Photo, courtesy of Jane Shaw. While out walking with her dog, Bingley, Jane paused to photograph some honeysuckle–as she clicked, the bee flew into the picture. It must have known.
Very droll, Sharon–also very pretty and impressive! This is extremely appropriate as I plan to discuss next time what it is like for bees–and also fish and Thomas Nagel’s bats!–to be like they are, that is, so different to us and with such different sensory equipments. Does it make any sense to say ANY of them are conscious at all? Do they learn and adapt their behaviour by choice and/or by trial and error? Or are they just instinctual automatons or invertebrate zombies like caterpillers who will simply go round and round in circles for ever if you remove one of their eyes? Do you believe, like Michael Tye, that bees and fish are “phenomenally conscious” although they are not mentally introspective, like us? How does he– and we– know? Are we uniquely endowed with higher-level consciousness? And, for that mattter, how do we know what we believe we know? What is “belief” anyway? Can we be as sure as Dekkard (Harrison Ford) in “Blade Runner” that he knew his beloved Rachael was, in fact, a Replicator (non-human android), just because his emotional testing machine told him so? Did it make any difference, when all was said and done, to his past and planned future relationship with her? We all have to die but what does it mean to live? Stay tuned with your antennae or eyes or lateral lines or sonar equipment to this place! Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel! Ha!
Summary of the 12th October session
What is it like to be a honeybee?
T.H White, in his 1958 updated children’s fantasy novel, The Sword in the Stone, has his young squire hero [called the Wart as a short nickname for his real name as this rhymes more or less with Art, and who is to become, by the novel’s end, King Arthur of Round Table legend], being taught by no less a personage than Merlin, the magician-sorcerer. Merlin’s magic allows the Wart to assume many different shapes and forms and to live amongst the non-human world of nature. His first shape-shifting adventure is as a small perch fish and, accompanied just that one time by Merlin as a solemn tench, he has to learn the difficult art of trying to swim like a fish rather than as an adolescent boy. Merlin tells and shows him how: “Use your feet to turn to left or right . . . and spread those fins on your tummy to keep level. You are living in two planes now, not one.”
But, of course, we know this is quite impossible without the aid of such magic. We can only exist on our human plane while fish and all other non-human creatures live on theirs quite separate from us. But does this mean that fish and bats and bees and similar creatures are only reflexive automotons with no capacities for changing their patterns of behaviour based upon what they sensorily experience, and of perhaps learning to do different things and skills like the Wart supposedly did? And can imagination enable us to put ourselves in their place, as it were, and see the world from their point of view rather than our own, and perhaps experience what they do and in like manner? Lastly, do any of such organisms feel at all and could we imagine ourselves effectively feeling like–or somewhat like–they do?
When the Wart learns how to manage his fins and tail effectively, he and Merlin go for a little swim together in the moat of the castle:
“The Wart was on an even keel now, and reasonably able to move about. He had leisure to look at the extraordinary universe into which the tattoed gentleman [Neptune or Poseidon, earlier conjured up by Merlin using his wand and a magic incantation]’s trident had plunged him. It was different from the universe to which he had been accustomed. For one thing, the heaven or sky above him was now a perfect circle. The horizon had closed to this. In order to imagine yourself into the Wart’s position, you would have to picture a round horizon, a few inches about your head, instead of the flat horizon which you usually see. Under this horizon of air you would have to imagine another horizon of under water, spherical and practically upside down–for the surface of the water acted partly as a mirror to what was below it. It is difficult to imagine.
What makes it a great deal more difficult to imagine is that everything which human beings would consider to be above the water level was fringed with all the colours of the spectrum. For instance, if you happened to be fishing for the Wart, he would have seen you, at the rim of the tea saucer which was the upper air to him, not as one person, waving a fishing-rod, but as seven people, whose outlines were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, all waving the same rod whose colours were as varied. In fact, you would have been a rainbow man to him, a beacon of flashing and radiating colours, which ran into one another and had rays all about. You would have burned upon the water like Cleopatra in the poem.
The next most lovely thing was that the Wart had no weight. He was not earth-bound any more and did not have to plod along on a flat surface, pressed down by gravity and the weight of the atmosphere. He could do what men have always wanted to do, that is, fly. There is practically no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air. The best of it was that he did not have to fly in a machine, by pulling levers and sitting still, but could do it with his own body.
It was like the dreams people have.” [p.43]
[This is how I imagined what goldfish might be “dreaming” or “perceiving” in Kantian terms in a poem I wrote last year:]
Kantian Goldfish (Synthetic Analysis)
[dedicated to Jeff Pitt]
“When all spins round and round and round,
Then: what looks up and what casts down?
And: what is out and what is in?
When all flows round and round and round,
Then: what has been; what still to be?
