We may get there. Read something about how vision works from a century ago, when nobody had a clue. The first real progress came from "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain" (1959). That was the beginning of understanding visual perception, and the very early days of neural network technology. Now we have lots of systems doing visual perception moderately well. There's been real progress.
(I went through Stanford CS at the peak of the 1980s expert system boom. Back then, people there were way too much into asking questions like this. "Does a rock have intentions?" was an exam question. The "AI winter" followed. AI finally got unstuck 20 years later when the machine learning people and their "shut up and calculate" approach started working.)
I realize this could be true for a lot of other schools of thought, but it seemed especially prominent when arguments about what makes a person seem to rely on a lower-level assumption of how the brain works.
What's left as "philosophy" is always the stuff where we don't even really know what questions to ask. So we kick them around for a few centuries, or millennia, in the hopes that something will eventually take on a shape that can be pursued in a better-defined fashion.
This process has a name : The Great Conversation . Bit presumputious to me to think Plato would have any clue as to what we're saying, but it is a good name for a thing.
EDIT: Some links to the new tools mentioned:
> The real answer is that we don't yet know enough about how the brain works...
I don't think the "problem of consciousness" is one of missing empirical evidence so much as simply a fuzzy (ill-posed?) question. Though enough evidence might be sufficient to forcefully dissolve an irreal question. On the flipside, a lot of the current ML research does a good job at addressing consciousness by breaking it into concrete, communicable actions.
Instead of asking, "What is consciousness?" try asking, "What actions could XYZ take that would convince me it's conscious?" A related question is "What actions (in minute detail) are involved as I believe/think/feel I'm conscious?" Those two questions are similar, but tend to evoke quite different sets of "external" experiences and actions.
It might turn out that there is some mathematically invariant property of things that are capable of acting as convincing conscious agents, a la the physically precise definition of heat turning out to behave kind of like a phlogiston. In such a case, we might in fact find a "thing" that deserves the label "consciousness"---such as Hofstadter's idea of a strange loop---but for now I think the term is used pretty much used in a way that's synonymous with "magic".
I think we can define a generalized version of what we call a "conscious thought" as a thought that can be "consciously reflected" about. With "conscious reflection" I mean using some representation of the thought as an input for another thought in such a way that the new thought, including the usage of the original thought, can be used as an input for another thought in the same way. The representation doesn't have to correspond particularly closely to the execution. (We remember to think in natural language, but maybe the thought process is just converted into natural language after the fact for the purpose of saving and reflecting.)
Computer programs can also be conscious according to this generalized definition if the process of executing it is saved in some way and can, depending on the circumstances, be used in some way, which is saved in the same way.
That different "ways" of using a thought as an input for another thought are possible means that there can be different consciousnesses in our brain. One of them (if there are multiple), which is the one responsible for our output, at least on a higher level, or does at least significantly inform the output, is what we call "my consciousness". The reason why we don't know whether "my consciousness" is responsible for the output, despite having the appearance, is that it may be mostly a "post-hoc rationalization engine" for decisions made on another level, possibly for other reasons. But it does at least inform the output, since thoughts of "my consciousness" in the past inform our later output. For example, if we are asked about our past thoughts, we talk about the ones that are remembered in "my consciousness". This is the thing that puts it in such a special position compared to other hypothetical consciousnesses, which don't inform our output in this way, and are therefore invisible to other people, and obviously also to "my consciousness".
(Answer since edit doesn't seem to work.)
I wasn't aware ML had anything to do with consciousness.
> In such a case, we might in fact find a "thing" that deserves the label "consciousness"---such as Hofstadter's idea of a strange loop---but for now I think the term is used pretty much used in a way that's synonymous with "magic".
So you consider your experiences of color, taste, pleasure, etc. to be akin to "magic"? Because those sensations are what make up our conscious experiences.
What does a good answer to this question look like in this context? Genuinely curious what they were looking for.
Imo the real question is whether humans have intentions. It seems like if you look at it rationally, we're just collections of chemicals reacting with each other. Set the initial conditions and then the whole thing is deterministic. It's pretty uncomfortable to think this though, so I think it's best if we avoid the subject.
Imagine you are on a rollercoaster: you know your course is pre-determined, but you can't see too far ahead, and it sure is a fun and surprising ride along the way.
If quantum physics theories are correct than there's always some amount of pure randomness in the game, making it impossible to create perfectly deterministic and repeatable system of any significant complexity.
The real answer is that decisions exist in a different frame of reference. Some philosophers are stuck in a model in which decisions were taken by the soul, an inmaterial entity. So if decisions are generated by physical processes, they're an ilusion.
But that's as idiotic as it can be. Our brain is a material system and of course decisions are generated by physical processes inside it. The interesting question is how much of us is malleable and how we can make our decisions to change ourselves and our own decision making process.
Good level design is basically when a player traverses a predetermined path while not feeling that he is on rails...
Example og good level design, Half Life games. A player Traverse the world as if they can go anywhere but they always pick the right way.
Other example is Dark souls. Keeps you in a loops so you never hit a "dead end"
This reminds me of Sam Harris' book "Freewill", I recommend it to the people who believe in freewill.
By the way, what determines the whole chain of deterministic events?
Also Elbow Room, or, better, Freedom Evolves.
I once read Dennett's critiques and I remember I didn't find them very convincing. But right now I don't remember his arguments. I won't analyze them right now as to be able to comment in this topic. If you mention Dennett's main argument against what Harris says about freewill I'd thank you.
Marvin Minsky said we are 'meat machines'. What does Dennet say against that? (considering machines as deterministic).
I'm afraid I don't remember the exact contents of the Harris/Dennett debate; I should probably reread it myself. :)
any kind of freedom at all, emerges from the layers upon layers upon layers that make up the existence of what we call a living creature.
I don't see why layers upon layers would imply freedom. A complex Java web framework may have layers upon layers of abstractions, and that may make its operation hard to understand fully. But that doesn't mean it isn't deterministic.
Spinoza wrote: Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.
