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What If Consciousness Comes First? (psychologytoday.com)
328 points by devilcius on July 24, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 548 comments



The real answer is that we don't yet know enough about how the brain works to work effectively on this problem. We don't know what questions to ask or how to break down the problem into smaller problems.

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).[1] 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.)

[1] https://hearingbrain.org/docs/letvin_ieee_1959.pdf


I wholeheartedly agree on your first point. I was a philosophy major and it was frustrating how so much of the philosophy of mind field were attempting to "run" off with their ideas before they could "stand".

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.


The way I see it, that's basically the definition of philosophy. When some sub-discipline of philosophy becomes clear enough to define its questions, they give it some other name (cf linguistics, economics, "natural philosophy")

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.


> 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 [0]. 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.

[0]https://philpapers.org/rec/MELTGC-7


An interesting observation, but there's also an analytical side to philosophy: bringing in information from other fields, figuring out the implications, possibly drawing conclusions, and pointing out new directions to try.


I don't know that learning more about the brains operation will satisfy people who resist the notion that their consciousness is a property of a physical system. Since it is an emergent property of a complex system, even if we understood the functioning of each independent piece, we would still be left with the question of why all of those pieces in concert have the property of consciousness. While we gather more and more data on the brain, we barely even have a beginning notion of how emergent properties actually work. If we had to take everything we know about atoms and their interactions and explain where phase transitions and states of matter come from, we would be stymied. We know from experimentation that very large groups of many atoms do experience distinct phase transitions. We know every way individual atoms can interact. But bridging that gap from components to being able to predict large-scale complex nonlinear dynamics... we have more proofs of our inability to do such things (with conventional tools) than hints of how we might tackle it.


We are very much in the infancy of the understanding of the Brain. New tools like optogenetics, CRIPSR-CAS9, and Clarity should assist greatly in understanding the brain and the body in general. Still, we are starting to know that we don't know a lot about the brain.

EDIT: Some links to the new tools mentioned:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb07TLkJ3Ww (optogenetics)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKbrwPL3wXE (crispr-cas9)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3bSx4TBs6M (clarity)


To me "consciousness" feels mostly like early chemists talking about pholgiston. Or like early biologistis discussing elan vital. Or even current physics' "dark matter". These are words that don't really point to single externalities with sharp borders, instead they are terms we apply to disparate, but seemingly (somehow) related phenomena.

> 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".


>A related question is "What actions (in minute detail) are involved as I believe/think/feel I'm conscious?"

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".


This concept is called meta-cognition.


Think about it like this: What would have to change to call an conscious thought unconscious or an unconscious thought conscious? The ability of "my consciousness" to reflect about it.

(Answer since edit doesn't seem to work.)


> On the flipside, a lot of the current ML research does a good job at addressing consciousness by breaking it into concrete, communicable actions.

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.


> "Does a rock have intentions?" was an exam question.

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.


I would encourage you to think on this some more until the discomfort diminishes. Just because things are deterministic (at a level of complexity that is difficult or even possible to imagine, let alone predict with our current understanding), doesn't mean your experience is any less real or important for you.

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.


But it might get really boring and pointless if I only watch and can't get off the rails


Assuming determinism, you could still do whatever you wanted. It's just that your desires would be pre-determined.


I think that's unlikely to happen. Even if it all is deterministic, the amount of variables at play will make it very difficult to determine the outcome beforehand (if not even impossible, eg Conway's Game of Life).


You personally determine what 'boring' and 'pointless' are and how important they are.



I think the question one has to answer first is what "intention" is in itself, at least some informal definition to work with is necessary. how you define it will shape the answer to the rock intention.


> Set the initial conditions and then the whole thing is deterministic

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.


Randomness is not an objection to determinism. The problem is not that decisions can not be predicted, the problem is that some people think decisions don't exist. For that vision is irrelevant if they happen by chance or by rules.

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.


Where does the randomness come from? If we could rewind the universe back to the same starting conditions, would it be any different the second time through and if so, where did that difference come from?


If you suppose an infinite multiverse where every possible thing happens in parallel, a typical observer will find themself in a universe with events that seem random. There are a lot more random-looking numbers than orderly-looking numbers.


Randomness in the map does not equal randomness in the territory, i.e. randomness may be a feature of our world-model, not the world itself.


Videogames are deterministic too, but that doesn't mean all of the things that a player's character does are predetermined inside the videogame. I like to think that there is a similar analogy for our universe, where a soul is controlling our body the same way we might control a game character.


Well... From a game designers perspective a player has very little free will... Yes they can make choices but in the grand scheme all the choices are predetermined.

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"


Rocks are strictly inadvertent.


