just for taste, fashion and fun, this should never be conflated with life-saving biomedical measures (+H).

People still demanding bondage and slaughter for -H uses certainly won’t renounce it for +H uses. Conflating the two can only strengthen the resistance to renouncing either. The call to renounce +H can only expect a serious and sympathetic hearing once -H has been renounced (or is at least far closer to being renounced than it is today). 

(This is not at all to deny that much of biomedical research on animals, too, is -H, as Kathrin Herrmann and many others are showing, should be exposed by activists as such, and should be abolished. But any implication that it was wrong to try to save the life of this dying man is not going to encourage people to renounce -H. I believe it would be more helpful to use it to draw the -H/+H distinction, and to point out that -H — unlike +H — has no moral justification at all.) 

KD: Among the latest animal-abuse crazes is the factory-farming of octopuses. Of course! We just HAVE TO BE ABLE TO EAT THESE ANIMALS! 

Of course eating octopuses (“sea food”), whether factory-farmed or “naturally” harvested and slaughtered, falls squarely under -H use, alongside the use and slaughter (whether factory-farmed, “traditionally” farmed, or hunted) of whales, seals, fish, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs, cows, calves, sheep, goats, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, mussels… any sentient species that is not necessary for human +H.

KD: The human nightmare is too overwhelming and it cannot be stopped although those of us who care about animals and object to how viciously we treat them must continue to raise our voices.

Yes, let’s continue our activism on all fronts to protect the tragic victims from our anthropogenic horrors, but, please, for the sake of present and future victims, no matter how frustrated and impatient (and angry) we feel that the horrors keep persisting, let us not proclaim the hypothesis that they are “too overwhelming and cannot be stopped.”

Appearance and Reality

Re: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/12/13/magazine/david-j-chalmers-interview.html

1. Computation is just the manipulation of arbitrary formal symbols, according to rules (algorithms) applied to the symbols’ shapes, not their interpretations (if any).

2. The symbol-manipulations have to be done by some sort of physical hardware, but the physical composition of the hardware is irrelevant, as long as it executes the right symbol manipulation rules.

3. Although the symbols need not be interpretable as meaning anything – there can be a Turing Machine that executes a program that is absolutely meaningless, like Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game” – but computationalists are  mostly interested in interpretable algorithms that do can be given a coherent systematic interpretation by the user.

4. The Weak Church/Turing Thesis is that computation (symbol manipulation, like a Turing Machine) is what mathematicians do: symbol manipulations that are systematically interpretable as the truths  and proofs of mathematics.

5. The Strong Church/Turing Thesis (SCTT)  is that almost everything in the universe can be simulated (modelled) computationally.

6. A computational simulation is the execution of symbol-manipulations by hardware in which the symbols and manipulations are systematically interpretable by users as the properties of a real object in the real world (e.g., the simulation of a pendulum or an atom or a neuron or our solar system).

7. Computation can simulate only “almost” everything in the world, because  — symbols and computations being digital — computer simulations of real-world objects can only be approximate. Computation is merely discrete and finite, hence it cannot encode every possible property of the real-world object. But the approximation can be tightened as closely as we wish, given enough hardware capacity and an accurate enough computational model.

8. One of the pieces of evidence for the truth of the SCTT is the fact that it is possible to connect the hardware that is doing the simulation of an object to another kind of hardware (not digital but “analog”), namely, Virtual Reality (VR) peripherals (e.g., real goggles and gloves) which are worn by real, biological human beings.

9. Hence the accuracy of a computational simulation of a coconut can be tested in two ways: (1) by systematically interpreting the symbols as the properties of a coconut and testing whether they correctly correspond to and predict the properties of a real coconut or (2) by connecting the computer simulation to a VR simulator in a pair of goggles and gloves, so that a real human being wearing them can manipulate the simulated coconut.

10. One could, of course, again on the basis of the SCTT, computationally simulate not only the coconut, but the goggles, the gloves, and the human user wearing them — but that would be just computer simulation and not VR!

11. And there we have arrived at the fundamental conflation (between computational simulation and VR) that is made by sci-fi enthusiasts (like the makers and viewers of Matrix and the like, and, apparently, David Chalmers). 

12. Those who fall into this conflation have misunderstood the nature of computation (and the SCTT).

13.  Nor have they understood the distinction between appearance and reality – the one that’s missed by those who, instead of just worrying that someone else might be a figment of their imagination, worry that they themselves might be a figment of someone else’s imagination.

