If you consider that it is the individuals' concept of the Universe that creates and governs their
behaviour, clearly true at least for humans, then it would seem that no judgement about the presence
of conciousness behind any behaviour can be made where that concept is not understood. In other
words we can not judge the conciousness of any action without understanding the conceptual model
that motivates that action.
The question thus arises — Is it in principle possible to show that a anything 'living' or 'non-living' is
not conscious, does not maintain a concept of the world which creates its behaviour? This is a
deceptively simple question that I suspect can only be answered with a no. The challenge is to
produce a reasoned answer rather than references to the literature.
Do flowers feel? How do you know? (This is a question I was once asked in a Philosophy test. I said,
“The answer lies in the soil” which didn't go down too well.)
Flowers respond to stimulus. Many flowers open their petals and leaves to take in the sunlight then
fold them up again when its dark. The Venus fly-trap snaps shut when a fly lands on its sensitive
pads. In the late 60's (when else?) experiments were done connecting flowers to sensitive electrical
circuits, which played the flowers' amplified 'scream' when uprooted or cut. What would you say —
that if flowers form the conscious intention to grow towards the sun, or get depressed and sad when
the sky is overcast, we can never tell this from their behaviour? Are the minds of flowers destined to
remain an enigma?
To interpret the actions of any entity, animate or inanimate from its behaviour, whether seemingly
intentional or non-intentional, involves a leap of inference. We always know less than the entity itself
'knows'. There is a problem here which goes much wider than the problem of psychological
interpretation, a problem which some metaphysicians have labelled the problem of insides..It is a
fundamental fact about reality that things have insides. People, dogs, flowers, car engines, atoms,
stars. From the visible appearance of the sun, from electromagnetic radiation emitted in the
non-visible wavebands, astronomers infer what is going on deep inside. When the cat claws at the
door, we infer that it wants to go outside. Yet in some ways, the inside of a cat is more deeply hidden
than the inside of the sun. Without wishing to beg the question which you have raised, I would say
that the cat has a point of view, whereas the sun does not. There is nothing it is liketo be the sun.
I like the way you have phrased your question in terms of an entity's 'concept of the world which
creates its behaviour'. You are not tempted by the thought that, for all we could ever know, a teacup
might be enjoying the warmth of the tea — or for that matter thinking about philosophy. After all, I
know what 'thinking about philosophy' is like in me, so all I have to do is imagine thatgoing on in the
teacup! The starting point of our discussion is the patent absurdity of that idea. (For anyone who is
not totally convinced, ask yourself what it would meanfor the teacup's philosophical thoughts to occur
'in' the teacup itself, rather than, say, 'in' the saucer, or in the space outside it.)
Let us start with human beings. Asking a person what they are about provides the best way of getting
at what is going on 'inside'. Yet, even when our subject is scrupulously honest and attentive, they
cannot tell us all that they 'know', all that is functionally relevant to guiding their behaviour. Subjective
knowledgeis outside the realm of truthof statements that can be asserted, that can be evaluated as
true or false.
I am not talking about the alleged introspective knowledge that 'I know how blue looks to me in a way
no-one else can'. That kind of 'logical privacy' goes the same way as the teacup's thoughts about
A homely example of the kind of thing I mean would be the expert welder doing his craft, while
commenting on his own actions to a young apprentice. "I do it like this."The word 'this', the
movements that go with it, cannot convey the awareness, the sensitivity to the actual perceived
situation developed over years of practice. It is that refined sensitivity, which comes before language
(the sensitivity which I am employing now in choosing which words best express my thoughts) which
remains private to the subject.
If you wanted this expressed in materialist terms, I would say that the human brain encrypts
information in a way that is in principle inaccessible to any subject other than the subject whose brain
it is. However, this accessibility is not accessibility to the subject's introspection as such. To say that
would be to ignore the crucial link — which we are both agreed on — between subjective view and
In the absence of a shared language, animal behaviour must remain an enigma to us. Even to talk of
'beliefs' and 'desires' (as we do) is already making the first step into fantasy. There are no words for
what the cat 'wants' that latch on to itspoint of view on a world of things desirable and undesirable.
The words we use are ours, not the cat's. Explaining cat behaviour is a game of let's pretend which
has certain practical uses, that is all.
But what about that flower?
If you have followed me so far, then you will agree that even though we cannot share another entity's
subjective awareness, its unique point of view that governs its behaviour, there are important
differences between cases where talk of states of awareness or 'what it is like' makes sense, and
cases (such as the sun, or an atom, or a car engine) where such talk is empty. I'll leave you to decide
what to say about the flower.