Notes on consciousness. (VI) The hard problem of consciousness explained with sex

By using the word “sex” in the title, I am obviously trying to increase the number of my readers. But not only. I noticed that many people, in particular scientists, do not seem to get why there is a problem at all. Philosophers like to refer to the experience of color, and the question is then: why is it that red feels like red, and not like something else, and why does it feel like anything at all? Why is it not just information as it is for a computer, why does the experience have a particular quality? Somehow this example does not speak to everyone, so I came with another example: why is it that sex is associated with pleasure, in particular, why is male ejaculation generally associated with orgasm?

You will hear several kinds of explanation. One might tell you: your body secretes some particular molecules at that moment, or some particular neuron gets excited, and that's what produces the sensation of pleasure. But of course, this explanation just pushes the problem a little further, by replacing “ejaculation” by “molecule” or “neuron”. Why is it that a particular molecule produces pleasure? Certainly, when it is not in the brain, the molecule does not provide pleasure to a Petri dish.

Another kind of explaining away is the functionalist or behaviorist view: if everything appears the same from an external observer point of view, then it is the same; there is nothing more than what can be seen. In other words, male orgasm is the act of ejaculating, end of the story. But sex does not fit so well with that view. First, it is well known that female orgasm can be faked; second, male orgasm can be dissociated from ejaculation (in tantric sex).

And finally there is the evolutionary explanation: we feel pleasure because it motivates us for sex, which is necessary for reproduction. But the logic is flawed: we only need a mechanism to make us have sex, but there is no intrinsic reason why that mechanism should be accompanied with any feeling. Why are we not reproducing machines without feelings?

Here comes the example. The axolotl is a kind of salamander that retains its larval traits throughout its adult life. It's basically a cute baby salamander. Nevertheless, it is able to reproduce. The way it reproduces is interesting (probably not different from other salamanders, but cuter). The male lays a sort of jelly full of spermatozoids on the floor. And then later the female comes and inserts the jelly in her belly. After a few days, the female produces eggs.

Now the big question: does the male axolotl have an orgasm when it lays its eggs on the floor?

2 réflexions au sujet de « Notes on consciousness. (VI) The hard problem of consciousness explained with sex »

  1. Quite humorous article, and actually pretty accurate.
    What is orgasm all about? Why consciousness? Lots of questions for such a small world, and such a short life. A new wave of French (neuro-)existentialism?

  2. Ping : Notes on consciousness. (XI) Why large language models are not conscious | Romain Brette

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