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The Unselfconscious Dog
To put the point another way, consciousness is an emergent property of organisms. But it emerges from the total behavioral and neurological repertoire, not from brain processes considered in themselves – just as the face in the painting emerges from the whole array of colored patches, not from the canvas that supports them, considered in itself. Of course, you cannot have the behavior without the brain, just as you can’t have the painting without the canvas. In that sense there will be neuronal correlates of consciousness. But the discovery of these correlates does not tell us what consciousness is, nor does it solve the mystery of the subject, nor the equally perplexing mystery of the first-person case.

There is a difficulty that I have avoided, and which Koch too avoids, though incidental remarks show that he is aware of it. This difficulty arises from two radical ontological divisions in the realm of the mental. First, there is the division that separates conscious from unconscious creatures. We attribute perception of a kind to mussels and oysters – but are they conscious? Should we feel remorse when we pry open the oyster and sting its wounds with lemon juice? We are inclined to say that such organisms are too primitive to admit the application of concepts like those of feeling, belief, and desire. Maybe that goes for insects, too, however much we may admire their amazing social organization and perceptual powers.

Secondly, there is the division that separates merely conscious creatures from self-conscious creatures like us. Only the second have a genuine “first-person” perspective, from which to distinguish how things seem to me from how they seem to you. The creature with “I” thoughts has an ability to relate to its kind that sets it apart from the rest of nature, and many thinkers (Kant and Hegel among them) believe that it is this fact, not the fact of consciousness per se, that creates all the mysteries of the human condition. Although dogs are conscious, they do not reflect on their own consciousness as we do: they live, as Schopenhauer put it, in “a world of perception,” their thoughts and desires turned outwards to the perceivable world.

The difficulty is this: we want to say of human beings that their self-consciousness is a systematic attribute of their mental life, which affects everything that they think and feel. We want to say of dogs that their consciousness is a systematic attribute of their mental life too, since it distinguishes them categorically from mollusks and beetles. Yet similar mental states seem to exist at all three levels. The beetle sees things; so does the dog; so does the person. How is it that one and the same mental process – visual perception – can exist in three different ontological predicaments, so to speak: as a reflex link between visual input and behavioral output, as a conscious perception, and as part of the continuous and distinguishing sense of self?

That question has led some writers (the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in his book Looking for Spinoza, for instance) to think of consciousness and self-consciousness as monitoring processes – a move that comes dangerously close to the old homunculus fallacy. It is not as though my mind were just like a dog’s, only with a self observing it, or a dog’s just like an insect’s, only with an internal monitor. Consciousness and self-consciousness are holistic properties, which emerge from the totality of a creature’s physiognomy and behavior. We may discover organizations in the brain and nervous system that are biologically necessary for these features. But those “neuronal correlates” are no more likely to cast light on the mysteries of consciousness than the back of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa can explain the mystery of her smile.

The conclusion to which I am tempted is not that there is no such thing as consciousness, but that there is nothing that consciousness is, just as there is no physical object that actually is Mona Lisa’s smile.

Roger Scruton is visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy, Birkbeck College, London, and the author of more than 20 books, including Modern Philosophy and England: an Elegy. He farms in Wiltshire, England.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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