The New Science of Consciousness Informs Abortion, Animal Rights Debates

The state of the universe.
Sept. 4 2012 3:41 AM

When Do We Become Truly Conscious?

The new science of consciousness should change how we think about thorny ethical dilemmas.

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Left: An ultrasound of the author's daughter at 20 weeks. Right: Lalana, the author's daughter, at age 2.

Courtesy Daniel Bor.

It is easy to view consciousness as a kind of magic. In religion it is represented by the mysterious soul, and in science the concept of consciousness at first appears quite alien. But many fields, such as the study of what distinguishes life from nonlife, had their earlier magical states eroded by careful scientific study. Consciousness is in the midst of a similar revolution.

The investigation of our own awareness is a blossoming scientific field, where experiments are illuminating exciting details about this most intimate of scientific subjects. In my book The Ravenous Brain, I describe the latest consciousness science and how we are closing in on establishing a consciousness meter—a way to measure levels of awareness in any being that may be able to experience the world. Consciousness is in many ways the most important question remaining for science.

But the nature of consciousness is not just a vital question for science; it’s also the source of some of society’s thorniest, most fundamental ethical dilemmas.

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On a personal level, consciousness is where the meaning to life resides. All the moments that matter to us, from falling in love to seeing our child’s first smile, to that perfect holiday surrounded by snow-capped mountains, are obviously conscious events. If none of these events were conscious, if we weren’t conscious to experience them, we’d hardly consider ourselves alive—at least not in any way that matters.

Whether I’m reveling in a glowing pleasure or even if I’m enduring a sharp sadness, I always sense that behind everything there is the privilege and passion of experience. Our consciousness is the essence of who we perceive ourselves to be. It is the citadel for our senses, the melting pot of thoughts, the welcoming home for every emotion that pricks or placates us. For us, consciousness simply is the currency of life.

Although some philosophers and scientists suspect that consciousness is a pointless side effect of cognitive processes, I believe the opposite: that our consciousness might indeed be responsible for our greatest intellectual achievements in both the arts and sciences. Whether our creativity and insight originates in our unconscious mind or not (I believe that the role of the unconscious has been overestimated), at the very least, our consciousness is the conduit to inspect these gems of inspiration and the driving force for turning them into reality.

It is not surprising, therefore, that questions about consciousness lie at the heart of many of our most fundamental ethical debates, one of which is abortion and the right to life. This is an appropriate point for me to play my proud father card and slip in a couple of pictures of my daughter, Lalana. The ultrasound was taken halfway through pregnancy, at 20 weeks. Soon after this scan, we could clearly feel her kicking.

The second image is a recent photo of her. As a 2-year-old, Lalana runs around everywhere and has a vocabulary of a few hundred words. She can convey events to us that happened days or weeks before, usually because she is still so excited about them. She can also store wishes for the future. For instance, we might tell her offhand that when we get home, we’ll play with making bubbles. Hours later, as soon as she enters the house, she’ll run straight to the shelf with the bubble bottle and scream, “Bubbu! Bubbu!” She has a strong set of loves and hates, and her emotionally sensitive, passionate, cheeky, disturbingly stubborn personality is already pronounced.

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