December 31, 2011 @ 4:59 pm
The truth is that we really do not know which of these organisms is or is not conscious. We have strong feelings about the matter, molded by tradition, religion and law. But we have no objective, rational method, no stepbystep procedure, to determine whether a given organism has subjective states, has feelings.
The reason is that we lack a coherent framework for consciousness. Although consciousness is the only way we know about the world within and around us— shades of the famous Cartesian deduction cogito, ergo sum—there is no agree ment about what it is, how it relates to highly organized matter or what its role in life is. This situation is scandalous! We have a detailed and very successful framework for matter and for energy but not for the mindbody problem. This dismal state of affairs might be about to change, however.
The universal lingua franca of our age is information. We are used to the idea that stock and bond prices, books, photographs, movies, music and our genetic makeup can all be turned into data streams of zeros and ones. These bits are the elemental atoms of information that are transmitted over an Ethernet cable or via wireless, that are stored, replayed, copied and assem bled into gigantic repositories of knowl edge. Information does not depend on the substrate. The same information can be represented as lines on paper, as elec trical charges inside a PC’s memory banks or as the strength of the synaptic connections among nerve cells.
So as a recovering mathematician eager to keep up with developments in the field of cognitive science, I realize now I’m at least a couple years behind. It looks like Tononi’s work is heading down the line I’ve wanted to see for a while.
Ah well, at least I’m no further behind with my favorite branches of science as I am with the latest music. And I’m a professional musician!