Consciousness and Ethical Dilemmas
September 4, 2012
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Daniel Bor (Neuroscience, Sussex) argues in Slate that answering the question of when consciousness arises is key to determining the moral status of abortion and of eating animals.
The evidence is clear that a fetus can respond to sights, sounds, and smells, and it can even react to these by producing facial expressions. The evidence is equally clear, however, that these responses are generated by the most primitive parts of the brain, which are unconnected to consciousness, and therefore these actions don’t in any way imply that the fetus is aware. Furthermore, the fetus is deliberately sedated by a series of chemicals produced by the placenta, so even if it had the capacity for consciousness, there is almost no chance that it could ever be conscious in the womb. Consequently, it can’t consciously feel pain.
The most prominent scientific theories of consciousness are converging on the idea that it is related to a certain kind of information processing, in which multiple strands of data are drawn together, and that it is dependent on a certain kind of network architecture. Arguably the most popular theory along these lines, information integration theory by Giulio Tononi, effectively assumes that consciousness is a continuum across the animal kingdom. If so, even the lowly nematode worm, with a few hundred neurons, will have some, albeit minimal, level of consciousness. If something approximating this theory proves correct, it has huge implications for our relationship to all animals on the planet.