On Philosophy

May 18, 2006

Are Rocks Conscious?

Filed under: Idealism,Mind — Peter @ 3:01 pm

This post is divided into two parts. In part 1 I will discuss how various philosophical positions on the mind and consciousness would answer this seemingly ridiculous question (and perhaps their answers to it should cause one to doubt their validity). Part 2 is more serious, and focuses on showing why a description, for example a functional description, cannot be given to an arbitrary system, thus showing that rocks cannot be conscious under certain views of what consciousness is.

Part 1:

Dualism is the position that the mental is a completely different thing from the physical. In some theories the mental is considered to be a separate substance, subject to its own laws, while in other theories the mental is separate from the physical because the mental properties are completely independent of the physical properties. In either case the physical and the mental are only tenuously connected at best. Because of this most dualists would be forced to concede that it would be possible for rocks to be conscious. After all, the mental substance or mental properties are not dependant on physical properties, so there is no reason to say that the rock could not be conscious. It’s hard to say if it is even unlikely for the rock to be conscious, because there is no test under dualism that could be performed to determine what is and what is not conscious. (If you believe that such a test might exist you are no longer a dualist.)

Idealism is the view that everything is part of the mind. Idealists hold that the world does not exist independently of us because it is defined completely by our perceptions of it. Although idealism seems preposterous there are a handful of intelligent people who defend it, and thus it would be rash to dismiss it out of hand. Unfortunately under idealism it is nearly impossible to have certain knowledge about anything, since none of our perceptions have access to the underlying reality. Even under systems of idealism which hold that other minds exist independently of ourselves it is hard to identify what aspects of the world represent interaction with those minds. Thus under idealism it is possible that the rock may be one of the other minds, but you would never be able to find out if it was, so it is somewhat of an empty question.

Behaviorism is a theory in which consciousness is identified with certain types of behavior, especially linguistic behavior about beliefs and thoughts. Under behaviorism we could say that rocks are not conscious, because they do not display any kind of behavior.

Identity theory
Identity theory is a position which holds that consciousness is identical with certain physical properties of the brain. Under identity theory a certain pattern of neural activity is the same thing as a certain thought. There are also less strict versions of identity theory in which certain classes of neural activity can be identified with a thought. At first you might think that this rules out the possibility of conscious rocks, since there is nothing in a rock that could count as the correct type of neural activity. However identity theory doesn’t rule out other kinds of consciousness, such as alien consciousness, that are identified with completely different physical features of the alien’s “brain”. Thus it is possible under identity theory that there exists a kind of rock-consciousness that can be identified with various physical properties of rocks.

Biological naturalism
Biological naturalism is the view that consciousness is a product both of our biology and the process of evolution. Biological naturalism can be rather difficult to understand so I will skip over the details. It is enough to say that rocks cannot be conscious under biological naturalism since the rocks present now did not come about as a result of an evolutionary process from earlier rocks, and thus it is not possible for them to be conscious.

Epiphenomenalism is the view that the mind is somehow caused by the operation of the brain. Unfortunately epiphenomenalism doesn’t say exactly how the brain causes the mind to exist, and thus it is possible that rocks somehow also cause minds to exist.

Functionalism is the view that consciousness can be identified with some operations of the brain. However functionalism holds that it is the nature of the operations (i.e. how they processes information) that is to be identified with consciousness (in contrast to identity theory which identified consciousness with some specific properties of the brain). In theory anything that performed the same operations would be conscious, weather it be human brain or computer. Since a rocks does not process information we can conclude that there is no functional description associated with them, and thus that rocks are not conscious.

Part 2:

There is one problem with my argument that functionalism shows rocks to lack consciousness, and that is the assumption that there is no computational description that can be given to a rock. In fact any theory that relies on descriptions needs have criterion determining when it is justified to apply a given description and when it is not. The problem is that without such a criterion it may seem that anything can be given any description. For example consider the a small section of the brain shown at several time intervals, where . is inert matter and – is an electrical charge.

...   ...   ...
-..   .-.   ..-
...   ...   ...

We might describe this situation as the movement of a signal from one part of the brain to the other. On the other hand consider a rock, where each . is an atom.

...   ...   ...
...   ...   ...
...   ...   ...

Since it doesn’t look like there is any activity me might think that there is no signal propagation. But consider the case where we suddenly decided to label one atom in each time interval as special.

