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The search for invertebrate consciousness

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There is no agreement on whether any invertebrates (e.g. insects, spiders, worms, octopuses, crabs) are conscious and no agreement on a methodology that could settle the issue. How can the debate move forward? I distinguish three broad types of approach: theory-heavy, theory-neutral and theory-light. I argue that the theory-heavy and theory-neutral approaches face serious problems, motivating a middle path: the theory-light approach. At the core of the theory-light approach is a minimal theoretical commitment about the relation between consciousness and cognition that is compatible with many specific theories of consciousness: the hypothesis that conscious perception of a stimulus facilitates, relative to unconscious perception, a cluster of cognitive abilities in relation to that stimulus. This ‘facilitation hypothesis’ can productively guide inquiry into invertebrate consciousness. What’s needed? At this stage, not more theory, and not more undirected data gathering. What’s needed is a systematic search for consciousness-linked cognitive abilities, their relationships to each other, and their sensitivity to masking. I illustrate the ‘theory-light’ approach using the example of bees.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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