Philosophical Topics

Volume 48, Issue 1, Spring 2020

Ascriptions of Consciousness

Heather Browning, Walter Veit
Pages 85-108

The Measurement Problem of Consciousness

This paper addresses what we consider to be the most pressing challenge for the emerging science of consciousness: the measurement problem of consciousness. That is, by what methods can we determine the presence of and properties of consciousness? Most methods are currently developed through evaluation of the presence of consciousness in humans and here we argue that there are particular problems in application of these methods to nonhuman cases—what we call the indicator validity problem and the extrapolation problem. The first is a problem with the application of indicators developed using the differences between conscious and unconscious processing in humans to the identification of other conscious vs. nonconscious organisms or systems. The second is a problem in extrapolating any indicators developed in humans or other organisms to artificial systems. However, while pressing ethical concerns add urgency to the attribution of consciousness and its attendant moral status to nonhuman animals and intelligent machines, we cannot wait for certainty and we advocate the use of a precautionary principle to avoid causing unintentional harm. We also intend that the considerations and limitations discussed in this paper can be used to further analyze and refine the methods of consciousness science with the hope that one day we may be able to solve the measurement problem of consciousness.