And: what is face and what is fin?
When all swims round and round and round,
Then: what transcends and what perceives?
And: what is ‘You’ and what is ‘Me’?”
[Peter Tooth, 24th November, 2012]
However, leaving aside Mr. Kant for the moment, here is what another philosopher of consciousness, Michael Tye, said in the first few pages of his excellent 1997 article entitled:
THE PROBLEM OF SIMPLE MINDS: IS THERE ANYTHING
IT IS LIKE TO BE A HONEY BEE?
“Are frogs conscious? Or fish? What about honey bees? Do paramecia
have experiences? Somewhere down the phylogenetic scale
consciousness ceases. But where? That is the topic of this paper.
It is sometimes supposed that once we begin to reflect upon much
simpler beings than ourselves – snails, for example – we are left
with nothing physical or structural that we could plausibly take
to help us determine whether they are conscious. The Problem of
Other Minds, as it applies to the consciousness of such creatures, is without solution. There is really no way of our knowing if spiders are conscious of anything, as they spin their webs, or if fish undergo any phenomenal experiences, as they swim about in the sea.
This pessimistic assessment has led some philosophers to
conclude that there is no fact of the matter about whether octupi
or toads are conscious, and hence that their consciousness is of no moral importance. The verificationist thinking upon which this line of argument rests seems to me to have little to recommend it. Why should our inability to decide whether consciousness is present in some cases show that there is real indeterminacy in the world with respect to the matter? We are products of nature as much as everything else. The world need no more conform to our cognitive limitations than it need to those of the simpler creatures at issue.
And is it really true anyway that the evident physical and structural differences between ourselves and much more primitive creatures prevent us from knowing whether they are conscious? Is the Problem of Simple Minds, as we might call it, beyond solution?
I say not. Given the theoretical perspective I favor, we are now
in a position to determine in general terms where, on the phylogenetic scale, consciousness disappears and to make decisions about particular cases. Honey bees, I shall argue, are conscious, as are fish; amoeba are not. I shall begin with some general, pretheoretical remarks about different concepts of consciousness.
Consciousness comes in many varieties. As I write, I am conscious
of a mosquito in the garden just outside the window. In this sense, consciousness is a matter of noticing or thinking to oneself that such-and-such an item is present. I am also conscious of a desire for a holiday and my belief that I am going to be late for a dental appointment. This is higher-order consciousness. Here one turns one’s attention inwards and conceptually represents one’s own mental states. My being conscious of a given belief, for example, consists in my believing or judging that the belief is present.
However, I need not notice something to be conscious of it. For example, I am conscious of the fact that the earth is ninety three
million miles from the sun. This is one of many facts of which I
am aware. But I am not now attending to it. In this loose, colloquial sense of the term ‘conscious’, I am conscious of facts that I know.
My experiences and feelings are conscious too. How could they not be? If I experience something – a deep purple, say – I must be
conscious of purple. Likewise, if I feel something – an itch, say – I must be conscious of the itch. This is not to say, of course, that I must be attending to the experience or feeling. I may be distracted. Perhaps, I am even unable to respond to the experience cognitively through some sort of impairment. Still, if I have an experience or feeling, consciousness must surely be present.
This is the sort of consciousness that philosophers, and increasingly psychologists, find most baffling. It goes with talk of “raw feels”, of “sensational qualities”, of “what it is like.” For a person who feels pain, there is something it is like for him to be in pain. The pain has a definite phenomenal or subjectively felt quality. Phenomenal consciousness is present. A mental state, then, may be said to be phenomenally conscious just in case there is something it is like to undergo the state, some immediate sensational “feel” the state has, some distinctive experiential quality. A creature may be said to be phenomenally conscious if, and only if, it is the subject of nominally conscious states. Where a creature undergoes such states, following standard usage, I shall say that there is something it is like to be that creature.
Consciousness of this sort seems essential or integral to experiences and feelings in a way in which it is not to other mental states. Thoughts, for example, may or may not be conscious. Thinking that water is wet, to take a specific case, has no intrinsic phenomenal character, although it may certainly be accompanied by images or bodily sensations (e.g., the feeling of thirst). Perhaps it is also the case that upon occasion, particular tokens of the above thought have a felt quality to them. Still, none of these qualities is essential to the thought itself. Felt qualities can vary without any variation in thought, and even without any variation in conscious thought.
Conversely, thoughts (including conscious thoughts) can vary without any variation in phenomenal character. My doppelganger on Putnam’s famous planet, twin earth, who thinks that twin-water (or twater) is wet, rather than that water is wet, does not thereby differ from me at the level of sensory experience or feeling. What he thinks is certainly different from me. His thought has a different content from mine, and if he is conscious of what is thinking then his thought has a different conscious content. But this is not a difference in phenomenal consciousness, at least in any sense that I intend. The difference rather is one of higher-order consciousness.
