Consciousness and Life

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Discussion by: Cairsley

Having read Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett, I am very grateful to the author of this excellent book for setting out what amounts to a promising basis for furthering the understanding of consciousness, which has defied, and still defies, explanation. Professor Dennett gives a persuasive account of the computational nature of the neurological systems of the brain and nervous system that give rise to consciousness, and the pains he has taken to do so in this book are admirable. My only reservation is that he may have left out of the scope of his explanation something I have always thought to be essential to consciousness, namely life.

 

In Consciousness Explained and elsewhere Professor Dennett maintains the view that consciousness consists only in computational systems that can be copied in man-made machines. On what I must admit are purely intuitive grounds I find myself unable to accept this view. I have always experienced consciousness as an aspect of being alive; so, while I am happy to learn of the computational complexity that humans have evolved for rational consciousness, it seems that a similar computational complexity in a man-made machine might render it capable of much the same kind of reasoning activities as humans are capable of without any consciousness at all, simply because such a machine is still an inanimate object, immensely more complex than a laptop computer or an adding-machine or a doorbell but no more conscious.

 

Every form of living organism displays a sensitivity to its environs that distinguishes it from inanimate things and indicates its inherent ability to distinguish between itself and its surroundings in its self-motivated actions, and it is this basic characteristic of the living organism that seems to be at the base of consciousness. Various levels of consciousness are discernible in the array of lifeforms found on Earth and can be related to the varying degrees of neurological sophistication, culminating the rational consciousness made possible by the human brain. Whereas I would not want to take anything away from Professor Dennett’s ground-breaking work on the question of consciousness, I do think (again admittedly on purely intuitive grounds) that a complete explanation of consciousness will not be possible until experts in the life sciences can explain life itself.

 

It is when lifeforms have developed the computational neurological systems such as those of the human organism that rational consciousness emerges. When life itself has been explained fully and the relation between consciousness and life elucidated, the options open to humankind, it seems to me, will include not only making very clever robots but also making new living organisms. I will leave the speculation there, and ask others here what they think about this question of consciousness.

77 COMMENTS

  1. Does life distinguish itself from inanimate objects? A couple weeks ago I got a stuffed lion from a rummage sale for my kitty, and when I got her and sat down next to it she wet all over my pants. Personally, I think we consider consciousnesses more unique than it is. We are like weather vanes that point into the wind because that’s the only thing we can do. I also agree with Dan D. that you can have consciousnesses in a machine.

  2. You don’t define “life” nor “consciousness”
    I think “life” is a fuzzy word & even more so “consciousness”
    I don’t think intuition is helpful in considering such matters

    I’m happy to think of myself as a machine & I don’t see why “consciousness” requires a “living” biological substrate

    • In reply to #2 by Michael Fisher:

      You don’t define “life” nor “consciousness”
      I think “life” is a fuzzy word & even more so “consciousness”
      I don’t think intuition is helpful in considering such matters

      If you think its rational to have discussions about what life “really” is (or what consciousness, marriage, or any other abstract concept really is) you are guilty of essentialism a very time honored (but very wrong IMO) philosophy that goes back at least to Plato. However, that is not at all the same thing as giving a meaningful scientific definition of life or consciousness. That is what scientists do and its the way to have meaningful discussions rather than endless semantic debates that go in circles and end up nowhere. Within that context it definitely makes sense to give definitions of life and how living matter differs from non-living. Such a definition won’t necessarily be complete or without gray areas and thinking that it has to be so is again essentialism or what Dawkins calls Legalistic thinking in his essay Gaps in the Mind.

    • In reply to #3 by whiteraven:

      Is Dennett explaining The Theory of Consciousness or is he proposing or explaining a Hypothesis on Consciousness?

      It’s quite an old book. If you read the preface in google books he says “I think I can sketch an outline of a solution”. So his sketch of a hypothesis on consciousness I guess.

      Michael

      • In reply to #18 by mmurray:

        In reply to #3 by whiteraven:

        Is Dennett explaining The Theory of Consciousness or is he proposing or explaining a Hypothesis on Consciousness?

        It’s quite an old book. If you read the preface in google books he says “I think I can sketch an outline of a solution”. So his sketch of a hypothesi…

        My interpretation is that a Theory is an over arching framework. So the Theory of Evolution or the Theory of Relativity. Where as an hypothesis is a specific explanation that is part of a Theory. So adaptation due to natural selection is an hypothesis in the theory of Evolution. That nothing can accellerate to a speed faster than light is a hypothesis in the theory of relativity.

        Getting to Dennett as you point out this book is old (and its been a long time since I read it) but my recollection is that when he wrote this the Cognitive Revolution was still fairly new in psychology. People were still taking things like Behaviorism seriously and Mind Body dualism was taught as a very viable theory in philosophy classes on theory of mind. In that context what Dennett was doing was more sketching out an overall framework so I think the use of the word “Theory” would be the correct one. In fact as much as I like Dennett I remember coming away from this book thinking it was a good overview of the questions but fairly light on actually providing answers so again I think theory was the right term, he was sketching out an overall approach that other people (e.g. Steven Pinker) have since developed in much more detail.

  3. Every form of living organism displays a sensitivity to its environs that distinguishes it from inanimate things and indicates its inherent ability to distinguish between itself and its surroundings in its self-motivated actions

    Here is the crux of the matter. You roll two different things into this sentence. One is sensitivity. That is well within the purview of machines, and has been for years. As we add more and more sophisticated sensing devices to our robots, this element of “life” ceases to be a distinguishing characteristic.

    The other is agency, which you refer to as “self-motivated actions”. In another of his books (Elbow Room), Dennett goes to great pains to elucidate his notion of agency. It seems to me that you are merely substituting the term ‘consciousness’ for the notion of agency. Machines thus cannot be ‘conscious’ because they lack (by definition) “self-motivation”. But I think if you enquire into the matter deeply, you will conclude that whatever motivates humans is equally as determined as whatever motivates machines. I see no reason why a machine designed to gather information from the environment and to make choices could not be said to be ‘conscious’. Add some programming parameters that allow the machine to bias its choices on what it knows of itself (self-awareness) and its past choices and you would, I think, have everything necessary to consciousness. ‘Life’ is not a prerequisite.

    • In reply to #6 by Keyboards:

      Can’t understand how these nonsense ramblings keep making the headlines on richarddawkins.net.

      This is a discussion topic, not a news headline. It’s a discussion raised by someone legitimately seeking to understand something very difficult. If you think people are talking nonsense, please help by contributing to the discussion.

      • In reply to #8 by Jumped Up Chimpanzee:

        In reply to #6 by Keyboards:

        Can’t understand how these nonsense ramblings keep making the headlines on richarddawkins.net.

        This is a discussion topic, not a news headline. It’s a discussion raised by someone legitimately seeking to understand something very difficult. If you think people are talk…

        It’s very doubtful that any thoughtful conversation on this post would be read by the original poster, since he obviously didn’t even read consciousness explained if he still believes there’s some magic to consciousness.

        • In reply to #9 by Keyboards:

          It’s very doubtful that any thoughtful conversation on this post would be read by the original poster, since he obviously didn’t even read consciousness explained if he still believes there’s some magic to consciousness.

          Keyboards, try not to be so presumptuous. I have in no way indicated that I believe in any magic to consciousness, but this is a relatively new area of enquiry for me and I have raised a question about it that has me stumped at present. All the other respondents have made comments which I have found very interesting and helpful.

          • In reply to #12 by Cairsley:

            In reply to #9 by Keyboards:

            It’s very doubtful that any thoughtful conversation on this post would be read by the original poster, since he obviously didn’t even read consciousness explained if he still believes there’s some magic to consciousness.

            Keyboards, try not to be so presumptuous. I have…

            The fact that you hint that neurological processes couldn’t be emulated by machines means you believe that the mind and body is of some higher nature than machine, which means you are probably one of these people that likes to say “we’ll never explain that”, or “we’ll just never know”. The brain, and therefore the mind, can most certainly be simulated by computer. Sorry if you can’t accept that.