14. Neither a computationally simulated coconut nor a VR coconot is a coconut, let alone a pumpkin in another world.

15. Computation is just semantically-interpretable symbol-manipulation (Searle’s “squiggles and squiggles”); a symbolic oracle. The symbol manipulation can be done by a computer, and the interpretation can be done in a person’s head or it can be transmitted (causally linked) to dedicated (non-computational) hardware, such as a desk-calculator or a computer screen or to VR peripherals, allowing users’ brains to perceive them through their senses rather than just through their thoughts and language.

16. In the context of the Symbol Grounding Problem and Searle’s Chinese-Room Argument against “Strong AI,” to conflate interpretable symbols with reality is to get lost in a hermeneutic hall of mirrors. (That’s the locus of Chalmers’s “Reality.”)

Exercise for the reader: Does Turing make the same conflation in implying that everything is a Turing Machine (rather than just that everything can be simulated symbolically by a Turing Machine)?

Agnus dei

Just go to youtube and type in Lutz bachstiftung. Listen to the cantatas, “new” ones being added every few weeks, az egyik gyönyörübb mint a másik, and listen to the workshops, and the remarkably gifted Lutz, as he conducts and as he plays and sings (all voices and all instruments) and explains its metaphorical relation to the text (scripture, poems, sermons). 

Ironically, even paradoxically, this is all at odds with the primitive and repugnant truths I’m learning (or rather realizing what I already sensed) about what religions (false supernatural and superstitious cults, all) really are, from the 5 pages of nightly headway that I am making on Scholem’s 1000-page historical treatise on the “false” messiah.

All messiahs are false, and all their preachings are just hermeneutics — human logomancy vainly striving to “resolve” the blatant contradiction (“paradox”) between holy writ and reality with the inexhaustible resources of symbolism and symbolic interpretation.

Ironic, because that’s also what Bach was doing, sublimely.

I have no resolution, except that music, like all experience, is just feeling – feelings that have carried humans to great “heights” (high compared to what?) and also propelled their descent to the basest and vilest of depths – both symbolized and incarnated in the sacrificing of the real , suffering lamb to the false, fictional deities – barbaric, willful sadism that is then shamelessly appropriated as symbolic of the “martyrdom” of the messiah.

Yet I seem to be savoring Bach and Lutz as the epicure savors his mutton or the mystic his supernal communion…

Josefa de Ayala (Spanish; Portuguese, ca. 1630-1684). ‘The Sacrificial Lamb,’ ca. 1670-1684. oil on canvas. Walters Art Museum (37.1193): Acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902.

Cato and Ockham on Slaughter

Anything that makes life less-worse for the victims is welcome (but watch out for hidden poison that entrenches their miserable fate even deeper)

Preserving non-stun slaughter for “freedom of cult (or culture)” is an abomination: Freedom of belief, yes, but not freedom of barbaric practice (slavery, genital mutilation, animal “sacrifice,” gladiator sports, rodeos…)

And, ceterum censeo, no sentient creature should ever be harmed praeter necessitatem, i.e., beyond necessity for survival (as in the case of conflict of life/death interest between obligate carnivores and their prey, including the few remaining human subsistence hunting/fishing habitats – none of which are in the UK.

Taste

Pete Wells’s NY Times restaurant review has all the moral (and aesthetic) depth of a mid 18th-century southern US erotic cotton-underwear fancier’s sneering assessment of erotic synthetic-cotton underwear from an abolitionist manufacturer.

Age Quod Agendum (Est): Sentience and Causality

I had known about Sapolsky as a neuroendocrinologist and primatologist but had not (and have not) read his popular works. So I just looked at part of his latest podcast interview about the book he’s writing now about free will. It’s a self-help kind of book, as I suspect many of his books are. He writes about how all the genetic and experiential factors that influence what we do leave no room for free will, but that there’s still some “hope for change” because of the way that thinking, even though it is “determined,” can change brain states in ways that are not possible in other animals. I suspect this is wrong (about other animals) but it might well be another way of trying to counter depression about the feeling of helplessness. This is not the aspect of the question of free will that I (personally) find interesting. It’s the usual self-helpy, me-me obsession that not only such pop books are full of, and cater to, but I think it misses the point about what really matters, and that is not about me. 