Intentions are deterministic and your discomfort about the topic is deterministic too. Are you aware of the cause of that discomfort?

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?


I recommend Dennett's review of Harris's book to people who recommend it: https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/13814

Also Elbow Room, or, better, Freedom Evolves.


Thanks, I like to see the other side when I believe something.

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).


Dennett's overall claim is that incompatiblists are making a category error when they say that determinism at the physical level precludes free will at the level of subjective experience. He argues that free will, and really 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. (And that there are layers, or degrees, of freedom.)

I'm afraid I don't remember the exact contents of the Harris/Dennett debate; I should probably reread it myself. :)


Thanks for the summary.

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.


Great link.


Completely untrue. Read Consciousnes and the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene. There is plenty of research and progress in this area.


This was a wonderful book. As I recall, it catalogs a lot of convincing evidence that things come into conscious awareness basically upon a certain level of global activation in the brain -- when enough parts of the brain are "talking" about it, typically when different parts of the brain are having conflicting activation patterns. It likens this to the "workspace model" of awareness. And it's clear why the brain would need to resolve such a conflict, why it would need something like focus or attention to do so, and how this would relate to all sorts of information processing needs of organisms that behave in ways that keep them alive.

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.


The book suggests that something is a subjective experience if an organism can report it as one

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 do have subjective experience

I don't believe you. ;-)


Eh, this still doesn't go beyond the fundamental "I think therefore I am." I can prove to myself that I have consciousness, but for everyone else, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


You can't prove even that. If you examine it closely, the argumnent only proves that "it" thinks. "It" is not necessarily an "I", for what restricts the thinking to an I (i.e a part of reality)? It could be the whole reality that does the thinking as far as the argument goes.

Sorry.


I can prove it for myself, but not for anyone else. Same as everyone else. Nothing in that statement defines an "it".


How can you prove something about yourself before first proving your existence?

I know it sounds outlandish but it does point the gap in your proof.


I think, therefore I exist, therefore I am ?


Of course you are.


Because it proves itself by the simple act of considering the question. It is a tautology.


It proves itself if you define "I" as the same as the experiencer of the thinking, but "I" (as many other complex word) is much more overloaded.

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"...


> You can't prove even that.

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 dream, does the dream character "possess" consciousness? Or is the dream character (and the whole dream) just a manifestation of consciousness?

In a similar way, "I" can say that consciousness exists, and is taking the form I call "my perspective," but that's about all.


> you

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.


More fundamental than thinking is experience itself.

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.


You can experience another person's experience when you see them smile or cry. We call it empathy in modern parlance. The hogan twins joined at the head have an even more direct connection to each others' experiences:

https://www.cbc.ca/cbcdocspov/features/the-hogan-twins-share...

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.


You think, so you know you exist. That doesn't mean you know what you are, only that you are.


Exactly.


And when the brain suffers trauma via stroke or other injury there can be impact to consciousness.


There is no such thing as metaphysical proof.


Nope. Read the book. There is even an Audible version if you'd rather listen to it.


>The real answer is that we don't yet know enough about how the brain works to work effectively on this problem.

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.


You can't really say that definitively. It is just a philosophical belief.


It's true that it isn't something we can say definitively. It's more than a philosophical belief, however.

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.


>There isn't any evidence that there is anything happening that's not biological despite 1000's of years of searching for that evidence.

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.


they could always discover the wireless soul organ in the brain, which connects us to the cloud, where the real thinking happens. did they even look?

/s


> There isn't any evidence that there is anything happening that's not biological despite 1000's of years of searching for that evidence.

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/


We have no evidence that supernatural is even a thing.

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).


I'd encourage you to examine some of the many arguments for the supernatural that have been discussed for many years. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CulBuMCLg0


Its also the kettle calling itself black. The kettle, the calling, the self, that's all G..Nature..Universe, whatever you wanna call it. You cannot be sure you are anything in this universe. Even a sentence like "I think therefore I am" requires short term memory. The universe could have just created you at this very moment. Its all subject to corruption, subterfuge, and undecidability. Big woop, you find out that the brain is connecting to your thinking, that still doesn't explain why you, why the universe, why the brain, and why the thinking.


>The universe could have just created you at this very moment.

yes but it didn't.


You simply don't know that is my point. By continually asserting it you are demonstrating a lack of actual scientific thinking. It is convenient to trust one's memory and the physics of the universe as consistent and indubitably pure. But you have been around less than 100 years in a universe of billions of years. So claiming any kind of self assuredness about the universe or consciousnesses's patterns is total foolishness. A glimpse doesn't warrant authority to describe the entire landscape.