          • *In reply to #24 by Keyboards:

            There’s also a kind of person that is absolutely certain something is possible when no one has any idea how it can be done. How would you set about designing a machine that could write and appreciate Mozart’s “Eine Musikalischer Spass”?

          • In reply to #25 by logicophilosophicus:

            *In reply to #24 by Keyboards:

            There’s also a kind of person that is absolutely certain something is possible when no one has any idea how it can be done. How would you set about designing a machine that could write and appreciate Mozart’s “Eine Musikalischer Spass”?

            Exactly the kind of person I was referring to. I don’t know how it’s done, therefore it’s impossible!

          • In reply to #26 by Keyboards:

            “…the mind, can most certainly be simulated by computer.”

            “…no one has any idea how it can be done.”

            “I don’t know how it’s done therefore it’s impossible!”

            Unlike you, I made no statement about the possibility or impossibility of such a simulation. I think the lack of any method or strategy leaves a question, not an answer. It’s your certainty which is unreasonable.

          • In reply to #36 by logicophilosophicus:

            In reply to #26 by Keyboards:

            “…the mind, can most certainly be simulated by computer.”

            “…no one has any idea how it can be done.”

            “I don’t know how it’s done therefore it’s impossible!”

            Unlike you, I made no statement about the possibility or impossibility of such a simulation. I think the…

            There is no lack of strategy or method.

          • In reply to #37 by Keyboards:

            “…the mind, can most certainly be simulated by computer.”

            By which method?

          • In reply to #24 by Keyboards:

            I have not asserted that neurological processes cannot be emulated by machines. This you have read into the discussion piece and have missed the question that was being raised, namely the relation between consciousness and life. I have found the comments of other respondents here very helpful in teasing apart these two ideas and treating them each in their own right. But it is quite irrational of you to accuse someone (wrongly, as it happens) of holding an unstated opinion merely on the basis of a “hint” you perceive in what he has written. Perhaps you will do better next time.

  4. I’ve had discussions in the past with people on this site who have what I think are illogical views on this topic. I don’t see how you can reject mind-body dualism and still think there is something special about consciousness that means it could never exist in a machine. If you believe in some kind of dualism where besides the brain you need some spirit or soul to be conscious then OK. I mean I think that is a pretty silly idea also but I can see the logical connection from saying consciousness requires a soul and therefor machies can never be conscious. But once you reject the soul I can’t see any logical reason for thinking that in principle a machine can’t be conscious.

    The more we study the brain the more we learn about how it organizes information and we can even start to emulate those structures using neural networks. We are even getting to the point where we understand enough about how the brain and our nervous system process information that we can connect prosthetic limbs to the brain:

    http://www.richarddawkins.net/news_articles/2013/5/16/thought-powered-bionic-arm-like-something-from-space

    There are a lot of things we still don’t understand and we may never know enough to actually make a conscious machine but it seems clear to me that in theory there is no reason to think it can never be done.

    • In reply to #10 by Fouad Boussetta:

      Are you trying to resurrect vitalism?

      Not at all, Fouad. I have posed the question as I have only because consciousness has always been associated in my mind with being alive, so I have been wondering whether the explanation of consciousness also needs some further input from the life sciences. As some here have already suggested, my association of consciousness with life (both admittedly ill-defined terms) may be misleading.

  5. The featured article this week in the “New Scientist” is on consciousness. Perhaps a little brief, but to the point. I particularly enjoyed reading the piece written by Daniel Bor, a cognitive neuroscientist.

    • In reply to #11 by Nitya:

      The featured article this week in the “New Scientist” is on consciousness. Perhaps a little brief, but to the point. I particularly enjoyed reading the piece written by Daniel Bor, a cognitive neuroscientist.

      Thank you, Nitya, for what sounds like a helpful reference.

  6. I find this to be a valid conversation and I hope that it will expand as people add comments. I also hope that Cairsley will respond, since so many people have been dropping in and then running out.

    Perhaps it might be a good idea to bring in other theories of consciousness to compare and contract Dennett’s views. I listened to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast via Itunes (May 18) which brings up several views worthy of discussion. The interview with Heather Berlin mentioned several theories including Guilio Tononi. If Cairsley has any additional views to support what is seemingly a dualistic view of consciousness, perhaps he/she can give some supporting information. Yes, I understand you are going with your intuition – ” On what I must admit are purely intuitive grounds I find myself unable to accept this view” but that’s just not good enough and you should know that more is expected.

    Also, please explain “explaining life.” It seems as if this is crucial to your view.

    • In reply to #14 by QuestioningKat:

      “… If Cairsley has any additional views to support what is seemingly a dualistic view of consciousness, perhaps he/she can give some supporting information. … Also, please explain “explaining life.”

      Thanks for your comments, QuestioningKat. I have no wish to propose a dualistic view of consciousness, being quite happy with the monistic materialistic view currently favored in the sciences. Rather I am trying to get my head around the idea of consciousness having nothing to do with being a living organism. The first point that Street Logician makes (at #17) is a good approach to this question – “life has more to do with organization and function…” – Aristotle would have liked that bit. But, yes, living things are made of inanimates things, atoms and molecules, which have in the course of vast aeons of evolution become arranged in ways that are referred to as being distinctive of living organisms. I am going to have to keep thinking about this for a while in order to work through some of the implications.

      As for explaining life, it seems biologists are still working on that, though the ingredients of living organisms and how they are organized seem now to be known and understood. If consciousness can be considered independently of life, i.e. as not necessarily belonging to a living organism, then it can be dealt with without having to explain life. So I will keep thinking and reading about this.

  7. Cairsley,

    Since you have asked, here are my thoughts:

    1. Living things are composed of inanimate objects, namely atoms, so I do not rule out man made machines from ever obtaining consciousness. Life has more to do with organization and function than anything else.
    2. I do not believe that simply running an algorithm is enough to make something conscious. I believe consciousness is the result of an implementation detail. We are conscious of some brain functions, but not others. Why is some information processing experienced and some not? Why do we become conscious of a memory only after it is “recalled” when it has been in our brain the whole time.
    3. I have never been impressed by Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”. To explain consciousness is to be able to say when a brain function will be experienced and when it will not. Dennett explicitly says that he does not do that in the appendices of the book. As a result, he hasn’t explained consciousness, at least to my satisfaction.
    • In reply to #17 by Street Logician:

      Many thanks for your thoughts. I find your three points very helpful, especially the first one pointing out that living things are composed of inanimate objects, atoms. That does help me to rethink notions of consciousness and of life.

      Prof. Dennett was quite modest about what he thought he achieved in Consciousness Explained: “My explanation of consciousness is far from complete. One might even say that it was just a beginning, but it is a beginning, because it breaks the spell of the enchanted circle of ideas that made explaining consciousness seem impossible” (1991, p. 455).

  8. Due to the complete lack of evidence for the existence of any spiritual or magical explanation for the mind, and as we have only computer networks to reference in terms of objects with similarities of function to what we know about the brain, this has to be our starting point for a discussion about consciousness. The first point to note is that a computer or biological network’s design (I use the word advisedly with all common discussions applied) is to perform a necessary function. i.e. a network is merely a set of logical paths to send signals around in a certain way, either to achieve an end result or as a pathway to send signals between nodes. This network can increase in complexity through intervention of the designer or by being self modifying in the case of a neural network. Nowhere in there is a case for life or cognition or indeed consciousness yet it seems that organisms achieve this although arguably at different levels. I would not argue for example that a leech or fruitfly are not conscious although they are alive, they seem quite ‘robotic’ in their reactions to the world. In terms of the size of the organism’s brain or ‘network’ this list is quite interesting – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animals_by_number_of_neurons .

    Even a human baby does not reach full cognitive awareness until several years old or in other words as the brain’s network develops more connections. When I mean full cognition, I would refer to certain abilities such as the ability to consider ones own demise and to postulate scenarios across the vastness of time and space. Such notions even the higher animals seem incapable of conceiving. So there must be a scale of consciousness, ranging from, say – a dog or cat , who certainly can form attachment and predict behaviours to a human being. The scale of these levels of consciousness then being determined by certain abilities.

