Do Children Have "Consciousness" As We Know It?

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's first hypothesis - that consciousness (as he carefully defines it) is based on language, specifically the development of consciousness in children based on language.
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Do Children Have "Consciousness" As We Know It?

Post by Rob(ert) »

My answer is quite simply no.

Caveat lector, my friends.

First and foremost, let us consider the clues. A child (and my definition of the term will stretch from newborn to what you may call a toddler, although I prefer citing a toddler as someone who does have, as you shall see, conscious thoughts and feelings).

1.) Let's pretend for a moment that a child's brain is like that of a sponge. Imagine, if you can, the big, wide-open world as it must appear to a newborn. Every thing, from every object that comes into focus, to every tiny spasm of a muscle to every laugh or frown, is absorbed into the child's brain. It isn't like when an adult reads a book, and we gain knew knowledge that either supplements or replaces previous data, but rather the spectrum of existence, of their interactions big or small with the world around them is catalogued. I feel that most forget this aspect of a child's life, or don't think too much of it, but if you dwell on it you'll find how truly remarkable this is. Every beam of light and flash of color needs to be stored mentally so later in life they can access said things and react to them accordingly.

2.) Now, let's then jump ahead a few years when a child may be walking and/or talking. It eventually gets to the point when a sponge (as well as the child's brain) becomes engorged and to the point when nothing else will fit. It is at this point, I theorize, that the child's brain, nay their consciousness, 'flicks on' and they are able to process every motor skill and piece of raw data they have compiled thus far. I feel that it is impossible for a child (until they reach that point of being able to understand every aspect of reality as their body is now part of) to become conscious and make conscious choices/decisions. When their mind is 'ready,' so to speak, they are able as any adult, with much less real-world experience, of course, to face their future.

3.) Some or many of you may disagree, being proud parents yourselves, remembering when your child was young and you remarked, "What a personality/temper/joyous allure he/she has!" This would be grossly incorrect. To claim that a child has a personality simply because they are reacting to the world around them is just plain false. As Dr. Jaynes spoke of, children are, then, reacting to basic animalistic urges. They may or may not be experiencing audio/visual hallucinations, but they survive solely because of 'learned, conditioned-behaviors.' Think for a moment when a toddler may stretch his/her arm out to reach a knife that has been placed on the countertop. A parent will slap the child's hand and shout "NO!" over and over to emphasize the point. (This may need to be repeated a few times for the child to understand.) Many might think that indeed the child has learned knives and the like are bad and are not to be meddled with. I disagree. If my above hypothesis is correct, and a child does not have consciousness, what they are experiencing is much to the extent that Pavlov's dogs did. An action is being reinforced negatively and they eventually associate reaching up for that sharp knife as something that will bring them pain. A child being told not to touch a knife may indeed go into the next room and touch a pair of scissors--he/she will not be able to associate what a 'sharp/dangerous' thing is, but will understand if he/she is told not to touch a multitude of different instruments.

4.) My proposal does not mean that children are lifeless zombies with no souls. All it means is that they do not view the world in the way we as adults do. It would be impossible for someone, and naive, to think that a child, just born into the world, perhaps only a few weeks old, has any kind of personality or ability to comprehend the world as they are barely able to curl their own toes and squeeze their tiny fingers together. Consciousness is a learned trait that does not present itself until a certain point of 'knowledge saturation' occurs (which could be different for everyone). I agree with Dr. Jaynes' theory that consciousness was an evolved trait and if what I propose is in fact true, it will do nothing but add to this conclusion.

Talk to me and let me know what you think.
My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable.
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Post by Moderator »

It's an interesting topic.... Daniel Dennett made some very Jaynesian comments recently along these lines. The following is his quote from in response to the question, "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

"I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness – in the strong sense of there being a subject, an I, a 'something it is like something to be.' It would follow that non-human animals and pre-linguistic children, although they can be sensitive, alert, responsive to pain and suffering, and cognitively competent in many remarkable ways - including ways that exceed normal adult human competence – are not really conscious (in this strong sense): there is no organized subject (yet) to be the enjoyer or sufferer, no owner of the experiences as contrasted with a mere cerebral locus of effects."

