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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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I have always wondered why we retain the concept of consciousness. Is this not merely the modern edition of the term "soul"? What explanatory utility does it have? The medical definition that you refer to doesn't strike me as very useful; I think that a dog salivating in response to a bell would indicate, by this definition, that the dog possesses consciousness. I think we can figure out more without this distracting and ultimately useless term.

I also think that your use of the cheetah example suffers from a failure to include stalking in the overall process. If we include stalking in our model of the feline hunting process, then we see a long attention span. I therefore suggest that the distinction to draw should be based on social interaction, not attention span.
BLOGGER: It's great to see an old-fashioned behaviorist joining in the discussion. Most linguists belong to other schools and will not raise these sorts of objections.

"I think that a dog salivating in response to a bell would indicate, by this definition, that the dog possesses consciousness" That inference is probabably correct, but I don't reject the definition on those grounds. It could be that salivating dogs do see an image of the food that is about to be brought to them. If people see images of things, why not other animals?

When BF Skinner began his work with pigeons he hoped to study Pavlovian type of reflexes that had been seen in dogs—stimulus evoking anticipatory response. He had to abandon that kind of work because pigeons don't show Pavlovian responses. That led to his work on "conditioned reflexes" and the ultimate assertion, to poor results, that language learning in humans is the effect of condtioned reflexes.

The explanatory power of consciousness comes into important consideration when we are looking at language. If the social interaction is conversational, then the two speakers are directing each other's attention in specific directions. "See the way that drunk is staggering," says one speaker, and the listener looks and laughs. A great deal of human interaction consists of sharing attention and the conscious results of that sharing.

We could suppose that those powers are limited to humans, but I think we have to at least explore the question of whether they have evolutionary forerunners. Pavlovian responses directly gain no explanatory power by referring to images of steak, so I don't insist on them. But they might explain why some species can learn these responses and others cannot. At any rate, it seems like something to explore rather than rule out a priori.


Actually, I'm too ignorant to claim membership in any school; my training was in physics. My objection arises from basic scientific method; physics has had all sorts of bad concepts (lumeniferous ether, heat as a liquid, etc) that have led to unnecessary confusion. So I prefer to rely only upon concepts that have explanatory utility and/or are at least indirectly observable. It seems to me that the concept of consciousness, as you have already pointed out, is too mushy to clarify issues, and it's certainly not observable. I am especially wary of the concept because it carries with it a whiff of the notion that humans are special creatures, on a completely different plane from brute animals. Fortunately, the extension of the concept of consciousness to animals is a spritz of air freshener for that problem.

But when you talk about a dog "seeing an image of food", I get skeptical again. What do you mean by this phrase? Does it get us anywhere in terms of understanding what's really going on in the dog's mind?

I realize that, with a subject so complicated as this, it's idiotic for me to insist upon applying the standards of the hard sciences. We will never be able to measure mental activity with the kind of precision that comes so easily in the physical sciences. Nevertheless, I think that it's fair to demand that the phenomena we discuss be at least conceivably observable. The good thing about this definition is that it relies on observables. The bad thing is that the definition yields (it seems to me) nothing more than the observation that the creature reacts to stimuli. That definition accords consciousness to paramecia!

When you use terms like "attention" and "social interaction", your explanations are much clearer. I think that these are the concepts that we should be developing. Attention is a well-developed concept, but its role in language cognition still seems quite murky (or is my ignorance showing?)

Similarly, the interplay between language and social interaction is surely crucial to our understanding of both. I have read several suggestions that language evolved in close association with developing human social interactions. This certainly seems like a more productive area to explore.