    So if I’ve made sense so far, I would say that the area of interest and study that should be pursued should be that involving ‘emergent properties’ of networks. Functions which become apparent in systems that they were not initially designed for. In my opinion consciousness is one of these emergent properties.

    My only concern is that I don’t think philosophy can be applied to this phenomena. The proof will be the day we create a network that on reaching a certain level of complexity suddenly starts achieving this emergent property. Again – not magic.

  9. On what I must admit are purely intuitive grounds I find myself unable to accept this view

    that’s fine but intuition needs challenging. it exists as part of a greater system to pass on your genes, don’t rely on it to give you insight

    I have always experienced consciousness as an aspect of being alive

    can you prove that? you could be a clever computer or a zombie for all I know. for all you know for that matter

    There is only one instancde of consciousness that you can experience, your own. your intuition will help you decide if it exists in other agencies. unfortunately intuition has led to all sorts of beliefs about the intentions of others, including inanimate objects or nature itself.

    brains that have evolved in animals have ultimately given rise to a sense of self-awareness but this must exist on a spectrum rather than as a binary state. simple life, or indeed non-animal life, reacts to its environment in some way. neural networks might be useful just to make sure an organism is safely in or out of sunlight. you can make a robot do that easily.

    I have to disagree with your argument and suggest it relies on a form of dualism that a re-read of his book might cure. at present no one can say for sure if consciousness is a “thing”, there’s just a consensus among big brianed apes. if a robot can be built to convince humans it has consciousness, how do you start to prove it doesn’t? If a machine asks you not to switch it off, how do you decide if you’re committing murder or not?

    religion has used demonization to justify killing other conscious beings. the term “sub-human” was used by nazis to help their soldiers get over the idea they may be committing mass murder and the idea that foreign invaders were devils without a loving family waiting for them at home or plans for the future makes it much easier to go into battle. when you consider this, you have to consider the idea you might only be conscious because other apes have come to an agreement you are

    • In reply to #21 by SaganTheCat:

      On what I must admit are purely intuitive grounds I find myself unable to accept this view

      that’s fine but intuition needs challenging. it exists as part of a greater system to pass on your genes, don’t rely on it to give you insight

      I think the fact that the OP is raising this question is challenging that intuition. Some of your replies here seem to confirm that you alos link life with consciousness. For example;

      unfortunately intuition has led to all sorts of beliefs about the intentions of others, including inanimate objects or nature itself.

      So, ‘inanimate objects’ refer to….what? I would suggest it refers to something that is not alive. You highlight this again, later, with

      if a robot can be built to convince humans it has consciousness, how do you start to prove it doesn’t? If a machine asks you not to switch it off, how do you decide if you’re committing murder or not?

      Here, the act of destroying a conscious entity (as opposed to destroying a non-conscious ‘inanimate’ object) is defined separately as ‘murder’. In fact it is the act of destroying consciousness that is the act of murder. If it is a machine then, presumably it can be turned back on. You are referencing murder as the destruction of a conscious process – of consciousness itself.

      brains that have evolved in animals have ultimately given rise to a sense of self-awareness but this must exist on a spectrum rather than as a binary state. simple life, or indeed non-animal life, reacts to its environment in some way. neural networks might be useful just to make sure an organism is safely in or out of sunlight. you can make a robot do that easily.

      Again, here, you accept that ‘self awareness’ (which presumably you are refering as an aspect of consciousness) is of life. There is nothing here that contradicts the OP’s intuition that it has something to do with life.

      A robot can be made to react in the way that you suggest, but is that really ‘self-awareness’? Is this not the same false conflation you earlier alluded to (inanimate objects and nature itself)? Let me give a very simple example. The Mountain God. The reason it ‘roars’ is because of the interaction between it and the fluid motions of the atmosphere – as we now understand. What you are describing with the example of the robot is an interactive system. It is as much an error, I would suggest, to say that the robot is ‘self-aware’ as it is to say that the mountain is self-aware.

      In fact, can plants (for example) be described as ‘self-aware’ or merely as ‘self-organising’ within an interactive paradigm? Are the two terms interchangeable?

      I have always experienced consciousness as an aspect of being alive

      can you prove that? you could be a clever computer or a zombie for all I know. for all you know for that matter

      I have never found this argument at all useful. For the reason that you follow this up with;

      There is only one instancde of consciousness that you can experience, your own. your intuition will help you decide if it exists in other agencies.

      Whether you believe me conscious or not has no impact upon what I experience as consciousness, so to claim that;

      when you consider this, you have to consider the idea you might only be conscious because other apes have come to an agreement you are

      …is utterly meaningless. My experience of consciousness is not predicated upon anyone else’s belief that I am or not.

      As for what is to be considered;

      religion has used demonization to justify killing other conscious beings. the term “sub-human” was used by nazis to help their soldiers get over the idea they may be committing mass murder and the idea that foreign invaders were devils without a loving family waiting for them at home or plans for the future makes it much easier to go into battle.

      …this has nothing to do with the discussion. Nobody has mentioned religion.

      Presumably, also, there is something awry with the ability to kill other humans by not believing them conscious. Your argument here underlines that you, perhaps intuitively, associate life with consciousness.

    • In reply to #21 by SaganTheCat:

      Thank you, SaganTheCat, for your thoughts. I am making progress with this issue and am now seeing consciousness as something to be considered independently of being alive. That was the basic problem in my thinking about Prof. Dennett’s book when I read it, but already contributors to this discussion have alerted me to ways of disentangling those two notions (consciousness and life).

      When I said that I had always experienced consciousness as an aspect of life, I did not mean that to be taken as an assertion that consciousness is an integral aspect of life, but as an indication of where I was coming from. Of course, the only consciousness anyone knows is one’s own, and that is something one knows only by direct intuition, which is of no use in its own explanation.

      I have not thought of consciousness as a thing or an essence (if I have given that impression, then I have expressed myself inadequately); nor have I sought to propose any kind of dualism. From Prof. Dennett’s book I took the very clear message that consciousness is an effect of connections within and between complex neuronal systems in the organism. At the time of writing the discussion piece I was still laboring under the notion that being conscious was the result of such neuronal systems evolving in living organisms. The notion that organisms are made up of inanimate atoms and molecules was a useful means for me to start rethinking what an organism is. Oddly enough I was reading De Rerum Natura only a couple of weeks ago, where Lucretius (who lived over two thousand years ago) expresses much the same idea, so I should have known better.

      In any case, as a result of the comments posted here, I have moved on from the position I expressed in the discussion piece and am now thinking of consciousness much more freely in the neurological and computational terms that Prof. Dennett used.

  10. I guess one can be conscious without being very smart. Cats and dogs seem conscious. Rats probably are as well. Why not fish ? What about a fruit fly ? If a fly is actually conscious (without being specially bright) then we probably have computers powerful enough to simulate a fly brain and a fly-like consciousness. Technology is no longer a limitation.

    Now, how would we write a programme that gives such a machine an inner voice saying to an inner listener “I am you” and the listener would truly understand the meaning of each of those 3 words, especially the first one. What would a programme that thinks “I” look like ? Could a programme, as we know them, do that?

    A fly probably thinks “I”, in some very unsophisticated way.

  11. In reply to #27 by Ornicar:

    Now, how would we write a programme that gives such a machine an inner voice saying to an inner listener “I am you” and the listener would truly understand the meaning of each of those 3 words, especially the first one.

    The hard part is defining what “truly understands the meaning of each of those 3 words” really means. If you want a program that can say “I am conscious” that is pretty doable now. There have been amazing advances in natural language processing that make it possible for a computer to understand and generate natural language pretty well. When we discuss these things I’m always a bit surprised that no researchers (at least that I know of) have tried doing the Turing Test for real lately — having human subjects interact via a keyboard and monitor with an anonymous agent at the other end that is either human or computer (for purists I know that wasn’t the original Turing test as Turing described it but its what everyone uses now when they say Turing test).

