Assignment 3


1.         Walking through the woods, I have knowledge by acquaintance of the sense-data created as I see the trees, hear the birds, smell the leaves, etc. I also have knowledge by acquaintance of remembered sense-data created during previous walks. If I pause to reflect, I have an awareness of myself experiencing these things, which is also knowledge by acquaintance. Lastly, I know that those vertical, leafy objects are called trees, that their leaves are a color called green, and that the birds’ songs have a quality called melodiousness, because I am acquainted with the general concepts of “tree,” “green,” and “melodiousness.”

My knowledge of the real, physical identity of the trees is knowledge by description. If I am walking with a friend, my knowledge of the friend’s inner mental state is also knowledge by description that I infer from a combination of my knowledge of my own mind and the sense-data created by my friend’s body.

            If knowledge by acquaintance was the only type of knowledge that existed, it would be impossible to know about anything with which we did not have direct contact. We could have no knowledge of history we did not witness or people we did not meet. It would be impossible to know anything about anyone’s thoughts but our own, because there is no way to become directly acquainted with someone else’s mind. While we would still have knowledge by acquaintance of universals, they wouldn’t be applicable to anything except what we experience directly.1


2.         Without self-consciousness, I would be oddly detached from the world. All sense of responsibility for my actions, or even the understanding that I could act, would be gone. On the other hand, people with no conception of self would be fantastic impartial judges. They could also help design fair solutions to the most complicated issues plaguing society, because they would have no personal motivations pushing them to act one way or the other.2

Despite this potential utility, removing self-consciousness eliminates most of what makes someone human. However, whether one could have no concept of self and still be conscious is a slightly different question. If I could conceive of everything but myself, I could potentially still be sentient (able to experience pain or happiness), in the same way that some animals are sentient but not self-aware. Because of this, I would still be slightly conscious, but certainly not to the same extent that normal humans are.


3. Perhaps the computer is slightly conscious, but it is a long way from storing current state in a computer chip to full consciousness. Part of what makes this question so hard to answer is that consciousness is such a slippery, subjective concept, almost like qualia. Could a computer ever experience qualia? Possibly the answer is yes, but in a way so fundamentally different from humans that it would be almost impossible to imagine.3 Could computers ever be conscious? Again, possibly yes, but it seems like they would be conscious in such a different way from humans that it would be hard to compare the two.


4. Theoretically, there is no limit to these sorts of statements, although they become meaningless after a while. There is a limit to the number of levels of awareness most human brains can contemplate at once, although humans can understand more levels of awareness than many other animals. For example, an ant may be somewhat aware of the sun, but it is probably not aware of this awareness. Some mammals, including chimpanzees, are self-conscious and at least semi-aware of their awareness of the sun. At the other end of the spectrum, a species could potentially exist somewhere that is much more intelligent than humans; members of this species might meaningfully be able to contemplate many more levels of awareness than humans can.4


5.         We first learn universals by identifying the similarities between many cases described by the same universal. For example, if I was trying to teach someone the meaning of whiteness, I might point out that a cloud is white, a sheep is white, and a marshmallow is white. Since whiteness is one of the only qualities these objects have in common, whoever I was teaching would hopefully figure out the meaning of the universal. The process works roughly the same way for more abstract universals such as brotherhood, although of course the similarities between examples would be subtler. 

            Many universals relate to qualia. Since there is no guarantee that any two people experience qualia in the same way, there is no guarantee that any two people use a given universal to describe the same sensation either. Even taking this into account, universals continue to function in communication. As long as my neighbor and I learn to describe the same things as white, it doesn’t matter exactly how we experience this whiteness. Other universals, such as brotherhood, are not so closely related to qualia, although they too can be hard to define exactly.

            Without universals, thought and communication would be nearly impossible. It would be difficult to connect ideas, and there would be no way to articulate similarities between situations or to describe anything. Universals are the only method we have of bridging the gap between multiple people’s qualia. Without universals, not only do I not know if my neighbor experiences white the same way I do, I have absolutely no way to articulate to my neighbor anything related to whiteness.



1. It may not be this limiting.  If all that knowledge by description gives us is a belief in an external reality which serves as the wellspring of knowledge  by acquaintance, then one could still be solipsistic and maintain a virtually unaffected mental life.


2. I think it’s more likely a catch-22.  Taking away self-consciousness might disable personal interests that can interfere with impartiality, but it would also disable the empathy required for understanding personal conflicts in the first place.  Looked at another way, consider how difficult it would be to program a computer to serve as a Supreme Court justice.


3. Any qualia other than those we experience seem inherently unimaginable.  But I wouldn’t rule-out a computer consciousness similar to our own.  It could simply be a matter of how accurately human neurophysiology can be modeled in other media.


4. Meta-levels of self-awareness would probably only exist in living organisms to the extent they are valuable in a Darwinian sense.  It might be more likely for computers to become more self-aware, as we have already programmed them to be (in some ways) more intelligent than we are.