...   ...   ...
#..   .#.   ..#
...   ...   ...

Now it seems that we do have a description of the rock that indicates signal propagation. We might extend this kind of description to the whole rock, at each instant distinguishing some atoms from the rest, so that when viewed as a whole we could give the rock a computational description that indicates it has consciousness.

To make the claim that the computational description of our brain is valid and the one of the rock is not we have to make some distinctions. First we can separate out the computational description from our physical descriptions, weather it be the charged/unchanged description of the brain or the special/non-special atoms description of the rock. We can say that given either of these descriptions the computational description is warranted, meaning that we now need to show why the charged/unchanged description is different from the special/non-special description. The key difference between these two is where the information that makes up each description comes from. In the charged/uncharged description the information comes from a rule and the physical properties of the system (the rule having to do with the ratio of electrons to protons). In contrast the description we are trying to apply to the rocks gets its information completely from the rules; the rules tell us what kind of description we need to justify a computational description on top of it, and so we label the atoms appropriately. We can then reject the second kind of description because it is independent of the physical basis, which is contrary to our intuition that a valid description must have a basis on what it is describing.

There is also a slightly more interesting, and difficult, case to ponder over, which may cast some doubt as to our criterion for what is a valid description. Consider a computational description of water, where the movement and interaction of water molecules is the basis for such a description (meeting our criteria). Usually the computational description is meaningless, but occasionally the bucket may be shaken in just the right way that for a few moments the computational description is meaningful, and possibly even indicative of consciousness. Is this really plausible? I think it might be, even though it is so improbable that it would never happen, but I will leave a more detailed analysis of this for another time.


  1. See also this article in which Jaron Lanier asks if rain clouds can be conscious.

    More recently, I read an article about an article about how Leibniz showed that for any random collection of points, you can create a line that threads through them all, but this information theorist guy said, you can tell if the system is simple or not by seeing if your line takes more information to represent the points than a simple list of the points would. I can’t find the link now, but by my idea is that you can cross pollinate these ideas somehow.

    Comment by Carl — May 18, 2006 @ 6:43 pm

  2. Found the article I was thinking of.

    Comment by Carl — May 18, 2006 @ 7:55 pm

  3. That is a very interesting article, thanks for the link. The situations are similar, the situation I have been presenting it is like a case of simply drawing the line on a blank page and claiming that it has as much basis in reality as a line that connects pre-existing dots on another page. The criterion I gave would not however tell you which line is the best “description” for the dots on the page, as long as it was related to each dot by a rule I would say that it passed, even if that meant the line was drawn four inches above each dot. In some ways this seems desirable, because often there are two or more valid ways of describing the same system. However it is also a bit of a failure, because not all lines are equally plausible. Perhaps if I more formally state the criterion I have been presenting I could combine it with the requirement that the description contain less information than the system it is describing. Well, food for thought anyways.

    Comment by Peter — May 19, 2006 @ 12:26 am

  4. Nice article! An interesting question in philosophy, that I think is solved very easily by the practice of common sense — but fun to talk about!

    Comment by Aaron — May 19, 2006 @ 3:35 pm

  5. I think in general philosophy should agree with common sense, unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary (much like science). The fact that some positions in the philosophy of mind admit that such a silly proposition is possible (at least logically) should make us question their validity.

    Comment by Peter — May 19, 2006 @ 4:07 pm

  6. I think I should also mention that it is important to challenge common sense occasionally. For example it was common sense that the sun revolved around the earth for a long time, until natural philosophers (because this was before science became its own discipline) challenged that piece of common sense. Although rocks probably aren’t conscious there is value for occasionally attempting to find a rational basis for the assumptions we make about the world.

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2006 @ 12:39 am

  7. There is a test I would be interested to try. It has been postulated and in alot of cases proven, that every “thing” -that is every particular grouping of matter- generates or resonates with a frequency that can be measured. The point being that if you measure two rocks that look the same, that their frequency may or may not be identical (keeping in mind that frequency is a definite numerical value).

    However when we turn to humans and make these same measurements on the brain, we notice that the frequency generated or resonated is often tied to what particular “thought” the subject is thinking. By this basis, the ‘frequency’ of a human brain is subject to change, this is not a constant, definite value.

    In context to this article, it could be said that any grouping of matter that resonates in multiple frequencies is concious, and those that resonate with or around just one frequency could not be concious. Obviously this point is up for debate.

