Jesse Prinz and I have been running some experimental studies on people’s intuitions about consciousness, and we would be very interested to hear any thoughts you all might have about the results.
Here is the basic question. Suppose that people are trying to figure out whether an entity has certain mental states. Will their intuitions only be sensitive to information about the functional roles of that entity’s states? Or will their intuitions also be sensitive to information about physical realizers?
Our hypothesis was that there is something special about ascriptions of mental states that involve phenomenal consciousness, such that these ascriptions are sensitive to information about physical realizers in a way that most other ascriptions are not. Thus, suppose there were an entity whose states had functional roles that were a lot like those of human mental states but whose states had physical realizers that were highly unusual. If things work out just right, our hypothesis predicts that people would be reluctant to ascribe to this entity any states that involved phenomenal consciousness but that they would be perfectly happy to ascribe various other sorts of mental states.
To test this hypothesis, we looked at ascriptions of mental states to corporations. It seems that the functional roles of states of corporations can be very similar to the functional roles of human mental states but that the physical realizers involved in corporations are radically unlike those one finds in humans.
We therefore gave subjects a variety of sentences ascribing mental states to corporations -- some that did not entail phenomenal consciousness, some that did.
Here are some of ascriptions that do not seem to entail phenomenal consciousness:
- Acme Corp. believes that its profit margin will soon increase.
- Acme Corp. intends to release a new product this January.
And here are some ascriptions that do seem to entail phenomenal consciousness:
- Acme Corp. is now experiencing great joy.
Acme Corp. is experiencing a sudden urge to pursue internet advertising.
The results showed that people were significantly more likely to accept those ascriptions that did not seem to entail phenomenal consciousness.
We then tried it out with pairs that were almost exactly alike except that one element of the pair seemed to entail phenomenal consciousness while the other did not. For example:
- Acme Corp. is feeling upset.
- Acme Corp. is upset about the court’s recent ruling.
Here it seems that only the first ascription entails phenomenal consciousness. And sure enough, people regard only the first ascription as unacceptable.
(If you want to read the full series of experiments, you can take a look at the latest draft of our paper.)
Finally, a quick foreshadowing. A number of other researchers have been doing experimental studies on closely related issues. We are especially excited about the work being done by Shaun Nichols and his colleagues at Arizona and by Tony Jack and Philip Robbins at Washington University. Stay tuned!