Hey you're right I forgot to mention that MAYBE the brain might have a long cord going off into soul land and that's where the real stuff happens. You know - in the cloud. It's just that maybe we just haven't found that cord yet. It's like super super transparent! Hard to see. Wireless, even. That's why you can't think in a faraday cage. No access to the cloud.

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.


You forgot to mention that your theory requires that _nothing_ gave birth to _everything_ via _undefined behaviours_ with intelligence and consciousness being mere side effects. That's at least as silly as the other explanation.

> 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.


I make it silly because it's silly. either there's a wireess soul organ connecting us to the cloud, where the REAL thinking happens, or it's just some meat: exactly what it looks like.

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.


Your whole logic is based on materialistic principles. You seem to be looking for a physical "cord" linking us to a physical "place" where consciousness "happens". You can't consider what I'm hinting if you stay in that paradigm.

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 ?


An example of how it could happen is: - the material universe is a simulation/mechanism that is taking place in a higher level universe with unknown properties. - conscious processes are associated with that higher level. - the "wetware" aspects of consciousness as neural software in the brain are not fundamental and/or are maintained as part of the simulation.


I can tell you definitively that even if there is a simulation, it doesn't treat the brain specially and differently from any other matter in the (in our) universe. the brain has no special properties. it is not a radio into a higher level universe. it's just stuff, same as all the other stuff. no shenanigans, I guarantee it for you.


I don't believe it's possible to be definitive about such matters. The way I interpret your "definitive" is "I very much believe this to be so." That is well and good, but I do not.


Consider the fact that brain damage can change a person's personality. That strikes me as a powerful indication that there is not a higher level on which the consciousness lives with an interface to the wetware.


hey God here, just a note that I did put a small radio in everyone's brain for communicating with higher dimensions that mere physics can never touch. When this radio gets damaged, it falls back to 802.11n, and this slower connectivity is what causes the changes in behavior and personality. It's basically a connectivity issue. No, the processing isn't going on in the brain, but you still need a good, fast connection to the soul realm and at the moment the only way to do that is with the consciousness organ I designed. the brain is basically a thin client and the soul organ is the network card. hope this heps.

--

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.


Your opinions here are very arrogant. You are presuming that lack of evidence is proof of a negative. Pretty sure that so far outside of the scientific method that it's as much quackery as homeopathic "medicine"

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"


what do you put the chances at that there's a soul organ in the brain that acts like a radio into a soul dimension, where consciousness occurs? (rather than as an emergent property of the matter, with the brain being no different than any other matter in our Universe.)

I estimate 0.00000000%. What's your estimate?


I estimate that there is a non-zero chance that consciousness itself is something we will never truly understand. Would you ever expect a piece of software to be able to truly understand the things that drive its actual consciousness, should we ever figure out how to create truly sentient AI? I don't honestly think one could, without speaking directly to their creator. And since the existence of a creator of human consciousness is purely a thing of speculation, I don't see us ever being able to do such a thing (should they exist) until we pass through what we know as death. At that point, I feel that there's a non-zero chance that our consciousness does indeed continue on in some form of existence. What that form is, where it resides, or if it even has physical properties, I don't know, and I don't think we'll ever know, until we cross the threshold of death as individuals.

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?


I don't object to what you've just written. I expect even if we had conscious robots that we programed with AI software and which are connected to sensors and aware of themselves (similar to boston dynamics humanoid and dog-like robots, if we also add in a large neural software brain), having them be conscious by obvious virtue of running software we developed/coded/used genetic algorithms on, wouldn't mean we understand that consciousness.


I'd say we would have the chance to have a much better understanding of that type of consciousness than we would our own, unless such an AI were to come about spontaneously from a long string of machine learning such that we don't have any clue about the inner machinations.


Interesting. Three points one from science, one from spiritual and one from literature. 1) This article talks about "causal entropic force" which can give "intentions" to inanimate object. https://www.wired.com/2017/02/life-death-spring-disorder/ 2) Read somewhere that instead of figuring out "self" exist or not, Buddha suggested to observer and realize how concept of "self" arise. 3) In the book "of human bondage" author writes, the concept of self arises from pain.


> 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.

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.


I used a Cray Y-MP back then but you're still right... My iPhone is faster than that hardware now, which is pretty neat.

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 [1], 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.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyc


It seems obvious now, but back then it wasn't obvious that "AI" required a learning system at all. Knowledge Engineering was a popular approach, and rules based systems running over knowledge bases were supposed to be the path to AI.

And don't forget Minsky's decimation of neural network research at the start of the 1970s [1], which led to major research centers like MIT ignoring them completely.

