“Consciousness of consciousness”

A somewhat old Discover Magazine interview with Gerald Edelman-

Before talking about how this relates to consciousness, I’d like to know how you define consciousness. It’s hard to get scientists even to agree on what it is.
William James, the great psychologist and philosopher, said consciousness has the following properties: It is a process, and it involves awareness. It’s what you lose when you fall into a deep, dreamless slumber and what you regain when you wake up. It is continuous and changing. Finally, consciousness is modulated or modified by attention, so it’s not exhaustive. Some people argue about qualia, which is a term referring to the qualitative feel of consciousness. What is it like to be a bat? Or what is it like to be you or me? That’s the problem that people have argued about endlessly, because they say, “How can it be that you can get that process—the feeling of being yourself experiencing the world—from a set of squishy neurons?”


How does this primary consciousness contrast with the self-consciousness that seems to define people?
Humans are conscious of being conscious, and our memories, strung together into past and future narratives, use semantics and syntax, a true language. We are the only species with true language, and we have this higher-order consciousness in its greatest form. If you kick a dog, the next time he sees you he may bite you or run away, but he doesn’t sit around in the interim plotting to remove your appendage, does he? He can have long-term memory, and he can remember you and run away, but in the interim he’s not figuring out, “How do I get Kruglinski?” because he does not have the tokens of language that would allow him narrative possibility. He does not have consciousness of consciousness like you.

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  • K. M.  On November 27, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    That is a fascinating interview. Will try to get one of Edelman’s books sometime. Thanks for the link.

    Edelman talks of primary consciousness and self consciousness (consciousness of consciousness). Can there be levels higher than that (consciousness of consciousness of consciousness…)?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On November 28, 2009 at 1:10 am

      I don’t think so. Existence is a state. A rock exists. So does a dog. The first is inanimate, the second alive and conscious. But both are unaware of their state. Awareness of such existence is what separates sentient beings like us from lower beings or inanimate objects. A higher order of awareness or consciousness is not possible.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On November 28, 2009 at 4:27 am

      There’s another way of looking at it wherein its useful to think of consciousness as a separate entity instead of a process. Consciousness exists, and things exist outside it that Consciousness can be conscious of. This is “primary consciousness.” When Consciousness turns on itself, becomes conscious of itself, this is self awareness. Since nothing else, other than these two categories, exists, talking about consciousness higher than the second order makes no sense.

      • K. M.  On November 29, 2009 at 1:48 pm

        I don’t think you can look at consciousness as an entity. Yes, consciousness exists but that merely makes it an existent, not necessarily an entity. (For example a relationship exists but is not an entity.)

        Have been thinking of this for the last couple of days and now I think that primary consciousness in a human context is the ability to integrate stimuli into percepts. Awareness that this is happenning is second order consciousness. In a statement like “I feel heat”, the “I feel” part indicates second order consciousness. Second order consciousness is what enables us to feel emotions like happiness, despair or outrage. I say this because emotions are not necessarily produced by any external sensory input. But our consciousness goes further. When I say “I am outraged”, my awareness of my outrage is third order consciousness. So I would say that introspection is third order consciousness. Can it go further? I am inclined to think so but thinking about it gets difficult.

        • Aristotle The Geek  On November 30, 2009 at 1:32 am

          # “Awareness that this is happening is second order consciousness.”
          You are defining it in a very narrow sense. The reason I said its useful to think of Consciousness as an entity—I am not claiming it is; a model if you will— is it helps separate the outer world from the inner world, the actions from the awareness. Thus, anything related to the outer world, the ability to perceive it by making sense of stimuli for example, could be categorized as first order consciousness. And anything that deals with the inner world, the awareness of one’s own existence, nature, working, could be labeled as second order consciousness. You could create various categories and place perception, concept creation, emotions, and the awareness of the same in different baskets. But that isn’t saying much about what the actual state is.

          Self-awareness includes awareness of everything that one is capable of performing. Though emotions are not produced in the same way perceptions are, emotions by themselves are not in any way related to the second order. Being angry is different from being aware that one is angry. Does anger require that one possess the faculty of reason? Why do dogs bite if threatened, or animals fight over a hundred different things? I don’t know if one can say it with certainty, but animals can have emotions as well.[[1] [2]

          I think that when all you have are two categories, an action (say), and the awareness of having performed the action, you can’t go to level three. All one can talk about are degrees of first and second order consciousness. From the Times article-

          Sceptical behaviourists often ask him, “How do you know dogs and elephants feel joy or jealousy or embarrassment?”

