What seems conscious?

Folk psychology is interesting – a mixture of those quasi-psychological ideas that we have as babies, as primitives and which we cannot really shake even if we not longer find them useful. A group of experimental psychologist have been looking at the folk psychology of consciousness. Which entities do we assume are conscious and which not? They -A. Arico, B. Fiala, R. Goldberg, S. Nichols- have a forthcoming paper (pdf) which puts forward their Agency theory.

Looking at what it is that various researchers have found to be reacted to or described as a conscious entity they have constructed a list of attributes which in various combinations trigger people to think of the entity as an ‘agent’: eyes, particular sorts of motion trajectories, contingent interaction with others. They also have constructed a list of reactions to an ‘agent’ by a person: gaze following, attributions of mental activity, disposition to attribute conscious mental states, anticipation of goal-directed behaviour, imitation. Whether it is an other person, an moving animal, a clever animation of simple shapes or a fluffy ball that engages a baby with responsive beeps, the immediate unconscious categorization is conscious-thing which has to be over-ridden if we know better.

To test this hypotheses they timed the response to pairs of objects and adjectives which people judged true or not. Hesitation was take to be due to a mismatch between quick, automatic, folk categorization and a normal cognitive decision. With no mismatch there is a quicker answer. With some small problems the results were in keeping with their model.

Here is their abstract:

This paper proposes the ‘AGENCY model’ of conscious state attribution, according to which an entity’s displaying certain relatively simple features (e.g., eyes, distinctive motions, interactive behavior) automatically triggers a disposition to attribute conscious states to that entity. To test the model’s predictions, participants completed a speeded object/attribution task, in which they responded positively or negatively to attributions of mental properties (including conscious and non-conscious states) to different sorts of entities (insects, plants, artifacts, etc.). As predicted, participants responded positively to conscious state attributions only for those entities that typically display the simple features identified in the AGENCY model (eyes, distinctive motion, interaction) and took longer to deny conscious states to those entities.

The paper ends with some interesting philosophical observations:

…illustrates how the answer to the descriptive problem might influence the way the relevant intuitions are used in philosophical debate. For depending on what one thinks about the epistemic status of the relevant psychological processes, one might be led either to dismiss the intuitions, or to give them special weight. An answer to the descriptive problem might also bear on the idea that people intuitively embrace a ‘folk dualism’, according to which the mind is radically different than the body. It’s plausible that one aspect of such a dualism is the apparent gulf between consciousness and physical objects. For instance, when we think about a brain as a massive collection of neurons that has various chemical and physical characteristics, it is not at all intuitive that this mass has consciousness. Something similar can, of course, be said for other bodily organs. Even after we are told that the brain is the part of the body responsible for consciousness, this does not render it intuitive that the brain is where conscious experience occurs. We suggest that part of the reason for this is that when we consider brains as hunks of physical stuff, we are considering descriptions that exclude the sort of cues that tend to activate the low-level processes that generate the intuitive sense that an entity is conscious. Hence, it’s not surprising if we find some initial resistance to the idea that the physical brain is conscious. In this light, it’s somewhat ironic that, while people have difficulty thinking of the brain as conscious, they have no trouble at all thinking that ants are conscious. On the contrary, our experiments indicate that people have trouble thinking that ants are not conscious.

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