[1] https://www.edge.org/response-detail/26629


Personally, I think the brain as a data processing unit is a model that's seriously limiting the way many philosophers and neuroscientists think about this problem. You may be able to correlate an individual's reported experience of periwinkle down to the exact number of potassium ions crossing the cell membrane of every relevant neuron upon there acknowledgement of the color, but you still will know nothing about why it feels like something to see periwinkle.


"Parallel distributed processing: explorations in the microstructure of cognition" [1] in 1986 broke the log jam with backpropagation.

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/200033859_Parallel_...


Maybe the focus on the brain is part of the problem. Sure, neuroscience has yielded some interesting results, but consciousness is a social and behavioral phenomenon, and the brain evolved to satisfy such social and behavioral constraints. The acceptance per se of the Turing test suggests the brain may be irrelevant here.


Well the ancients thought it was the liver, maybe i should do a sonogram


> Does a rock have intentions?

My first thought: Depends on if the rock is magnetized.


We do. We know enough to state with absolute certainty that it's an emergent property. Nothing in your head is conscious. Nothing. Not even the whole of the human mind. It's in the "software", it's something you learned (and therefore did not have even when you were born, not even until quite a bit after that).

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.


You assume that there is a physical reality "out there", because you perceive and you experience it (or you don't, in which case you are a p-zombie). The theory you are proposing is probably the most widely accepted theory in scientific circles, which is that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, but that ultimately everything that causes this consciousness are just impersonal, physical events devoid of an inherent quality of "experiencing". When you die, that consciousness ceases to exist. Fair enough.

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.


> 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.

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.


He never said it 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.



>> We learn to calculate back from our current state of mind to what happened before

And how exactly does that back calculation happen?


Just because you don't remember your conscious experiences at birth or before does not mean you were not conscious


No, the fact that people have grown up to very limited or even arguably nonexistent consciousness, but still perfectly functional, capable and alive, means that. Functional enough to survive 7+ years by himself in a French forest. Add that these cases prove that perfectly healthy and normal human minds might never achieve consciousness, or at least nothing exceeding whatever consciousness a cat or dog achieves. There was no medical problem preventing consciousness, we don't even really know what the problem was, or perhaps I should say which of the many, many problems this child faced caused this. Lack of human contact ? Upbringing by wolves (assuming that actually happened) ? Was it surviving by himself ? Was it the water ? Perhaps a forest is just a uniquely bad environment for kids ? Perhaps even that specific forest ? Perhaps there was a human or animal or even something else in that forest that somehow further traumatized this kid ?

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.


I agree with most of your points, but I see no reason to assume that someone who cannot use language is not conscious. After all, use of language is just one of the brain’s functions. It’s not an emergent result of logical reasoning or something like that. On the contrary, it’s a task the brain evolved to perform, and has “hardware acceleration” for – that is, regions of its genetically encoded floor plan which are dedicated to it. If that accelerator is disabled due to not having been initialized properly… that’s no reason to conclude that the rest of the system is also defective.

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.


Do you believe an severely autistic person who has never spoken is concious?


Given that most definitions of consciousness I've seen essentially express that you are capable of symbolic/abstract thinking, I'd say:

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.


How would you define the difference between sentience and consciousness in this context?


All of what you say could happen without consciousness though. No one has to be there listening or groking.


>"Does a rock have intentions?"

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


Please don't say things like this, the theory of the big bang says no such thing at all. What it says is how the universe expanded from a very high-density and high-temperature state.

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.


>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?


It is probably interconnected, but it would be a darn shame if all of our data on how suns are created gets "invalidated" by pop sci articles if we find data that changes our origins of the universe theory.


Good job proving the parent's point. This line of reasoning is such a waste of everyone's time.

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuum_fallacy


Why did you interpet what I said as meaning there is no distinction between different forms of matter/life?


> inorganic life, simple life, and sentient life

... 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.


We usually call it "imagination". Not always exact though


Um... what?


Not sure why you got down voted. You can use words like intention if you define your terms. Also, people are studying now rocks turned to life.

The real question is not consciousness, but why the laws of physics are perfectly tuned for its existence.


There's no reason to think that the laws of physics are "perfectly" tuned for consciousness. This could be the universe where there's a trillion-to-one shot of its evolving, and we beat the odds.

The Anthropic Principle rightly points out that the question of "why does the universe support life" is fundamentally circular.


Who is suggesting that consciousness is completely dependent on having "the laws of physics perfectly tuned"? Obviously there are other conditions outside the scope of just physics that must be met to foster life


The comment to which I was replying?



