Consciousness is something we intuitively believe we understand. After all, in many ways it is who we are personally. Yet try to define it and the meaning becomes elusive. American Philosopher Thomas Nagel describes another organism as conscious when we mean “there is something it is like to be that organism… something it is like for the organism.” While there is not much agreement on a specific definition of consciousness, a rough triangulation of a definition could be consciousness is subjectivity.
In Evolved I have been wrestling with the idea of consciousness. Specifically, what does it mean to be an organic life form versus a silicon life form? In the Evolved world there are silicon people who are recognized as alive, along with all the legal rights of an organic life. This sets up an interesting tension as both sides try to define what it means to be ‘alive.’ Silicon life have dreams, emotions and a sense of ‘self.’ So what does that mean? Are they conscious? If so, how are they different?
Philosophers, scientists and psychologists have grappled with consciousness from multiple angles. Religions themselves rest on certain assumptions about consciousness, and what it means. Yet despite the extended history of human study of consciousness, we remain deeply confused by it (even if we don’t recognize our own confused state).
“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.” -David Hume, 1739
By approaching from the perspective of the ‘self,’ there are two basic theories: ego theorists and bundle theorists. Ego theorists believe in a continuously existing self who are subjects of experiences and who think, act and feel. Bundle theorists deny there is a self, instead arguing we are simply a collection of different perceptions that are in constant flux and movement. Buddhism denies there is a self and therefore falls into the bundle theory, while most other religions believe in either immortal souls or reincarnating spirits that fall into the ego theory.
“I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling: I am something which thinks and acts and feels.” -Thomas Reid, 1785
In Evolved, silicon life is most definitely in the bundled theory. Yet how does a silicon life form feel about that? Could they not believe they too have a soul, a continuity of their existence beyond their physical existence? All the perceptions they process have similar reactions as organic life. In which theory does organic life fall? Well, I can’t give away all the fun…
Approaching from another angle, there are competing theories over whether consciousness is dualism or monism. Dualism argues a part of consciousness is non-physical, creating a separation between mind and body, object and subject. Monism includes physicalism and materialism, which argues matter is the fundamental substance in nature. From a scientific perspective, dualism is a hard argument to defend. After all, it argues something mystical is going on, or at least beyond current scientific reason.
Plato used the allegory of a cave to describe consciousness while David Hume described it as a type of theater, which later Daniel Dennett rejected and called the Cartesian Theater. This concept imagines a place inside the mind where ‘I’ am, complete with a sort of mental screen or stage where contents of consciousness are presented to the mind’s eye. A similar concept is Cartesian Materialism in which the consciousness is not separate from the brain. Both concepts reflect a dualism in which there are two parts to a person, the physical and the conscious. But, Susan Blackmore explains the problem with inventing a central place in which subjectivity happens:
“So either we have to find an answer to the question, ‘how does subjective awareness arise from the objective actions of all these neurons and muscle cell?’, or we have to work out what mistake has led us into posing such an impossible question in the first place.” -Susan Blackmore, 2011
Another consideration about consciousness is whether it causes directed attention or is the effect of paying attention, or neither. Many positions today describe attention in a causal manner, similar to “the sentry at the gate of consciousness” (Adam Zeman, 2001), which implies a dualism. A similar monism causal view is “there is no conscious perception without attention.” (Mack and Rock, 1998) William James asked, “Is voluntary attention a resultant or a force?” He made a strong case for the effect side but ultimately sided with the causal on ethical grounds.
Some scientists have dived down to the quantum level (Eugene Wigner and Henry Stapp) to explain consciousness, assuming a Copenhagen-sympathetic interpretation that allows for an open future (and therefore free will). Yet the actual mechanism allowing our brains to willfully collapse a wave function, or provide true chance in the process, remains mysterious. Alternatively, one could argue a Bohm interpretation, implying a deterministic reality in which we either have no free will or our brains use a mysterious outside influence on our deterministic brains.
Could silicon produce a conscious being? Could we eventually upload our consciousness into a silicon-based computer without losing anything? So much depends on your definition of consciousness but most scientists don’t see any reason why it could not happen. Most religious leaders are appalled by the notion. What would the Buddha think of it? Would robots also strive for “emptiness” to clear out the distracting objectivity originally programmed into them?
If a robot had dreams, emotions, displayed moral behavior, could create original art pieces, and vehemently argued it had a ‘self,’ would you consider it conscious? Would it be an equal to you legally? If an organic human killed it, would it be murder with the same penalties as what we consider is murder?
All of these questions about consciousness are rich veins to mine in Evolved. Honestly, I am still changing things as I reconsider questions, find inconsistencies between my meta physical choices, and work to bring out the issues to the reader. I will probably never reach a satisfactory end point, but will I consciously accept that?