A Primer on Fetal Personhood and Consciousness
[Esta publicación está disponible en español aquí.]
In the abortion debate, some pro-choice advocates deny that the fetus is a person, a person being defined as a human meriting moral consideration and legal protections. What do humans need to qualify as persons? There are a variety of theories, but at least one popular pro-choice response is to suggest that only humans who have consciousness are persons. The following guest post serves as a quick philosophical overview regarding consciousness.
What, and where, is consciousness?
Philosopher of mind David Chalmers calls consciousness “the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe.” There is no consensus about what consciousness is, or even whether it exists. There is even less consensus on how, and where, consciousness relates to and interacts with the physical body.
Materialists hold that only the physical world exists and usually believe, like Daniel Dennett and Paul Churchland, that consciousness as a subjective state is an illusion and does not exist. They typically believe that science will one day be able to establish identity relationships between neural processes and so-called conscious states.
Materialists will often hold to a representational theory of consciousness. There are variations on this theory, but generally, this theory means that consciousness is nothing more than mental states that represent objects outside us. These mental states are “about something;” for example, a thought about a house or a perception of a tree. The goal of this theory is for such representations to someday be understood in purely physical terms so that materialists may reduce consciousness to the physical.
Other philosophers find the existence of consciousness as a subjective state to be self-evident. You have probably heard of Renee Descartes’s famous observation cogito, ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.” Likewise, neuroscientist Sam Harris says, “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion” (p. 54). Classical dualism holds that there are two substances—the mental, and the physical. Unlike materialists, dualists believe there are non-physical realities, and they consider the conscious mind to be a prime example.
Although dualists traditionally believed in God, it would be a mistake to consider dualism an inherently religious view. Some contemporary philosophers of mind, such as David Chalmers and Jeffrey Laird, are atheists who hold to a form of dualism. They consider consciousness to be a subjective state that is self-evident and theoretically impossible to locate in the physical world.
Two basic categories of consciousness
If we assume that consciousness as a subjective state exists, we learn from philosophers that there are variations on how to categorize and understand it.
Some philosophers have proposed two simple categories of consciousness. Although they have small differences in their perspectives, they all generally hold that consciousness is, first, a raw experience of the world and, second, an awareness of the self, Laird explains (p. 125-128). Ned Block calls these two simple categories phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. Jean Paul Sartre used the terms unreflective and reflective consciousness (p. 48). Laird refers to them as phenomenal consciousness and reflexive consciousness. Regardless of terminology, these two most basic categories of consciousness are understood similarly by many philosophers of mind.
Phenomenal consciousness is simply the mind’s awareness of the world around it. This most commonly understood idea of being conscious is captured by Thomas Nagel in his essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” He says that there is “something that it is like” to be a bat, which only a bat can experience. Likewise, we each have a something-that-it-is-like to be, our simple raw awareness of the world around us.
If I see a painting of a Dalmatian, for example, whether or not I grasp the concept of a Dalmatian, I experience the colors, shapes, and spatial relations of the blobs of paint on the canvas. A philosophical term used broadly for these sensory experiences of phenomenal consciousness is “qualia.” Perceptual experiences such as seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching would possess qualia. So would bodily sensations such as pain, itching, hunger, warmth, and dizziness. Feelings and moods also count as qualia. Qualia are entirely subjective and cannot be adequately described to anyone who has not experienced the same things themselves. As Nagel pointed out, only a bat knows what it is like to be a bat.
Along these lines, according to David Armstrong, a creature is conscious simply by being sentient, meaning capable of sensing, and responding to, its world.
In contrast to phenomenal consciousness is reflexive consciousness, which may also simply be called self-consciousness. Laird explains that this mode of consciousness is the awareness we enter into when we think, reason, remember, reflect, and introspect, and it includes abstract thinking (p. 126). This mode is the one wherein we are self-aware. The conscious state is directed not only at objects outside itself but also intentionally at itself.
This is similar to access consciousness as defined by Ned Block. Access consciousness means consciousness that has access to its own content, that can use the information it carries.
Self-consciousness can range in sophistication from minimal bodily self-awareness to the ability to reason and reflect on one’s own mental states.
So… where is consciousness?
Two broad competing views concerning the nature of consciousness are dualism and materialism. These views are essentially trying to explain “where” consciousness is.
There are many versions of each view. Yet, put simply, dualism holds that the conscious mind is non-physical. For something to be non-physical, it must literally be outside the realm of physics and therefore unable to be measured or otherwise characterized by the instruments of physics. Materialism, on the other hand, holds that all reality is physical and often holds that conscious activity is identical with neural activity. Therefore, most materialists believe consciousness will someday be explained in physical terms. They tend to view the brain as the most likely candidate to identify with the mind.
Difficulties with dualism and materialism
Both dualism and materialism have difficult (some say impossible) questions to answer.
How can a dualist explain the causal connection and interaction between something non-physical (consciousness) and something physical (neural activity)? And how could a non-physical mind interact with the world of matter, when the well-established Conservation of Energy principle says that the total amount of energy in the universe remains constant? Furthermore, brain damage affects states of consciousness; does this mean that the non-physical mind gets “damaged” along with the brain? These are difficulties that dualists must face. Materialists hold that dualists will never be able to verify, prove, or explain the existence of a non-physical consciousness. Conversely, materialists tend to believe that science will someday close the gap by explaining consciousness in physical terms.