But there's just nothing that I recall in that book that suggests or even hints at any reason for this to result in a subjective experience. And I don't believe it rules out an electron having a nano-unit of subjective experience, for example.
The book suggests that something is a subjective experience if an organism can report it as one, and goes to great detail about what's going on in the brain when an organism is able to report a subjective experience, and makes the very reasonable suggestion that something is probably a subjective experience in a brained organism that can't report it as one so long as it exhibits all the same patterns in that organism's brain (infants, other animals).
But I don't think it does any work at all to show that there is no subjective experience in plants, or rocks, or even nano-units of subjective experience in individual electrons. It can't do this, because, as far as I recall, there is simply no progress on the problem of why this global activation in the brain would produce a subjective experience.
Also, just because someone reports having a subjective experience, doesn't mean that they actually have one. I do have subjective experience, but I have no way of telling whether someone else has one, even if they claim so.
I don't believe you. ;-)
I know it sounds outlandish but it does point the gap in your proof.
Unfortunately all our word definitions seems shaky, if we want to describe something that is the base requirement of those very definitions.
Maybe the best we can do is to deconstruct the above using more simple or base terms, but the meaning of those terms maybe also depends on the content of experience not the mere fact of experience:
I experience thought -> experience of thoughts exists -> experience exists -> something exists
So upon experiencing thought you may conclude that "something exists", or "there IS something"...
Of course you can. You know it to be true that you posses consciousness because you experience it directly. What is impossible (empirically) is knowing that about anyone or anything else.
In a similar way, "I" can say that consciousness exists, and is taking the form I call "my perspective," but that's about all.
We know there is thinking. There is no reason to believe that subject-object duality has any basis in reality, or that any individual, including our "self", has a sufficient delineation to consider it an independent entity.
Regardless of whether there is a "you" or if it's some amalgamation of state that is loosely bounded together and "fooled" into thinking it is a unity, something is
there experiencing. At least in my frame there is.
This isn't something you can prove because it comes any sort of structure capable of doing proving. It's just something that's a given and you start from there.
Descartes' "Meditations on First Philosophy" is the originator of this idea. While it is dated, the form of its principal argument hasn't changed.
With regards to conscious unity, there is at least a weak form of it in the sense that you can't experience others' experiences. While it is possible that your own experience may not be fully unified, it is (very likely) disjoint from others' experiences.
I've never been very moved by ideas that I can't know or share other people's feelings, or other fanciful ideas like their blue is my green. It's more reasonable to assume they are like me because we share similar hardware (DNA) and software (Culture). Others hands look like mine, more or less. Others legs are like mine, more or less. And so others perception of green is like mine, more or less.
Telling me that my experience is prime, or fundamental doesn't tell me much. Similarly, saying I think therefore I am doesn't tell me much. What then am I and what is existence? I think therefore I am only as much as I think I am. And sometimes I forget myself.
If we imagine there's a God and I could ask any 1 question about the brain and get an anaswer, all I would need to ask is:
"Hey God: w.r.t. the human brain, are there any special shenanigans like is connected to a soul that's responsible for consciousness, or is it WYSIWYG, just a bunch of cells and that's it?"
Luckily for you, there is no God and I can answer definitively: no, there are no shenanigans. It's just some cells and that's it. I am telling you this definitively. There are no metaphysical shenanigans going on in the human brain.
Note: you might wonder why, for this answer, I decided to phrase it in terms of asking God. The answer is in order to activate the natural scientist's reaction "that's silly, God can't tell you there's no God like that". Well, brain metaphysics is exactly and equally silly. It's just some cells, that's all.
There isn't any evidence that there is anything happening that's not biological despite 1000's of years of searching for that evidence.
And there is all kinds of evidence that biological processes can explain our experience. More all the time.
It's not definitive in the sense that we're anywhere near completely understanding our biology.
But it's the most likely explanation, given what we do know, but such a huge margin that there is no real alternative explanation outside of mythology.
Do you consider software in a computer to be mechanical? You could record the 1010101 in an electricity stream and conclude there is no meaning to that electricity beyond getting from point A to point B in a chip.
If we're looking for something supernatural like a soul, then we shouldn't expect to see natural evidence. Thus the lack of that evidence does not imply its nonexistence. Relevant xkcd: https://www.xkcd.com/638/
Sure you can say that our lack of evidence means nothing since we don't have the capability, through natural laws, to acquire that evidence.
But that's just another way of justifying faith as a rational argument.
The only reason we have to believe in the supernatural is mythology. And the only reason we have to believe mythology is faith (and fear).
yes but it didn't.
see how silly that sounds.
so on one level sure you're right, on the other hand it's obvious. no, there's obviously no super transparent cord going off to soul land. it's just a bunch of sell-contained cells. It's not wireless. It's not even networked. It's just limited to within your body. You can literally plunge yourself in water and still think.
you have no cord going off into ether. you are nnot a networked component. you are just a bunch of cells in one little package and that's it. That's you. your output is what your body does robotically (move, make sounds) your input is sensory. and your consciousnes is whatever your braincells are doing.
> there's obviously no super transparent cord going off to soul land.
You make it sounds extra silly by using this type of language. Remember when hardcore scientists were saying "my dear you must be mad to think the earth is round", or "yeah OBVIOUSLY the stars are pinned to crystal spheres, they can't just fly, that would be silly".
Anyway, the only thing we can be sure of is that we just don't know. Everything else is simply stories we tell ourselves to make us feel better. We play little games, but not all games offer the same experiences.
what do you think the chances are of finding a small metaphysical soul organ in the brain, that connects us to the ether where all the real consciousness happens, is?
Give a percentage chance of that happening.
What if your base assumptions are flawed ? The current materialistic approach is based on flawed 15th century intuitions. Just like the previous assumptions were based on other flawed intuitions (gold can be made from any element, stars are on crystal spheres, earth is the center of the universe, &c.)
What makes you think our current assumptions are the absolute truth ?
okay so now what are the chances that I'm God and really just said that? If you said anything over 0.00000000% you're totally wrong. There is no chance of that because it's stupid. the above paragraph is obviously satire, because it's stupid.
