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Scientists: Humans and Non-Humans—We Are All Conscious August 26, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.

A watershed of an event happend recently–if you’re in any way interested in the nature of consciousness. My students from Phil 107 and 108, and readers of my book, The Human Condition, know how vital I consider this topic, both in its ontological and  ethical aspects. I hope to expand this post later. For now, let me just share the URLs and a few quotes:


An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus. But will this make us stop treating these animals in totally inhumane ways?

 While it might not sound like much for scientists to declare that many nonhuman animals possess conscious states, it’s the open acknowledgement that’s the big news here. The body of scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are, and it’s no longer something we can ignore.


The two principal features that distinguish people from other animals is our hypertrophied ability to reflect upon ourselves (self-consciousness) and language. Yet there is little reason to deny consciousness to animals simply because they are mute or, for that matter, to premature infants because their brains are not fully developed. There is even less reason to deny it to people with severe aphasia who, upon recovery, can clearly describe their experiences while they were incapable of speaking. The perennial habit of introspection has led many intellectuals to devalue the unreflective, nonverbal character of much of life. The belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world, flies in the face of all evidence for the structural and behavioral continuity between animals and people.

And here is the declaration in its entirety:


Time, the Universe, and Everything? February 15, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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I am always optimistic when I hear that a new Philosophy of Everything is making its debut. Why not? Why should the time of the great system builders be over? Let’s have some sweeping new thinking, to go hand in hand with the rapid expansion of the natural sciences. (Douglas Adams does deserve credit for at least trying.) And when I ran across Robert Lanza’s theory of Biocentrism in the Huffington Post recently, I thought I’d be in for a fun time. Robert Lanza is an interesting scholar; he’s been working with stem cell research and cloning, and is willing to explore radical new ways of thinking. But this article wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d hoped for.

Immanuel Kant declared in 1781 that space and time were real, but only indeed as properties of the mind. These algorithms are not only the key to consciousness, but why space and time − indeed the properties of matter itself – are relative to the observer. But a new theory called biocentrism suggests that space and time may not be the only tools that can be used to construct reality. At present, our destiny is to live and die in the everyday world of up and down. But what if, for example, we changed the algorithms so that instead of time being linear, it was 3-dimensional like space? Consciousness would move through the multiverse. We’d be able to walk through time just like we walk through space. And after creeping along for 4 billion years, life would finally figure out how to escape from its corporeal cage. Our destiny would lie in realities that exist outside of the known physical universe.

… Time is simply the summation of spatial states – much like the frames in a film – occurring inside the mind. It’s just our way of making sense of things. There’s also a peculiar intangibility to space. We can’t pick it up and bring it to the laboratory. Like time, space isn’t an external object. It’s part of the mental software that molds information into multidimensional objects.

 For one thing, this idea is not really new. What if Time is a fourth dimension? How might we be able to watch events along the arrow of time before they have actually happened ? Can we double back and watch ourselves from a higher vantage point? Can we travel back in time and change the present? Etc, etc. I can’t expect that everyone who speculates about the nature of time has read Henri Bergson, but since Bergson proposed the (at the time) ultimate critique of existing time theories, it would be appropriate to see his theory acknowledged by a scientist who apparently wants to take the connection between natural science and philosophy seriously. In his day, Bergson was considered one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. In 1889 he pointed out in his watershed of a book, Time and Free Will (and continued with his analysis in the 1896 book Matter and Memory), that time is misunderstood because we assume that it is quantifiable into spatial units (like the hands of the clock moving—through space). We are taken in by the brain’s predilection for externalizing and spatializing our experiences—but the true understanding of time is an internal flow, a duration which belongs to consciousness alone, and which has no equivalent in the spatial universe. As such, Bergson’s time concept may actually not be too far removed from Lanza’s—but for Bergson, time is not “the summation of spatial states” any more than it is like “frames in a film,” because that, in itself, is a spatialization. According to Bergson, we can’t “walk through time just like we walk through space,” and time is not “linear” in any directional sense. These are merely metaphors for the brain to cope with the experience of time passing, useful metaphors—but with no bearing on the lived experience of our life-time. Einstein himself engaged in critiquing Bergson, but he really didn’t get Bergson’s point. Of course this doesn’t mean that Bergson is right and Lanza wrong, but for Lanza to launch a philosophical theory of time, apparently bypassing Bergson’s theory (he isn’t even mentioned in the index of Lanza’s Biocentrism book) seems insufficient and incomplete.

But there is an additional element to Lanza’s theory: narrative theory:

But most of these comprehensive theories fail to take into account one crucial factor: We’re creating them. It’s the biological creature that fashions the stories, that makes the observations, and that gives names to things. And therein lies the great expanse of our oversight, that until now, science hasn’t confronted the one thing that’s at once most familiar and most mysterious – consciousness.

And that caught my attention at least as much as his time theory did—because this is right down my alley, viewing storytelling (narrativity) as the human invention of meaning, superimposed on a chaotic life. Indeed we are the story-telling animals, as Alasdair MacIntyre said. We tell the stories, we make the observations, and we name things. Absolutely. However, it would be a mistake to assume that we therefore create our entire universe through storytelling. We create stories and theories, right—but we don’t create the universe that the theories are supposed to explain—not all of it, at any rate. Postmodern perspectivism is wearing a bit thin: we may choose how we view our world, but we’re still stuck in (or thrown into) a reality that we have little control over. I am willing to concede that I may be jumping to conclusions, reading more into Lanza’s article than his book may actually claim (because I have not yet read his book), but judging from Lanza’s comments below the article it appears that he hopes the narrative angle can open up for the possibility of God’s existence, at least as a reality created (co-created?) by the storyteller. Those are fine ideas to bat around for philosophers—but I’d feel much better if a scientist would please leave philosophy of religion out of his or her professional, scientific theories.

There is of course another possibility: that Lanza is a philosophical idealist more than he is a natural scientist, at least in this context. We haven’t had many of those, and it would be entertaining to have a philosopher with a scientific background claim that the world is mainly mind rather than matter…