Frans de Waal is a well known proponent of animals being much more like us than many people are comfortable admitting. In this short two minute video, he gives his reason for concluding that at least some non-human animals are conscious. (Note: there’s also a transcript.)
de Waal is largely equating imagination and planning with consciousness, which I’ve done myself on numerous occasions. It’s a valid viewpoint, although some people will quibble with it since it doesn’t necessarily include metacognitive self awareness. In other words, it doesn’t have the full human package. Still, the insight that many non-humans have imagination, whether we want to include it in consciousness or not, is an important point.
As I’ve noted many times before, I think the right way to look at this is as a hierarchy or progression of capabilities. In my mind, this usually has five layers:
- Survival circuit reflexes
- Perception: predictive sensory models of the environment, expanding the scope of what the reflexes can react to
- Attention: prioritizing what the reflexes react to
- Imagination / sentience: action scenario simulations to decide which reflexes to allow or inhibit, decoupling the reflexes into feelings, expanding the scope of what the reflexes can react to in time as well as space
- Metacognition: theory-of-mind self awareness, symbolic thought
There’s nothing crucial about this exact grouping. Imagination in particular could probably be split into numerous capabilities. And I’m generally ignoring habitual decisions in this sketch. The main point is that our feelings of consciousness come from layered capabilities, and sharp distinctions between what is or isn’t conscious probably aren’t meaningful.
It’s also worth noting that there are many layers to self awareness in particular. A creature with only 1-3 will still have some form of body self awareness. One with 4 may also have attention and affect awareness, both arguably another layer of self awareness. Only with 5 do we get the full bore mental self awareness.
It seems like de Waal’s point about observing the capabilities in animal behavior to determine if they’re conscious will also eventually apply to machines. Although while machines will have their own reflexes (programming), those reflexes won’t necessarily be oriented toward their survival, which may prevent us from intuitively seeing them as conscious. Lately I’ve been wondering if “agency” might be a better word for these types of systems, ones that might have models of themselves and their environment, but don’t have animal sentience.
Of course, the notion that comes up in opposition to this type of assessment is the philosophical zombie, specifically the behavioral variety, a system that can mimic consciousness but has no inner experience. But if consciousness evolved, for it to have been naturally selected, it would have had to produce beneficial effects, to be part of the causal structure that produces behavior. The idea that we can have its outputs without some version of it strikes me as very unlikely.
So in general, I think de Waal is right. Our best evidence for animal consciousness lies in the capabilities they display. This views consciousness as a type of intelligence, which I personally think is accurate, although I know that’s far from a universal sentiment.
But is this view accurate? Is consciousness something above and beyond the functionality of the system? If it is, then what is its role? And how widespread would it be in the animal kingdom? And could a machine ever have it?