You are presuming that the physical is all there is to existence. You fail to consider the possibility that there are portions of reality that we don't have the physical capability to perceive or the mental capability to truly understand.
There's a difference between saying "there is no evidence of X" versus "there is no evidence of X, so X is impossible"
I estimate 0.00000000%. What's your estimate?
I feel that consciousness itself is something non-physical. Whether it be a specific cocktail of neurotransmitters working in concert to give us the characteristics that we attribute to sentience, or a "core" form of existence that exists outside of our physical existence, I don't know, and I don't presume to know. I also don't presume I should be going around and acting like I can say with complete authority and accuracy "X doesn't exist in any way, shape, or form, because there is no evidence". I mean, what of the many other "scientific facts" humans have revised and subsequently rejected over a few millennia?
Isn't it the other way round, though?
They were twiddling their thumbs back then because they had no other option. There was no way to do machine learning back then. I've played with perceptrons on '90s hardware and it was basically just a toy.
And then Moore's law opened the flood gates some decades later.
It wasn't so much "thumb twiddling" though, there was a lot of work being done on systems which were more focused on knowledge representation (like Cyc , which still exists). Also a lot of work was being done from a more Psychological direction (mental models, scripts etc) and from a physical/neuro-science direction (brainz!).
These were all happening simultaneously and it wasn't clear (partly because of the MIPS issue you mention) that ML was the winning pony (for now) and I still appreciate the broad spectrum of knowledge covered in my particular Cognitive Science program.
And don't forget Minsky's decimation of neural network research at the start of the 1970s , which led to major research centers like MIT ignoring them completely.
My first thought: Depends on if the rock is magnetized.
It's equally clear that most of what we associate with consciousness, such as thinking, awareness of the body and the moment and time and decision making and ... doesn't exist either. Because time and time again studies prove that when a decision is made (this is well studied in traffic for instance) there are no conscious reasons. Reasons only happen afterwards.
Is it therefore such a stretch to say that consciousness simply doesn't exist until long after the fact, and it is only once we ask one of these bags of mostly water to explain themselves (or ... well when we ask them something) that any trace of consciousness, at least the way humans understand it, is actually forthcoming ?
Consciousness is a trick. A learned trick. Human minds are not conscious and it is most definitely not a certainty that they, even when born fully formed and healthy that they will become conscious (read the reports on children raised by animals. They are old, sometimes 20 years old and they most definitely aren't conscious, not even on the level that a primate is conscious. The 12 year old boy they found in the wild in France never learned to speak only to articulate 2 words).
This is weird, because this is not most humans experience. Everyone around them always had consciousness. But let's compare. Everybody who has kids realizes that memory, firstly, isn't actually memory. We are very much not storing events when they happen in our brain. We learn a trick, because our parents keep referring to our past and "what we've done". We learn to calculate back from our current state of mind to what happened before.
That and of course philosophers have a millennium or 3 of history of ... philosophers getting consciousness wrong. Consciousness has been accepted in history to be being religious, to being able to rhyme, to composing music, to being able to talk and explain ourselves, to being able to love, to convince a professor (via chat) that you are conscious, to solve problems (all kinds), to walk around, to play chess, to ... all of these are now of course considered wrong. Why ? Mostly because things that definitely aren't conscious, from little dumb tricks, even mechanical contraptions in some cases, to rule based engines, to deep learning and now reinforcement learning algorithms can do this.
So can we please just conclude that whatever this article claims is ... wrong ? Just wrong. Nothing of value, other than perhaps interest a few people for stories with enough alcohol present. The current consensus seems to be that more details will be forthcoming the first time a reinforcement learning algorithm gets far enough to explain it's actions. So you want to know more ? Start there.
However, I think the article is simply suggesting to invert this assumption about physical reality. It proposes that for something to be "out there", you first need an "in here" (rather than afterwards), i.e. an experiencing of forms. This would be consciousness. At this point we are not even talking about decision making, thinking, memory, intellectual pursuits... Just subjective experience. So everything you're taking into the discussion regarding how thinking and decision making and memory happens is really a bridge further; not immediately relevant to the point the author is making.
I understand if this line of reasoning feels uncomfortable. You were literally pleading people to think that this is wrong. I think that is a mistake. There is value in challenging your assumptions, even if only philosophical with ethical/moral ramifications.
Since a person can tell what they experience and what they do not, the distinction between conscious experience and unconscious processing must have a base in physical reality (brain activity). With sufficiently advanced technology, one could analyze the brain processes and see which processes are associated with the reported conscious experience.
The fact that not all brain activity is associated with conscious experience in no way implies that conscious experience does not exist.
Conscience is not present during the physical exercise. Upon completion, when conscience describes it, it injects itself into it. This is the trick.
And how exactly does that back calculation happen?
You'd have to give definitions of consciousness that don't include human contact, don't include language, symbols, any human other than yourself at all, or any thoughts at all not related to short-term survival, don't involve realizing you (as a human) are obviously not a wolf, ...
It also means that there is a period where you can be taught consciousness, and clearly if it doesn't happen before 7 years of age, you will never learn it.
It does seem clear that language assists consciousness in most people – e.g. most people report experiencing an internal narrative. But some people don’t. And even if everyone did, I don’t think that would be strong enough evidence to conclude that language is required for consciousness.
1) (extreme) autistic person that doesn't speak, but can, and arguably thinks too abstract, rather than not enough : yes, conscious. Probably more conscious in some sense than "normal" people, whose consciousness is more a group thing, or at least less independent.
(also: not speaking is a pretty extreme form of autism, certainly not something you'd see in your average school)
2) person that grew up without ever having any reason to learn symbolic or abstract thinking ? No, not conscious
But it's going to be a sliding scale thing. By some measures a cat and a dog are conscious because, well, because they are certainly capable of making humans think they are suffering (and therefore they both think and feel, which is where consciousness definitions are going on now. Fish, for instance, are not). This seems to me a really bad way to define it but it's certainly widely used.
