We know that, as humans, we have an anthropocentric and anthropomorphic cognitive bias. That is, we tend to explain the world in terms of our own human experience and understanding. So, for example, in our religions, both nature and Gods are personified, taking on human forms and characteristics. Even in science, humanity was for many years placed at the physical centre of the universe.
Among the vocabulary we associate with human experience are:
Thought words, like – ‘thought’, ‘concept’, ‘knowledge’, ‘calculation’, and ‘wisdom’
Sensation words, like – ‘feel’, ‘hear’, ‘desire’, ‘touch’, and ‘see’
Consciousness words, like – ‘memory’, ‘learning’, ‘intelligence’, ‘pleasure’, and ‘pain’ – which we tend to use for sentient animals with nervous systems though not, usually, for un-conscious life.
The appropriateness of consciousness-talk for describing the world is a contentious matter because there are no uncontroversial rules about word usage. If we say, for example, that ‘the heart wants to pump blood’ we are clearly being anthropomorphic. The heart cannot possibly ‘want’ things in the way that we ‘want’ things; so this is blatant as if metaphor. But when we say ‘the purpose of the heart is to pump blood’ though you might still regard this as metaphor, the conceptual association with human conscious minds is not obvious.
There are many examples like this. We might accept that an animal, like a unicellular paramecium, with light sensitivity can ‘see’, in a loose sense, but not in the same way that we do . . . it can only ever be as if the paramecium and plants ‘see’ because the plant has no nervous system or eyes.
Viewed through the prism of our consciousness, we humans seem very different from non-sentient organisms. But in a more general sense we also have much in common.
All life existing today has persisted by developing structural and functional adaptations to their historical surroundings. From this biological perspective consciousness is just another functional adaptation, albeit a very effective one. Consciousness-talk is a specialist vocabulary within a more wide-ranging language that encompasses the general interactions that occur between all organisms and their surroundings. Explanations of the inanimate tend to answer the question ‘How does it work?’ while un-conscious purpose in living matter prompts the question ‘What is it for?’ Conscious (sentient) questions take the form ‘How does it feel?’ and conscious reasons tend to answer question ‘What was the considered intention?’
This needs more explanation.
Although they cannot communicate the products of critical self-reflection like we humans. Though both monkeys and humans have reasons, purposes, functions, and values, it is only us humans that can represent these in spoken and written language (this distinction is described in more detail in purpose).
In practice we have simply adopted anthropomorphic words that are, by convention, of greater and lesser acceptability in scientific discourse. Just as we see in evolution an increasing differentiation of structures so, in language, we have a parallel differentiation in meaning.
From now on this article will use ‘human-talk’ for the reasons outlined above, but mainly because practical alternatives are scarce and human-talk can be regarded as a useful signal not for absence of properties, but for graded similarities.
The following is a glossary, not of metaphor, but some of the language of graded biological reality expressed in human-talk.
Adaptation – learning, intelligence
Agency – purpose
Autonomous activity – behaviour, agency, consciousness
Natural selection – self-correction, reason
Function – purpose
Information storage – memory
Recording variables – representing, forming a cognitive map, thinking
Here is a brainstorm of words we might associate with mental biological agency: intelligence, wisdom, behaviour, talking, communicating, knowing, remembering, learning, feeling (sentience/sensation) sensory system including tasting, seeing, hearing, feeling).