Thanks for responding to my thoughts on this -- I still have a great deal to learn.
BLOGGER: As always, Gilbert and Sullivan summed it up quite nicely: Here’s a pretty how-de-do! In psychology the demand for observables brings its own Catch 22 — my sensations are observable to me, but not to you. It’s easy for me to explain certain things in terms of my sensations; e.g., I’m laughing because I’ve been reading a book that conjured up an absurd, amusing image in my mind. I can accept that explanation because I saw the amusing image. You can either accept my explanation on trust, based on having had your own sensations, or you can refuse to believe it and look for some other explanation. Psychologists typically look for some other explanation, on the grounds that the other explanation is more scientific. The fruit of that approach has been to see love as an irrational pathology, meaning as secondary to language, music as a waste of time, conversation as no more important than grooming behavior, mythology as insanity, art as irrelevant, etcetera — in other words the demand for observable explanations leads to a wholesale dismissal of the observable features of human life. You pays your money and takes your chance.


My definition of "observable" is, I suspect, broader than yours. Suppose that I have a room that I think is permeated by a "psychic presence". I send in (separately) 100 people, ask them to snoop about, and tell me if there was anything strange about the room. If they all say something to the effect that there's something very strange about that room, then I conclude that the "psychic presence" is observable (although I know nothing of its nature at this point). If they all report that it seems a normal room to them, then I conclude that the "psychic presence" is unobservable with the current equipment. So I'm happy to accept the reports of people about their sensations as evidence.

In the same fashion, if you read a funny book and it makes you laugh, I might regard your report with some skepticism, but there's an easy solution: let a hundred people read the book and if a significant portion of them laugh, then I agree that there's something funny about the book. Funniness is now an observable because people can report on it.

I certainly don't see love as a pathology, nor do I consider it to be unobservable -- the indirect effects of it are physiologically measurable! Nor do I see meaning as secondary to language, music as a waste of time, or any of the other points you raise. These things all have observable manifestations. But what observable manifestations does consciousness have?
BLOGGER: So much in that response seems off point (I surely am not trying to find out if there is such a thing as funniness) that I'm going to ignore it all and just respond to the question, "What observable manifestations does consciousness have?" The post lists some things neurologists look for like knowing what a representation represents. That's an interesting one for me because I have a permanently numb left leg. That does not mean I have no feeling in my leg, but I cannot make sense of what I feel and generally don't even care about those dull sensations. The post also gives an example of a novice motorcyclist learning how to control his body appropriately in response to the gravitational sensations of biking. "Consciousness seems necessary to create a new habit." So the observable manifestation I'll point to is non-habitual behavior. Original speech, artistic endeavor, and scientific creation are all examples of behavior that is not mechanical. Einstein wrestling to understand his photons, Picasso struggling to find a way to create his painting of les demoiselles, Milton working out his epic poetry ... these are all very high tone examples of consciousness observably at work.


I'm really confused by this pair of sentences:

"Consciousness seems necessary to create a new habit." So the observable manifestation I'll point to is non-habitual behavior.

The first sentence seems to fly in the face of the second sentence.

But let me concentrate on the second sentence, because that seems to be the central concept you're driving at. Here's a possible objection: how do we establish the degree of variation from habitual behavior necessary to indicate consciousness? Let's take music as an example. We say that Mozart was a profoundly original composer who created dramatically new musical compositions. But I take a troglodytic stance and declare "Bah! Music is just notes going up and down! That's all they ever do! The difference between Mozart and Salieri is insignificant!" I then go on to observe that cats don't meow in precisely the same manner all the time -- their meowing shows fine variations. How am I to know whether the cat's meowing shows greater variation from habit than Mozart's? I can at least accept the testimony of independent observers that Mozart's work shows more originality than Salieri's -- but how am I to objectively determine the difference between the cat's and Mozarts?

The same thing applies to all forms of behavior. How much variation is there in the grazing habits of individual cattle? How about the swimming patterns of salmon -- do they have a distinctive pattern and how much variation is there in such patterns?

