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Consciousness defies every form of measurement, says philosopher

Dr. Andrew Bailey

A headshot of Dr. Andrew Bailey

What makes consciousness so interesting is that it has an intrinsic nature and value, something we can’t measure or fully describe through its relationship to other things.

Dr. Bailey

Everything we know about the world, we know through causal relationships and measurements. But consciousness is different, says philosophy professor Dr. Andrew Bailey – it’s the only aspect of our reality that is not described through measurements, yet we connect with it every day.

“What makes consciousness so interesting is that it has an intrinsic nature and value, something we can’t measure or fully describe through its relationship to other things,” he says. “We apprehend consciousness simply by being conscious.”

Bailey, a One Health Institute affiliate member and Associate Dean of Research in the College of Arts, is pursuing a question that has eluded his colleagues for ages, that is, how do we build a conceptual framework for consciousness, to better understand it?

His pursuit parallels the wide-ranging reach and influence of One Health itself. For example, consciousness includes assorted disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, neurology, linguistics, and ethics, among them.

And Bailey notes that consciousness plays a huge role in understanding mental health, how we interact with each other and our environment. He thinks it might even lead to a new stream of health treatments.

This makes creating theories to understand consciousness challenging, but Bailey believes that our best shot is using a reductionist approach. That means understanding the physics and neuroscience components – the extrinsic properties – of consciousness so that we can tell a story that describes its intrinsic properties.

Bailey’s other research interest is developing ethical questions about AI and personal data. As the prevalence of artificial intelligence and big data continues to rise in our society, there are new ethical questions that arise with it, concerning privacy, autonomy, and bias.

He says now is a critical time to define what privacy really means from a philosophical standpoint. To regulate privacy and use of personal information, he believes it’s first important to understand what exactly it means to us, and why it’s important. He says these aspects of privacy are only loosely considered in computer science, and he’d like to see more philosophers involved in the conversation.

Philosophers are also having critical discussions about our understanding of bias, where it is present in computer systems, and what we can do to eliminate it.

“We need to create an ethical framework for bias and start applying it to the discipline of computer science, and we need to do that right away,” he says.

All these pursuits require a broad perspective, understanding complex conceptual systems, and multiple disciplines…much like the foundation of One Health.

By: Marilyn Sheen

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