The ant colony as a test for scientific theories of consciousness

Abstract

The appearance of consciousness in the universe remains one of the major mysteries unsolved by science or philosophy. Absent an agreed-upon definition of consciousness or even a convenient system to test theories of consciousness, a confusing heterogeneity of theories proliferate. In pursuit of clarifying this complicated discourse, we here interpret various frameworks for the scientific and philosophical study of consciousness through the lens of social insect evolutionary biology. To do so, we first discuss the notion of a forward test versus a reverse test, analogous to the normal and revolutionary phases of the scientific process. Contemporary theories of consciousness are forward tests for consciousness, in that they strive to become a means to classify the level of consciousness of arbitrary states and systems. Yet no such theory of consciousness has earned sufficient confidence such that it might be actually used as a forward test in ambiguous settings. What is needed now is thus a legitimate reverse test for theories of consciousness, to provide internal and external calibration of different frameworks. A reverse test for consciousness would ideally look like a method for referencing theories of consciousness to a tractable (and non-human) model system. We introduce the Ant Colony Test (ACT) as a rigorous reverse test for consciousness. We show that social insect colonies, though disaggregated collectives, fulfill many of the prerequisites for conscious awareness met by humans and honey bee workers. A long lineage of philosophically-neutral neurobehavioral, evolutionary, and ecological studies on social insect colonies can thus be redeployed for the study of consciousness in general. We suggest that the ACT can provide insight into the nature of consciousness, and highlight the ant colony as a model system for ethically performing clarifying experiments about consciousness.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Tucker Chambers, Zach Phillips and Dr. Clint J. Perry for their comments on an earlier draft.

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Friedman, D.A., Søvik, E. The ant colony as a test for scientific theories of consciousness. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02130-y

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Keywords

  • Consciousness
  • Social insects
  • Ants
  • Bees
  • Ant colony
  • Philosophy of science
  • Scientific theories of consciousness