I presently have a rich and varied phenomenal consciousness. My visual field is full of the colors of my garden. I have auditory sensations of my computer humming quietly, a fan purring, distant traffic. I feel my legs crossed, as I sit on my chair. There is a slightsensation of pressure around my neck from my shirt collar. I feel my feet touching the floor, my wrists resting against the edge of my desk as my fingers make contact with the keyboard. These sensations need not themselves come into existence, as I focus upon them. They can exist even if, as is usually the case, my attention is directed elsewhere. Or so at least it is normally supposed. Phenomenal consciousness seems to be a relatively primitive, largely automatic matter, something more widespread in nature than higher-order consciousness, for example. But it is also deeply puzzling. Reflection upon phenomenal consciousness gives rise to talk of an explanatory gap.
There seems a huge difference between what it is like on the inside, as it were, and what is going on physically in the brain. Somehow, objective, physical changes in the mundane grey and white matter composing brains generate the subjective qualities of experience. How is the trick done? How can perspectivally subjective states (i.e., states that cannot be fully understood by creatures that have not experienced them) be generated at all in the natural world?
Phenomenal consciousness can be illustrated further by reference
to the famous inverted and absent qualia hypotheses, although it
does not require that they be true. The former of these hypotheses
is standardly illustrated by the example of color and the idea that you or I might have color experiences that are phenomenally inverted relative to those of everyone else even though we use color words and function in color tests in all the standard ways. The latter hypothesis is the claim that there might be someone who felt or experienced nothing at all, someone who altogether lacked phenomenal consciousness, but who functioned in just the same manner as someone who was phenomenally conscious.
It is phenomenal consciousness that is the primary focus of the
present paper. The Problem of Simple Minds, as it will concern us
in what follows, is to be understood as pertaining to the phenomenal consciousness of simple creatures. Do honey bees or fish undergo mental states with phenomenal or subjective qualities? Is there, in the relevant sense, something it is like for them? Or are they zombies, creatures without any ‘qualia’ at all, mere detectors of their environments?” (Philosophical Studies 88: 289-292, 1997)
Brief summary of the roundtable discussion:
We attempted during the lively discussion to consider and provide some suggested answers to the above questions as well as to consider whether plants can be said to “think” in any meaningful sense of the word or remain merely reflexive automatons acting in soley tropic fashion to stimuli like my Venus Fly Trap, Boris, who, incidentally, came along with us and kindly let everybody play with him!
I referred to the audio-recording of Michael Marder’s interview on the Australian radio programme Philosophical Zones re “Plant Thinking” [which can be found in its entirety as an audio link below], more than once, as this emphasised the Aristotelian notion of a basic plant soul notion which he–and now Marder– considered all animate life to inherit.
This, of course, is very similar, in many ways to Steiner’s anthroposophic notions of cosmic soul and we later touched upon the latter’s belief, expressed in his first short lecture on “Bees”, that the hive is based on love throughout due to the worker bees’ sacrifice of sex and also to the love qualities contained in the nectar they collect from the plants via their incessant foraging. Joel Yoeli, in particular, also wanted to stress this erotic aspect of consciousness extant in all nature.
We also took a passing nod at Thomas Nagel’s influential 1974 article in Philosophical Review, LXXXIII, “What is it like to be a bat?” in which he considers the relationship between the subjective and the objective in such problems of consciousness of non-human life-forms. Nagel deliberately chooses bats to illustrate his various points in this short article because, as he says, “if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all.”
I tried to indicate in our discussion, however, how the famous and startling experiments [1949 and after] on bees by Karl von Frisch–especially in connection with their mutual communications via their dancing routines and chemical exchanges–radically challenges this assumption and shows it to be quite false.
Frisch, quite eloquently and simply, provides the evidence for Tye’s assertion that honeybees do have qualitative experiences and phenomenal consciousness of a sort enabling them to learn and to adapt their behaviour in the light of powerful instincts and goals in regard to the collection of nectar and other pursuits. Joel, however, was very critical of this assumption of goal-directed behaviour in bees and also, generally, of the Pavlovian type conditioning and Skinnerian-type behaviouralist models employed in modern experiments of bees and other life-forms, since he considered these to be very limited in their scope and the revelation of the full and true nature of consciousness.