Didn't all organic life arise from inorganic molecular structures like rocks?
As a result of the theory of the big bang, molecular structures have progressively evolved in complexity, eventually becoming so complex that the boundaries of physics and chemistry are transcended into biology, life, and consciousness.
This suggests that "rocks" -- inorganic molecular structures -- indeed have "intentions" to the extent that they are primordial building blocks of consciousness
There are entirely separate theories to explain how that matter, after it arose, interacts with itself to give rise to chemistry. Then there is the origin of life, which is another problem. And then we get to evolution, which is how the initial life modified itself to become the species we have today. And then we have a bunch of other theories that explain how the brain operates.
Any one of these theories could be wrong, but that wouldn't invalidate any of the other ones. Some of them we have much more data and certainty on then others. But the only people that talk as if they were the same thing are creationists, not scientists.
What do you mean, "the same thing"?
Are you implying the evolution of matter into chemistry into life into consciousness is not an interconnected process?
Just because it's hard to define the lines between inorganic life, simple life, and sentient life, it doesn't mean there's no distinction.
... and prescient life. Don't forget the next stage on from sentience. The line between sentience and prescience also seems blurred, given how many humans nowadays report having flashes of the future.
The real question is not consciousness, but why the laws of physics are perfectly tuned for its existence.
The Anthropic Principle rightly points out that the question of "why does the universe support life" is fundamentally circular.
I'd like to share Rupert Spira, a modern non-dualist teacher that holds this view-point. Here is one video in which he explains the consciousness-first approach to someone, a scientist, who holds to the materialist approach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgcfa0LFKXc
Perhaps someone will find it interesting and peruse some of his other videos, which I find very enlightening.
A major assumption of the currently dominant worldview is that there's no God, spirit, and even "mind" is questionable. Everything must be explainable as physics, and layers above like mechanics, chemistry, biology. Psychology as a field - in the "West", which is basically a global culture now - is based on that assumption.
The word "consciousness" is so ill-defined and the concept so misunderstood, mainly because it's mixed up with ideas of free will, mind, spirit - the animating principle. It's just the most modern term for categorizing and trying to understand a class of phenomena.
Seeing how "consciousness studies" is widely considered a pseudo-science, I suspect that it's actually related to some critical "flaw" in the fundamentals of the modern worldview, the assumption of a completely physical universe - "physical" meaning consistent with the science of physics.
What's fascinating for me is how quantum mechanics and its philosophical speculations about the role of the observer seems to be causing a paradigm shift, which is taking decades (almost a century) to sink in. We seem to be redefining consciousness as a fundamental property of physics, with some even theorizing that consciousness plays a role in bringing the universe into existence.
As a fan of both Indian philosophy and Western science, I'm greatly enjoying the battle of the ideas (often heated arguments and accusations of "woowoo" pseudo-scientific thinking), the struggle to understand the nature of consciousness deeply and rigorously, and the evolution of science and our worldviews.
That's right. It's pretty amazing how much is based off of that assumption which has no realistic basis. I guess it's a "convenient" assumption.
But if we start to think that hey, maybe consciousness is the root of it all, not matter, then we can see why science doesn't understand consciousness at all: it's like trying to find the screen while studying the pictures on it. You can study all the biology, physics, and matter on the screen, but you won't find the screen in the details. In this analogy, consciousness is the "screen" in which all appears. I think mainstream science will shift MASSIVELY once they start looking into as a legitimate possibility.
Beliefs and speculations also have no realistic basis. We can't prove, reproduce or properly model them in an objective manner.
One definition of science states that it is "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."
I hold the view that philosophy precedes science, i.e., not all branches of philosophy can be regarded as science.
> But if we start to think that hey, maybe consciousness is the root of it all, not matter (...)
From your statement, there's nothing wrong going that way, but you'll have a hard time trying to defend it as science if it's based on beliefs.
Remember, we are to the best of our knowledge beings that have evolved from simple cellular organisms obeying the laws of physics. The idea that through that process of evolution we have somehow broken out of the sandbox is extraordinary enough that it would need pretty compelling evidence, no matter how attractive the idea might be.
If anything, the burden of proof does lie on those who say the particles are "out there" and give rise to consciousness, because experience says otherwise. Everything you and the scientists may study happens within their own consciousness. It is not possible otherwise. We can only know the truth if we experience it, and anything else is a belief system until proven otherwise. Thus it is with those that claim there is an "out there" outside of consciousness that lies the burden of proof.
No one is denying the physical world exists and all that goes with it, including the evolution of physical matter. The question is what comes first: the consciousness or the physical?
I've also watched the video you linked to. His argument is indeed strong, but the scientist was rather weak. They (seemed to) agree that experience is mediated by our physical bodies (brains). So did the universe (matter) exist when there was no evolved consciousness to observe it? If the matter did not exist before the mind, how did we come to be?
Yes, our whole world could be somebody's dream or we could be "brains in the vat", but then the question is only changed to "who is dreaming or maintaining the vat"? And since we cannot observe the dreamer, does he exist?
Often in a crowded work environment people will be taking and yet I will have no conscious awareness of what they are saying. Yet, the second they mention my name, my attention will snap to what they are saying.
Clearly there is some unconscious (and yet intelligent and aware) part of me that is experiencing reality, just waiting for the right trigger to alert my consciousness to some important development.
The question of focus is pretty interesting to me, though. It seems that we are consciousness that gets to "decide" where to put our attention. There are a ton of things that can attract our attention, all through the mechanisms created by the consciousness, namely the five physical senses, our thoughts, and feelings.
Interesting enough, the grandfather of the modern Left, Michel Foucault, spent a considerable amount of his career trying to dislodge Kant's claim before coming upon the realization that power informs our perceptions.
The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism (I forget which year) is also highly recommended though I haven't looked into that myself.
