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At What Point in Development do Humans Become Conscious?, Part 1: Societal Ramifications January 26, 2009

Posted by ews8704 in Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind.

An Infant Processing her Surroundings

Societal Ramifications

The question of when we develop consciousness is, naturally, very loaded . If we are conscious in the womb, for instance,  can abortion ever be  moral? On my search for materials on nascent consciousness, I even ran across a book that insisted all expecting mothers should stay at home, lest they pass the toxic stress of the working world on through the placenta and trouble the fetus.

For decades Dr.  Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne,  has  incited outrage by advocating for infanticide in cases of extreme disability, since  “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person,” because an infant is not yet self-aware (Leo, 1999). Grown animals, however,  he  does consider “self-aware,” leading him to conclude that “the life of a newborn baby is of less value . . . than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee (Leo, 1999).”

Understandably,  Dr. Singer has horrified people across the political spectrum, from conservatives to disability advocates to hippies, and comparisons to Nazism inevitably creep up in their rebuttals.

But could Dr. Singer be right?

For a counter-argument, we can look to the classic 1970s critique of “mechanized child birth,” Birth without Violence (Amazon).  Through verse, the author Fredrick Leboyer argues for more natural, gentler delivery practices (such as water birthing)  in order to spare newborns the agony caused by “technocentric” delivery  (Amazon).

I’ve included the Part I of the book here:

“Do you think babies like being born?”
“What do you mean, like to be born?”
“Exactly what I said. Do you think children are
happy to come into this world?”
“Happy? But a newborn baby doesn’t feel anything.
So it’s neither happy nor unhappy.”
“How do you know that?”
“Well, it’s obvious. Everyone knows that.”
“That’s not much of a reason, is it?”
“I suppose you’re right. But all the same, they
don’t really see or hear properly, do they?”
“And that makes you think they don’t feel anything either?”
“Of course, they don’t.”
“Then why do they cry so bitterly?”
“Well, that’s to expand their lungs, isn’t it?”
“Expand their lungs! That hardly explains it.
My goodness, don’t tell me you’ve never heard a
newborn baby cry!”
“Yes, of course I have. But that doesn’t necessarily mean
he’s suffering.”
“Do you think he’s expressing his pleasure, his delight at
being with us?”
“I don’t think it’s either of those things. I
told you, babies don’t feel anything.”
“And what makes you so sure? If I may ask once more.
“Well, for a start, they’re so small. I mean, at
that age …
“How can an intelligent person like you say that!
As if size had anything to do with it. Small!
As for age, have you forgotten that, the younger you
are, the more intensely you feel? Young children
suffer agonies about things that seem quite trivial
to us because they feel a thousand times more than
we do. This is the blessing and at the same time
the curse of their heightened sensitivity.”
“Well, you could be right. But, all the same, it’s
still hard to understand that they can feel, I mean
there is no real consciousness at that stage, is there?”
“Consciousness? You mean they have no soul?”
“No, no. I don’t mean a soul. I don’t know anything
about the soul.”
“But, consciousness? You know about consciousness?
Wonderful! At last I have found someone who can
explain this great mystery to me. My friend, I am
on my knees. Tell me, please tell me. What is
“Well . . . actually . . . well, you see,
well . . . consciousness . . .” (Lebroyer, 1974)

So,  Fredrick Leboyer argues that infants  feel strong emotions and physical  pain, suggesting that they are indeed conscious.

Yet is that the definition of consciousness- the ability to have emotions and sense the physical world? Or is there something more, like thinking, and knowing that you’re thinking, and remembering that you’ve thought? None of us can  remember being born; in fact, our earliest lasting memories form much later, when we are around 3 or 4 years old. Could that be when we truly “wake up” ?

In order to find out when we become conscious, I first need to explore what consciousness actually is.


Leo, John. (1999, October). Singer’s final solutionU.S. News & World Report, 127(13), 17.  Retrieved January 26, 2009, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 47305048).

Lebroyer, Fredrick. (1974). Birth without Violence. Retrieved January 26, 2009 from Eco-Action.org: http://www.eco-action.org/dt/bwv1.html

Amazon.com: Birth without Violence: Revised Edition of the Classic (Paperback). Retrieved January 26, 2009 from Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Birth-without-Violence-Revised-Classic/dp/0892819839



1. Greg - January 26, 2009

Or is there something more, like … remembering that you’ve thought? None of us can remember being born; in fact, our earliest lasting memories form much later, when we are around 3 or 4 years old. Could that be when we truly “wake up” ?

The idea that whether I’m conscious or not somehow depends on memory seems rather suspect to me. If I get very drunk tonight then I may not remember anything I do, but I don’t think that implies that I’m unconscious while I’m out stealing police cars or what-have-you.

Or on the other hand, while I’m perfectly sober right now it’s entirely possible that I’ll have a stroke in five minutes which wipes out my memory of the evening. Whether I’m conscious now shouldn’t depend on what happens in five minutes.

2. atperrone - January 28, 2009

The idea of consciousness in the womb – as well as the ethical implications of abortion that come with it – is certainly worth discussing, particularly with the growing body of evidence to support it. However, this is still not a full picture.

Sure, consciousness in utero certainly would solidify all notions of infant consciousness, but where in the pre-natal development does the consciousness arise? Does it early in the fetal stage? Perhaps as far back as the embryo? Surely a zygote isn’t conscious. Where do we draw the line?

3. Kyle - January 31, 2009

The questions of when consciousness begins, and indeed of what consciousness even is, remain unanswered, and surely we won’t be able to answer the former until we have answered the latter.

Inline with Greg, memory (at least in the more-than-a-second-ago sense) seems not to be one of the determinate factors. Well, it may, but I’d think only so long as you have enough memory to be ‘aware’ of the ‘present moment,’ if that makes any sense. I’m not even sure what that might entail, but hopefully someone can see what I’m getting at. To use a pretty weak computer analogy: as long as we have RAM, we can run and function.. hard drives (long-term memory), on the other hand, are quite unnecessary. I think all we really need is “running memory,” for anyone familiar with the term.. just enough to allow our brains to actually perform computations and process information.. to operate, to think.

Again, though, it’s really hard to talk about components of consciousness when we don’t even know what consciousness is. With that being said, I’ll end my intuition-based speculation right there.

This is the same frustration I feel when contemplating the arguments for and against strong AI. I find myself unable to determine whose arguments are even valid or not until I know the (undetermined) facts they’re based on. “Is a perpetual-motion machine of buckets of water and levels conscious? Obviously not.” <– I don’t think "obviously not" can even be said, yet! We’re way ahead of ourselves.

Very interesting, and extremely challenging, questions indeed.

4. ebrister - February 3, 2009

It seems obvious to me that children have memory long before the point at which those memories stick into adulthood.

Also, sometimes consciousness is identified as self-awareness, in order to distinguish something that seems to make humans special, even if not unique. And while babies seem as conscious of their surroundings as some other animals, they’re not self-aware.

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