    The IBM researchers who did Watson for example, I’ve often thought they could easily have used that technology to do really well at a Turing Test. My guess is part of the reason no one tries that is they want to avoid the inevitable (and mostly pointless IMO) emotions that can be raised by comparing humans to machines.

    But most people would say that just doing that isn’t what we mean by conscious and I would agree.

    My guess is that ultimately conscious machines won’t come from software programmed using conventional programming languages but rather neural networks that mimic the brain. The “programming” for those networks is totally different than writing code the normal way. Rather than write code based on flow charts (if this then do this otherwise do this…) neural nets are set up in an initial state and then given problems to solve and feedback on their answers. They have to learn in a similar manner to humans. Right now they can only solve low level problems, they are especially good at pattern recognition problems such as recognizing a circle from a square or the boundary of a shape but I think eventually they will scale up to more complex types of problems and one day we may be surprised that Hal doesn’t want to open the pod bay doors.

    • In reply to #28 by Red Dog:

      Right now [neural nets] can only solve low level problems, they are especially good at pattern recognition problems such as recognizing a circle from a square

      I recently read (somewhere) about the use of neural net circuitry to control traffic lights. The goal being to minimize waiting time for vehicles. After a period of training it did a pretty good job of keeping the traffic flowing, but the “program” looked like nothing at all, just a table of numbers and a list of connections. The only way to describe it in human terms was by its behaviour. All very Skinner-ish.

      • In reply to #42 by OHooligan:

        In reply to #28 by Red Dog:
        …but the “program” looked like nothing at all, just a table of numbers and a list of connections. The only way to describe it in human terms was by its behaviour. All very Skinner-ish.

        That’s a classic drawback to neural net systems compared to other kinds of AI — having tools to explain how it got the answer and making minor tweaks can be much harder for neural nets. For example with a rule-based AI system you have excellent capabilities to do that, for any conclusion that the system comes to you can always trace back the various rules that fired so if someone asks things like “what is the basis for that medical diagnosis?” the system can give an excellent answer by tracing backwards over the inference chain. Neural Nets are much more a black box, they give an answer but tracing back from the network to the specific reasons that a human would understand is difficult or impossible. I’m not up on what’s being done with them but I would guess its an active area of research. They can do very well on anything related to pattern recognition, things like face recognition.

        • In reply to #44 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #42 by OHooligan:

          In reply to #28 by Red Dog:

          …but the “program” looked like nothing at all, just a table of numbers and a list of connections. The only way to describe it in human terms was by its behaviour. All very Skinner-ish.

          That’s a classic drawback to neural net systems… They can do very well on anything related to pattern recognition, things like face recognition

          It’s a drawback in that it’s hard to ask “why”, get a chain of explanation, such as a rule-based system can provide. All a Neural Net system can tell you about “why” would be something like “this result is the one that is most consistent with my trained experience”.

          Which leads me to ponder “intuition”. Sometimes people feel they know what’s right, but can’t explain why.

          • In reply to #50 by OHooligan:

            In reply to #44 by Red Dog:
            All a Neural Net system can tell you about “why” would be something like “this result is the one that is most consistent with my trained experience”. Which leads me to ponder “intuition”. Sometimes people feel they know what’s right, but can’t explain why.

            Yes, exactly, I agree its a fascinating analogy. That what could be going on with intuition is you have a bunch of neurons in your brain that are firing and telling you something is probably true but for some reasons the connections that would normally enable you to verbalize the reasoning aren’t there. For example, it might be that there are a bunch of previous cases you have seen in the past and your unconscious still has access to those cases but for some reason they have faded from accessible long term memory.

          • In reply to #63 by Red Dog:

            For example, it might be that there are a bunch of previous cases you have seen in the past and your unconscious still has access to those cases but for some reason they have faded from accessible long term memory….

            I’m glad you liked the analogy. I’d take it a bit further though – there’s no need to imagine that there is a “reason” for an intuitive conclusion, at least not one that could be explained the way a rule-based AI, or a thoughtful human, could do.

            The “training” for the neural net could include cases that were never retained in any kind of accessible memory, not just ones that have “faded”.

            I suggest that “intuition” is like the neural-net circuit’s result, and a “reasoned explanation” is like an extra layer of processing added on top. So, simpler organisms could run on “intuition” alone, and be completely unable to explain themselves. This probably includes some of the people, all of the time, and vice versa.

            Hopefully, a useful analogy. I’ll try not to over-stretch this one.

          • In reply to #68 by OHooligan:

            In reply to #63 by Red Dog:

            For example, it might be that there are a bunch of previous cases you have seen in the past and your unconscious still has access to those cases but for some reason they have faded from accessible long term memory….

            I’m glad you liked the analogy. I’d take it a bit f…

            That is a good point and I agree. There is no reason the cases have to be stored in memory at all in some ways its more compelling that way because it really explains how you can have a “feeling” that may actually have some evidence behind it even though that evidence is no longer accessible. Not just that its not accessible to your conscious memory but its just not even there anymore all you have are the internal connections built up over time.

  12. The discussion seems to me to be resolving itself into arguments for and against humans and computers being versions of each other. If so, it might be worth noting that computers can be switched on more or less endlessly while it seems very theoretical indeed to consider that that may be possible for humans; that may be just differences of degree but it may represent differences of category. And roughly the same standard applies to humans creating computers and computers creating humans – the latter may be theoretically possible but it looks like a considerable stretch at the moment.

  13. Consciousness is not limited to complex problems solving. Human (and probably animal) memories are deeply associated with emotions and I cannot conceive emotions without a central concept of “self”. I mean the distinction between defining what sadness is, for example, and feeling sad. Computers as we know them can do the former but not the latter yet, thought they might be powerful enough to simulate small brains.

    I think that what Cairsley means by “life” might be “a body”. A conscious machine needs to feel pain and pleasure, awe and sorrow, boredom and excitement, fear and hope, and then need to be able to say to itself “I am the entity that is feeling pain/sorrow/boredom/hope”

    I think the ultimate test for a conscious machine would be a question like “If you fail this test, would you accept to be destroyed and replaced by a more efficient model” – And to be considered conscious, the machine would have to answer something like “What a revolting idea ! You disgust me so much I could puke”

  14. In reply to #19 by Graxan:

    “… My only concern is that I don’t think philosophy can be applied to this phenomena. The proof will be the day we create a network that on reaching a certain level of complexity suddenly starts achieving this emergent property.”

    Many thanks for your thoughts, Graxan, and I find myself in agreement with your line of thinking. Although philosophy is always relevant to science and other human activities, the questions about consciousness that you touched on can be answered only by scientific investigation and experimentation – they are not abstact questions but questions about physical reality. Your examples of the leech and the fruitfly is useful; that, along with Street Logician’s first point, are making it much easier for me to think of consciousness and life independently of each other, however closely interwoven they may happen to be in any highly conscious, live being.

  15. Ornicar – “I think the ultimate test for a conscious machine would be a question like “If you fail this test, would you accept to be destroyed and replaced by a more efficient model” – And to be considered conscious, the machine would have to answer something like “What a revolting idea ! You disgust me so much I could puke”

    The problem with this is that there are people who would agree to the first statement, possibly mentally disordered people, but concious all the same, and there are those who would happily sacrifice their life for another.
    Also I don’t think it’s outside the realms of posibility for a non-concious computer to be programmed to successfully recognise when it’s own wellbeing is being threatened and respond with a suitable emotionally sounding response.
    So that test still wouldn’t solve anything.

    I agree with those who have alluded to the fact that a living mind is essentially a computer, and the idea proposed that conciousness and life are two seperate, albiet closely entwined phenomenon, and on this basis alone you can’t rule out the possibility of non-biological “life” or concious computers.

    However I think a living mind has some vast differences to an electronic computer that may never be consolodated.
    A living mind is made up of countless cells, that are constantly regenerating, being replaced and making new connections, whereas an electronic computer is static, stuck in it’s moment of conception and completely reliant on external upgrades. I think this transient nature of a living mind plays a big part in its development and the emergence of conciousness, which a computer cannot replicate.
    I don’t think this is going to change until we can completely replicate the precise workings of a neurone, including it’s ability to replicate, and construct computers out of them, and at that point we’d be hard pressed to draw a line between this new “technology” and organic life.

