Let me spit out the awkward assertion right at the start: I think it’s likely that conscious experience is found NOT ONLY in animals with complicated brains.
Grant me these two points:
- Conscious experiences exist (ie are not an “illusion”, whatever that would mean).
- These experiences are Subjective - despite being real, they are not directly observable by a third party (though maybe they could be inferred).
With these points in mind, I think there’s a good argument that we’re mistaken to conclude that Consciousness only happens in creatures sufficiently similar to us.
So, let’s begin with a consciousness - some haver of experiences. I’ll call it “Fred” for reference. Fred enjoys conscious experiences - pain, pleasure, color, texture, mood, emotion… Fred has some sort of movie playing in his head. It is like something to be Fred.
Fred has access to experiences, but only *his own* experiences. He might be sitting, enjoying the color red, while some other consciousness right beside him is experiencing the emotion “impatience”. Fred can’t feel that impatience directly. He might infer that he has a conscious and impatient companion indirectly, but since Experiences are Subjective, it is never a direct observation. He has to guess.
How would Fred guess at whether or not he was around other consciousnesses? Fred would have to use the only example he knows of consciousness - himself! Thus if he saw a being similar to himself behaving the way he does when he feels impatient, he might guess that the other being is conscious and impatient.
Fred is bound to assume that exactly those things which are sufficiently similar to himself (in makeup or behavior) are the things that are conscious.
With this in mind, what is the intuitive belief humans hold about what is conscious?
That’s right… other humans. We’re also willing to consider things that are very similar in either behavior or structure. So, higher mammals with brains almost always make the list. Comatose humans might. Any creature with a nervous system may be considered by the adventurous.
Those willing to let go of structure, but hold tight to behavior are willing to think about robots or artificial intelligence having consciousness.
But these are all still cases of drawing a “similarity circle” with my one example of consciousness in the dead center. Any conscious thing must be tempted by this move. Perhaps conscious fluid-flows imagine that we humans are too unlike them to have consciousness like they do.
I still think that once one realizes that the physical properties of the brain are only contingently attached to conscious experiences, the most even handed guesses of where to find consciousness given my one, directly confirmed example are:
- There is only one Consciousness (Solipsism)
- All things are Conscious (Panpsychism)
Though I think it’s *possible* I am the only conscious thing around, my intuition rejects any ontology that makes me so special. I am left with Panpsychism. Thoughts?