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The Mystery of Consciousness - Not so mysterious?
Posted: 15 October 2011 02:03 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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In response to: The Mystery of Consiousness
It strikes me that consciousness, however you choose to define it, is an emergent property of the organization of our brains.

We can see other emergent properties around us all the time. Your computer, its function, an emergent property of combining certain semiconductors together into basic AND, OR, and XOR gates, linked together in ways that allow us to generate symbols, then manipulate those symbols. The ultimate result allows me to write this comment and for you to read it.

Who, when looking at the raw materials of silicon and semiconducting doping agents would visualize an internet of billions of connected machines interfaced to human beings? It is a miracle when viewed from the perspective of relative ignorance. A miracle we all take for granted. There are no holy wars about the miracle of internet creation.

And, compared to a single human, the entire internet is simplistic in design. The internet and computers generally are understandable and known even down to the quantum effects level. Chip designers and fiber optics engineers take quantum and relativistic effects into account in the design process. Little is left to mystery and the unknown.

When it comes to humans, we have no such deep knowledge. Slowly it is being gained but it will take additional decades before we have fully unraveled the mysteries of life and the functioning of the brain. Once that is done, I believe it will be clear that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex brain.

Life itself is starting to be shown as an emergent property, something I discuss in my article “The Meaning Of Life” on WisdomWebsite.com. While final conclusions have not yet been reached, there is growing evidence to suggest that life itself is an emergent property of matter. From interstellar formation of amino acids to the self-organization and self-replicating crystals that they produce, it is a very short leap to RNA and life, something which is being worked on in the laboratory right now.

While we are learning every day about the functioning of the mind, of synapses, neurotransmitters, ion transfers, and neural networks, we are far from understanding these systems at the same level that we understand computers. Until we do, seeing consciousness as mysterious and inexplicable will remain the state of affairs. We are where Arthur C. Clarke imagined when he said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Our minds remain magical to us and will remain so until we understand how the trick is performed.

There is little reason to rely upon some mysterious force or analogize it in terms of the origins of the universe about which we have limited and almost entirely inferential knowledge. The brain is tangible, testable, and examinable. The origins of the universe are not. Comparing the two is valuable in only the vaguest of terms, a case of electrons and oranges. The common element being mystery.

To explain mysteries is the fundamental function of religion. To demystify is the fundamental function of science.

If you choose to accept the mysterious as unknowable then you choose the path of religion and must rely upon some sort of faith. Faith in an inscrutable god, faith in the unknowable, or even faith in ignorance.

To choose the other option, not knowing, is unsettling but the best path for the curious mind. (Something I talk about in an upcoming article “Do Things Happen For A Reason” scheduled for Oct. 25th - sorry for the excessive site promotion but I think it’s spot on topic or I wouldn’t mention it).

A hundred years from now, I am sure that this debate will seem silly as our knowledge will have advanced sufficiently to answer our questions. There is little reason to suspect that anything other than an emergent property of matter and energy organized the way a brain is organized will be the explanation and, if history is any guide, much reason to suspect that whatever mystical, unknowable explanation that we give today will be found incorrect and naive.

I am willing to accept that I do not know but I am also intensely curious to find out. How about you?

Kenneth Benjamin
WisdomWebsite.com

[ Edited: 15 October 2011 02:08 AM by Kenneth Benjamin - WisdomWebsite.com]
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Posted: 15 October 2011 11:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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I also think that consciousness is something that must be a function of the physical brain. There is nothing else but your brain that can be the source of your conscious. There is much evidence, for example brain damage and its effects, to support this view. Just because something can be hard to define doesn’t make it a mystery. We all know what time is, but I’d be hard pressed to define it.


I really wasn’t quite clear on where Sam was going this time. Is he wanting a better definition of consciousness? Is he claiming that consciousness cannot arise from unconscious brain functions? Is he uncomfortable with the idea of “emergent” phenomena? Is he hoping to find a well defined part of the brain where consciousness is located?


If unconscious brain function can make me type this note, it can lead to my “consciousness”.

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Posted: 16 October 2011 02:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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I think Sam is entirely correct in his characterization of “consciousness”.  I prefer the phrase “subjective agency”, because “consciousness” has some technical, empirically defined meanings which can readily confuse a discussion (i.e. “conscious” as opposed to “sleeping”, “in a coma”, “blacked out” and so forth).  “Subjective” to specifically emphasize the subjective nature of conscious experience.  “Agency”, as in an entity that makes choices, because I think the subjective experience of “consciousness” is inextricable from our subject experience of having “free will”.