But that’s just about me. As to free will, I agree with Sapolsky that there is no “independent” causal force – in the brain, or anywhere else – that influences the causal pattern of events. It’s all unfolding mechanically by cause and effect since the Big Bang. That it seems otherwise is probably just due to two things: 

(1) Uncertainty; there are many causal factors we don’t know and that cannot be known and predicted, so there are many “surprises” that can be interpreted as interlopers, including me and my “decisions”. The physicists say that uncertainty is not just that of statistical uncertainty (we can’t predict the weather or who will win the lottery, but not because it is not all causally determined, but just because we don’t know all the causal details); there’s supposedly also “quantum uncertainty” which is not just that we don’t know all the causal details but that some of the causal details are indeterminate: they somehow come out of nothing. (This could be true — or our understanding of quantum mechanics today may be incomplete. But in any case it has nothing to do with free will. It’s the same in all of the inanimate universe, and would have been the same even if there weren’t living, seemingly autonomous organisms — and especially one species that thinks it’s an exception to the causal picture).

(2) More important and relevant (at least in my understanding of the FW question) is the undeniable fact that FW is a feeling: Just as seeing red, hearing a loud sound, or feeling tired feels like something – and feels like something different from seeing green, hearing a faint sound or feeling peppy —  so stumbling because you lost your balance or because someone pushed you feels like something, and something different from doing it deliberately. And that same feeling (of “volition”) applies to everything you do deliberately, rather than inadvertently. That’s why I think the full-scale FW puzzle is already there in just a lowly Libet-style button press: deciding whether and when to do it, and, when you do, feeling as if “I” am the one who made it happen. It’s not a cosmic question, but a very local question, and, under a microscope, either a trivial one or, more likely, a special case of a much bigger unsolved puzzle, which is why do sentient organisms feel anything at all, whether redness, loudness, fatigue or volition? (In fact volition is the biggest puzzle, because the puzzle is a causal one, and sensations just happen to you, whereas voluntary action feels like something you are yourself causing.

The fact that there exist states that it feels like something to be in, is true, and sentient organisms all know what it feels like to feel. (That’s the only substantive part of Descartes’ “Cogito”.)

It’s also true that what has been lately dubbed the “hard problem” (but used to be called the “mind/body problem) is really just the problem of explaining, causally, why and how organisms feel. Darwinian evolution only requires that they be able to do, and be able to learn to do, whatever is needed to survive and reproduce. What is the causal contribution of feeling to the Darwinian capacities to do? What is the causal value-added of feeling? No one knows (though there are lots of silly hypotheses, most of them simply circular).

Well the FW problem (I think) is just a particular case of the hard problem of the causal role of feeling, probably the most salient case.

And it’s not the metaphysical problem of the causal power of sentient organisms’ “will” or “agency” (a misnomer) in the universe.  Organisms are clearly just causal components of the causal unfolding of the universe, not special ringers in the scheme of things.

But the puzzle remains of why they think (or rather feel) that they are – or, more generally, why they feel at all.

And that question is a causal one.

Intelligence and Empathy

“A family of wild boars organized a cage breakout of 2 piglets, demonstrating high levels of intelligence and empathy”

The capture as well as the breeding of other sentient beings for human uses are imprisonment and slavery – involuntary – and contrary to the biological imperatives of the victims. It is anthropocentric arrogance and aggression to presume that humans have a natural (or divine) right to inflict this on other sentient beings (except in cases of vital [not commercial or hedonic] conflict of biological imperatives, such as between biologically obligate carnivores and their prey).

La capture ainsi que l’élevage des autres êtres sentients pour les usages humains sont de l’emprisonnement et de l’esclavage — involontaires — à l’encontre des impératifs biologiques des victimes. C’est une arrogance et une agression anthropocentriques de présumer que les humains ont un droit naturel (ou divin) d’infliger cela à d’autres êtres sensibles (sauf en cas de conflit d’impératifs biologiques [pas les intérêts commerciaux ou hédoniques], comme entre les carnivores biologiquement obligés et leurs proies).

*IF* plants HAD feelings, how WOULD this affect our advocacy for animals?

That plants do feel is about as improbable as it is that animals (including humans) do not feel. (The only real uncertainty is about the very lowest invertebrates and microbes, at the juncture with plants, and evidence suggests that the capacity to feel depends on having a nervous system, and the behavioral capacities the nervous system produces.)

Because animals feel, it is unethical (in fact, monstrous) to harm them, when we have a choice. We don’t need to eat animals to survive and be healthy, so there we have a choice.

Plants almost certainly do not feel, but even if they did feel, we would have no choice but to eat them (until we can synthesize them) because otherwise we die.