I don’t know what I was thinking

If nothing else is certain, we must know the contents of our own minds. Descartes was unable to doubt the existence of his mind, and it seems quite impossible for me to doubt the thoughts I am thinking right now. As I produce thoughts, I am aware of them, and it is impossible for me to escape them. My thoughts, formed by language, express the contents of my beliefs and desires precisely, because that is how I have intended to express them to myself. I can’t imagine I am deceiving myself or that I am an automaton. I am a thinking being immersed in my conscious life. If the language I use in thinking expresses my beliefs accurately and rationally, then this is what enables me to develop moral principles and behave in a morally responsible manner.

But what of our “unconscious” thoughts? Hume demonstrated that our belief in cause and effect seems to exist in a precognitive state. We don’t use language and reason to develop a belief in cause and effect—in at least some cases, language merely expresses what is built into us. Our moral reasoning, though, is based on careful consideration and tediously crafted arguments. Surely our language is not expressing a precognitive instinct or intuition. In Kinds of Minds, Dennett quotes Elizabeth Marshall Thomas saying, “For reasons known to dogs but not to us, many dog mothers won’t mate with their sons” (10). Dennett rightly questions why we should assume that dogs understand this behavior any better than humans understand it. It may just be an instinct, produced by evolution. If the dog had language, it might come up with an eloquent argument on why incest is wrong, but the argument would seem superfluous—just following the instinct works well enough.

By the same token, human moral arguments may do nothing more than express or at best buttress deeply held moral convictions instilled by evolution or experience. In a Discover magazine article titled “Whose Life Would You Save?” Carl Zimmer describes the work of Princeton postdoctoral researcher Joshua Green. Green uses MRI brain scans to study what parts of the brain are active when people ponder moral dilemmas. He poses various dilemmas familiar to undergraduate students of utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, or other popular moral theories.

He found that different dilemmas trigger different types of brain activity. He presented people with a number of dilemmas, but two of them illustrate his findings well enough. He used a thought experiment developed by Judith Jarvis Thompson and Phillipa Foote. Test subjects were asked to imagine themselves at the wheel of a trolley that will kill five people if left on course. If it is switched to another track, it will kill one person. Most people respond that they will switch to another track in order to save four more lives, apparently invoking utilitarian principles. In the next scenario, they are asked to imagine they can save five people only if they push one person onto the tracks to certain death. Far fewer people are willing to say they would push anyone onto the tracks, apparently invoking a categorical rule against killing innocent people. From a purely logical standpoint, the two questions should have consistent answers.

Greene found that some dilemmas seem to evoke snap judgments, which may be the product of thousands of years of evolution. He notes that in experiments by Sasrah Brosnan and Frans de Waal capuchin monkeys who were given a cucumber as a treat while other monkeys were given grapes would refuse to take the cucumbers and sometimes would throw the cucumbers at the researchers. Brosnan and De Waal concluded that the monkeys had a sense of fairness and the ability to make moral decisions without human reasoning. Humans may also make moral decisions without the benefit of reasoning. It appears evolution has created in us (at least in those who are morally developed) a strong aversion to deliberately killing innocent people. Evolution has not prepared us for other dilemmas such as whether to switch trolley tracks to reduce the total number of people killed in an accident. These dilemmas result in logical analysis and problem solving. Zimmer writes, “Impersonal moral decisions . . . triggered many of the same parts of the brain as nonmoral questions do (such as whether you should take the train or the bus to work)” (63). Moral dilemmas that require one to consider actions such as killing a baby trigger parts of the brain that Greene believes may produce the emotional instincts behind our moral judgments. This explains why most people appear to have inconsistent moral beliefs, behaving as a utilitarian in one instance and as a Kantian the next.

It may turn out that Hume was correct when he claimed, “Morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation” (Rachels 63). His claim is that we evaluate actions based on how they make us feel, and then we construct a theory to explain our choices. If the theory does not match our sentiment, however, we modify the theory—our emotional response seems to be part of our overall architecture. The work of philosophers, then, has been to construct moral theories consistent with our emotions rather than to provide guidance for our actions.

Language gives us access to our conscious thought. Language permits us to be aware of our own existence and to feel relatively assured that other minds exist as well. It is through language that we make sense of ourselves and the world. We may be deceived, though, into thinking that thought is equivalent to conscious thought. Much of what goes on in our mind is unconscious. Without our awareness, our mind attends to dangers, weighs risks, compensates for expected events, and even makes moral judgments. Evolution has provided us with a body that works largely on an unconscious level. However, humans, and perhaps some nonhuman animals, have become aware of their own thoughts, and this awareness has led to an assumption of moral responsibility. This awareness should not be taken to prove that we are aware of the biological facts that guide our moral decisions.