A rock never hated me


The idea that consciousness comes first has been known as in eastern philosophy as non-dualism (advaita vedanta) -- everything is consciousness. The basic idea is that it is impossible to experience anything outside of our consciousness--thus any assumption there is something outside of consciousness is just that -- an assumption or belief. We can theorize, we can argue, but it will always remain a belief, because it's not possible to experience anything outside of consciousness.

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.


I think the controversy of consciousness arises from (and is deeply tied to) the history of Western philosophy and science: the "death of God", matter/spirit and mind/body duality. Something that's not widely acknowledged is how Indian philosophy (Hindu, Buddhist) had significant influence in the course of that history.

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.


> 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.

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.


> 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.

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.


Given that we and everything around us consists of particles obeying the laws of physics, I don’t think it’s odd that the burden of proof should lie with those suggesting the existence of something else.

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.


> Given that we and everything around us consists of particles obeying the laws of physics, I don’t think it’s odd that the burden of proof should lie with those suggesting the existence of something else.

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 wouldn’t say it is a dominant world view.


> thus any assumption there is something outside of consciousness is just that

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?


> The basic idea is that it is impossible to experience anything outside of our consciousness

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.


Like sutterbomb said, focus isn't exactly the consciousness we're talking about here. Although clearly if your name hadn't entered your consciousness you wouldn't have noticed it :)

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.


I don't think that focus or attention is equivalent to consciousness. Subconscious != unconscious != no consciousness


I thought it was fascinating as I read the thesis statement that over two hundred years later we still haven't left Immanuel Kant's orbit. The author ended the article citing Kant's proposition that space and time belong to the mind rather than as properties of external reality however Kant directly answers her question, paraphrasing, "What is it that lends perception the power of perceiving", to which Kant answers with a technical term, original apperception, which more concretely means that the structure of consciousness, no matter its belonging to subjectivity (so-called empirical apperception, your spontaneous sense of selfhood), is itself objective (those terms are actually one in Kant, universal === necessary). There are readings of Kant to go further and suggest that math, by extension, must be the descriptor of anything that can exist therefore.

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.


What a thoughtful response. I'd love to know which readings you'd suggest reading and in what order.


In order to understand Kant, first read David Hume's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Kant's major ideas are entirely a response to this essay (we English-speakers are lucky to have this crucial piece of the Enlightenment in our native tongue). Hume argues that cause and effect are entirely empirical concepts, which has the implication that we can't actually talk about "eternal laws of nature" with any sense. Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason and his subsequent critiques in the trilogy to argue that the laws of nature are laws because they are the laws of our ability to experience subjectivity at all. The Critique is very dense and technically written and the English translations do little to abate this. I would recommend reading it with a companion commentary text though unfortunately that wasn't the path I'd taken so I can't pick out a specific one.


Did you mean to say in his native tongue? There are way more English-speakers than native English-speakers.


I think the person you're replying to meant to say "we native English speakers".


Not the user you replied to, but there's no harm (and in my judgement great benefit) from diving right into Kant, or more generally, German idealism - so Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. Marx is also worth visiting for his "Hegelian" materialism (in this case opposed to idealism). That'll provide the basics to know what Foucault was talking about.

The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism (I forget which year) is also highly recommended though I haven't looked into that myself.


Also, to plug my own favorite dead German guy, Schopenhauer spends a lot of time in his writings explaining (his interpretation of) Kant's ideas, and his prose is much easier to understand than Kant's, even in translation. You won't get any love for Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel from him though.


>You won't get any love for Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel from him though.

You most certainly won't :)


It should be noted that even Kant said that Hume "awoke me [kant] from my dogmatic slumber." Hume is pivotal to Kant's work, so at least reading the Enquiry is a good thing to read before Kant.


While true, and I realize the irony of saying this since I mentioned building up to Foucault, I don't think one is harmed so much by simply starting. There's a lot of people who try to pile on more and more prerequisites and I think it's less productive; for every person who tells you to read Hume before Kant there are ten who will tell you to read Berkely before Hume. Personally I simply entered what interested me; first Marx (which is an ongoing love) then Hegel and now Kant. Heraclitus can come later.


What about people that have a distaste for authority? Would this distrust dissolve how power informs our perceptions? Is there something in the transition period in the teenage years that also sets the foundation of perceptions? I ask because that is a time it seems where we take the most risks and question everything.


Disagreement is shaped as much by power as agreement, because in both cases you accept the framing of what gets discussed posed by the people in power. Truly claiming that power for yourself requires breaking out of the frame entirely and directing your attention where you want it.

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.


> But that accepts the educators' power as legitimate; if it weren't, you wouldn't bother to rebel against it!

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.


You're still accepting the frame: you're putting your energy and time into fighting against existing structures, which robs you of that energy for creating new structures.