"This assertion is shocking to many people, who fear that it would demote animals and pre-linguistic children from moral protection, but this would not follow. Whose pain is the pain occurring in the newborn infant? There is not yet anybody whose pain it is, but that fact would not license us to inflict painful stimuli on babies or animals any more than we are licensed to abuse the living bodies of people in comas who are definitely not conscious. If selfhood develops gradually, then certain types of events only gradually become experiences, and there will be no sharp line between unconscious pains (if we may call them that) and conscious pains, and both will merit moral attention. (And, of course, the truth of the empirical hypothesis is in any case strictly independent of its ethical implications, whatever they are. Those who shun the hypothesis on purely moral grounds are letting wishful thinking overrule a properly inquisitive scientific attitude. I am happy to give animals and small children "the benefit of the doubt" for moral purposes, but not for scientific purposes. Those who are shocked by my hypothesis should pause, if they can bear it, to notice that it is as just as difficult to prove its denial as its assertion. But it can, I think, be proven eventually. Here's what it will take, one way or the other:

"(1) a well-confirmed model of the functional architecture of adult human consciousness, showing how long-distance pathways of re-entrant or reverberant interactions have to be laid down and sustained by the sorts of self-stimulation cascades that entrain language use;

"(2) an interpretation of the dynamics of the model that explains why, absent these well-traveled pathways of neural micro habit, there is no functional unity to the nervous system–no unity to distinguish an I from a we (or a multitude) as the candidate subject(s) subserved by that nervous system;

"(3) a host of further experimental work demonstrating the importance of what Thomas Metzinger calls the phenomenal model of the intentionality relation (PMIR) in enabling the sorts of experiences we consider central to our own adult consciousness. This work will demonstrate that animal cleverness never requires the abilities thus identified in humans, and that animals are in fact incapable of appreciating many things we normally take for granted as aspects of our conscious experience.

"This is an empirical hypothesis, and it could just as well be proven false. It could be proven false by showing that in fact the necessary pathways functionally uniting the relevant brain systems (in the ways I claim are required for consciousness) are already provided in normal infant or fetal development, and are in fact present in, say, all mammalian nervous systems of a certain maturity. I doubt that this is true because it seems clear to me that evolution has already demonstrated that remarkable varieties of adaptive coordination can be accomplished without such hyper-unifying meta-systems, by colonies of social insects, for instance. What is it like to be an ant colony? Nothing, I submit, and I think most would agree intuitively. What is it like to be a brace of oxen? Nothing (even if it is like something to be a single ox). But then we have to take seriously the extent to which animals – not just insect colonies and reptiles, but rabbits, whales, and, yes, bats and chimpanzees – can get by with somewhat disunified brains.

"Evolution will not have provided for the further abilities where they were not necessary for members of these species to accomplish the tasks their lives actually pose them. If animals were like the imaginary creatures in the fictions of Beatrix Potter or Walt Disney, they would have to be conscious pretty much the way we are. But animals are more different from us than we usually imagine, enticed as we are by these charming anthropomorphic fictions. We need these abilities to become persons, communicating individuals capable of asking and answering, requesting and forbidding and promising (and lying). But we don't need to be born with these abilities, since normal rearing will entrain the requisite neural dispositions. Human subjectivity, I am proposing, is thus a remarkable byproduct of human language, and no version of it should be extrapolated to any other species by default, any more than we should assume that the rudimentary communication systems of other species have verbs and nouns, prepositions and tenses.

"Finally, since there is often misunderstanding on this score, I am not saying that all human consciousness consists in talking to oneself silently, although a great deal of it does. I am saying that the ability to talk to yourself silently, as it develops, also brings along with it the abilities to review, to muse, to rehearse, recollect, and in general engage the contents of events in one's nervous system that would otherwise have their effects in a purely "ballistic" fashion, leaving no memories in their wake, and hence contributing to one's guidance in ways that are well described as unconscious. If a nervous system can come to sustain all these abilities without having language then I am wrong."
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response to your year-old posting

Post by rosetheprof »

I am replying to your posting on children to let you know I have started a new thread on the topic that is closely related to yours. If you get e-mail notices, this should help.
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