Stephen Stich explores the development of moral theory in his 1993 paper titled, “Moral Philosophy and Mental Representation.” In the essay, Stich claims that while most moral theories are based on establishing necessary and sufficient conditions for right and wrong actions, humans do not make mental representations based on necessary and sufficient conditions. He says, “For if the mental representation of moral concepts is similar to the mental representation of other concepts that have been studied, then the tacitly known necessary and sufficient conditions that moral philosophers are seeking do not exist” (Moral 8). As an alternative, he suggests that moral philosophers should focus on developing theories that account for how moral principles are mentally represented. He writes:

These principles along with our beliefs about the circumstances of specific cases, should entail the intuitive judgments we would be inclined to make about the cases, at least in those instances where our judgments are clear, and there are no extraneous factors likely to be influencing them. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that the principles guiding our moral judgments are fully (or even partially) available to conscious introspection. To uncover them we must collect a wide range of intuitions about specific cases (real or hypothetical) and attempt to construct a system of principles that will entail them. (8)

On this view, moral theories represent beliefs that are not only unconscious but are unavailable to the conscious mind. In order to make a determination of the content of our own moral beliefs, then, we must examine our own moral decisions and infer the content of our beliefs. In this approach, we find that humans are deciphering their own beliefs in much the same manner the Brosnan and De Waal determine the moral beliefs of capuchin monkeys. Not only does language fail to give a full accounting of our belief states, but our conscious thoughts may be an impediment to determining our actual beliefs, so that we must consider prelinguistic or nonlinguistic cues to discover what we actually believe.

Suffering and Meaning

In other posts I have pointed out that life is the source of all suffering. I can’t claim to be profound; this is the First Noble Truth of Siddhartha Gautama. I’m only convinced that he was correct. Some Christians, of course, also see life as a “vale of tears,” only to be survived in order to be rewarded with relief in the afterlife. Hinduism and Theosophy also see existence in the flesh as something to be endured rather than a gift in and of itself.

So, why do we cling so tightly to this gift or trial or punishment, depending on one’s beliefs? Evolutionary psychologists and biologists would most likely agree that clinging to life aids the survival of the species (or of the “selfish genes” as Richard Dawkins would say). Surely, this is correct, but it may not be the entire answer.

Very soon after we are born, we also begin to form attachments. We not only love our own lives, but we love the lives of others. Many people resist the temptation of suicide because they “could never do that” to their parents, children, spouses, or friends. Some give in to the temptation of suicide because they care for no one and feel no one cares for them. Or, in some cases, people come to believe that their death will bring more happiness to those they care about. In some cases, they are correct in this as well.

So, love makes life extremely valuable but also excruciating. Our obligation, then, is to recognize the sorrow that is life. Recognize that it is a common feature of human existence. Recognize that all suffering is our own and do our best to help each other through. In so doing, we may find joy, bliss, and comfort along the way.

We may, in the end, feel that it is all worth it.

Randall Horton

(Some have said the Buddhist view is pessimistic. I’m not sure whether most Buddhists would agree, but I know that Arthur Schopenhauer, who was greatly influenced by Buddhism, classified Buddhism as a pessimistic religion. He also based his moral and ethical writings on the principle ideas of Buddhism.)

The Value of Life

Many bioethicists accept the Judeo-Christian view that human life and human life only has great intrinsic value. As a corollary it is taken that anything thing that is both alive and human possesses a right to respect and continued life.

These assumptions are powerful and pervasive, but go against the intuition of many people. The assumption that human life has great value and is even sacred would lead one to assume that it is proper to create as much human life as possible, but only a few people actually believe this. The prevalence of contraception and encouragement of abstinence belies an underlying belief that perhaps not every human life is of great value simply because it is possible for it to exist.

Similarly, rights are not granted uniformly to all that are human and alive, although many pretend that they are. When consciousness ceases to exist or fails to begin in living human tissue, many people will regard this being as perhaps being worthy of dignified treatment, but the idea that it is of the same value of all other human life is not represented through everyday actions of most people.

Concern for the “right to die” is some circumstances also implies a rejection of the view that life is sacred in all cases.

Alternative views of the value of life can be useful in resolving the apparent contradiction between the actions many people take and their declared respect for life and individual rights.

Not all people see life as sacred and valuable. The first noble truth of Buddhism, for example, is that life is suffering. We seek continued existence as a result of desire, which intensifies our suffering. Life becomes valuable, then, because it fulfills a desire which is itself irrational. Other views see life as the inevitable consequence of physical laws or nature. The fact that humans exist and desire life is a brute fact that is morally significant only because of the suffering generated by the desire for life.

We may recognize that life is valuable for reasons that are not metaphysical. A pre-embryonic collection of cells may be of great moral significance to a certain man who is hoping, with a bit of desperation, to become a father and see his child before he succumbs to a life-threatening disease himself. For this man, these human cells are not morally significant because they are endowed with rights and dignity at their first creation. He is not concerned with the metaphysical status of the cells. He is concerned, instead, with their ontological status. They exist and he wants them to survive because he is interested in their continued existence. In this case, we may feel morally obliged to take great measures to ensure the survival of these cells because they mean so much to this hopeful father. We are concerned for this father and he is concerned for his progeny. The moral commitment arises from concrete human relationships.

