Theories of consciousness and animal minds: a modest theoretical proposal – Henry Shevlin (Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence)

October 30, 2019 @ 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm
Seminar Room 2
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Matt Farr

The scientific study of consciousness has made considerable progress in the last three decades, especially among cognitive theories of consciousness such as the Global Neuronal Workspace account, Higher-order Thought theory, and Attention Schema theory. Such theories are typically concerned to identify correlates of conscious and unconscious processing in human beings. However, in light of heightened recent interest in consciousness in animals and even artificial systems, a key question for researchers is whether and how we can apply these frameworks to non-human subjects. In this talk, I review the prospects of this endeavour and discuss some challenges. I focus in particular on what I call the Specificity Problem, which concerns how we can determine an appropriate level of fineness of grain to adopt when moving from human to non-human cases. In light of this and other problems, I argue that most theories of consciousness currently lack the theoretical resources to allow for their straightforward application to non-humans. However, I also argue that a purely behavioural approach to non-human consciousness that eschews explicit theoretical considerations is unlikely to give clear answers to some important cases. Instead, I defend what I call a Modest Theoretical Approach, that aims to combine insights from the theories of consciousness debate with data from behavioural ecology, comparative neuroscience, and other sciences of non-human minds.