You most certainly won't :)
For example, public educators have near-absolute power over K-12 students in the U.S. Many students rebel against this (I certainly did), and do things like argue about homework or refuse to go to class. But that accepts the educators' power as legitimate; if it weren't, you wouldn't bother to rebel against it! Someone truly intent on seizing power for themselves would devote the minimum amount of effort and attention to pleasing his teachers, and then go off and write a machine-learning based MP3 player that he can go sell to Microsoft for a million dollars.
On the contrary, it only accepts that their power exists. That is not the same as accepting its legitimacy. If you accepted their power as legitimate then you wouldn't be rebelling! The rebellion occurs because of the this discrepancy between what is and what ought to be, as the student perceives it.
People who actually hold power just go about their lives as if the world they wished to exist actually exists. That's what it means to have power - that you get to live in your version of the world.
Imagine trying to have a conversation in a loud room. You struggle to hear the person you're conversing with. The loudness of the room informs your perception of the conversation. You might not enjoy the loud room, but it's nonetheless there. And your frustration with the loud room is probably affecting your responses to the conversation.
The problem is that all scientific results around the consciousness question derive from what people report about their personal experience. There's no other known way to answer any questions about consciousness, and science hasn't discovered any way to answer questions about the immaterial.
Hence, from a scientific perspective, it's not a question for which an answer can be deduced from observation -- so questions about it are left to philosophical inquiry (reasoning inductively from first principles, instead of deductively from observation) or religion-based worldviews (which can be coherently accepted/rejected based on their correspondence to reality and internal consistency).
So, let's assume that consciousness is only physical. What would be the implications of that? It would imply that other physical objects can interact with it. We see plenty of evidence of that, with victims of brain damage, or when using drugs.
Now, to assume that consciousness is not physical, not only you need a mechanism for it to interact with our physical world (since it can order our bodies to do stuff) but also for the physical world to act on it.
Hence, from a scientific perspective, it seems pretty clear that consciousness is physical.
If you consider sleeping or fainting as loss of consciouness, I wouldn't be sure that's the case. Perhaps what happens then is that we lose the perception of the objects of consciousness and we are conscious of a blank state, and as we have no point of reference and nothing to know we mistakenly think that we were 'unconscious', while we were conscious of nothing.
So regardless of what camp you’re in, it doesn’t look reasonable to me to trust stories like that.
And our senses. Another personal favourite example: being bludgeoned into temporary unconsciousness.
> to assume that consciousness is not physical, not only you need a mechanism for it to interact with our physical world (since it can order our bodies to do stuff) but also for the physical world to act on it
I've seen this argument before - a variation of it ties in the physical principle of conservation of energy - but I'm not sure it really holds. It assumes a pretty 'strong' dualistic model.
Even if we take the starting assumption that the mind arises from the physical world, we could say that the mind exists in a mind space, rather than a physical one. I believe David Chalmers' theory of mind takes a similar line (disclaimer: I haven't read it). 
If a dualistic model really does propose a suspension of the physical order, well, they've already lost.
Related: I like the way Dan Dennett answers the question of Is the mind physical?: it's physical the way a center of gravity is physical. It's not a particle, or something you can touch, but it arises from the physical world.
Indirect observations involve forming a testable (and falsifiable) hypothesis. What you're doing above is more like an attempt at proof by contradiction...
But I can assume the contrary viewpoint and deduce as well. Suppose human consciousness is non-physical. From observation (as you said) we know it can be affected by physical things -- brain damage, drugs, etc. So it must have a physical/nonphysical interface, probably in our brains.
You might say Occam's razor rules non-physicality out, since such an interface is a bit much to assume. But given that we don't have a meaningful way forward assuming physical-only, perhaps admitting one further assumption can help our inquiry - perhaps physical-only is too simple an explanation. As Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
The problem is a hard problem which may or may not be ill defined.
So when someone dies, their consciousness continues, but is unseated from their body?
Presumably temporary unconsciousness is explained the same way?
How do you explain population increases or population decreases? Is there an infinite pool of consciousnesses, and only an infinitesimal proportion of them are being received at any given time?
Do drugs affect the receiver, or the consciousness (transmitter) itself? If it's the former, you've just conceded that some fundamental aspects of our consciousness are contingent on the receiver, and are independent of the transmitter. You can't very well answer the latter, as drugs exist firmly in the physical domain.
You'll also need to account for wildly different forms of consciousness (animals), the split-brain phenomenon, and why certain arrangements of molecules and their associated processes (i.e. living brains) can act as receivers but other closely related arrangements do not (dead brains, and living brains subject to general anesthesia). To steal a word from Dawkins, the whole thing seems unparsimonious in the extreme.
To mirror lostmsu's comment, this is a truly extraordinary claim, made in the total absence of supporting evidence. I'm not convinced it's even a coherent model.
Occams razor says more about human psychology and beliefs than it does about reality.
In any case I was not arguing that this scenario represents the true state of the universe, but am arguing against grand parent's argument that we can conclude consciousness is physical without making certain assumptions about the nature and design of the universe, even if empirically it is our best guess.
Occams Razor is a tool people use to pick the best theory (in terms of size) among theories otherwise describing the same universe. These theories are otherwise identical.
The same applies to your last point: we simply pick the best theory at hand, and that argument does exactly that.
There are also correspondence tests between experience and behaviour.
> There's no other known way to answer any questions about consciousness, and science hasn't discovered any way to answer questions about the immaterial.
Because there's no such thing in science. If it's observable, then it will be absorbed into a scientific explanation. If it's not observable, then it must obtain by logical necessity, or it might as well not exist.
What does it mean for consciousness to be non-physical? If it is non-physical then it cannot have any impact on the physical world by definition.
Well, that depends on your definition.
If non-physical things have no interface with physical things, then they might as well not exist -- their non-existence is tautological and the hypothesis is meaningless. So the only meaningful "non-physical" hypothesis is one that allows an interface with the physical.
I don't think that's meaningful, it sounds to me like a contradiction of terms. If it is non-physical but it can interact with physical objects as if it were physical, what is the label "non-physical" actually describing? In a world where there are physical entities but also non-physical entities with physical interactions, how is the non-physical entity distinct from the physical one in terms of observable reality?