Again, for me at least, this was very reminiscent of the issues raised (November 28, 1923) by Steiner in his third lecture [handout provided to the class and full text available via a search box of the Steiner Archives, weblinked in the body of the text of the Session One Summary, Intro and Overview, posted at the very bottom of the page for the first discussion session of July 13th] which discusses the infra-red and ultra-violet sensitivities of bees re recognising or “seeing” or scenting colours in experiments. Steiner, in this short lecture, has some interesting things to say in fundamentally rejecting many of the anthropomorphically-based conclusions made– via their scientific experimental work–of Forel, Kuhn and Pohl. These scientists collectively posed the question: “Can Bees See Colors Invisible to Human beings?” Steiner stresses how honeybees see the Queen Bee–via ultra-violet sensitivity, which remains invisible, of course, to us– to be shining . [David Dobereiner, in particular, has since told me that this was all new and highly informative to him.]
Nagel, however, is solely concerned to illustrate the vast problems involved in us trying to work out:
“what it is like to be a bat” [as] we must consider
whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to
the inner life of the bat from our own case [or] rather
the mentalistic ideas that we apply unproblematically
to ourselves and other human beings . . . and if not,
what alternative methods there may be for understanding
the notion. . . [for] bats, although more closely related
to us than those other species [wasps or flounders]
nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory
apparatus so different from ours that the problem I
want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly
could be raised with other species). Even without the
benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent
some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows
what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.”
[Hence their long association with horror movies–especially those concerned with blood-sucking vampires! Sharon and I still shiver when we think of our several shrieky close encountersof the furry kind with bats hiding on our basement walls and flying crazily around at us after sunset in our USA home!].
The fundamental problem remains: how we are to access and know the subjective or qualia sensory/mental experiences of bats (and other non-human organisms) from our own objective and scientifically-formalistic perpectives and approaches?
Finally, I also briefly mentioned a recent and highly informative article, entitled Learning and Memory in Bees by Randolf Menzel and Jochen Erber, which elucidates the neural basis of the programmed behaviour of bees which enables them to learn quickly and to remember for long periods the colour and the odour of flowers that yield them nectar or pollen. Such neural processes, remarkably, it seems, are quite similar to that used by us all. Will this help us, though, to empathise better with such mute (to us) creatures? Without language, can we ever really know them?
[The vital nature and role of verbal and written language for human cultural development, social/political organization, and ethical/economic matters will be considered during our next session.]
At the end, some of us happily adjourned, after such a stimulating discussion, to continue to talk more philosophy at the Tyneside Cafe for a further hour or two!
[Don’t forget: there is optionally much, much, more on this fascinating subject in the weblinks and articles below which cover in greater detail much of what we discussed on Saturday and lots more besides for those of you, who, like me, can’t get enough of all this kind of stuff!]
Peter Tooth (Hemlockian34)
Articles, etc for our discussion on 12 October:
Article from Philosophical Studies, v.88, 1997, pp.289-317
The problem of simple minds: is there anything it is like to be a honey bee?
By Michael Tye
Article from Scientific American, v.239, issue 1, July 1978, pp. 102-110
Learning and Memory in Bees
by Randolf Menzel and Jochen Erber
Article from Natural History, v.88, issue 6, 1979, pp.66-75
Do Honeybees Know What They Are Doing?
by James L. Gould
Please note: Sorry, but we are unable to provide a scan of this article. The link above will take you to a webpage of Internet Archive, where v.88 of Natural History is freely available. To the left of the page are options for downloading or viewing the entire volume. Once this rather large file is opened or downloaded, you will need to navigate to issue 6, pp.66-75.
Article from BBC Wildlife, Nov 2012 (p. 58)
Species: honeybee, Job: bomb detection
From the ‘How Stuff Works’ website
How can you train honeybees to sniff for bombs?
by Julia Layton
Article from National Geographic, 26 March 2013
Honeybees can move each other with electric fields
by Ed Yong
Interview of artist Susana Soares, from ANTENNAE, The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, Issue 11, Autumn 2009. Please see pages 51-56.
(With thanks to Kirsty Young for the source)
Pavlov’s [sic] Bees
Questions by Zoe Peled
From the Red Orbit website, 13 Dec 2012
Conditional Training Makes Honeybees Stick Out Their Tongues
From the Red and White Kop Liverpool FC Forum website
How intelligent are other animals?
Originally apprearing as The Brains of the Animal Kingdom by Frans de Waal, in The Wall Street Journal, 22 Mar 2013
(With thanks to Lee Higham for the source)
The Philosopher’s Zone, on Australia’s ABC Radio National
Joe Gelonesi talks with philosopher Michael Marder, broadcast 2 June 2013
What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide To The Senses Of Your Garden–And Beyond, by Daniel Chamovitz (especially the short prologue and epilogue chapters): Oneworld Publications, London, 2012
(with thanks to Pru Hamed for both sources)
[email comment before the meeting to Pru from Dob re the audio]
This was a good one. What a clear and articulate philosopher!
What’s an ethical vegan to eat now? Answer. Eat elements that
plants discard, like fruit and seeds, or wait until plants die a
natural death (then race to get to them before the bugs do).