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At What Point in Development do Humans Become Conscious?, Part 2: Differing Definitions of Consciousness February 16, 2009

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

It’s been a while since my last post, and since then I’ve gotten some interesting comments (Yay!).Reaching

Tony mentioned that,  even if we are indeed conscious in the later stages of prenatal development, we aren’t  necessarily so in the earlier stages.  I agree; I don’t think anyone could argue that zygotes are conscious.  U.S. law, too,  differentiates between earlier and  later term abortions, with lawmakers and activists seeing 3rd trimester abortions as the most controversial.

Greg and Kyle suggested that consciousness doesn’t depend on memory. I also think they have a point-

One of my older relatives had a medical procedure done where the doctors stuck a tube with a small camera attached to it down his throat. The procedure was supposed to be horrifically uncomfortable, but the doctors needed him awake (conscious?),  in order to tell them if it was going down okay. So the doctors gave him a pill to make him completely forget the procedure. So my relative, to this day, has no idea what the surgery was like, although the doctors report he was very cooperative and helpful throughout.

I think our association of consciousness with memory comes from our experiences with passing out and falling asleep, when we truly do not remember what we were doing and what was happening around us.  Memory can also be helpful for us when we question when humans develop consciousness: If I can remember thinking, feeling, acting, and having a sense of self when I was, say, 5, at least I know  I was conscious by the age of 5, even if I wasn’t before then.

Dr. Brister pointed out that consciousness is sometimes defined as self-awareness, a trait that sets humans apart from other animals. Babies could be conscious of their surroundings, like many animals,  but not yet self-aware, unlike grown humans.  I want to include this in my discussion of differing definitions of consciousness.

Thanks everyone! Now here’s where my post gets weird…

Benim Adım Kırmızı

La foce, 61, Strada della Vittoria, Chianciano Terme, Sienna, Tuscany

I should probably note that my understanding of consciousness, and humanity’s attempts to define it, is horribly Eurocentric.

While I was working in Turkey as an au pair last summer,  I read the novel My Name is Red by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.  It’s a fascinating novel- philosophically dense yet full of violence and disease and stuff- and I highly recommend it, not just for all the steamy scenes. Anyway, the book is about the ideological conflict that the Ottoman  miniaturists (the people who painted pictures for the sultans’ books) faced when the Europeans started adopting lifelike, realistic painting styles during the Renaissance. By painting with perspective, and texture, and life, the Europeans were,  the miniaturists believed, trying to assume the role of G-d.  By painting a realistic eye, or the shadowy folds of a velvet robe, the Europeans wished to worship humanity and not its creator. And by creating their own personal artistic styles, the European artists celebrated individuality at the expense of the (G-d created and controlled) Whole.

So I understand Islamic philosophy to be theocentric and not anthrocentric.  While consciousness, to the Ottomans of the 1600s,  began and ended with G-d, the Europeans, carrying in the tradition of Greeks and Romans, were free to develop consciousness philosophy with only perfunctory nods to a supreme being.

Basically, I recognize that there were (and are!)  lots of fascinating ways of thinking about consciousness, from all around the world.

And here’s my segue: While the Istanbul Miniaturists of the 17th century were painting images like this:

The Europeans, in the spirit of Cartesianism, were building gardens like the one up above.

Mind over Matter

I personally think the miniature is far prettier than the landscaping design for the garden. The garden is just too… manicured. After all, the landscaping style of France in the 17th and 18th centuries, which quickly became all the rage across Europe, emphasized humanity’s ability to control its surroundings. The Europeans saw geometry as an abstract, purely human creation. By taming wild nature through geometric shapes, by emphasizing the unnatural, The Europeans celebrated humanity’s higher-order thinking and, further, the separation of  mind from physical matter. (Bramann).

I think…

In 1641, Descartes proclaimed, “Cogito, ergo sum,” setting a new foundation for Western philosophy (Dennett). Essentially, Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” asserted that, even though he could not be sure of the existence of anything else (for can’t one’s senses lie?), he at least  knew he existed. Descartes knew this because he could think, which meant something, somewhere in the universe(s) going by the name Descartes could generate thoughts. And an “I” could not generate thoughts if it didn’t exist (Dennett).

Descartes also saw the mind as distinct from the brain (Dennett). This school of thought is known as Cartesian Dualism (Dennett), and it makes from a Christian perspective, since it is similar to concept of a soul separate from the body.

After Descartes, other philosophers came up with Cartesian Materialism, which holds that a specific part (or parts) of the brain hold(s) information about each and every conscious experience one is having at a given moment (Dennett). For instance, there could be a “seeing place” in the brain, where everything a person is seeing is stored, and similar places for hearing and smelling.