In this case, it would be describing the consciousness phenomenon -- which we can't get at using normal, scientific, physical observations of the world.
If X exists, we all know it exists and can talk about it, but we have no way to observe it (in fact, all our observations are restricted to being through it) - then I'd venture we're on an edge of reality itself. In my opinion, a non-physical hypothesis here is allowable if it has more explanatory power than the alternative.
Why? This would make it unusual compared to every other process in biology and everything we actually do know about consciousness. We know that most of the faculties we subjectively attribute to the conscious experience are rooted in physical biology (reasoning, instinct, emotion, memory etc), so I am not sure what the possibility of a non-physical component adds to the model.
Instead of "shut up it's magic" we have "shut up it's quantum physics", the experts in the field are the first ones to admit that they don't understand what they're doing/finding. "See that thing here, that's black matter", 10 years later: "Well actually that's some dark matter mixed with black matter, what is black matter your ask ? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯".
Science is too busy describing and analyzing every minute details that it doesn't offer anything useable in the real world / daily life (on a personal level), that's where beliefs/philosophy intervene imho.
But that's what science is. It's the iterative process of observation and deduction -- a bottom-up ontology built from observation, experimentation, and interpretation. It's built on the philosophical assumption that reality is orderly, fundamental physical laws (and constants/quantities) are the same everywhere, and that they were the same in the past and will be the same in the future. Those are just working assumptions - we have no reason to assume they're universally true, but they've been very helpful in a practical sense.
Philosophy and religion, on the other hand, offer first principles and a system of inductive logic and reasoning based on them (well, those that are coherent - many are not). It's a top-down reasoning system based on (hopefully) just a few axioms, that (hopefully) provides coherent answers on questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny -- the sorts of answers the human heart needs to have a sense of context in life.
From this, we know that the physical world affects consciousness in many ways. You can change its perceptions with alcohol. You can make it hallucinate with LSD. You can stop it entirely by applying force to the brain.
So either consciousness is physical or it is non-physical but somehow connected bidirectionally to the physical world. If it’s the latter, in what way is it actually non-physical? If there is some way in which it’s non-physical, shouldn’t that manifest as something that makes it act differently from physical objects? Some force that doesn’t perturb it or some attribute that remains constant when you’d expect it to change?
It doesn't count as objective evidence
Put it all together and you have objective evidence that there is, in fact, a lion in that cave.
Just because a lot of people agree on something based on shallow observations does not make it objective science. Thats moreso the realm of subjective "soft sciences" like sociology.
What if the people entering the cave make non-shallow observations and report it back to you?
If that's still not enough, then sadly science is not enough either since it relies heavily on cooperation (you can't test everything yourself).
And how does genetic testing objectively tell you that it’s a lion? Genetic testing tells you that its DNA is similar to something else you’ve previously identified as a lion, but if there’s no way to be sure if that identification then you’re just moving the problem.
Just like radio astrology is far more scientifically revealing than just looking up at the night sky and declaring theres nothing more to the universe than meets the eye.
Typically a genetic variance of >2% indicates a different species
So when we attempt to objectively study consciousness with consciousness, we have reached a point of recursion.
>objective: Existing independent of or external to the mind; actual or real.
We don't currently have a clear direction to go to get answers. That's normal, and it doesn't at all imply that there is no direction. And while we investigate the physical, we get more side benefits, like better and better medications / treatments / tools / etc.
If consciousness is "something else", how do we make progress towards understanding it? What can we do with that information?
Another assumption. Throughout history, again and again, science has discovered ways to answer questions, and when science finally arrives, it brings the "final" answer since no other method can compete. Haven't we learned this lesson yet? Why is consciousness the final bastion ?
Of course, philosophizing on issues like the OP article is incredibly valuable. After all, science is just philosophy with extra steps.
Consciousnesses as we experiment it is exactly what would appear if you were to instruct an intelligent system into thinking it had a subjective "I".
My theory is that consciousness is what appears when your mind theories (your model of other people's mind) become elaborate enough that you need to embed in them a model of your own mind into the model of their mind (aka "how do they see me" ?).
Once you reach that point, you have the ability of having a model of your own mind superimposed on your own perceptions. You also have your animal brain shouting to you that survival is essential and that you are unique (which are obvious beneficial traits to have) and lets your rational mind rationalize as it can.
Consciousness is just the (limited) ability to introspect your thoughts and model an "I". There is nothing happening there that can't be explained through information processing.
You're very likely right that the functional characteristics of introspection and self-identification can be solved without anything "immaterial", but that still leaves open the question of how experience itself arises.
A recording is experience. Information you recall and inspect is experience. Experience of consciousness is recollection of mental states.
 This is the most well known paper on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_it_Like_to_Be_a_Bat%3F
"An organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism". I would argue that something that has a memory that can contain representations of its own internal states exhibits conscious mental states.
Lets call that Scientism. Beliefs about what may be discovered later are just beliefs, something that should be considered anathema to science itself. (Of course these beliefs may or may not come true, and curiosity about them may indeed provide insight that allows their eventual discovery.)
But in the meantime unfounded beliefs may indeed hamper further scientific insight and discoveries. Ironic, given the history of science & faith, that science might be stymied by limitations of its own faith.
No, that's a definition of scientism, which is very much pseudoscience. Your idea is so wrong that is excludes all answers to mathematical questions, which are, in fact, unscientific.
Because the essential quality of science is empirically testing hypotheses against physical observations, and math doesn't work like that at all.
Sure, but that's a largely useless belief.
People don't put enough value on the usefulness of a belief. They seem to think it is all about what is true from a data perspective, but truth is only valuable as both thought AND action, with emphasis on action over thought. Example:
- If you think gravity exists but don't behave as if it exists, you're gonna have a bad time because you will probably fall off a cliff, even though you're right about gravity in theory.
- If you don't think that gravity exists, but still behave as if gravity exists, you'll be alright because you won't fall off a cliff, even though you're wrong about gravity in theory.
