Brief Response to Massimo Pigliucci’s Question about Over-ascription of “Consciousness”

Massimo Pigliucci asked on Twitter: “Without wanting to offend, or to “troll” my own feed, as someone suggested, I am genuinely puzzled by so many people wanting to see consciousness and/or intelligence everywhere: plants, bacteria, rocks, electrons, the universe as a whole. Why?” / Twitter

My tweets often end up being mini blog posts, so I thought I’d answer here instead. But only briefly. This is not a complete answer — just a few thoughts.

There are positive and negative reasons why people ascribe consciousness. Positive reasons explain the initial inclination. Negative reasons explain why people don’t put the brakes on their own inclinations.

Amongst the positive reasons is that using the intentional stance is often helpful, and we’re naturally inclined to do it. See Dennett’s book on the subject. The intentional stance is often helpful even for dealing with machines. Dennett gives the example of a coke machine, whose behavior can concisely be understood in terms of its beliefs (about how much money you paid) and its desire (to give you value for money, or to cheat you). For example, D.O. Hebb found out the hard way that you can’t get along with monkeys without using intentional terminology. (Compare chapter 1 of Robert Gordon’s The Structure of Emotions.)

But of course the intentional stance can fail.

Amongst the negative reasons, most people (including even too many psychologists, philosophers and programmers)

  1. don’t take the design(er) stance to human mind (They’ve not tried to reverse engineer complex mental functions, implement them in a computer, etc., with a view to understanding mind. And if they have, they don’t necessarily apply the methodology.) [1];
  2. are are not trained in conceptual analysis, [1]; and
  3. don’t think in terms of virtual machines.

That makes it hard (impossible?) to think productively about mind, and to realize (where) they are conceptually stuck. It’s like trying to understand advanced physics with only high school math.

Merlin Donald wrote an excellent comparative book on the computational architecture of “consciousness”: A Mind So Rare. He argues that consciousness is not an “all or none” concept, but a set of capabilities. He argues that different species have different capabilities.

See also some relevant notes on consciousness (PDF).


1. The first two items enumerated above are described in my Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective book. There’s more to the design stance than what Daniel Dennett described when he first used the expression. The concept predates Dennett’s treatment. See “Prospects for AI as the general science of intelligence” postscript file.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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