The modern philosopher, Daniel Dennett, argues against Cartesian Dualism (Dennett). If we have a mind and a body, Dennett challenges, where is the magical place that they come together, where the mind and body combine? Dennett jokingly calls this elusive space the “Cartesian Theater” – the blackbox, if you will, of Cartesian Dualism.

Dennett also refutes Cartesian Materialism. Among his arguments, he  points out that neurologists and psychologists cannot pinpoint single spaces where outside information is stored (Dennett). Rather, it seems that each outside stimuli is processed by multiple, disparate spaces in the brain.

So Dennett, in sum, argues for more nuanced and scientifically accurate approaches to consciousness.

For my project, I decided to use the following definition, which I adapted from Webster’s New  World Dictionary:

Conscious- 1. Having a feeling or knowledge (of one’s own sensations, feelings, etc. or of external things); knowing or feeling (that something is or was happening or existing); aware; cognizant 2. Able to feel and think; in the normal waking state. 3 Aware of oneself as a thinking being; knowing what one is doing and why 4. Accompanied by an awareness of what one is thinking feeling, and doing; intentional 5. Known to or felt by oneself [conscious guilt]

In my last post, I will discuss the science behind our development and how it relates to the various definitions of consciousness.

Works Cited:

Bramann, Jorn K. (2004). Descartes: The Solitary Self. Retrieved February 15, 2009, from the Frostburg State    University Web site:  http://faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Descartes.htm

Dennett, Daniel. 1991. Consciousness Explained. USA: Back Bay Books.

Pamuk, Orhan. (2001). My Name is Red. New York: Alfred Knopf Publishing.



1. echolaughter - February 20, 2009

Interesting side note, senior year of highschool I wrote a paper on sociopaths. Every sociopath thats been thus far hooked up to a brainscan has been shows to have a physical lack of conscience.
Now obviously we dont know exactly what/where the conscience is, but we do know there are a few spots (my memory isn’t great about the specific details), but I believe there are 3-4 spots that light up on a normal persons brain when exposed to different stimuli that involved decision making. Again my memory of the exact facts is a little shaky so I wont get into to much detail, just the general idea of it.
basically they were able to scan the brains of many inmates and after many different scans they found a clear distinction between those with “conscience” and those with out (vit was visible by brain activity)
They then looked at who it was they had scanned the brains of.
In EVERY case, those with out conscience were repeat criminals (for crimes such as murder/rape) and by repeat I mean more then 2-3.
EVERY serial killer they were able to scan showed no activity in the regions that most of us use when making decisions (where we relay on our conscience).
In many of the sociopaths there was a lower lvl of brain activity in those regions; compared to a normal human/inmate.
But again for the extreme (repeat murders to the lvl of serial killer, repeat rapist and such) there was 0 activity, and in most cases 95%, there was physically less brain matter at those 3-4 locations we process our decisions using.

I thought you might enjoy knowing/researching that more.
Since my paper sparked much debate ( it was something to the extent of, are sociopaths the next step in our evolutionary cycle.. evidence shows sociopaths are on a rise, granted to varying degree of course. They don’t have to commit crimes, most are extremely good business men. It doesn’t phase them who they screw over in order to make it to the top. )

anyways – just something I thought you might be interested in.

2. ews8704 - February 20, 2009

Thanks, Chris! That research is awesome.
Sociopaths as the next step in the evolutionary cycle? I really hope not…

3. Chris - February 20, 2009

“Sociopaths as the next step in the evolutionary cycle”
That that I’m an expert in the field, but I could definitely see not having a conscience as being a benefit to many things. In terms of the business world at least.
On top of that most sociopaths are considered extremely intelligent and know how to play on the heart strings of those w/ conscience.

But then again – I also happen to think religion/morals are as Karl Marks said “the opiate of the masses” – a great social control.

Being able to not have to deal w/ guilt from ones conscious opens so many avenues we might otherwise not travel down.

All speculations though – just having fun thinking out loud is all – typing if you want to get technical 🙂

4. ews8704 - February 22, 2009

Wow, very Silence of the Lambs… 🙂
Yeah, it is fun to think about.

5. ebrister - February 23, 2009

On the subject of psychopathy, which (sorry Elena) is pretty far from the interesting-in-itself subject of this blog post:
— A recent long and detailed article in the New Yorker:
— A shorter set of questions and answers to the article author and a psychopathy researcher:

6. Elena - February 23, 2009

Thanks for putting the link up to that article, Dr. Brister!
I find it disconcerting that Kiehl can conduct so much of his research so close to my home in Seattle.
I’d heard about Ted Bundy before, but didn’t know he was from Tacoma or a UW grad. Yikes, I hope nothing’s in the water.

7. Harris County Aggravated Assault Lawyer - December 22, 2012

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