Who and What is Conscious? (was Thank You)

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Wed Jul 28 22:34:06 CDT 1999

On Tue, 27 Jul 1999, Parisi & Watson wrote:

> My cat is definitely conscious. I suppose the question is whether she has
> introspective self awareness, and probably she doesn't.

Maybe not cats but I feel that some animals do.  In a more rudimentary way
than humans of course.

> The awkward fact is
> that I can never directly verify the introspective capabilities of anyone
> other than myself, human or not. It sounds like a silly statement, but it
> becomes very serious in the field of artificial intelligence. Where, if
> anywhere, could we ever cross the line from a convincing simulation of
> consciousness (in the sense of self awareness) to actual consciousness? And
> how could we ever go about determining the answer to this question?

Perhaps one answer is to look at it in a statistical way.  Does the
subject show more signs of consciousness or not?  Trouble is, a good many
humans might fail that test.  (On a serious note it could be (and in
fact has) been used to justify oppression.  We can treat ____ however we
like.  They don't feel as we do.)

> It's
> difficulties like this one that led science to behaviorism, and to something
> between saying that consciousness doesn't matter and denying it altogether.
> But denying it is futile, since I am unquestionably aware of my own
> subjective states. So science is in the embarrassing position of neglecting
> or denying the thing that we know best and most closely - the thing that we
> _are_ - in favor empirical observations, especially of qualities that can be
> quantified, which consciousness cannot. It may seem that I'm arguing both
> sides of the issue now, but these problems are painfully apparent from the
> scientific point of view, and it doesn't help anything to try to paper over
> them.

Agreed.  Perhaps another way to examine consciousness is to measure its
effect on other things.  Just like the outer planets were discovered by
their gravitational efects on the inner ones.  If we know a particular
behavior is based on instinct, and subject A is less bound by it than
subject B maybe it means A is more conscious.  That's why Vedanta (got to
stay on topic here :-) insists not only on the inside (the atma,
specifically the chitta shakti of the atma.) but an "outside" component

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>
>From ADVAITA-L at LISTS.ADVAITA-VEDANTA.ORG Thu Jul 29 00:29:34 1999
Message-Id: <THU.29.JUL.1999.002934.0400.ADVAITAL at LISTS.ADVAITAVEDANTA.ORG>
Date: Thu, 29 Jul 1999 00:29:34 -0400
Reply-To: List for advaita vedanta as taught by Shri Shankara
To: List for advaita vedanta as taught by Shri Shankara
From: "Jaldhar H. Vyas" <jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM>
Subject: Re: Thank You
In-Reply-To: <003f01bed95f$9fdaf500$23a9b3c7 at niche>
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII

On Wed, 28 Jul 1999, Parisi & Watson wrote:

> Let's review. I began with a serious of logical steps concerning
> consciousness, and asked what was wrong with my reasoning.

Nothing was wrong with your reasoning except that it ran out of steam as
all logic eventually does.

The answer
> eventually boiled down to, "Your reasoning is wrong because our infallible,
> unauthored scripture says so." Well fine. No answer to that is possible.

In the same way that 3 < 4 only because the mathematics that is taught to
us tells us so.  It is quite possible  to imagine 4 < 3 and build a
consistent mathematics from it.

> There is an important distinction that easily gets lost between "Everything
> in this book is true" and "This book is infallible." The first statement can
> be justified, at least conditionally (barring other evidence), but the
> second never can, except by blind faith alone. There I cannot and will not
> go. I don't ever want to put myself in the position of making any statement
> that can't begin with "I could be wrong, but..." That is the dimension of
> human fallibility, and I have yet to come across any book, scripture,
> philosophy or oral tradition that was not originated by human beings,
> including those of the Indian subcontinent.

I think if you look at almost any aspect of your life you'll find a
thousand things that you accept infallibly.  If you are stopped at a
traffic light, you don't say "I could be wrong but that traffic light is
red" you say "the traffic light is red."  Perhaps one _should_ say the
former but no one does.  Such a level of doubt would be the path to
madness.  Ok, perhaps we can reserve doubt for the "big" ideas but where
is the line?  For myself, a lot of things seem more improbable than the
authorlessness of the Vedas.  That doesn't mean I've surrendered to
gullibility though.

> The ironic thing to me is that this claim, which is made to advance Vedanta
> to a supreme, unassailable position, in reality lowers it to the level of
> just one more example of human arrogance and presumption,
> as we see in most
> of the other major religions. And you don't need it!
> The Upanishads can
> stand on their own as supremely profound and beautiful, as foremost among
> religious ideas, without any such impossibly inflated claim. But by
> indulging in this conceit, the whole notion slides from the sublime toward
> the ridiculous. If only you knew what you really have!

Why restrict it to religions even?  I've never seen a member of Amnesty
International say "well maybe a bit of torture and genocide is not so
bad."  Any attempt by a short-lived, relatively immobile pile of
hydrocarbons to impose a system, some kind of order on the unending chaos
of the universe is arrogance and presumption of the most audacious kind!

But we do it anyway.

I am the heir to people whose accumulated arrogance caused both the the
thoughts you describe as profound and the ones you describe as ridiculous.
They all flowed indistinctly from the same source.  I don't see why I
shouldn't take advantage of all of it.

> The administrator has personally urged me to leave the list as I promised,
> and assured me that doing so would not place me among the weak minded. I
> would only respond that true strength of conviction needs no unconditional,
> absolute guarantees in advance; it can stand or fall on its own. It learns
> readily from others, but always reserves the right duty to question. That
> which cannot withstand sincere questioning can't be saved by claims of
> infallibility.

Speaking only for myself, I did find your questions sincere  (and I think
the Vedas withstood them fine :-) and I did learn from them in the sense
they helped me clarify a lot of the ideas I had in my own mind.  The only
thing I would add is the man of conviction uses doubt as a tool where it
is useful but knows deep down there is truth beyond doubt.

> I know that all this will fall on deaf and probably hostile ears, but I
> don't think that's my problem. I do certainly still respect Vedanta, and
> also the members of the list, although this episode has taken some of the
> shine off their aura, so to speak. But I wish all of you well in pursuing
> your ideas, wherever they may lead.

And in all earnestness, I wish the same to you.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>

More information about the Advaita-l mailing list