Wednesday, November 07, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop: Consciousness Continuum

To get back to reviewing I Am a Strange Loop, today I will be going over one of Hofstadter's cute analogies, a scale for comparing things of varying degrees of intelligence. Taking a cue from a quote by James Huneker, about a Chopin piece:
Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it.
...Hofstadter creates a tongue-in-cheek unit of consciousness called a "huneker." A being's level of consciousness is measured along a scale from 0 to 100 hunekers; that maximum changes as he refines the scale, but as it can always be adjusted so that 100 hunekers is the maximum consciousness a thing can have, and since the whole idea is not quite serious anyway, let's stick with the original numbers, for ease of explication if for nothing else.

Fully-grown human beings with normal intelligence have 100 hunekers of consciousness. Children have something less than that, animals are further down the scale, and so on. Hofstadter even suggests that machines may be capable of consciousness at an extremely low level, so presumably even they could have a non-zero huneker value. He implicitly assigns value to things according to the consciousness possessed by them, and as the huneker scale measures value in terms of intellectual capacity, the scale implies that things have more value the more intelligent they are. This is not enough to disturb us at some level. For instance, say that a pig has 5 hunekers of intelligence, and the vast majority of adult human beings have 90-100 hunekers. Saying that things in the range of 0-20 hunekers can safely be killed for sport or for food therefore raises no particular moral problem (for most), and we can safely enjoy that ham. What if it turns out that some profoundly retarded humans have 40 hunekers? What about 30? What about (uh oh!) 20? Perhaps the problem is in the 0-20 range, which is too inflexible to account for the full range of human consciousness. But if intelligence is equivalent to value, then perhaps the assignment of moral value to intellectual capacity was the whole problem, and the huneker scale, far from being an indicator of value, is simply a measure of intelligence.

Part of the problem is that it is unclear what the huneker scale measures. It proposes to measure consciousness, but it does so in a way that corresponds closely to intellectual capacity (indeed, the two are not entirely unrelated). In any case, a profoundly retarded human is not likely to have any of the other incidents of consciousness (self-awareness, capacity for reflection, &c.) on a normal human level, and may in all mental respects be equivalent to a pig. If so, what harm is done by killing such a person? A possible solution to this problem is to regard classes of beings as having moral value, not merely individuals, and assigning value to each class according to the mean huneker value of that class. Because humans have a mean huneker value close to 100, even a profoundly retarded person, although having a low huneker value as an individual, still belongs to a class of beings that has a high huneker value and therefore high moral value. Pigs, as clever as some of them are (overthrowing farms and the like), have a range of huneker values very low. But perhaps that misses an important point as well. Not only is the mean huneker value of pigkind low, but no pig ever has an exceptionally high huneker value anywhere near that of a human. Say the mean pig value is, as I posited before, 5. And say the range of pig values is from 0 (genetically deficient pigs) to 6 (bright, socialism-embracing pigs). That pigs have such a low collective value is a function of the fact that no pig ever has a value above a very low huneker value. On the contrary, humans can range in huneker value from 0 all the way up to 100. Perhaps the value of a class should depend, then, on the value of the maximally conscious member of that class. I don't know; the whole thing is a thought-experiment about a thought-experiment.

There is also a problem with Hofstadter's view in that he does not assign equal value even to all humans:
It strikes me that when sperm joins ovum, the resulting infinitesimal bio-blob has a soul-value of essentially zero hunekers.
That might not be controversial, but what about his idea that a two-year old, being less conscious, has a lower huneker value than an adult?
Even though I sincerely believe there is much more of a soul in the twenty-year-old than in the two-year-old (a view that will no doubt dismay many readers), I nonetheless have enormous respect for the potential of the two-year-old to develop a much larger soul over the course of a dozen or so years.
But what value does potential have? It would make sense to discount that future value at some plausible rate, in order to take into account the possibility that the two-year-old will die before reaching full consciousness, or will receive brain damage as a result of an injury, and so forth. And Hofstadter himself, in that passage, admits that the potential value is not the same as the actual value, so presumably potential consciousness is not as valuable as actual consciousness; but by how much?

