Posts Tagged ‘evolutionary psychology’

Why do humans have a conscience?

October 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Why do humans have a conscience?

See the link for an answer to the Quora question on conscience. Part of it is as follows:

So, on this view, the conscience works something like this:

  1. Consider an action
  2. Search the normative model database for anger-oriented objections to actions like this.
  3. If you don’t find any, then consider the action permissible.
  4. If you find an objection, then see if there are ways to justify doing the action in spite of the objection.
  5. If so, then the action is permissible (but be careful, and be ready to justify yourself if questioned)
  6. If not, then the action is wrong.

I commented:

It seems to me that there are some normative assumptions in evolutionary psychology which fail to consider personality deeply. If, for instance, this model of conscience were put into a cartoon, rather than having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, the character would have only an angel since the only thing that prevents them from doing what they would otherwise do (which, as in game theory assumptions, assumes blind self interest) is fear of anticipated social consequences, including guilty feelings.

I think that the stereotypical angel-devil cartoon actually has it more correct. Children and adolescents tend to embody this more clearly than adults, as ‘bad kids’ may not only have poor impulse control or a faulty conscience, but they are motivated by a more sadistic reward system. They enjoy hurting others, sometimes more than they are afraid of being hurt themselves.

By contrast, ‘good boys and girls’ may have a conscience which is naive even to guilt and is motivated by the better angels (of parental approval or perhaps self approval). There is something sexual here too…sort of paradoxical in that good kids are seen as both more ‘mature’ (trustworthy, better judgment) and less mature sexually (goody two shoes = late bloomer/virgin).

It seems to be very common that families often have kids where conscience is radically unbalanced. One is saintly, one is the delinquent, one presents themselves as tougher or nicer than they are…many combinations. Often these characteristics can seem present before their role in the family has even developed. This suggests to me that evolutionary psych models overlook some of the most important motives that drive conscience, which I think are ultimately only loosely related to evolutionary biology. Before we can care about right or wrong, we care about how we feel and how other people feel. It is not a model made by our brain at all, it is the direct presentation of anthropological aesthetics.

I agree of course that we have sub-personal mechanisms but that does not mean that we do not also contribute directly to our own life and the lives of others in a way which is irreducibly individual, non-mechanistic and volitional. The image of conscience as a matrix of modal logic is too reactive to rise, plausibly, to the level of conscious attention. If it was just a matter of not making others mad, we should have no business knowing that any strategies were being formulated at all – no more than our stomach would need a digestion conscience to avoid disappointing the colon.

Book Discussion: Aping Mankind (part one)

July 6, 2012 2 comments


I have been reading Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and The Misrepresentation of Humanity. I have not quite finished it yet but I wanted to post this while it is still fresh.

His critique of contemporary models of consciousness so exactly aligned with my own that I am glad that I did not read the book until now because I would have thought that I had lifted my entire opinion from his. Tallis sees with the same crystal clarity how neurology and evolution fail completely to address the fact of conscious experience itself. He uses some of the same terms I do, pointing out as I often do that a “re-presentation” can only exist as a way of transferring or transmitting a presentation and cannot itself replace the presentation.

The first half of the book makes the same case that I do for consideration of human experience as a completely different phenomenon from either Darwinian evolution (which he and I both respect completely in its original sense as pertaining to natural selection for species development, and the extension into heredity by genetic probability), neuroscientific materialism, or information-theoretic idealism.

Yes – I agree that consciousness is neither information, function, nor matter.
Yes – I agree the human consciousness may be fundamentally different from other species.
Yes – I agree that the compulsive overconfidence in evolution and neuroscience to explain human consciousness is misguided and ultimately pathological if taken literally (as he says, ‘Darwinitis’ and ‘Neuromania’)


Yes – I strongly agree with his characterization of exactly how the resultant philosophy of this amounts to closing the door on the validity of experience. The similarity between his “disappearance of appearance” (p. 140-145) to my “De-presentation” convinces me that we both see the Emperor’s New Clothes aspect of all of this in the same glaringly-obvious way. We both understand that despite the dismissive assurances, there is an unbridgeable chasm between what neural activity actually is and what it is supposed to produce (qualia, intention).