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.


I am not disputing any of that, but what you said before was that rebellion "accepts the educators' power as legitimate", which is incorrect. The act of rebellion indicates acceptance that the educators have power, but it rejects the idea that this power is legitimate. This is a far more constructive basis for realizing change than pretending that the very real power which the educators have over the students does not exist. If you want to move beyond fantasy and make your preferred version of the world a reality you first need to be willing to face the truth of the world as it actually exists. Accepting where you are is just as important as visualizing where you want to go.


Very interesting take. Wish I understood this decades ago.


Distrust of authority does not change the fact that power informs our perceptions.

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.


This article begs the question of our conciousness not being a physical process which is cool I guess If your peddling thoughts from a dualist from over a century ago. I still have no reason however, not to believe our conciousness doesn't arise from the physical configuration and other processes therein related. To paraphrase "Science cant talk about this purely in physic terms." No, Science simply hasn't FOUND the way to talk about it in physical terms which I personally believe in time we will. To be absolutely fair, as you may have noticed I'm in the camp of people who think Kant is largely garbage so I'm have a natural bias against works using his thought on the matter.


Your assumption that consciousness is only physical is merely that - another assumption. It proves nothing, and claiming otherwise begs the question.

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).


Science is better then this. We don't need to directly observe something, it's OK to be able to just indirectly observe.

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.


You are thinking about consciousness as it's contents. Drugs or brain damage change its contents, but don't change the presence of consciousness. Therefore that only proves that the contents are 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.


What if you are dead?


Your consciousness separates from the body. https://magiscenter.com/nde/


But that’s all based on people’s reported perceptions... it’s not a direct observation. It’s not a conclusion from philosophy or religion either.

So regardless of what camp you’re in, it doesn’t look reasonable to me to trust stories like that.


Good point. It may be another case of "consciousness of nothing", as during sleep or maybe before birth.


> 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.

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). [0]

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.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Chalmers#Philosophy_of_m...


> Science is better then this. We don't need to directly observe something, it's OK to be able to just indirectly observe.

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."


What do you mean we have no meaningful way forward? If anything, recent advances in deep learning (and even the older neural networks) show, that we have a pretty good mathematical explanation of what consciousness could be. O-o


You are defining a new type of science.


Imagine, if you will that the brain is an antenna, and consciousness is a soulful radio wave. If you destroy/make inert the brain, consciousness is lost, what have you shown? You may be tempted to claim that you demonstrated the fact consciousness arises from the brain, but this isn't the case here: The consciousness radio-wave still exists, but it is not being received.

The problem is a hard problem which may or may not be ill defined.


> The consciousness radio-wave still exists, but it is not being received.

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.


That argument does not pass neither the Occams Razor, nor Popper criteria.


Popper concerns itself with test-ability, not truth. Something can be both untestable and true.

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.


I am not sure I'd care about the definition of "true", that does not fulfill the Popper criteria. That is the whole point of it.

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.


> The problem is that all scientific results around the consciousness question derive from what people report about their personal experience.

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.


> assumption that consciousness is only physical is merely that - another assumption

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.


This is exactly why I prefer to use the term 'real' rather than '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.


> 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?


> what is the label "non-physical" actually describing

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.


> which we can't get at using normal, scientific, physical observations of the world

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.


The problem with the religion-based worldviews is that it opens us up to a vast amount of made up believes and leads to a huge variety of different axioms that become undebatable and completely mess up or public discourse. I think it's vastly preferable to just accept that we don't know the answer to some questions, rather than making something up.


I mean, the current state of science isn't that far from your description either.

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.


> Science is too busy describing and analyzing every minute details

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.


The problem with non-religion-based worldviews is that you still have to bridge the fact-value gap somehow, which necessarily entails "a huge variety of different axioms that become undebatable and completely mess up our public discourse". In fact it's worse: some religious worldviews are moored to truth claims, but secular-materialist moral philosophy fundamentally can't be.


>you still have to bridge the fact-value gap

Why?


With those as well, it's important to go for small axioms. For example Peter Singer's avoidance of suffering is a great example, much better for building a shared moral system than giant assertions like "abortion is evil".


Personal experience still counts as evidence. If you get a lot of different people reporting the same stuff then that’s a pretty solid indication that there’s some common basis for it.

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?


>Personal experience still counts as evidence.

It doesn't count as objective evidence


Sure it does. Imagine there’s a cave you can’t enter. You can send other people in, though. You send someone in and they tell you there’s a lion in there. You send someone else, they also say there’s a lion. You send a thousand people in and they all say there’s a lion. You send in people you’re certain have never met each other and they say there’s a lion. You send in people from cultures that haven’t contacted each other and they still say there’s a lion. You send in people who have no idea what a lion is and they say there’s a strange animal in there and the description matches a lion.