For similar reasons, non-human life may become of great moral concern to us. Police officers who have worked with service animals for many years will often refer to a deceased animal as a “partner” and such animals sometimes receive funerals and memorials. Few would claim that service animals are accorded respect and value because of the sanctity of life.

In both the cases I’ve given above, it can be claimed that the duties accorded to life are indirect duties to the ones who care about the life. While that is true, the moral commitment could arise from a direct concern for a life. An individual may value her own life because she enjoys being alive and wants to continue her existence. Her own concern for her life makes her life something of value. Out of a concern to reduce her suffering at the thought that her life may not be preserved, medical professionals will devote themselves to preserving her life.

In such cases as outlined above, it is compassion, sympathy, empathy, or care that creates moral demands for the preservation of life. This view of the value of life will not appease the demanding vitalist, but it may be accepted by many people from different faiths and philosophical backgrounds. It helps us reconcile the strong drive to preserve and extend life with our belief that some people have a right to die, that some non-human life deserves extraordinary care and respect, and the view that some human cells are precious while others are less precious.

Language of Machines

Daniel Dennett argues that we can use language, through the “intentional stance,” to describe the beliefs of people, animals, or artifacts including a thermostat, a podium, or a tree (Brainchildren 327). It is easy to construct sentences to describe the beliefs of these objects (“The thermostat believes it is 70 degrees in this room”). If the thermostat is working properly and conditions are more or less normal, we should be able to predict the temperature based on the actions of the thermostat, or we should be able to predict the actions of the thermostat by knowing the temperature in the room. We recognize the possibility of error, however. As the thermostat may be broken, we are likely to say, “According to the thermostat, . . .” If the room does not feel warmer or cooler than the thermostat indicates, then we assume all is well. If we want to know the true nature of belief, being able to describe the beliefs of a thermostat is outrageously unsatisfying. Unless the thermostat is able to describe its own beliefs using language, we are loath to even suggest it has beliefs.

But given the capacity for human language, machines might appear to have beliefs and desires similar to human beliefs and desires. In fact, if a machine could use human language in a manner indistinguishable from human use, it is difficult to see how the consciousness of the machine could be denied with any certainty. Of course, the claim that such a machine is impossible goes back at least to Descartes, who wrote, “It is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do” (CSM II 140). Surely Descartes did not imagine 21st century computer programs when he provided this early version of the Turing Test (in which a computer is held to be conscious if it can master human conversation), but so far his challenge has not been met.

In John Searle’s Chinese room argument, we are challenged to accept that even a computer that could pass the Turing Test would not prove the computer is conscious. Although he does not deny that machines could someday be conscious, a language program would not be proof of it (Searle 753-64). Our best reason for believing the machine is not conscious is that it is not similar enough to a human to be considered conscious by analogy. Even if we can’t deny beliefs and desires to a machine with certainty, we are equally ill equipped to accurately ascribe beliefs and desires to machines, or trees, or stones.

Language and Belief

Human language brings clarity and understanding to human thoughts and beliefs. In fact, many have argued that without language, humans have no capacity for thought or belief. Descartes expresses a firm conviction that language is necessary for any thought:

There has never been an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which bore no relation to its passions; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so. . . . The reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other but we cannot understand them; for since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had them. (CSMK 575)

While the idea that language is necessary for the emergence of belief has been accepted for centuries, philosophers and others have begun to use the term “belief” more permissively, making the assertion much less obvious. While to say a cow had beliefs may have once implied the cow ascribed to some creed or doctrine, the claim has a much more mundane connotation in contemporary philosophy. For example, using the language of belief/desire psychology, we might say that a group of cows and humans gathering under a cover after hearing a thunderclap share a common belief that it is about to rain.

We will also say they desire to stay out of the storm. Cows do not need the ability to express their beliefs to want to avoid a storm that appears to be imminent. In this case, it is easy to describe the cow’s behavior using the language of belief/desire psychology, but it is also easy to imagine that the humans under the cover are in a far different position than the cows; they understand their position, have plans and fears for the future, and have a sense of what it is right and wrong to do. We want to say the humans are conscious, and the cows are not. We know the humans are conscious because we assume them to be more or less like us, and we are conscious. Language expresses our thoughts and beliefs, and we assume that other humans use language and experience consciousness as we do.

Language does more than provide evidence of consciousness, though; it is the structure of consciousness. A sophisticated study of human language and behavior should produce a powerful and accurate psychological theory. If language sets humans apart from machines and animals, then language is quite likely the feature of human consciousness that produces moral agency and responsibility. If animals and machines are not capable of beliefs and thoughts, then humans are the only known creatures to have any concept of moral responsibility. However, if consciousness is not unique to humans, or if language is not the stuff that makes consciousness, then we may not be able to construct an adequate description of beliefs and desires, much less moral agency.