This is my first written foray into the world of consciousness/philosophy of mind – I would appreciate any and all constructive criticism in this area.
Anything capable of cognition (mental processes) is a conscious (capable of awareness, feeling, subjectivity) thing. It would appear then that consciousness is restricted to livening things. Is this, however, necessarily true? Can something like say, a tree, which is a living thing, perform mental processes? Trees are no doubt growing and living things – but it would certainly appear that they don’t perform any mental processes nor does it appear that they have a mind. One does not observe trees making conscious mental decisions to grow a certain height, or to grow a certain number of leaves .
Can it therefore be extrapolated that a non-living thing is capable of consciousness? If something that is alive is not conscious, can something that is not alive can be conscious, for example a chair?
Analytic philosopher Peter van Inwagen argues that non-living things don’t exist in any meaningful way – non-living things are simply composed of elementary particles that appear to be there. On his view not only is a non-living thing not conscious, it doesn’t exist. This seems to me to be a radical and unwarranted position. Common sense and empirical data tell us that non-living things do in fact exist – it seems to me that one does not need an argument to justify such a position, and if it is needed, then the problem of non-living things existing seems to be a relatively minor one for whomever needs the argument.
This returns us to the question at hand: can non-living things (which do exist) have consciousness? Empirical data seem to tell us no – however, if living things don’t necessarily have to be conscious, it seems that it’s not out of the question for non-living things to be conscious.
It would also appear that, upon close inspection of definitions, some chairs do in fact have consciousness. A chair is that which is sat on by human beings – this can obviously include living things (for example, a dog or a person). So some chairs can indeed have consciousness (dogs are aware of their surroundings, make decisions, albeit to a more limited extent compared to humans).
It would appear then that the problem of living/nonliving consciousness is a problem of definitions more than anything – on some definitions, a chair can indeed be conscious (if I decided to sit on a person) and on some definitions it is not (if I decide to sit on the chair in my office made of metal).
Bertrand Russel, in trying to delve more deeply into logic, found that he was only becoming more and more enmeshed in paradoxes – not because had misunderstood logic, but because he had misunderstood the limits of language. It may be that consciousness is a similar kind of animal – perhaps further attempts to push deeper into consciousness will only result in mystery and paradox.
‘What cannot be shown cannot be said.’
‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’
– Ludwig Wittgenstein