Re: Animal Consciousness (was Mindless Thought Experiments)

From: Matt Mahoney (
Date: Fri Mar 07 2008 - 10:21:55 MST

--- M T <> wrote:

> <!-- DIV {margin:0px;}-->While on this topic, I have to ask:
> What is the lowest level level of complexity in life forms that you would
> assign consciousness and self-awareness?
> Mice? Ants? Mussels maybe?
> It is also obviously impossible to answer objectively, but one has to
> try.....

It depends on how you want to define consciousness and self awareness. Does
an animal experience pain if you observe that it learns to avoid actions that
cause pain? If so, then is autobliss.cpp conscious?

Some people assert that consciousness requires awareness, specifically,
episodic memory. For example, a person whose hippocampus was removed would
forget events immediately after they happened, but could still learn skills.
If such a person underwent surgery without anesthesia, he would not recall the
pain. But because he still has procedural memory, he would experience anxiety
in the place where the torture occurred, without knowing why. If I extended
autobliss to add episodic memory (it could recall the training sequence, and
recall instances of recalling it), would it be conscious?

> It's a practical question for me as it relates directly to being
> vegetarian but obviously has theoretical implications. Though I will
> still choose not to eat meat as an exercise in compassion I would like to
> some more educated views on the matter. My (uneducated) view on the matter
> that it would be surprising if most insects were conscious because of their
> simple brains and their great reliance on chemical signals on the blood flow
> for simple communication of information within the body. The same might hold
> for some of the smaller mammals. And I would say “no” for the mussels,
> but wouldn't I love to be surprised...... :)

You are confusing consciousness with ethics. It is in the best interest of
tribes to practice altruism to other tribe members. Those tribes were more
successful than the anarchists, so we inherited their genes and culture. This
doesn't mean such behavior is right, just that we believe it is right. We say
we do not inflict pain on others because they are conscious like us and we
would not want them to inflict pain on us. But that is just an excuse to
justify our beliefs, just like we make excuses to justify killing criminals or
enemies at war.

Evolution does not favor compassion to other species. Dogs and cats are
carnivores. There is no moral dilemma for them. But your question is
important. We will try to apply the arguments that justify our ethics to
intelligent machines, and our logic will fail. There is no right answer.

-- Matt Mahoney,

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