Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Consciousness: Sapience & Sentience

David Chalmers makes a terminological distinction between sentience and sapience:

       sentience = phenomenal consciousness
       sapience = psychological consciousness

What does this distinction amount to?

For a start, a conscious creature “senses and feels”. That is, it is sentient. This is Chalmers ‘hard problem’:

Chalmers points out that psychology and neuroscience have made significant progress toward increasing our understanding of sapience – psychological consciousness… In contrast, we seem to have made little or no progress in understanding sentience. What understanding we do have consists mainly in the discovery of brute correlation between conscious episodes and neurological events. The identification of correlation represents at most a starting point for explanation, however, not a settled goal. Unlike the case of sapience, where it is reasonable to expect incremental progress, it is hard to see what we could do to move ahead in our understanding of the basis of consciousness.” - John Heil

One way we can appreciate our progress with sapience is with the fantastic growth of the cognitive sciences (as well as cognitive psychology). The language of thought hypothesis (LOT) is also an example of this; along with neuro-computationalism and connectionism. All are concerned with sapience – or psychological consciousness. But what about sentience? Where are the research projects in sentience? Could there even be such things as research projects in sentience?

Chalmers is correct to argue that the discovery of brute correlations (or connections) between conscious states and physical states is only the beginning of the story – or, at the least, a different story to the story of sentience altogether. Chalmers last point is very telling, if not overtly pessimistic. He writes that

it is hard to see what we could do to move ahead in our understanding of the basis of consciousness”.

Perhaps this word ‘basis’ is incorrectly used here. We do indeed partly know the basis of consciousness. What we don’t know is the why-of-consciousness. What we can't explain is why a conscious state should arise out of such a physical basis in the brain. The correlates are known; though not why they are correlated.

Some philosophers seem to offer a way out of this impasse that is, quite frankly, little more than a cop-out. In general terms, they “hope that sentience [will be] reducible to sapience” [601]. Surely this couldn’t be the case.

This is the position on offer:

"… all there is to being conscious is acting and interacting intelligently in a complex environment (see e.g. Dennet 1991)."

Acting thus and so is to be conscious. What of feelings and other sensuous states? These are species of sapient state. Functionalists, for instance, may hold that, to be in pain is to be in a state with the right sorts of cause and effect. Pains are caused by tissue damage and result in aversive behaviour (including the formation of various beliefs and desires).

This is indeed a reductive explanation of consciousness. It seems, to me, to be obviously false and even disingenuous in nature. How could anyone really believe that consciousness is our acting and interacting in a complex environment? How could anyone believe that acting thus and so is to be conscious? No. Consciousness comes along with interacting intelligently. Consciousness comes along with functional roles as well. Pain, on the functionalist picture, is indeed caused by tissue damage. And it's true that pain results in the right sorts of aversive behaviour (including the formation of various beliefs and desires about pain and ways of escaping pain). But all these causes and effects are accompanied by consciousness. They aren't examples of consciousness. They may even be the necessary accompaniments of consciousness; though they aren't sufficient for it. It's is incredible, again, that any philosophy could uphold these reductive (or functionalist) explanations of consciousness. And yet they do!

No comments:

Post a Comment