Re: Consciousness

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Mon May 27 1996 - 10:43:01 BST

> Date: Sun, 26 May 1996 20:44:39 +0100 (BST)
> From: "Fletcher, Emma" <>
> If "cognition is the unconscious structures and processes underlying
> your capacities-- what you can do and what you can feel" and
> consciousness is "what you experience or feel", did the evolution of
> cognition lead to consciousness?

No one knows, but it seems a reasonable guess that cognition and
consciousness co-evolved. Whether there can be unconscious organisms
is an open question. Most people think consciousness arose with the
evolution of the nervous system. So perhaps plants and very simple
one-cell or multicell animals are not conscious, but no one knows (and
no one CAN know, because of the other-minds problem).

(As a vegetarian, I, you can imagine, am hoping plants are NOT conscious!)

> Could consciousness evolve separately?

Separately from what? If cognition is the mechanism of both doing and
feeling (including that peculiar combination of the two called
"thinking"), then if a purely feeling organism evolved, that could
neither do anything nor think, then, as special case, the
structures/processes underlying its feeling would still be "cognition."
(What we call it is rather arbitrary at that point.)

I rather doubt that a passive, inert consciousness could evolve, but who

> How could an explanation be given for the choice of the "Blind
> Watch-maker"?

The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins's metaphor for evolution) does not make
choices! That's what the "blind" is meant to signify. I'll try to
rephrase your question in a way that makes evolutionary sense: How could
consciousness have an adaptive advantage? How could it be useful for
survival and reproduction? For those are the only factors to which
the Blind Watchmaker is responsive. If cognition is the mechanism that
generates both what we can do and what we can feel, how can what we
feel have any INDEPENDENT adaptive advantage? Evolution could select
for the mechanism of doing, but how could it select for the mechanism
of feeling (unless feeling is a distinct "power" -- which would then be
at odds with physics)?

No one knows. I happen to think consciousness just piggy-backed on
cognition, because it cannot have an independent causal role. Hence the
Blind Watchmaker would be as "blind" to it as we are, being no
mind-reader either, and as blocked by the other-minds problem as we
are: The Blind Watchmaker could only select organisms that ACTED as if
they had feelings (for, clearly, avoiding hurtful, hence painful objects
would be advantageous, for example); evolution could not tell the
difference, however, between those organisms that merely acted that
way, and those that really had feelings. So consciousness could only be
an evolutionary fellow-traveller (a "spandrel"?), not a passenger in
its own right.

This is controversial, though, and others will tell you otherwise...

> If two organisms are at the same stage on the
> evolutionary scale, and one is conscious and one is not, yet they both
> are equally matched in rates of survival and reproduction there's no
> reason to assume that the conscious organism should succeed, is there?

Correct. But there's also no reason to assume that some organisms are
conscious and others, indistinguishable in any other way, are "zombies."
Probably all organisms with nervous systems are conscious. The issue of
"zombies" is more likely to come up with artificial systems rather than
natural ones: If there were a robot that was indistinguishable from a
natural organism in EVERYTHING it could do, could IT be a Zombie?

Here we get to the borderline of behaviour (what the whole system can
do, and what parts of it, like its brain and its cells, can do). And
surviving is certainly something we "do." So is reproducing. These are
things to which the Blind Watchmaker IS responsive: Artificial systems
are not part of the biological gene pool, hence cannot interbreed with
any of the Blind Watchmaker's pets. Yet that sounds like an arbitrary
reason for concluding that they must therefore be feelingless zombies
(just as it would be in the case of extraterrestrial creatures)...

Controversial issues at the foundations of cognition. But they must at
least be REFLECTED upon if one hopes to explain the mind...

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