With the author’s medical background, I appreciate his critique of neuroscientific epistemology. While I’m not qualified to give an opinion on that, I do see his point that the success of neurological mapping of consciousness may be closer to a modern descendant of phrenology than we are led to believe.


It does seem hard to justify the redundancy and ambiguity of neurotransmitter roles in the presumed functioning of consciousness. If I asked what neurotransmitter is most responsible for generating the feeling of reward, there doesn’t seem to be any that do not qualify. Arousal and reward applies equally to the Noradrenaline, Dopamine, and Cholinergic systems, with the Serotonin system’s correlation to “mood” easily applicable. If neuroscientific correlations with conscious experience were put up against pseudoscientific correlations I wonder how they would fare? How many scientists would submit to a reality show exhibition of medical vs astrological predictions like “Are You Smarter Than A Telephone Psychic?”

Not to diminish the medical application of neuroscience, but when it comes to stepping up to a theory of emotion and sensation, isn’t it a case of the pot calling the kettle unfalsifiable? Are we using fMRI’s and EEGs as a kind of occidental neuromancy – oracles of disorientation? Is the foundation of the neuron doctrine a placebo for scientists? I submit that any given group of ordinary people interpreting a canned astrological reading (or I Ching, numerology, etc), would have a similar level of consensus in a blind test against a group of neuroscientists trying to extrapolate character and destiny information from neurophysiological reports. Medical conditions, sure, but I would bet that when stacked up against Myers-Briggs or any kind of intuitive reading, the neuroscience is measurably more blind for predicting ordinary human personality characteristics.

When it comes to evolutionary genesis of consciousness, Tallis and I are also on the same page.

Think, after all, what unconscious mechanisms have actually achieved: the evolution of the material universe; the processes that are supposed to have created life and conscious organisms; the growth, development and most of the running of even highly conscious organisms such as ourselves. If you had to undertake something really difficult, for example growing in utero a brain with all its connections in place – consciousness is the last thing you would want to oversee the task. p. 176

In this light, we can see that consciousness is actually a disability that could only dilute the speed and efficiency of an automatic mental mechanism. In our weakness and prevarication, we waste precious time in making up our minds when a pure computation would simply yield the most probable success outcome and execute behavior accordingly.

He sees, as I do, that until there is awareness, what is the point of valuing ‘survival’? Without something to tell the difference between one species and another, what does it matter which invisible forms replace each other at any particular unexperienced time?

Tallis talks about the importance of seeing consciousness from the prospective view rather than the retrospective. Not taking consciousness for granted is the most critical aspect of approaching consciousness – to find consciousness from preconsciousness rather than taking the elements of consciousness for granted in justifying their own appearance. I have been calling this “The Elephant In Every Room” problem, and see it is the most significant hurdle that we face in building a 21st century understanding of consciousness.

I think that rigorously applying the prospect view of consciousness from preconsciousness is the only hope we have of not begging the question of the origin of awareness. Of course we can make a wireframe model of agents and actors operating in a world of interactive shadows (data), but why does this data need “us”? If you have actual information already, why invent some phenomenological layer of illusion and an illusory audience to imagine that it is not a simulation? (at least, until the illusory audience evolves to the point that it can teach itself to think that it is questioning the validity of the simulation…which somehow gives us the power to access another, unsimulated ‘reality’).

In his chapter “Bewitched by Language”, professor Tallis exposes the sentimental bias and wishful thinking behind computational models of intelligence. He gets the Symbol Grounding problem, as did Leibniz in his Windmill Argument and Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. (Personally I like my example of the polite trash can that waves ‘THANK YOU’ every time you use it). He sees that information is only real in the context of conscious entities using communication devices, and not a primitive substance of pseudo-substance that haunts the universe from the outside.

While Darwinitis requires its believers only to impute human characteristics to animals (and vice versa), Neuromania demands of its adepts that they should ascribe human characteristics to physical processes taking place in the brain. – p.183

…when you personify the brain and bits of brain, then it is easy to “brainify” the person. – p. 187

The author gives us the best and least understood arguments for the failure of contemporary science to grasp the explanatory gap and hard problem of consciousness. It is interesting then, that out of this perfect and wholehearted agreement, I come to diametrically opposite conclusions than he seems to be coming to – which I will get into in the next post.

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