Put it all together and you have objective evidence that there is, in fact, a lion in that cave.


Without genetic testing you could not objectively know for sure if that was a lion or some other species.

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.


> 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).


Are you implying that nobody anywhere was ever objectively certain of the presence of a lion before the past few decades?

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.


Yes, up until the recent advent of genetic sequencing, we humans have often mistakenly considered two organisms that look the same to the naked eye as being the same.


You didn’t address my second point: how does genetic testing give you an objective measure of lionness when it’s still ultimately based on observations and subjective assessments?


Genetic testing is far more scientifically revealing than just eyeballing something because it's based on actual objective tests, data, and math.

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, you test this animal and it’s within 2% of a known lion. How do you know the known lion is a lion?


Classification


The same in what sense? Sameness is not an objective property of organisms.


How to do you define "objective" when objectivity depends on the very phenomenon studied?


Objectivity cannot be achieved without a control group.

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.


One reason to prefer the physical-causes-consciousness route is that it gives a fairly clear way to try to answer the question: investigate the physical. We'll know if we have useful answers when we can manipulate it / create a consciousness.

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?


> it's not a question for which an answer can be deduced from observation

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.


I challenge the assertion that something immaterial (other than information) is at play here.

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.


This article is talking about the question of consciousness as "experience" itself, not necessarily as the state of having some sort of intelligent subject (the "I").

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.


Experience is even less mysterious than consciousness.

A recording is experience. Information you recall and inspect is experience. Experience of consciousness is recollection of mental states.


I'm talking about experience as in "what it is like to be something"[1] which is different than learning or memory.

[1] This is the most well known paper on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_it_Like_to_Be_a_Bat%3F


Well, I am arguing that no, it is not. And I don't see what makes qualia mysterious and different from raw sensor values.

"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.


> Science simply hasn't FOUND [...] I personally believe in time we will

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.


Meta science is a science.


Faith that science will answer all the questions is not science.


All questions that find an answer will have come through a science by definition of what science is.


> All questions that find an answer will have come through a science by definition of what science is.

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.


How are mathematical questions unscientific?


> How are mathematical questions unscientific?

Because the essential quality of science is empirically testing hypotheses against physical observations, and math doesn't work like that at all.


> No, Science simply hasn't FOUND the way to talk about it in physical terms which I personally believe in time we will.

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.


> This article begs the question of our conciousness not being a physical process

Not really. It could be just a more fundamental kind of physical thing.


Your position, sometimes labelled Scientism, is Faith.


You re about to enter an endless discussion about the semantics of words which will end nowhere.


Science hasn't found or even begin to find a way to talk about this.

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.


> But as far as we know, you could have an otherwise identical brain/computer firing circuits, producing actions, etc without consciousness.

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.


Nothing of the sort is clear. If you train a GPT-2 instance on a corpus of the philosophy of consciousness which has been rewritten into the first-person singular, and you then ask it a question which it answers with a discourse on "my consciousness", is it conscious? Your argument here says that it is.

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.


Ok, so is there anything at all that a brain "with consciousness" can do that a brain "without consciousness" can't? If not, your definition of consciousness is entirely meaningless.


Yes: it can experience qualia.

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 think you are very mistaken about an assumption, that GPT-2 can not experience qualia.

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.


“Qualia” is a philosophical term of art referring to the subjective experiences that are considered to uniquely define consciousness. A creature without qualia perceives a noxious stimulus; a creature with them feels pain. If, as other commenters would have it, there is something of the “god of the gaps” about consciousness, then qualia are what fill those gaps.


This is miserably unsatisfying, but like I stated previously, consciousness cannot be externally observed with any known method.

> 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.


Consciousness has been observed externally many times using a very well known method: a vast number of analogous reactions to a large variety of stimuli. This is the very reason we aren't all solipsists and believe in human consciousness in others.

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.


Creatures which we’d all agree do not possess consciousness also display “a vast number of analogous reactions to a large variety of stimuli”. What do you imagine it proves about consciousness that we do, too?


I was being succinct. It is not the quantity of reactions that is important, but the type and nature. The quantity is simply what makes it a reliable measure.


The type and nature don’t seem like mattering, either. How does external observation of behavior shed any light on a phenomenon only perceptible through internal experience?

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.


There are no phenomena that are only perceptible through internal experience. (A term that you've basically introduced in a True Scotsman fashion.)

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.)


"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."

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.


