Can a lobster ever truly have any emotions? What about a beetle? Or a sophisticated computer? The only way to resolve these questions conclusively would be to engage in serious scientific inquiry—but even before studying the scientific literature, many people have pretty clear intuitions about what the answers are going to be. A person might just look at a computer and feel certain that it couldn’t possibly be feeling pleasure, pain or anything at all. That’s why we don’t mind throwing a broken computer in the trash. Likewise, most people don’t worry too much about a lobster feeling angst about its impending doom when they put one into a pot of boiling water. In the jargon of philosophy, these intuitions we have about whether a creature or thing is capable of feelings or subjective experiences—such as the experience of seeing red or tasting a peach—are called “intuitions about phenomenal consciousness.”
The study of consciousness (see here and here) has long played a crucial role in the discipline of philosophy, where facts about such intuitions form the basis for some complex and influential philosophical arguments. But, traditionally, the study of these intuitions has employed a somewhat peculiar method. Philosophers did not actually go ask people what intuitions they had. Instead, each philosopher would simply think the matter over for him- or herself and then write something like: “In a case such as this, it would surely be intuitive to say…”
The new field of experimental philosophy introduces a novel twist on this traditional approach. Experimental philosophers continue the search to understand people’s ordinary intuitions, but they do so using the methods of contemporary cognitive science (see also here and here)—experimental studies, statistical analyses, cognitive models, and so forth. Just in the past year or so, a number of researchers have been applying this new approach to the study of intuitions about consciousness. By studying how people think about three different types of abstract entities—a corporation, a robot and a God—we can better understand how people think about the mind.
The Mental Bottom Line on Corporations
In one recent study, experimental philosophers Jesse Prinz of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and I looked at intuitions about the application of psychological concepts to organizations composed of whole groups of people. To take one example, consider Microsoft Corporation. One might say that Microsoft “intends to adopt a new sales strategy” or that it “believes Google is one of its main competitors.” In sentences such as these, people seem to be taking certain psychological concepts and applying them to a whole corporation.
But which psychological concepts are people willing to use in this way? The study revealed an interesting asymmetry. Subjects were happy to apply concepts that did not attribute any feeling or experience. For example, they indicated that it would be acceptable to use sentences such as:
• Acme Corporation believes that its profit margin will soon increase.
• Acme Corporation intends to release a new product this January.
• Acme Corporation wants to change its corporate image.
But they balked at all of the sentences that attributed feelings or subjective experiences to corporations:
• Acme Corporation is now experiencing great joy.
• Acme Corporation is getting depressed.
• Acme Corporation is experiencing a sudden urge to pursue Internet advertising.
These results seem to indicate that people are willing to apply some psychological concepts to corporations but that they are not willing to suppose that corporations might be capable of phenomenal consciousness.