    • In reply to #33 by Seraphor:

      However I think a living mind has some vast differences to an electronic computer that may never be consolodated. A living mind is made up of countless cells, that are constantly regenerating, being replaced and making new connections, whereas an electronic computer is static, stuck in it’s moment of conception and completely reliant on external upgrades. I think this transient nature of a living mind plays a big part in its development and the emergence of conciousness, which a computer cannot replicate.

      I’m not sure I see the relevance of updating but regardless none of those things you describe are inherent limitations of intelligent silicon vs. intelligent protoplasm. All of what you are saying applies to computers as we use them today. There is no theoretical reason that they always have to be that way.

      I do agree though that if there ever is a conscious machine it will likely not be programmed the way most traditional software is. As complex as traditional software is it is completely determinate. You plug in X and you will get Y and if you do enough analysis of the code you can know that ahead of time. But as I mentioned earlier neural nets don’t work that way. Neural nets create virtual neurons in software. A neural net is a collection of nodes and links with mathematical formulas determining the connection strength between the links and how they work together. A neural net has to be trained to solve a problem, when you first take it “out of the box” it doesn’t work. So for example a neural net program to recognize the sonar patterns of Russian subs is programmed by giving it many examples before hand and telling it “this was a sub and this wasn’t”. And as its used it can continue to learn if it makes a mistake that data can be fed back to it and used to improve future performance. Its not “static” at all and its quite possible for each neural net to essentially develop its own personality due to the unique nature of the nodes and connections it develops over time.

    • In reply to #34 by Keyboards:

      “On what I must admit are purely intuitive grounds I find myself unable to accept this view.” Nuff said.

      Try reading sentences in context. I might add that my conceding that I was speaking on intuitive grounds was an indication that I was not making a bold assertion but found my inability to accept the view in question problematic. Might it ever occur to you that someone could seek help here on a conceptual problem? Your reaction to the discussion piece resembles the behavior I remember encountering in the Catholic Church whenever holy doctrine was in any way departed from; different ideas perhaps, but the same psychology.

  16. Hi Cairsley,

    Professor Dennett maintains … that consciousness consists only in computational systems. On … purely intuitive grounds I find myself unable to accept this view.

    That is your prerogative. However, as Dennett’s explanation is based on the evidence that he laid out before you and he then uses “a persuasive account” to demonstrate the veracity of his theories of consciousness based on that evidence … why do you favour mere instinct?

    When you talk about intuition what do you mean? What is it – objectively? What is it based on, where does it come from, what is its record for accuracy when considering new and complex ideas? Remember the honesty and accuracy of your answers affects one person far more than the rest of us – you.

    My only reservation is that he may have left out of the scope of his explanation something I have always thought to be essential to consciousness, namely life.

    This would appear to be a problem of definitions. What do you mean by consciousness? What do you mean by life? What do you mean by thought? What do you mean by reservation? You appear to be saying that life can only be biological, why?

    Every form of living organism displays a sensitivity to its environs that distinguishes it from inanimate things …

    Not true. I have myself built a small robot that runs towards light and away from dark. Having done so I could make a more sophisticated model – certainly more sophisticated in respect of reaction to its immediate environment than, say, a cockroach. The difference between my robot and me is only a matter of degree.

    Every form of living organism … indicates its inherent ability to distinguish between itself and its surroundings in its self-motivated actions

    Again, not particularly special and easy to replicate. Computers have been surprising their programmers for over 60 years now – this is trivial stuff.

    Various levels of consciousness are discernible in the array of lifeforms found on Earth and can be related to the varying degrees of neurological sophistication …

    Ditto machines.

    … culminating [in] the rational consciousness made possible by the human brain.

    Aside: I don’t see how putting human consciousness on a pedestal is defensible. We are the best that evolution via natural selection has produced (as far as we know) but if we’re the ultimate that is extremely disappointing and not indicated in any field from psychology to micro-biology to education to physics.

    We’re getting there. My money is on a big step forward in cheap computing power coming from molecular computing (probably based on graphene) perhaps with an expensive peripheral device for the really hard stuff (the second model of the first generation of quantum computers is being rolled out very soon). As always, the software engineers are behind and we’re all impatiently waiting for them to catch up.

    … a complete explanation of consciousness will not be possible until experts in the life sciences can explain life itself.

    We seem to have rolled back to definitions. You may think that the word life explains itself. But is it a coherent concept – philosophically and scientifically? Given that we see pre-biopoiesis chemical reactions that are spontaneous and that there is a huge disparity between me and an amoeba (well … I think there is) where do we draw the line? Is drawing a line – using classification or taxonomy – actually useful? What would it tell us and why? All this comes before we can apply life to your question: Which forms of life demonstrate consciousness?

    It is when lifeforms have developed the computational neurological systems such as those of the human organism that rational consciousness emerges.

    Again, you seem to be applying limits to a continuum. The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.

    I … ask others here what they think about this question of consciousness.

    • It’s a complex subject, and difficult to define.

    • It exists as a continuum from intuition or instinct in some species to genius in small sets of others. This leaves open the possibility of higher levels of consciousness than we observe on Earth today.

    • Human beings as a species appear to be, currently, experiencing a gain in consciousness (if we define consciousness as correlated with the ability to take IQ tests) as IQ averages are rising. This appears to be connected to widespread formal education – but I know of no definitive studies.

    • It already exists in machines, in lower levels of independence. Machines also demonstrate less ability to solve some problems. As far as I’m aware machines have not demonstrated a clear ability to communicate abstracts or to learn in an analogous way to which a human child learns by applying facts to situations. On the other hand, that’s what they used to say about computers playing chess. No-one in artificial intelligence thinks these are insurmountable obstacles – so I believe we should be cautiously optimistic that these things will come.

    • We will, I hope, begin to see machines that match human consciousness in my lifetime – i.e. within twenty years.

    • While we can create new biological species it is difficult to see how a form so sophisticated that it had consciousness approaching our own could repay the vast resources that act of creation would consume. It will be far cheaper, and simpler, to create computers to do this.

    • Craig Ventor and his Team, have already created a new life-form. If there is a motivation that can see us match the resources that this team consumed – multiplied, I suggest, by a factor of at least 100 – then it seems highly likely that we could produce a new species with consciousness (by whatever definition you might come up with). The high cost might be borne if intermediate stages could produce benefits to mankind that outstrip the investment of each stage. This seems highly unlikely to me – but then I studied chemistry, physics and ICT – not biology, medicine, agriculture, energy production, materials, waste processing, or accounting.

    • Intuition is a lower form of consciousness. This does not mean that it isn’t useful. The chip in my home heating system thermostat only demonstrates a very limited knowledge of its environment – time, date and temperature – but it reacts perfectly to changes in that environment and if we didn’t have them we would invent them again. Human intuition shows signs of being programmable. This takes a lot of effort (just like the thermostat, we don’t have a User Manual). Even after re-programming human intuition tends to be faulty and to fall back on old ways of thinking. You have to concentrate.

    Thank you for a fascinating subject.

    Peace.

    • In reply to #35 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

      Hello, Stephen.

      Many thanks for your thoughtful message.

      When I said that, on intuitive grounds, I could not accept that consciousness consists solely in computational systems, I was expressing what I saw then (not now) as an omission in the explanation that Prof. Dennett had presented, for my notion of consciousness then included the notion of being alive. Of course we experience ourselves, that is we are conscious of ourselves, as living beings – hence one does not have to look far to see where this view of mine came from. I was greatly impressed with Prof. Dennett’s work in Consciousness Explained and had no quarrel with it, except that it seemed to lack reference to life processes and I thought that input from biologists might be needed for a fuller explanation. But I can see now that my own understanding of consciousness needed to be purified of reference to life.

