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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Evolutionary biology meets consciousness: essay review

Browning, H., Veit, W. 
Biol Philos 36, 5 (2021). 


In this essay, we discuss Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka’s The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul from an interdisciplinary perspective. Constituting perhaps the longest treatise on the evolution of consciousness, Ginsburg and Jablonka unite their expertise in neuroscience and biology to develop a beautifully Darwinian account of the dawning of subjective experience. Though it would be impossible to cover all its content in a short book review, here we provide a critical evaluation of their two key ideas—the role of Unlimited Associative Learning in the evolution of, and detection of, consciousness and a metaphysical claim about consciousness as a mode of being—in a manner that will hopefully overcome some of the initial resistance of potential readers to tackle a book of this length.

Here is one portion:

Modes of being

The second novel idea within their book is to conceive of consciousness as a new mode of being, rather than a mere trait. This part of their argument may appear unusual to many operating in the debate, not the least because this formulation—not unlike their choice to include Aristotle’s sensitive soul in the title—evokes a sense of outdated and strange metaphysics. We share some of this opposition to this vocabulary, but think it best conceived as a metaphor.

They begin their book by introducing the idea of teleological (goal-directed) systems and the three ‘modes of being’, taken from the works of Aristotle, each of which is considered to have a unique telos (goal). These are: life (survival/reproduction), sentience (value ascription to stimuli), and rationality (value ascription to concepts). The focus of this book is the second of these—the “sensitive soul”. Rather than a trait, such as vision, G&J see consciousness as a mode of being, in the same way as the emergence of life and rational thought also constitute new modes of being.

In several places throughout their book, G&J motivate their account through this analogy, i.e. by drawing a parallel from consciousness to life and/or rationality. Neither, they think, can be captured in a simple definition or trait, thus explaining the lack of progress on trying to come up with definitions for these phenomena. Compare their discussion of the distinction between life and non-life. Life, they argue, is not a functional trait that organisms possess, but rather a new way of being that opens up new possibilities; so too with consciousness. It is a new form of biological organization at a level above the organism that gives rise to a “new type of goal-directed system”, one which faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities. They identify three such transitions—the transition from non-life to life (the “nutritive soul”), the transition from non-conscious to conscious (the “sensitive soul”) and the transition from non-rational to rational (the “rational soul”). All three transitions mark a change to a new form of being, one in which the types of goals change. But while this is certainly correct in the sense of constituting a radical transformation in the kinds of goal-directed systems there are, we have qualms with the idea that this formal equivalence or abstract similarity can be used to ground more concrete properties. Yet G&J use this analogy to motivate their UAL account in parallel to unlimited heredity as a transition marker of life.