There is no such thing as "internal experience" IMHO. You draw the boundary arbitrarily. Me + Wikipedia have a different idea of myself, than me without one.


The building blocks of this universe are "things" vibrating. That is all I know.

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.


You could just tie it all back to physics.

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 brain is connected to the gut via the vagus nerve. It's possible that humans are just a vehicle for bacteria to more quickly and interact with their environment in a more substantial way in a similar way that human use cars as a vehicle. I feel like I am an individual with my own consciousness, but it's possible it is all one shared consciousness by a super network of bacteria


> humans are just a vehicle for bacteria

The meaning of life, explained (in ten words or less).


these ideas are beautifully demonstrated in the movie “Annihilation” https://youtu.be/89OP78l9oF0


> 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 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.


> to not have some sort of intelligence working behind it

People used to think that about, say, the origin of a lightning bolt. (Now we know for sure there is no "intelligence" behind it.)


If you do not know why do you assume it exists?


I understand the point the author wants to make, but I think they fail to make 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.


I’m not sure of the point you’re making. The point is it’s entirely possible to conceive of a complex biological agent that can take actions on the basis of sensory input data without invoking the need for a subjective experience. That would be the ‘philosophical zombie’ described by David Chalmers.

However we have a subjective experience of what it ‘feels like’ to see red. Why is that needed?


Any agent which has the ability to perceive red must have some mechanism which corresponds to that percept. The percept of red has to be different to other percepts so that it is not mistaken for something that is not red. It is subjective because the agent has no mechanism for objective experience.

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.


What reason is there to believe that subjective experience doesn't arise from the complex web of perceptions, sensations, neurochemical interactions and cognition that we call "I"?


> The more information the better.

Not really, our sensors are extremely limited, if taste or smell are anything like vision we're almost sensorless. [0]

[0] https://eyelighting.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/quality-o...


It seems to me that the properties of consciousness would naturally follow from any generally intelligent system. An intelligent agent must be aware of phenomena in its environment, it must be able to distinguish phenomena (qualia), its experience is subjective to the extent of the limitations of its connectivity.

> 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.


To me it seems obvious that any intelligent living thing that has some level of intelligence would be conscious... as in take in sensory data, is aware of it's environment, and can make decisions based on that.

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.


This is almost exactly what I would have written so thanks. It too me a lifetime while to combat my childhood bias to arrive at this point. And now I feel like a lot of people have to similarly overcome their own internal bias and realize that consciousness isn't all that special. We search for intelligent life with out in space but intelligent conscious life surrounds us.


It’s not obvious to me. I don’t see any evidence that favors it over the alternative.

Why assume that they are conscious, over the simpler hypothesis (fewer assumptions) that they aren’t?


I would actually argue the opposite using your same argument. It would take more assumptions to assume that, we, a single species on the tree of life, experience life differently from all other animals.

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?


Whoa, slow down :) I have no idea if anyone other than me is conscious. So no assumptions about humans v. animals.

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?


You are right. I'm just a bot, here to troll you.

Achievement unlocked. Carry on.


I think the particular shape of normal human consciousness is a product of evolution, but I don't think consciousness itself is. People can experience altered states of consciousness which can be detrimental to their survival such as psychosis, disassociation, alexithymia (inability to perceive emotions of oneself and others), and aphantasia (inability to create mental imagery). Additionally some psychologists theorise that consciousness / intelligence is in fact a liability to survival because it allows us to ideate suicide as a solution to negative feelings, and that we have had to evolve mitigations to prevent this.


The problem I have with this is that you can then claim that anything and everything is conscious.

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?


Your comment got me thinking so I'm going to ramble a bit. The sun being conscious makes sense to me. Not as we are, but then again nothing is as we are. Cats communicate with each other, cleverly explore and learn about their environment but they aren't conscience like us.

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.


> 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?

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.


Since you happened to use marbles as the analogy, I think you may find "I am a strange loop"[1] and the concept of simmballs and the careenium[2] interesting.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_loop [2]https://philosophyandpsychology.wordpress.com/2008/01/24/the...


> The problem I have with this is that you can then claim that anything and everything is conscious.

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.


> The problem I have with this is that you can then claim that anything and everything is conscious.

See panpsychism and integrated information theory.


Consciousness is something separate from environmental awareness. Consciousness is what you have that lets you observe yourself carrying out the actions you are all while thinking yourself to be the one running the show, even though its entirely possible your behavior is not really "yours" to control, but the processes of your body and mind. In other words the 'thing' inside of you that's along for the ride of one quite immersive movie, is what consciousness is.

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.


Yeah, Chinese Room Argument, and see Dennett's take on it

edit: see my other comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20518623


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