    The test that interests me is: to discover if a human (or other) mind can generate a frequency that is in harmony with the rock (or tree or ocean). This effect would have to be generated by thought in the mind, ergot certain thoughts would yield certain frequencies. Now let’s say that it was possible! That by thinking “rock” you are resonating the same frequency as the rock you’ve just measured. In this case, a rock *could* be considered concious, insofar as it is continually “thinking” “rock”.

    However if the human mind (through experiment) is determined to be incapable of resonating the frequency of rock, then it could be surmised that conciousness must work within the parameters of what frequencies the human mind is capable of generating. The experiment then turns to finding objects in physical reality that can match concious thoughts, if there are any.

    Food for thought, let me know what you find out ;)

    Comment by Scully — May 22, 2006 @ 7:18 am

  8. The resonance frequency of an object is determined almost completely by the type and arrangement of its component atoms. Two rocks that had an identical physical makeup would have an identical resonance frequency. It is true that the brain’s resonance frequency varies over time, and that the distribution of neurotransmitters might affect that value to some miniscule extent, the brain’s resonance frequency will never even be close to most objects, except perhaps to that of tofu, which has approximately the same consistency. However there is no reason to believe that the resonance frequency of an object has anything to do with consciousness, for example if you inserted an inert piece of plastic into someone’s brain without damaging it (the brain) you would have changed the resonance frequency, but since their brain’s operation is unaffected they would be just as conscious as they always have been.

    Comment by Peter — May 22, 2006 @ 8:18 am

  9. If you connect the proper electrodes to someone’s mind and ask them to close their eyes and visualize a tennis ball, a certain frequency or wavelength can be recorded. Ask them to visualize a stadium and another frequency will be generated. Ask them then to go back to visualizing the tennis ball and the frequency will return! This is evidence that thought plays a fundemental role in which frequencies are generated. What I understand from Peters point is that the molecular arrangement of the substance of the brain plays a significant role in determining the resonance frequency of the brain. However establishing a constant for that variable, we would have a 0 value from which thought could be measured.

    I’ve not studied these effects enough to make a claim one way or the other about how such an experiment may even be possible, much less how it could unfold. Using a concept of matter that can be observed by experiment, it’s easy to say that mechanism is responsible. When speaking of conscious effects on the mind, I can’t help but gravitate towards quantum theory. The quantum suggestion that mind is capable of affecting the physical properties of subatomic particles, which govern the behaviour of larger atomic systems.

    If we’re going to speak about the idea of rocks being conscious, we would have to eventually come to terms with the extra layer of thought required to “explain consciousness”. Sort of like a relativity theory for the mind, that could then be applied to all else in our environment and solve this debate!

    Comment by Scully — May 22, 2006 @ 9:06 am

  10. The frequency you are speaking of is an electrical frequency, not a resonance frequency. A resonance frequency has to do with sound. The electrical frequencies generated by the brain are basically the summation of patterns of neural firings, since the equipment we use to measure such frequencies isn’t that precise. The reason you may see the old frequency return is simply because the instruments aren’t precise enough to measure the difference. If frequency did correlate with consciousness you wouldn’t see the same frequency return because the phenomenal state of the person the second time they are asked to think about something is not the same as the phenomenal state of the first time (for example they have memories the second time of being asked the question before.

    As for “The quantum suggestion that mind is capable of affecting the physical properties of subatomic particles, which govern the behavior of larger atomic systems.” Not under all interpretations of quantum physics (for example see multiple worlds theory). Also even under the Copenhagen interpretation the mind doesn’t meaningfully affect what happens (there is no conscious control), it simply determines when a waveform collapses, not how.

    And as for “If we’re going to speak about the idea of rocks being conscious, we would have to eventually come to terms with the extra layer of thought required to ‘explain consciousness’. Sort of like a relativity theory for the mind, that could then be applied to all else in our environment and solve this debate!” I don’t see the need for an extra layer of thought, why do you want to postulate more thoughts than you already are conscious of? (for example see higher order theories and why they failed to explain consciousness) If you are talking about an extra set of properties, well that would be property dualism, and not a lot of people think that property dualism, or substance dualism, is a well founded theory concerning the mind.

    Comment by Peter — May 22, 2006 @ 10:22 am

  11. It is certainly social conditioning, or poor parenting.

    Comment by brad — January 10, 2007 @ 4:56 pm

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