I'll agree that these questions are conceivably answerable, and therefore your description has explanatory utility. But I fear that it will end up demonstrating that consciousness is nowhere near unique to or even characteristic of humans.
BLOGGER: I will spare you a discussion of the distinction between individual variations and personal habits, and instead argue about your close: “But I fear that it will end up demonstrating that consciousness is nowhere near unique to or even characteristic of humans.” I have not been arguing that it is unique. Take a look at what I say in my post. I’m looking at three features of a medical definition of consciousness, saying they suggest some evolutionary prerequisites to speech, and wondering how much of it evolved since the last common ancestor of chimps and us. Surely all three features are very old, in at least rudimentary form. A recurring theme on this blog is that chimps appear to be smart enough to use language, at least on the level of a two year old, and yet they do not. That’s a puzzle, answered—I suspect—by looking for some other set of traits than intelligence. Dr. Groopman’s article in the New Yorker provided a different way of thinking about this question. So I wonder: Can we stay focused on the meaning of representations for a much longer period than other animals? Do we have greater powers for “broadcasting” information, linking up novel inputs with outputs? As I say in my post, I don’t know the answer to these questions. I do know that you have to stay focused to talk yourself through a paragraph. (As a resident of New York City I have many opportunities to listen to crazy people, and one recurring trait is that although their sentences are often coherent, their paragraphs never are.) I’m trying to understand the origins of speech, and indirectly what those origins have to tell us about people, but I don’t assume from the outset that other animals, especially the great apes, less logical or less conscious than ourselves.

Robin Shannon

"The explanatory power of consciousness comes into important consideration when we are looking at language. If the social interaction is conversational, then the two speakers are directing each other's attention in specific directions. "See the way that drunk is staggering," says one speaker, and the listener looks and laughs. A great deal of human interaction consists of sharing attention and the conscious results of that sharing."

Perhaps more interesting than the length attention can be held for, is that attention can be multi-target. If A says "See the way that drunk is staggering" then B does not wait until the A has finished talking, disengage thier attention from A, shift it to the drunk, attend to the drunk, then come up with a response (ie. laugh). Rather while attending to the content of A's speech event, B also attends to the drunk, and probably starts laughing (or other apporpriate minimal response) when A has got to "is" and overlaps A's production of "staggering" (If B waited to the end of the utterance to start laughing it would probably be viewed as disaffiliative). Of course B has to attend to thier own laughter (self-attention is a vital feedback loop in interaction) in addition to continuing to attend to A's speech and the drunk's staggering.

I know remarkably little about other animal's attention, but the muplicity of attention seems more important to me than the length of attention. Also, the concept of attention is a very, very, very contested issue, and there is no clear consensus within most social/human/cognitive/interactive sciences about what it means, and even less between them.
BLOGGER: A blog about the origins of speech that limited itself to non-contested issues would have very few posts.


Let me take a constructive approach here and suggest an alternative term: "intermodular communication". Let's start off with the assumption that the brain is modular in architecture, as per the concepts from evolutionary psychology about specific mental modules developing in response to specific environmental challenges. (You're welcome to argue against this basic hypothesis, but for the moment, please indulge me.) If we accept the basic concept of mental modules, then we view the mind as a collection of specialty modules with an "attention allocator" module that directs a specific problem to the appropriate mental module. This basic architecture explains the behavior of all animals except humans and possibly apes and dolphins.

Let me point out that language, in order to function, must have connections to each of the mental modules. You can't talk about the content of a mental modules if your language module doesn't have access to it. So imagine the brain prior to language as a smoothly operating bureaucracy with departments dispersed throughout a huge building, and the different departments never communicating with each other; instead, the whole thing is a hierarchy controlled by the Executive. One day there's a corporate reshuffle and the new Executive decides that he wants direct contact with each and every department, as opposed to the old hierarchical system. So he installs an intercom system that allows him to talk directly with any department. But the intercom system also permits departments to talk to each other. All of a sudden, we get a lot more activity going on in this bureaucracy and each unit becomes aware of the other units. The bureaucracy has achieved what you would call "consciousness" -- but I don't like that term because it doesn't explain anything. That's why I prefer "intermodular communication".

So, what do you think? Am I full of crap?
BLOGGER: I prefer vague terms when the whole process is vaguely understood.

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