          Bekoff replies: “One retort is to say: how do you know they don’t? Darwin said there was continuity in evolution, so the differences between species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. They’re shades of grey.

          As an aside, this is what Isabel Paterson writes about a purely materialistic/ mechanistic philosophy-

          Later, when the theory of “natural” man was formulated, the mechanistic theory of the universe had gained credence in European philosophy. God was a mathematician; Descartes and Newton were His prophets. To be sure, Descartes allowed man to be an exception in his mathematical philosophy, man being “continually in touch with the Divine Idea,” but Cartesians of a later generation went so far as to assert that animals were mere machines, incapable of feeling pain.* One step further, and strictly “natural” man is also reduced to mechanism in such a mechanistic universe.

          The footnote which accompanies the *-

          It is reported of a group of Cartesians at Port Royal (the Jansenist center): “They beat their dogs without remorse, and laughed at those who were sorry for the beasts when they whimpered. ‘Mere clockwork,’ they replied, saying that these yelps and cries were the result of a little hidden spring inside the animal, who was no less devoid of feeling.” Holding this opinion, they vivisected animals to study the circulation of the blood. These were the extremists; a moderate enquirer protested that one need only observe his turnspit dogs—one was lazy and would hide when it was time for him to go to work, while the other would hunt out the delinquent and fetch him to the task—to realize that something more than clockwork was involved…. When Berkeley got lost in a maze of argument on whether anything existed objectively, Dr. Johnson made a similar appeal to commonsense, with pardonable exasperation, kicking a stone as refutation. It was a cogent answer; subjective my foot. The subjective is inconceivable without the objective.

          B.F.Skinner’s forefathers.

          • K. M.  On December 1, 2009 at 12:59 am

            > emotions by themselves are not in any way related to the second order
            That would mean emotions are irreducible primaries. Human emotions atleast are certainly not irreducible. They are certainly dependent on prior conceptual cognition. That is why I took the example of outrage last time. Depending on their beliefs, different people will be outraged by very different things.

            > Does anger require that one possess the faculty of reason?
            I think so. In that interview Edelman said that a dog does not think of how to get rid of the person who kicked him. Now that would be anger.

            > Why do dogs bite if threatened, or animals fight over a hundred different things?
            Is that anger? I don’t think so. Take outrage again. Would a dog be outraged by anything? I think not and I think you will agree. If you then want to claim that a dog can feel angry, anger and outrage would have to be in different categories.

            > the differences between species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind.
            Clearly the difference between plants (sophisticated machines) and humans is a difference in kind. I think there is atleast one reason to believe that the difference between animals and man is also a difference in kind – communication via language as opposed to via signals.

            “Animal Minds and Animal Emotions” takes a very behavioristic view of emotions by framing them in the context of reinforcement learning. I don’t subscribe to that.

            P.S. I am aware that this comment is quite disjoint, but I don’t have enough time to improve it.

            • Aristotle The Geek  On December 1, 2009 at 4:27 am

              Take your time, if you want to add something to it, and then I’ll reply.

              Here’s an interesting piece though. Do you believe in coincidences?

              • K. M.  On December 6, 2009 at 2:50 am

                Let me retry.
                Briefly, my position is that the emotions depend on the existence of second order consciousness. Therefore the awareness of emotions represents a higher order.
                Consider a young ordinary dog in an amusement park with all sort of moving objects. As it moves around it gets hit by something and experiences pain. Perhaps it may try to attack the object but in vain. Over time it learns to avoid large objects that move towards it rapidly. If some human tries to hit it with a stick, the dog will try to avoid the blow and run away. This is particularly true of street dogs. I have never seen a street dog attack anyone who threatens it. A homegrown dog of the same kind who has never been beaten will not show the same lack of resistance. This is just reinforcement learning at work.
                Now consider a child. A child also learns to avoid objects that move towards it. But it can distinguish between an inanimate machine that hits it and a bully at school. The child will not feel any anger when a see-saw hits him but will feel anger if a bully causes him to be hit by the same see-saw. The anger depends on the concept of intentional action and not just on the physical sensation of pain.
                A dog and a child display similar physical indications on being hit. Both howl in pain, both contort their faces, perhaps similar regions in their brains get activated (I don’t know about this). Yet a dog, lacking the concept of intentional action (any concept – for that matter) cannot experience anger in the human sense of the term. Describing anger merely in terms of physically measurable characteristics is incorrect. That is the problem with behaviorism. It is appropriate for animals lacking concepts and beyond ridiculus when applied to humans (Does the behavior of a behaviorist depend on his understanding of the concept of behaviorism?).
                This difference is not one of degree but one of kind. Therefore any intuitions that we have based on interactions with humans do not apply to interactions with animals and vice versa. Taking the position that animals can experience emotions in a similar (in kind) sense that we do is just anthropomorphizing, any behavioral research showing similarity in physical reactions notwithstanding.