      As you have mentioned, part of the problem I had was definitional (what is consciousness, life, intuition, etc.). With respect to intuition I will say – and this is a commonplace – that we all begin with this in whatever we seek to understand, but it merely presents what needs to be examined and explained by other, objective means. By mentioning that I was speaking on the basis of intuition, I was indicating that I had a problem that I did not know how to deal with, because objective data and reasoning are needed for resolving such conflicts of understanding. Thanks in large part to contributors to this discussion, this problem, as I have already mentioned, has been overcome. All this may seem trite to those long familiar with this field of study, and I do not wish to bore people with one individual’s account of his efforts to rethink a concept like consciousness or life, but I am grateful to everyone here and enjoying the relief from trying to think with conflicting concepts.

      • In reply to #57 by Cairsley:

        Hi Cairsley,

        By mentioning that I was speaking on the basis of intuition, I was indicating that I had a problem that I did not know how to deal with, because objective data and reasoning are needed for resolving such conflicts of understanding.

        When I talked about intuition I was trying to describe, perhaps not very successfully, that intuition is a moveable feast. Many people use it as a sophisticated screen – to escape having to say; “I just feel that … “.

        I can see that doesn’t apply to you Cairsley. Even so it’s clear that such a use of intuition is running away from addressing the real issue – and may even be being used, in a few cases, as a smoke screen for “I’m happy in my ignorance (or: frightened by the possibilities) and therefore using lazy thinking for this subject”.

        Intuition, it seems to me, is usually used to describe a range of thought processes. They begin with the subconscious – heavily related to, and dependent on, instincts – at the left-hand end, moving to reflex actions as we move right. Then the scale moves further to the right, crossing lost-memory learning (e.g. from early childhood) to reach simple reaction based on remembered lessons and facts until we reach, for the sake of argument, received wisdom.

        Moving off the Intuition scale we reach the point where we must apply non-intuitive thought – constructing scenarios and applying the heavyweight thinking tools like logic, creativity, parallel thinking, weighing evidence & premises and scepticism.

        Intuition is clearly two things – in humans – jolly useful, and programmable (up to a point). Using our best thinking tools for every scenario would quickly become a drag. Besides, life presses us to make quick decisions. As an Italian once said to me (referring to the traffic in Rome): “What’s the Italian definition of a micro-second?” Its the time between the lights turning green, and the guy behind sounding his horn!”

        Nevertheless we should, whenever life gives us time to reflect, question whether our intuitions are good, and think about when intuition has been a good tool and when it may have led us astray.

        Intuition is a very poor tool when thinking about a hard problem which has no particular urgency like: What is consciousness?

        I was agreeing with you, and attempting to show you that the main problem seems to be placing too much of your trust in your intuition.

        We understand consciousness best, like any complex subject, when we don’t try too hard to to summarise it or condense it. Consciousness is a broad subject which is mapped from low, rocky, narrow, dark, valleys to sun-kissed grassy uplands. It is best understood by enjoying its numerous nuances and its countless colours.

        Peace.

        • In reply to #66 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

          Thanks for another thoughtful message, Stephen. It was enjoyable to read.

          I do not see it as a question of how much one should trust one’s intuition when considering what life or consciousness is. What I am aware of is that many people, even highly educated people, do not know of or understand the recent advances made in such areas as neurology and cognitive science. The intuitive views of consciousness and life that these people have are very much as they have been for millennia, mostly involving some kind of dualism in which a human being is thought of as a combination of something material and something immaterial. It is not overreliance on intuition that keeps such people from reviewing how they understand consciousness or life, but their unawareness of any available objective information on such matters that does so. As the knowledge of scientific progress in these areas becomes more widespread, one can hope that the superstitions that found a home in the old, unexamined intuitions will be banished and replaced by a more accurate, science-based understanding of human nature.

  17. This discussion, combined with other reading, certainly makes me wonder if ideas of conscious mind (that I have had) are sustainable and if such as Dennett are right (though I haven’t read him).

    Is there an assumption of ‘self’ in discussing and linking consciousness and life? Do thoughts need a thinker (to be conscious of the thoughts) or are there are simply thoughts which create an illusion of a self to be conscious, at least in beings (such as humans) complex enough to hold and express illusions?

    I’d say that to suggest there is a thinker beyond of behind thoughts is non-materialist and therefore illusionary. There is nothing ‘behind’ brains: there are no souls in a parallel, spiritual realm.

    If that materialist view of mind is accepted, then what is qualitatively different within the nature of brains which makes thought conscious but which any artificial device, however complex, lacks but which is not a soul-equivalant?

    So, I’m suggesting (against my former intuitions) that, since I do not think there is a soul, but that mind arises only from the brain’s (organic) information processing, there are no grounds in principle to rule out consciousness arising from artificial information processing.

    It may be that as yet no computers are complex enough for awareness, but that is a different matter.

    One final point, though an old one. If the above is right, or at least Dennett is right, and computers now or may in the future be conscious, do (would) they have rights as thinking beings? Would switching off a sentient computer without its expressed consent be a grievous assault? Would scrapping it be murder?

    • In reply to #39 by steve_hopker:

      do (would) they have rights as thinking beings? Would switching off a sentient computer without its expressed consent be a grievous assault? Would scrapping it be murder?

      It all depends on your moral system of course. But for most moral systems the definition of a person is a key concept. By person I don’t mean necessarily a human, in fact actually I should use a different term person is too loaded lets call it a “moral agent”. A moral agent is something that has rights and responsibilities. I actually think a lot of moral questions come down to this. When we say a person is not guilty by reason of insanity we are saying they weren’t moral agents at the time. When people debate abortion the pro-life side claims that fetuses are moral agents. Animal rights raises the question: “are animals moral agents?” This is also one of Pinker’s points the sphere of what we consider moral agents has been expanding over time. For most of history most cultures had some humans that were not considered moral agents or that some moral agents deserved more rights than others.

      Just as I can see no reason to say something that is made from silicon can’t be conscious I would say the same thing in this respect, that just because its made of silicon is no reason to assume it can’t have rights or be held responsible.

    • In reply to #39 by steve_hopker:

      This discussion, combined with other reading, certainly makes me wonder if ideas of conscious mind (that I have had) are sustainable and if such as Dennett are right (though I haven’t read him).

      Is there an assumption of ‘self’ in discussing and linking consciousness and life? Do thoughts need a thinker (to be conscious of the thoughts) or are there are simply thoughts which create an illusion of a self to be conscious, at least in beings (such as humans) complex enough to hold and express illusions?

      This the crux of the matter (pun not intended).

      Is there an assumption of self? No, there is an experience of self.

      Do thoughts need a thinker? Does software require hardware?

      or are there are simply thoughts which create an illusion of a self to be conscious, at least in beings (such as humans) complex enough to hold and express illusions?

      This is the truly dualistic proposition. This is, truly, the ghost in the machine. That consciousness is not existent (not material) but is somehow capable of constructing an illusion; and further that that illusion – predicated upon a non-existant ghostly ‘entity’ – can somehow express itself into the material world through a material medium (the words typed here, or the spoken word etc).

      That my thoughts on the subject of my conscious experience can be related to others mean that it is interacting with the real world. It must, therefore, in any monistic view of the world, be an aspect of it.

      I’d say that to suggest there is a thinker beyond of behind thoughts is non-materialist and therefore illusionary. There is nothing ‘behind’ brains: there are no souls in a parallel, spiritual realm.

      Arguing that conscious experience is something that needs explaining is not the same as arguing that it can only be explained by introducing a soul or a parallel, spiritual realm. This is the great error that needs to be put right. Arguing that consciousness is a real, actualised reality (which my own experience tells me it is) does not equate to arguing that there is an immortal soul; that there is a god or gods; that there is a parallel plain of consciousness. It simply equates to arguing that whatever our conscious experience is must be a part of the real world we live in and that, perhaps, our scientific theories cannot be complete unless and until we can explain it.

      • In reply to #45 by Planck’s Constant:

        Arguing that conscious experience is something that needs explaining is not the same as arguing that it can only be explained by introducing a soul or a parallel, spiritual realm. This is the great error that needs to be put right. Arguing that consciousness is a real, actualised reality (which my own experience tells me it is) does not equate to arguing that there is an immortal soul; that there is a god or gods; that there is a parallel plain of consciousness. It simply equates to arguing that whatever our conscious experience is must be a part of the real world we live in and that, perhaps, our scientific theories cannot be complete unless and until we can explain it.