If dualist thinking helps someone achieve the goals of a psychologist or therapist, then dualist thinking is more valuable than just waiting around for science to fill a gap it may never fill. And just because someone adopts a dualist perspective today doesn't mean they can't reject it tomorrow. There's no rule saying you have to believe the same thing your entire life. So if science comes up with a better explanation, the dualists can adapt then.
Not really. It could be just a more fundamental kind of physical thing.
It's not like a physicist looking at an amoeba. That's a very complicated physical system, but it seems obvious that each of the parts can be progressively broken down into the fundamental physical forces and particles.
Consciousness....we can't even begin to talk about that in a fundamental physical way. The operation of the brain? Sure. But as far as we know, you could have an otherwise identical brain/computer firing circuits, producing actions, etc
without consciousness. Which gets to the heart of the issue: we have no way to observe consciousness outside our own.
We don't know that at all. Can you describe how that would be like? Would a person with no consciousness not talk about their own consciousness? But talking about the self is an action. It seems pretty clear that the reason brains talk about their consciousness is their consciousness.
You're assuming without evidence that consciousness is, and is only, an epiphenomenon of a sufficiently complex neural net, which you are of course welcome to do. But attempting to cloak that assumption in positive language, as you do here and elsewhere, is a bit of linguistic chicanery that doesn't deserve to pass entirely without comment.
And, yes, no one really knows what that means. This is by way of being the whole point: that the question of what consciousness is and means is a matter for philosophy rather than science, as is everything else that can’t, or can’t yet, be precisely enough formulated to be susceptible to scientific inquiry.
(Personally, I take no position on the question, other than that as far as I’m concerned I have consciousness and that’s good enough for me, and I graciously extend the same privilege to all human and many nonhuman animals - dolphins, for instance, out of professional respect for a fellow species of highly successful bastards. I just think it’s fun to poke at unwarranted senses of certainty every now and again.)
I am not even sure it would need any additional training.
Or I misunderstand what you mean by qualia. But the only other alternative interpretation of a word I can think of is identical to "being a specific physical system", which does not involve consciousness at all.
> is there anything at all
The "what can it do" refers entirely to an internal characteristic known only to itself (or at least not known to me).
Is that then a meaningless concept? Perhaps. But in that case, I would suggest there simply isn't a "meaningful" definition of consciousness. It's just the Turning Test.
And that's all that any agreed upon measurements and observations have ever been. Just because you can't (yet) quantify it or model it formally doesn't mean you can't observe it.
Can you cite a source for this argument? I’d be interested in better understanding it, but your presentation of it has thus far not aided this goal.
Consider a radio antenna. A radio operates by responding to electrons sloshing around in a wire. The radio can 'experience external reality' iff that sloshing behaves analogously to something 'external': another antenna. This kind of analogy is what observation is, and it basically defines what an experience is. (Though in general, it doesn't need to be external: you can easily observe internal state or have a feedback loop.) Two antenna can be said to pick up the same signal only if their responses strongly correlate.
A brain doesn't work any differently, it's just a far more complex antenna that integrates more complex signals from more diverse sources. The only thing you have to do is establish a strong enough correlation (depending on the accuracy you care to assert) and to do that, you need to pick a number of aspects of the system, measure them, and ensure they correlate sufficiently nicely.
Again, this has nothing to do with the brain per se: all scientific measurements operate on the same idea. A large enough number of correlated observations is sufficient to establish whether two phenomena are the same. Humans are so good at doing this implicitly that we don't even question if other people have emotions, thoughts, ideas, or experiences that differ significantly from our own. In fact, human development involves a great deal of social mimikry and exploration which serve to constrain people's behavior to those things which communicate shared experiences particularly strongly. (Conversely, human behavior is not so unpredictable that we can't build an understand of it.)
And yet other people often do, to the extent that the concept of "neurotypicality", and its converse, are necessary components of (the closest thing we yet have to) a complete theory of mind.
It's interesting to me that you accuse me of the No True Scotsman fallacy while introducing the concept of some sort of external signals for which a human brain functions exclusively as a receiver. That reads like an attempt to introduce a mind-body duality, but given your prior commentary I doubt that is the case. The closest I can come to making sense of it is that you seem to argue that consciousness consists entirely in experience of, and response to, outside stimuli from other humans and from the environment, with no de novo contribution arising from within the person who experiences a given instance of consciousness.
Considering that this appears to be a sneaky attempt to define the concept of consciousness out of existence altogether, I have to assume I've misunderstood you somehow, because I can't imagine anyone would engage in such chicanery under the color of forthright and intellectually honest discussion. But we're talking so much past one another at this point that I do doubt the use of continuing any further.
Consciousness is a very tricky problem. I often question what happens when a man loses his "mind". Is the being now just a machine with stored memory which responds to stimuli?
What happens when a person loses his memory? What role does consciousness play in this scenario?
How do we let split personality disorder and consciousness to play together?
Also, I look around and see the geometry of flowers and seeds. Geometry that emanates from the universe. Everything that looks chaotic at one level becomes extremely beautiful and organized at another.
Also, I see that everything is terribly interconnected. If we think deeply enough we can easily see that a stone lying outside and us are all the same as far as building blocks are concerned. The stone is not an unnecessary object, but our existence and the stone's existence are inextricable.
The universe, whatever is visible to me, is absolutely too grand and too well engineered to not have some sort of intelligence working behind it.
I do not know.
Not much intelligent about gravity coalescing matter.
But that had the side effect of releasing atomic energy in the form of stars. The rubble attracted by these stars, orbited till it coalesced itself into planets.
Those planets are bombarded by atomic energy by stars. Chemical reactions happened to break down this energy. Life, aka chemical reactions that are able to persist, started happening as a side effect.
The more robust and more intelligent reactions were able to persist through fluctuations in environment. ie. ice ages, meteors, etc.