..."souledness" is by no means an off-on, black-and-white, discrete variable having just two possible states like a bit, a pixel, or a light bulb but rather is a shaded, blurry, numerical variable that ranges continuously across different species and varieties of object...
This is all very fuzzy, very skeptical, very undogmatic. Sometimes such a way of thinking can be useful; sometimes it just creates confusion. Here, for instance, we value 100 hunekers as something of immense value and 0 hunekers as valueless. But as we range up the scale, do we really correspondingly value things incrementally more? There is still a moment, both in moral valuation and in consciousness, where the switch turns on. I eat plant matter, I eat meat, but I would not eat a human being. I would not kill a human as easily as I swat a fly, for which I have precisely the same moral sentiment as a fully unconscious object. At some point, moral value goes from "worthless" to "infinitely worthwhile." Similarly with consciousness, where at some point (somewhere in evolutionary history between lower primates and humans) the "light" turns on and the being in question can think, use language, and reflect on itself. (Nothing but humans can use language; Pinker makes this clear in one of his books, which I do not own but had to read for a seminar in undergrad. Don't make me find it.)

Here's what seems like a piddling point that actually has strange implications:
Some of us (again, I count myself in this group) believe that neither a just-fertilized egg nor a five-month old fetus possesses a full human soul, and that, in some sense, a potential mother's life counts more than the life of that small creature, alive though it indisputably is.
Does the five-month old have less potential than that two-year old above? Further, I do not think it is terribly controversial to perform an abortion on a just-fertilized egg or even a five-month old fetus if the mother's life is in danger. Extending the example to include most abortions actually performed, what of the mother's convenience? It is convenient for me to have another person kill an animal of 5 hunekers, because it nourishes me and tastes good. What convenience will justify an abortion? A five-month old fetus may only have the consciousness of a pig, or even less; would similar considerations of convenience apply in that case? What happened to that potential to grow into a fully-conscious human?

The consciousness scale and its implications raise all these questions without answering them. Hofstadter's inability to recognize that his view of consciousness is inadequate is probably merely an effect of his prejudice. Hofstadter is presumably pro-choice, so the value of a fetus is nil. Hofstadter is also a vegetarian, so the value of that pig is actually pretty high, for him. At some point, things do become black-and-white, and serious moral issues arise about consciousness. Why not just come out and say that two-year olds have essentially no moral value? Some Objectivists do just that, because a two-year old cannot exercise the rational judgment needed to produce morally sound action.

Why not indeed disregard the low-huneker, ugly things in our world?


At 9:20 PM, November 07, 2007 , Blogger Freiheit said...

I wonder how many people who are vegan for moral reasons are also pro-choice. I'm curious how they resolve the contradiction of valuing an animal's existence over that of a human fetus (perhaps they just ignore it or fail to see it like Hofstadter). I'm pro-choice, but even I see the problems with such a moral system.

At 4:12 PM, June 13, 2008 , Anonymous huxley said...

"Hofstadter creates a tongue-in-cheek unit of consciousness called a 'huneker.'"

hmmmm ...

"... the scale implies that things have more value the more intelligent they are"

Does the scale imply that or do you infer that? Does the Celsius scale imply temperatures have higher value the hotter they get?

Maybe you're reading things into the scale that aren't actually there.

Does a baby seal have an equal amount of consciousness as a human? I think not, but our reasons for killing or preserving a baby seal are independent of any consciousness scale.

Are there people who would want to kill a person if that person killed a baby seal? Maybe. Are there other people who'd want to kill that self-same person for not letting a baby seal be killed? Probably.

Does any of that have anything to do with relative levels of consciousness? No.

At 2:45 PM, August 21, 2008 , Blogger Vernunft said...

Pp. 343-344: "Because I think that wittingly or unwittingly, we all equate the sizes of a living being's soul with the 'objective' value of that being's life, which is to say, the degree of respect that we outsiders pay to that being's interiority."

Look, if you didn't read the book, then you don't have to comment on it. It wasn't assigned reading for this blog, y'know? When you say that the value of animal and human life has nothing to do with relative consciousness, then you're obviously arguing against something other than Douglas Hofstadter's new book, which was sort of the point of my post.


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