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?
Can a silicon-based machine achieve consciousness? It is becoming an increasingly pressing question as scientists move closer to artificial intelligence. Yet we don’t understand our own consciousness, so how would we know? Maybe it already has happened…
We don’t understand what is consciousness, how consciousness came to exist, or why it exists. Because we don’t understand why it exists, we can’t answer whether it has any causal impact on the world. Aspects of human consciousness include:
- Consciousness appears to offer a more flexible and sophisticated control, at the expense of speed, which is important when encountering novel situations.
- It also appears to enhance social coordination through better understanding of other minded creatures.
- Consciousness may improve the unification and integration of reality, or at least the perception of the reality required for primitive survival.
- It may provide more global access to information within the brain.
- Does it enable free will? Or, just create the illusion of free will?
- Intrinsic motivation seems to be created by consciousness, or at least the perception of will.
Are all of these aspects possible within a silicon consciousness?
Another problem to consider. If consciousness is by definition subjective, then only a machine would know if it is truly conscious. This assumes objective and subjective are completely separate, with which a monism materialist might disagree (arguing the feeling of consciousness is simply the result of billions of neurons firing in a complex system).
Assuming a machine tells you it is conscious, do you believe it? A functionalist would argue “yes” since thoughts, beliefs, and even subjective states are simply functional states. A skeptic who believes there is something non-material about consciousness would simply argue the machine is a zombie, missing the essence of consciousness. Would the “conscious” silicon zombie then try to eat the skeptic’s brain? Maybe the kernel of an idea for my next book…
In an effort to understand consciousness I have been reading “Consciousness: An Introduction,” by Susan Blackmore. It offers a broad arc through research and experiments about consciousness, methodically building a case that there is little evidence supporting a dualist view of consciousness (implying humans have a soul or something other than matter that passes on). I believe she is an atheist, or someone who does not believe there is a God or gods.
Getting back to silicon-based zombies gobbling up human brains. There are several arguments why machine consciousness may ultimately prove different than human consciousness, although each are inconclusive:
- Neurons could never be replicated by artificial means to replicate the information processing speed within the space and thermodynamic limitations, or the chemical interactions cannot be replicated to sustain the emotional response required of consciousness.
- Consciousness requires a long period of learning, interacting with its environment. “Biological capacity to produce experiences, and these experiences only when they are felt by some human or animal agent.” (Searle, 1997)
- Consciousness involves something greater than the parts (Holism), whether that is interpreted as a soul, a physical aspect in our universe we have yet to discover in our reality.
- Before artificial consciousness could become a reality, a new type of physics is required to explain consciousness, including quantum entanglement and wave function collapse in a complex system.
- A spectrum exists of consciousness, defined either by self-awareness, ability to imitate another, awareness of time, or intentionality to originate. Silicon may reach low level consciousness, but not high level.
All of this dances around the central issue, which is the gap in our understanding of consciousness. The large bulk of scientific research suggests consciousness is a product of the material activity of our minds (monism/ physicalist). But… the answers you find are determined by the questions you ask, and scientists ask decidedly objective questions. Therefore there is little surprise they arrive at objective answers.
Put differently, if scientists discovered tomorrow a reality beyond what we perceive (either quantum or cosmological), a reality the mechanisms of the mind can utilize, then all the scientific research into consciousness becomes lacking and religious teachings on consciousness again offer guideposts to follow.
In Evolved I take this path because well, science fiction is a wonderful platform to explore what could become main stream in science.