The Extent and Value of Consciousness in Nature


Which parts of nature have conscious experiences? Some animals, all animals, or even other things, like plants or ecosystems? How is consciousness related to moral value: do animals matter morally because they’re conscious, or for some other reason? How should our theories of consciousness influence our moral views?

I approach this topic from several directions. Some of my work aims at figuring out the implications of panpsychism: what should we do if everything is conscious? Some of it is focused on mental combination: where might there be conscious wholes with conscious parts, and what would that imply ethically? And some is motivated by interest in AI ethics: what sorts of consciousness might AIs have, and what moral status would that give them? Overall, my aim is to show how consciousness might be not only more widespread, but more varied in its forms and ethical significance, than we usually assume. 

A paper about whether a being has morally important interests just in virtue of being conscious, in virtue of being capable of suffering and pleasure, or (as I argue) in virtue of having conscious states that can motivate them. (This links up with my work on empathy and the foundations of morality.)

A paper about how to balance the radical implications of panpsychism with our everyday intuitive sense of some creatures as more likely to be conscious than others (this links up with my work on panpsychism.)

  • “What Kind of Experience Could Plants Have?” (in progress, presented in an online talk at Sharif University, 2021, slides here)

A paper about the most likely forms of plant consciousness, if plants are in fact conscious - a minority position but one I take seriously. I argue that the decentralised structure of a plant’s body likely means that they do not have the most morally significant sort of consciousness - suffering and pleasure.

  • “Octopuses, split-brains, and the universe: how unified must consciousness be?” (in progress, presented in a talk at York University (2017, slide here)

A paper about what it means to talk about a single unified consciousness, arguing that there is no unique threshold for how unified a set of experiences must be to constitute a single mind, and that by setting different thresholds we might get different numbers of minds in a given situation.

A paper about the popular metaphor of nature or particular ecosystems as ‘communities’ in a moral sense. I argue that even though we might love and value nature, the fact that it is more like a competitive market than a genuine community should matter for how we feel about preserving vs. changing it.

I also have two papers in progress on the possibility that colonies of eusocial insects - ants, bees, wasps, and termites - might be conscious whole in addition to their individual members being conscious. (This links up with my work on the extent of consciousness in nature.)

  • "Anty-Nesting: Why Eusocial Insect Colonies are Probably Conscious." (In progress)

An argument that eusocial insect colonies are probably conscious, given plausible conceptual claims and some popular criteria for consciousness.

  • "Combinationism and Eusocial Insects: What Is It Like to Be a Hivemind?" (In progress, for Are Ant Colonies Conscious?, ed. A. Fonseca)

A discussion of what a colony's consciousness might be like: its variable timescales, borderline unity, embodiment, affective character, presence or absence of sensory images.

  • Some of these ideas are laid out in a post at 'The Daily Ant', here. Some are also sketched out in a talk I gave at CUNY; slides here)