                Geting back to the original issue, I am taking the position that awareness of the effects of second-order consciousness is a higher-order consciousness. It might seem that it this is merely a semantic issue. Who cares whether you call it 2nd order or 3rd order as long as you acknowledge that we have such awareness? I think there is more to it than that. But I will wait for your reply on the above first.

                • Aristotle The Geek  On December 6, 2009 at 6:44 pm

                  # “my position is that the emotions depend on the existence of second order consciousness.”
                  I read my previous comment and I take back my “emotions by themselves are not in any way related to the second order” statement. Unless I am self-aware, I can’t “feel.” Emotions, being psychological reactions, are part of second-order consciousness and one needs the ability, however rudimentary, to form concepts in order to emote. This would mean that no living entity without self-awareness and awareness of concepts should be capable of emoting. The question is whether self-awareness is a result of having acquired the ability to conceptualize, or vice versa?

                  # “awareness of emotions represents a higher order.”
                  # “I am taking the position that awareness of the effects of second-order consciousness is a higher-order consciousness.”
                  I still think this is incorrect. I don’t think we can stretch the “order-ness” to include awareness of every kind of reaction. If self-awareness is the hallmark of second-order consciousness, it includes awareness of everything Consciousness is up to. Consciousness is aware of itself. “Being angry is different from being aware that one is angry,” but both are processes of the second-order.

                  # “This difference is not one of degree but one of kind.”
                  What about animals like dolphins, elephants, higher-order primates etc? Given their cognitive abilities, they are not in the same class as dogs. They must then possess self-awareness and must have at least some level of conceptual ability. At least in their case, its a question of degree isn’t it?

                • Aristotle The Geek  On December 14, 2009 at 10:52 am

                  On whether ‘self-awareness’ is binary in nature, this is an interesting article.

              • K. M.  On December 6, 2009 at 2:56 am

                It is quite a coincidence, but I dindn’t get the point of the article. But then, perhaps Mukul Sharma never has one!

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On December 2, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    wow. so a dog doesn’t have CoC cause he cannot talk to himself cause he lacks doggy vocabulary. interesting way to study evolution without the need to experiment. unlike the south asian democracy experiment over india. the journals of the pundits in yankeeland must be over flowing with feedback.

    i would say that a creature like a house rat does have “consciousness of consciousness”. not joking. there are times when the i loose that bastards in the hunt and the next day, they chew holes through my cloths or piss on it. those pests are capable of making plans with vengeance in mind. they have CoC.

    disrespect a cat and it will scratch the sh!t out of you. still an animal commanding RESPECT? wtf? a domestic dog close to dying will abandon the owners house and choose to die in loneliness somewhere in the gutter, probably cause he doesn’t want his owner to mourn.

    Would a dog be outraged by anything?
    when a stranger dog flirts with his b!tches, would he not be outraged? would a head hunter feel remorse watching an execution?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On December 3, 2009 at 1:10 am

      # “wow. so a dog doesn’t have CoC cause he cannot talk to himself cause he lacks doggy vocabulary.”
      Language != speech. Without language, concept creation and abstract thinking is impossible. You will be reduced to a life which revolves around perception. Like that of an animal.

      # “i would say that a creature like a house rat does have ‘consciousness of consciousness’…”
      To be able to plot vengeance, an animal needs to hold long term memories, get angry when it is hurt (not necessarily physical injuries), understand what anger is etc etc etc. I don’t think any animals can do that. Elephants and some primates maybe, but I am not aware of any such research.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On December 3, 2009 at 1:32 am

      Watch “Instinct” if you haven’t. Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Donald Sutherland. I haven’t read the book on which it is based, Ishmael (seems to be a critique of anthropocentricism), but the film itself deals with this subject. How we treat animals, and humans too, when push comes to shove.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On December 3, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    # A rock exists. So does a dog. But both are unaware of their state.
    what do you mean?
    i have seen dogs fiddle with it’s new born dead puppies and even mourn about it later with a howling sound. if it can conclude that it’s offspring is dead then cannot it know that she is alive?

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