        Bull’s-eye! All Dennett really does in “Consciousness Explained” is debunk folk dualism and present one alternative to it. He does not consider or even enumerate other, in my opinion, more interesting alternatives.

        • In reply to #46 by Street Logician:

          In reply to #45 by Planck’s Constant:

          Arguing that conscious experience is something that needs explaining is not the same as arguing that it can only be explained by introducing a soul or a parallel, spiritual realm. This is the great error that needs to be put right. Arguing that consciousness is…

          He doesn’t debunk folk dualism. When people put “folk” in front of something it refers to a system hypothesized to exist in all humans that helps us process certain kinds of information and is probably genetic in origin. So folk psychology refers to the fact that humans seem to have genetic predisposition to differentiate between agents (things in the world with intentions, beliefs, desires) and inanimate objects. You can see the emergence of folk psychology in children, they do experiments where they track the eye movements and ask kids to explain shapes on a computer screen. At the earliest age they just describe them in terms of folk physics (one ball moves in the same direction as the other) at a later (but still pretty young) age they start using terms from folk psychology (one ball is chasing the other and wants to catch it).

          What Dennett refutes are not folk theories but very well established philosophical theories dating back to Descartes.

          I did a search and there do seem to be references to papers on “folk dualism” but its something I don’t encounter much and I’ve been reading things related to that topic lately. In my readings at least the emphasis is that folk psychology is about intentions, beliefs, and desires, I’m skeptical that humans have a built in tendency toward dualism, I don’t think they do I think its more a philosophical idea that has leached into our culture and become a prevalent meme as a result. But from a quick google search it seems some people think otherwise.

          • In reply to #47 by Red Dog:

            He doesn’t debunk folk dualism. When people put “folk” in front of something it refers to a system hypothesized to exist in all humans that helps us process certain kinds of information and is probably genetic in origin.

            Words have many usages. I am using the word “folk” in the same sense as usage 6 from dictionary.com

            of or originating among the common people: folk beliefs; a folk hero.

            I am saying that the only position Dennett can be said to debunk is an unsophisticated form of dualism that is sometimes called spiritualism. In a nutshell, the belief that there is a soul that survives death and retains memories and personality. It is the subject of human experience and the brain is little more than a simple pass through that does not do any real information or pre-processing. Dennett does not even consider other alternative metaphysics. Here are a list of the main positions concerning qualia and its place in nature.

            1. Material eliminativism – There is: the stuff of physics and it is fundamentally devoid of experiential properties (sometimes called qualia)
            2. Non-reductive physicalism – There is: the stuff of physics and it is fundamentally devoid of experiential properties, but novel experiential properties can emerge under certain circumstances
            3. Substance Dualism – There is: the stuff of physics and it is fundamentally devoid of experiential properties
              and the stuff of experience and it is fundamentally devoid of all physical properties
            4. Property Dualism – There is: the stuff of physics and some of its properties are physical and some are experiential
            5. Idealism – There is: the stuff of physics and it has experiential properties that we think of as physical when we abstract out its most interesting aspect in order to quantify and calculate using mathematical formulas.
            6. Neutral monism – There is: a kind of stuff that is more fundamental than either the stuff of physics or the stuff of experience and it combines to create the stuff that has both physical and experiential properties

            I recommend you try to find the last four in the index at the back of “Consciousness Explained”. You will not find them because Dennett does not even mention them, let alone discuss them. You give Dennett far too much credit. There are even forms of Dualism that are possible under some interpretations of QM.

          • *In reply to #64 by Street Logician

            Excellent post. I also found Conc. Exp. drastically incomplete. Nor am I clear how consciousness can be an “illusion” (which in common speech certainly presupposes consciousness), nor am I happy with Dennett’s examples of “emergence” which also seem to presuppose or involve consciousness. Basically, his is very much a minority view philosophically because he is casually dismissive of (arguably more thorough) other analyses.

      • In reply to #45 by Planck’s Constant:

        In reply to #39 by steve_hopker:

        This discussion, combined with other reading, certainly makes me wonder if ideas of conscious mind (that I have had) are sustainable and if such as Dennett are right (though I haven’t read him).

        Is there an assumption of ‘self’ in discussing and linking consciousne…

        I don’t follow all your objections but they seem to boil down to saying we don’t have a complete theory of consciousness yet that adequately fits both empirical data and our own data from introspection. And I agree and I think Dennett would agree as well. Dennett isn’t claiming he solved all the problems and he was not claiming to have a complete theory of consciousness, not by a long shot. He wasn’t giving the final answer but sketching out an approach for more research.

        All he is trying to do is to refute those who want to restrict the research. There were a lot of people and there still are some who claim that its illogical to think that a machine can be conscious. If you think that it limits the kinds of questions you think are even worth researching. Dennett is saying that once you remove dualism there is no reason to think consciousness — however we ultimately define it — is limited to living things.

        I think one reason that computer science people tend to agree with him (besides that some of us have more emotions for computers than most humans — I still get misty eyed when I talk about my old Symbolics 3600 Lisp Machine) is that one of the first things you learn in computer science is that from a theoretical standpoint all hardware is equivalent.

        When you think about it its not at all intuitive and in my work experience I had to more than once correct over eager sales people who claimed “you can only run program X on our computer” In fact the first analog computers were like that, they were specialized hardware that solved one and only one problem (like targeting weapons). But with the digital computer Turing proved that all Turing machines (a mathematical concept not a physical one) are equivalent and ALL modern digital computers from your iPod to a supercomputer are Turing Machines. Once you realize that its hard to see the logic in saying there is something special about the way protoplasm processes information that differentiates it from silicon so that one can be conscious and the other can’t.

        • I don’t believe teleportation will ever be possible but not on grounds of illogicality.. It’s not illogical to conceive of a conscious machine but it may be unrealistic to imagine one can create one. Otherwise, one is really defining “machine” (as something incapable of consciousness) rather than “consciousness”. Wrong category, I think.

          .reply to #48 by Red Dog:*

          In reply to #45 by Planck’s Constant:

          In reply to #39 by steve_hopker:.

          This discussion, combined with other reading, certainly makes me wonder if ideas of conscious mind (that I have had) are sustainable and if such as Dennett are right (though I haven’t read him).

          Is there an assumption of ‘self…

      • In reply to #45 by Planck’s Constant:

        In reply to #39 by steve_hopker:

        Agree 100%. You may like the way J.B.S.Haldane put it 90 years ago:

        “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”

  18. Furthermore, part of the definition of “consciousness” then becomes “something which can’t be experienced by machines”, a lazy and unhelpful definition which, anyway, leads inevitably to inextricable intertwinedness with “life” surely?

  19. To me key question of consciousness is “can it suffer”. A robot can detect heat, and could simulate the actions of a burned person. I doubt many people would say it suffered, even if it went through all the computations a human would.

    Another way of asking is “Do this being’s expressed preferences matter?” Should they be catered for for reasons other than self-interest.

    I think the key will be developing a “consciousness meter” that produces a number than correlates with subjectively estimated. Then we could use it on things like frogs, plants, insects.. to make more objective estimate to their consciousness.

    My guess is that consciousness in another fundamental thing like space or time. It spontaneously forms whenever there is sufficiently dense/rapid calculation, popping into existence at a threshold. I expect it to show up in AI any day now though I doubt we will recognise it for quite a while.

    If we presume it is its own thing, we can get on with investigating its properties. That may give a clue to figuring out later what it is really.

    • In reply to #56 by Roedy:

      I do wonder about pain and pleasure in artificial consciousness too, but then we have to ask what gives rise to pain in humans and other animals. The pain is something purely subjective and occurs in consciousness, which I understand to be purely subjective too, something that occurs in each of us as a result of objective processes taking place in our brains. At present we have difficulty in comparing man-made robots with humans because the robots still come nowhere near humans in computational complexity. If, however, a robot had computational networks as sophisticated as human neuronal networks, including comparable means of sensing, it is not inconceivable that the robot might develop some kind of subjectivity that would make experiencing something analogous to pain and pleasure possible for it. But we shall have to wait until such sophisticated machines can be made before we can get a better idea of this. If we want robots to do all the dirty work, we will not want them to be too sensitive. Then again, I would not mind having a robot like the well-spoken, gold-colored one in Star Wars (I forget its name) as a private secretary.