We are nothing more than a persistent, stubborn reaction. A fungus on a hot rock. Maybe someday we can send some spores to another hot rock, and continue our fungal infestation. Provided that we don't consume all the resources here before that happens and fizzle out. In any case, I'm sure there is a fungus, perhaps a more evolved one, somewhere else in the universe that will.
The meaning of life, explained (in ten words or less).
I think everyone can appreciate this viewpoint, but it's an emotional, visceral reaction to size- and timescales that are literally incomprehensible to the human mind. The complexities of nature engage one's sense of awe and strongly suggest the existence of an intelligent agent in some people, but this belief says nothing about whether that's actually true.
People used to think that about, say, the origin of a lightning bolt. (Now we know for sure there is no "intelligence" behind it.)
As an example, the idea that "there could be a mind that eats food but doesn't taste it" is silly. We were always going to evolve a way to "scan" food for it's properties. It just makes evolutionary sense. The more information the better. Not to mention the reward aspect (there is some reward for doing everything that contributes to survivial). Of course food tastes good.
Another example the author uses "red looks red" is equally unconsidered. It's a mental representation of light. There are evolutionary reasons for being able to distinguish colors, and they have to be represented mentally somehow. Why doesn't it look like blue? Who cares? All that matters is that it has a distinct representation.
Also in the article, the "why do rotten eggs smell bad" example... Because sulfurous compounds are the result of the metabolic processes of various bacteria. Because those bacteria are present in rotting things, which can cause illness, we have evolved to find them repellent.
Why are my experiences different from others? Because that's just how biological organisms beyond a certain complexity work. No two are alike.
A similarly obvious explanation exists for every example in the article. I see no compelling case that experience cannot be described through biological processes or that consciousness didn't arise from complexity.
I'm not saying there aren't interesting mysteries where consciousness is concerned, just that this article seems to completely fail to explore them.
However we have a subjective experience of what it ‘feels like’ to see red. Why is that needed?
I think to conceive of a philosophical zombie, you have to say that consciousness is something uniquely special in that something possessing all its describing qualities is not it.
Not really, our sensors are extremely limited, if taste or smell are anything like vision we're almost sensorless. 
> The problem is that there could conceivably be brains that perform all the same sensory and decision-making functions as ours but in which there is no conscious experience.
I think before this can be said to be a problem, it should be explained how such a brain (with human-like intelligence) can exist without mechanisms corresponding to the properties of consciousness.
But I would even argue that most living things above a certain neuron count are conscious. I think it's really flawed to assume that only we as humans have an awareness of self and are "conscious".
I don't see the distinction between my awareness of myself and my environment, and that of my dog for example. He is aware of himself, has ideas and acts on them, interacts with his world consciously. It's as if humans are grasping for some sort of uniqueness in nature. If you were a robot with sensors and cameras fed into a generally intelligent neural network. You wouldn't see a display of the data on a hud. You would be consciously immersed in the data. You would be the neural network. You would have an awareness of your environment, and you would be conscious of your existence in it.
I think consciousness is evolutionary. It allows living things to want to survive and preserve what they are. I think without consciousness a creature wouldn't have the strong drive for survival. In my opinion, it's what makes you long to continue your existence.
Why assume that they are conscious, over the simpler hypothesis (fewer assumptions) that they aren’t?
What evidence do you have that that other animals don't experience life in the same way we do? Why would we be any different from them?
It’s like playing a video game. Some of the other characters insist the game is multiplayer, but how can i know they’re not just bots pretending to be players?
Achievement unlocked. Carry on.
Create a turing machine out of marbles and levers, and it's suddenly "conscious" with the right configuration. You really believe that given enough space, a bunch of marbles running along tracks bouncing off levers can become aware that it is a giant marble machine?
The atoms in one pocket of the sun's chaotic fusion reaction might randomly and momentarily behave like an intelligent quantum computer - does that mean the sun is momentarily conscious from time to time?
Growing up, my vocabulary advanced waaay faster than my experience. I learned what the word "nostalgia" was well before I first felt nostalgic. In fact, I remember feeling it a few times about summers with friends that had moved before connecting the feeling with the word. It was a slap on forehead moment. I concluded that nostalgia was an inbuilt "thing", everyone else probably experienced it in the same way. It's easy for me to consider nostalgia as just an inbuilt reaction to a certain kind of signal. (Something periodic that makes you feel good, then it stops. Recalling the period creates a bittersweet feeling).
The space between consciousness and inanimate intuitively feels to me like a gradient. Various levels of brain damage might yield someone unresponsive to speech but responsive to pain. Then there are people who feel no pain, but otherwise are completely normal.
Therefore, I'd put on the lower end of the consciousness scale "reacting to changes" the more changes something reacts to, and the more varied their reactions, the more conscious it is. We're talking things between the sun and single celled organisms. Single cells don't seem to do much rumination, but they get hungry.
Advanced consciousness seems to require heritable lessons and skills. A feral human that somehow survived alone on an island from birth wouldn't be conscious like the rest of us are, but I bet it would still feel nostalgia if its favorite berry went extinct.
I'm comfortable ascribing feelings to things with full knowledge they aren't feeling it like we are. I bet red giant stars feel fat and old.
This is just defamiliarization. It's an excessively common belief that a computer with the right inputs, outputs, and software could realize that it is itself a computer program. The same software on a marble machine would be a lot harder to hook up to useful sensors, and would be too large to be at all practical, but it's the same thing.
The thing would have to have correlates of consciousness; mechanisms which perform the properties which constitute conscious thought. I see no reason why such a mechanism could not be created by such general machinery as a marble run, albeit a very large one. The sun however is a chaotic ball of plasma, so I can't see how it could play home to an arbitrary complex mechanism.
See panpsychism and integrated information theory.
When you write a program to determine a pseudo-random number, I doubt there's any person that would seriously indulge the possibility that in that moment some entity puffs into existence, imagines itself picking a number, and then puffs back out of existence. But if this is true it makes any path towards artificial consciousness require some rather extensive handwaving and speculation that is not logically justifiable based on what we currently know.
edit: see my other comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20518623