Yet materialists run into obstacles just as difficult. Consciousness is by definition a subjective experience, so how can it be “located” as an object in the physical world? Dualists will say that this is not theoretically possible. Brain activity has never been shown to be correlated with a thought, explains Laird (pg. 5). The difficulty of explaining how brain processes could give rise to subjective conscious experience is called “the hard problem of consciousness” by David Chalmers and the “the explanatory gap” by Joseph Levine. Additionally, materialists face challenges such as explaining how split-brain patients behave normally under ordinary circumstances and have largely integrated attention. They also face the challenge from near-death-experience research that provides evidence of consciousness occurring during clinical death and even while under general anesthesia.
So difficult is the problem of explaining consciousness, that there are even philosophers, including Colin McGinn and Thomas Nagel, called mysterians, who believe we are simply not capable of solving the problem of consciousness; we do not have a mental faculty that can connect the brain to consciousness.
The neural correlates of consciousness
Philosophers and neuroscientists are searching for the precise brain property responsible for consciousness. This is referred to as the search for the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCCs). Using sophisticated equipment such as MRIs and PET scans, they try to correlate some aspect of neural functioning with first-person reports of conscious experience. Many proposals for the NCCs have been put forth, some only for specific kinds of consciousness rather than for all conscious states.
A challenge to this search is the very term “correlate.” First, correlation does not equal causation. Either the brain property or the conscious state could be the cause of the other, or some third factor could be the cause of them both. An even bigger challenge is the inability to establish an identity relationship between the neural state and the conscious state. You will never find in the brain a thought, a preference, or an idea, this challenge says.
In addition, there have not been found any central neural areas that unify our information from the various neuronal pathways; this is called the binding problem. We do not, in other words, understand from a neural perspective how our conscious experiences are unified. Neural correlates only address abstract particulars, not holistic experiences or their contextual meanings.
All this is to say, we have not located consciousness itself, but we can at least say we see some of its footprints up close, via remarkable technology.
When do fetuses become conscious?
Luckily, we have evidence of some of these footprints of consciousness in the unborn. Let’s revisit phenomenal and reflexive consciousness as they relate to humans in the womb.
Fetal pain may begin in the first trimester
Recall that bodily sensations, including pain, are included among examples of phenomenal consciousness. Recent evidence points to fetuses as early as 12 weeks being able to experience pain via the developing function of the nervous system, calling into question the necessity of the cortex for pain. Along these lines, current neuroscientific evidence indicates the possibility of fetal pain in the first trimester. One of the findings for this conclusion was that neural pathways for pain perception are present as early as 7-8 weeks gestation. Another of its findings is that “consciousness is mediated by subcortical structures…which begin to develop during the first trimester.” Contrary to what some might assume, the neurochemicals in the womb do not cause fetal unconsciousness.
Therefore, the suggestion that it is “rather unlikely” for fetuses younger than 24 weeks to be conscious is based on an outdated view of neural pathways for pain.
Although philosophers disagree about the nature of pain and its relationship to perception, the recent evidence suggests that fetuses as young as 7-8 weeks meet the criteria for the possibility of phenomenal consciousness, given that pain is a bodily sensation.
Self-awareness begins as late as 18 months
Recall that reflexive consciousness is self-awareness. The journal Infancy found evidence from experiments that toddlers develop awareness of the self during the second year after birth. Another journal of child studies found evidence that infants begin to show self-awareness after 18 months. If reflexive consciousness were a prerequisite for personhood, then newborns and older babies, not just fetuses, would be excluded from personhood. Fetuses should therefore be equivalent to newborns and older babies when the criterion of self-awareness is being considered.
Consciousness is a precarious basis for personhood
There are several additional arguments against the idea of consciousness-based personhood: justifying abortion based on alleged lack of consciousness may be considered discrimination on the basis of age (ageism) and ability (ableism). It may also be considered exploitation—taking advantage of the helpless. This justification also hangs on gradualism, a moral theory that mistakenly defines the unborn by their location in time and stage of development (which are changing features), rather than by their essential humanity (which is unchanging).
And the consciousness of the unborn is not necessarily limited to the recent findings of neuroscience. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence when it comes to consciousness. After all, if we don’t know where consciousness itself is, then we don’t know where it isn’t. Cutting edge ideas of where consciousness may “reside” include in the brain-gut-microbiome axis or as a fundamental force in the world.
In conclusion, consciousness is a broad philosophical concept raising more questions than answers. The search for consciousness in the brain has not yielded identity relationships between neural states and conscious states, nor has it found central neural areas that unify information. The question of what defines and constitutes consciousness remains open as debates continue, with some philosophers of mind even holding that consciousness is theoretically impossible to “locate” or explain. Consciousness is, at best, an obscure criterion for fetal personhood. When such an unclear criterion is used to replace a clear criterion for who we are essentially, the result is that the unborn are tragically and unnecessarily dehumanized.
- Embryos & metaphysical personhood: both biology & philosophy support the pro-life case.
- Is personhood derived from past, present, or future consciousness?
- Psychological Criteria for Personhood Have Horrific Implications.
- Personhood based on human cognitive abilities.
- A Discussion of Capacities and Their Relation to Human Personhood.
- Abortion: A Topic that Divides the Masses. This YouTube Debate between Dustin Crummett and Monica Snyder centers on the mind in relation to the unborn.
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!