“Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.” —Tom Nagel
One of the most influential and widely cited short works in philosophy of the last century is Nagel’s 1974 paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” http://www.philosopher.eu/others-writings/nagel-what-is-it-like-to-be-a-bat/ He argued that “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” This essential subjectivity cannot be captured fully by any objective description of the organism. “If mental processes are indeed physical processes, then there is something it is like, intrinsically, to undergo certain physical processes. What it is for such a thing to be the case remains a mystery.” Nagel chose bats as his example because their sensory system is so different from ours that our imagination is strained to grasp their inner lives, if indeed they have any.
Do non-human animals have minds? To grant consciousness to our fellow mammals, at least, seems obvious (see John Searle, “Animal Minds” (1994) Midwest Studies in Philosophy XIX), even if we do not know enough about the micro-biology of consciousness to determine how far down the philogenic scale to push it. (Mammals are solid, birds good, likewise reptiles and fish, which gets us most of our own phylum Chordata. Beyond that, intuitions will differ.) So most will agree that dogs have consciousness. It must be different from our own: less introspection, no language, no linguistic stream-of-consciousness, less sophisticated, but perhaps blissfully less burdened. However, the most basic mental processes—thoughts, intentions, feelings, beliefs and so on—must be shared between dogs and us, and guide their actions just like ours. In general, biologists would note the vast genetic and neurological similarity between humans and much of the animal world. Anyone trying to grant special powers solely to humans without relying on God has a tough evolutionary road to hoe. It’s hard to come up with any human ability, even language, which doesn’t exist in an incipient form in the natural world. Some might even contend that if humans have free will, dogs must too.
Focusing on the minds of dogs rather than humans has its advantages for philosophy. No one is likely to be too worried about God, the soul, and immortality when discussing dogs. If bats are an alien consciousness among mammals, dogs may be the most readily understood minds of any species. Since canine consciousness must be simpler and more elemental than human, it should be a little easier to sort out. So could we have a complete science of dog consciousness?
Imagine in the future we have a new kind of high-tech electronic dog collar. It is just as comfortable, unobtrusive and safe as a regular collar (no brain stabbing lab experiments), but it can scan a dog’s brain in real time with great precision and detail (maybe a PET scan, but surely not a CAT scan). It sends a signal to a super-computer and allows scientists to monitor each of the billions of neurons in the dog’s brain and to understand how all canine mental activity is created. The computer is massive since it would have to be many orders of magnitude more powerful than any currently existing, and so is in a basement of, say, a building at Stanford. So the scientists cannot see the dog wearing the collar, who is going about his day in his normal enjoyable way. The science is so good, however, that the scientists, supervised by Mary, can describe everything the dog, say it’s your dog Frege, is doing, experiencing and perceiving based solely on this very detailed view of his brain activity. They can note the moment he wakes up and accurately describe his breakfast with only the information about what his neurons are doing. They can tell when Frege runs after a ball, and whether it’s an old one or a new one, based on the neuronal activity for taste and smell. If you were to forget to fill his water bowl, the crew at Stanford could call you up, “Dude, some water please,” even before Frege got around to alerting you to the problem. Since his mental states cause and precede his actions, they would be able to predict his behavior the instant he formed an intention-in-action. All Frege’s perceptions– sights, sounds, smells— would be available to the researchers, who would have nothing better to do than monitor this info 24/7. So to have any privacy at all, you’ll need to take Frege’s collar off occasionally. And for god’s sake, don’t put it on yourself.
This would be great science, to put it mildly, with impressive powers of prediction and verification. These scientists would have penetrated deeply into canine consciousness. They would have the full functional story and could explain how any mental state is realized by its underlying brain state. Can we ask more of the science than this?
Is anything still left out?
Yes, the experience itself. Sitting in a basement in Palo Alto monitoring the computer is not the same as being a dog. Therefore the science, no matter how good, fails to capture the experience itself. The functional story encompasses all possible causal relations in either brain or mind. Evolution can only work on aspects of minds that function causally.
Anything that is left over, the being the dog part, is outside evolution, outside causation, outside science. It’s almost hard to believe it still exists. For the actual experience of consciousness, for the phenomenal sense, for the actual texture of the experience, you must be that organism. Brain states are conscious states, so long as it’s your brain.