  20. In reply to 66 Stephen of Wimbledon

    Hi. The first of your last three paragraphs seems to me to contradict the final one which I agree with.
    Anyway, I think intuition a very important tool when attempting to empathise with someone (or even, occasionally, something). It’s certainly fallible where real specificity is involved but how else to describe being in love? And, anecdotally, I read, not so long ago, an account by someone who had been taught by Wittgenstein (no slouch at careful thinking) who said that to ask him a question was to watch a virtual convulsion as he reached agonisingly into himself for an answer – certainly sounds like intuition.
    Translating, acting, politics, demagoguery, teaching are communication skills which lean heavily on intuition and it’s hard to see how they wouldn’t. Doesn’t make hard science of intuition but suggests (to me) when hard science may need to call on it or even be less useful.

  21. Computation solely concerns information management. However complex one makes a computational system, however many feedback monitoring loops one puts in, it is still just going to be about ‘information management’ – it gives no concept as to how or why the property of conscious awareness of that information is produced.

    This sort of theoretical ‘side-stepping’ seems to occur a lot in science. It plagues biology and physics, as evidenced by the proliferation of ever more bizarre interpretations of Quantum Mechanics for example, each one more avoiding the point than the last. Consciousness needs to be looked at head on, not subjected to watering down as a side effect of something else.

      • In reply to #73 by logicophilosophicus:

        Mind is all in the mind? Some logically perilous self-reference there

        OK, if you want to get all pedantic about it then:

        The experience of consciousness is subjective. Brains exist objectively and the things brains do exists objectively, but what it feels like to be a brain thinking and doing things is subjective. I can never truly feel your pain, but I can see when you are suffering.

        • In reply to #74 by Peter Grant:

          OK, if you want to get all pedantic about it then:

          The experience of consciousness is subjective. Brains exist objectively and the things brains do exists objectively…

          I can’t agree. My only knowledge of brains is conscious knowledge – there is no other kind. It is “objective” only in the sense that when I check back it’s still there, still true. Every time I check whether I am conscious my mind is still there, too; not a dream, not an illusion, but the guarantor of all my knowledge.

        • In reply to #74 by Peter Grant:

          The experience of consciousness is subjective. Brains exist objectively and the things brains do exists objectively, but what it feels like to be a brain thinking and doing things is subjective.

          Science is working on producing more definitive objective studies! – Of conscious and subconscious activity.

          Scientists create first 3D digital brain

          In all, 80 billion neurons have been captured in this painstaking process which took 10 years to complete.

          The result is a 3D high definition digital brain into which researchers can zoom to study areas of interest in microscopic detail.

          Scientists are set to release the first batch of data from a project designed to create the first map of the human brain.
          The brain imaging technology is being developed for a US-led effort to map the human brain called the Human Connectome Project.

          And just as with the Human Genome Project before it, the data will be publicly released to scientists as the scans are processed, with the first tranche of data from between 80 and a 100 people to be released in a few weeks’ time.

          The HCP is a five-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health. The aim the $40m programme is to map the entire human neural wiring system by scanning the brains of 1,200 Americans.

          Researchers will also collect genetic and behavioural data from the subjects in order to build up a complete picture of the factors that influence the human psyche.

  22. After reading a.o. Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Ron Harris, Brian Christian, Laura Penny, Dick Swaab, Eugene Sadler-Smith, Bill Bryson, Andrew Newberg, Gene Wallenstein, Richard Wiseman, Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, I come to the following crude and informal understanding of consciousness and reality. Since the brain seems to operate like a machine, a machine that can emulate the brain could also become conscious with a sense of reality.

    1. All information Iw from the world enters the human organism via basic sensory organs.
      This information is e.g. available in electromagnetic, acoustic, mechanical and chemical forms.

    2. The sensory organs present a function of the information Iw as F(Iw) to the brain, mainly in the form of electrical action potentials (firings), the same as utilised by neurons in the brain.
      Examples: electromagnetic energy of specific wavelengths result in firings of light-sensitive cells in the eye, other via heat-sensitive cells in the skin. Acoustic energy result in firings of hair-cells in the inner ear.

    3. The brain is able to detect patterns in F(Iw). This occurs by a mechanism that is characterised as ”cells that fire together wire together”. For example, a visual line pattern is detected when a row of adjacent light-sensitive cells in the eye are exited at the same time, when a single line pattern is projected on the retina.

    4. The brain is also able to detect patterns in patterns. For example, a visual triangle pattern can be detected when a triangle of three lines is projected on the retina. Other examples are faces, the smell of a rose, the taste of a pear, the roughness of sandpaper.
      There seems hardly a limit in the pattern recognition capability of the brain, these are not limited to spatial patterns, but in particular time functions in streams of firings are rich in possible patterns. Examples are: the bark of a dog, a top-hit, a play.

    5. Via the ”cells that fire together wire together” principle, the brain can also learn all kinds of abilities, such as the control of motor functions and abilities required to keep itself alive.

    6. In principle, all detected patterns and learned abilities are remembered via the wiring mechanism, forming a huge network. However, connections associated with patterns that are inconsistent or irrelevant are weakened or removed. Still, the brain becomes filled with a vast number of patterns, which is no problem, because the brain operates in a massive parallel way.

    7. Initially, the set of patterns is nothing else as an enumeration without meaning.
      However, the patterns that corresponds to parts of the own body must become very conspicuous. This set of patterns form the, still unconscious, perception of the self. A very peculiar pattern must be the perception of the mind by introspection.
      Once this happens, the brain becomes self-conscious because it identifies itself with the own body. Because this identification is always confirmed, it (the ”I”) becomes self-evident. Gradually, other patterns are identified in terms of their specific meaning for the brain.

    8. The conscious mind is rational, but limited, because it can only pay attention to a few patterns at a time. It perceives the unconscious mind as intuition, which easily leads to the conclusion that there is more than meets the eye. It can deliberately learn new abilities to the unconscious mind by training, such as reading and writing. It can also train the unconscious mind to unlearn unwanted behaviour, e.g. eating snacks whenever available.

    9. The unconscious mind is irrational but virtually unlimited, because it operates in a massive parallel mode without the need to pay attention, which is impossible anyway. It is not able to decide that patterns have no relation with the world. When catching a ball, throwing darts and playing a piano, the unconscious mind can be trusted, but, for tasks that require rationality, such as visually landing a plane under difficult circumstances, rational, counter intuitive actions could be required to prevent disaster.

    10. Initially, the conscious mind considers all patterns as real, but it can decide, after an effort, that a pattern has no relation with the world, especially if it realises that patterns are based upon F(Iw) and not on Iw.
      Examples: telepathy, ghosts, 9/11 conspiracy theory, god (in case of an atheist).
      The conscious mind can also decide that a pattern has a relation with the world, i.e. it can decide that it exists independently. Examples: a planet, an atom, general relativity, quantum mechanics, god (in case of a theist).
      The set of patterns, that are considered as real, forms the only reality that the mind experiences. Note that this set includes also all kinds of patterns that are taken for granted such as a pair of shoes, language, humour, pain, the self.
      As a result, each person perceives his own personal reality. Because of incomplete understanding of the world, this reality differs from the real world. Since the real world cannot be changed, a better personal reality can only reached via the study of the real world.

    11. Via communication with other people, personal realities can be altered. In this way not only valuable knowledge can be exchanged.
      Via coercion, a personal reality can be deformed in such a way that it is not questioned any more; many children are subjected to mild indoctrination, but sometimes they become victim of brainwashing.

    12. If a person dies, his personal reality dies with him; this may be counter intuitive, but it cannot be denied on rational grounds. Maybe a part of his reality is left behind in other people.

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