As to the business of “emergent phenomena”.  Sam is not denying the possibility of constructing machines (automata) which can in all ways behave such that we perceive them as being “conscious” in precisely the way that we believe that other people are “conscious”.  But even if such machines are constructed, it is impossible to determine if that machine has the same self-perception of being a ‘subjective agent” that I do (or that I presume you do).  But this is not surprising, as it is also impossible for me to determine whether *you* are a subjective agent in the same way that I perceive myself to be.


And this is, perhaps, Sam’s main point: there is not and in principle cannot be an objective, empirical test for the presence of subjective agency.


People like Dennett who advocate subjective agency as “emergent phenomena” of physical processes want to say that subjective agency is an “illusion”.


But this just begs the question:  what, precisely, is experiencing that illusion?


If you assert that conscious awareness or free will are “illusions”, then you implying the existence of that which experiences the illusion.


Because I see consciousness and free will as inextricably linked as subject agency, this question of what is experiencing the illusion applies to free will as well as consciousness.


Perhaps where one stands on this question is the test of subjective agency.  If you agree with Sam, then you are a subjective agent, like me, like Sam.  If you agree with Dennett then you are either (a) simply mistaken in your reasoning and use of language;  or (b) you are a soulless automaton and not a subject agent.  This would “explain” our differing intuitions.  smile


Sam’s position on the nature of consciousness is rather surprising to me, given his position on free will.  Maybe I misread his recent post about free will, or perhaps I misremember it now, but I think exactly the same case he makes presently for “consciousness” apply to the subjective self-perception of having “free will”.

[ Edited: 16 October 2011 02:46 PM by s.k.graham]
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Posted: 16 October 2011 06:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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I’m disappointed in Sam. It’s one thing to fall for the trick, we all do, but it’s another thing to believe the trick is real and to postulate “mysterious” or supernatural “agency” to account for that the gaps in his understanding.

The common sensical view of “consciousness” is not so much an illusion as a misunderstanding, a missed take, much like thinking the earth is flat.
I’ve suffered from the same misconception of course, but I think that Dan Dennett is exactly right. There is no reason to postulate a yet more complex and mysterious phenomena to explain the gaps in our knowledge. This is just the god problem in sheeps’ clothing.


There is and could be no such thing as a “zombie” that was fully capable of demonstrating all of the attributes of consciousness without being conscious themselves. If one thinks that such a thing as “philosophical zombies” is conceive-able, then one must
also think that artificial intelligence is impossible. That we cannot reverse engineer a conscious being. By the same reasoning, at one time, a chess playing machine was thought impossible. It turns out that what was once thought to be intensely conscious mental activity can be reduced to evolved algorithms. Algorithms that exist in design space, waiting to be expressed.


We need to invoke the principle of parsimony which stipulates simplicity and economy from the fruits of evolution. That which looks, and swims, flies,  and quacks like a duck will likely also bear the cognitive capabilities and restraints of a duck.


I prefer to think in terms of cognition, rather than “consciousness”, a term I think we should retire. All creatures, down to single eukaryotic cells, demonstrate different types of cognition and recognition, typically geared as adaptations to their respective environments. Regardless of their means of perception, all of these creatures have a “what it’s like to be” experience, yes even starfishes.

Re-cognition is especially important in us primates because we build, (as we grow), symbolic “maps” of our “territory” such that we more often spend “subjective” time consulting maps and indexes of reality rather than attending to reality itself. Other creatures lack the memory I suppose, clearly more “be here now” than humans. The past is unimportant quickly for most of us.


Like the fact that the lady never really gets sawed in half, there is no “subjective self” that experiences the world second hand. That’s the trick.


If you think about it, we almost never spend any time, not behaving, not being. Sam and others, spend (good) time in mediation, trying to do this very thing, suspend behavior. Very difficult to demonstrate any true “free will”. At best the so called consciousness, inaccurate and blind in so many ways, plays catch up to events that have already transpired. At best, we may demonstrate some “free won’t”, or an ability to arrest or modify pre-programmed, re-cognitive behavior.


I could write on, but I think Sam has jumped off the deep end.

[ Edited: 16 October 2011 06:54 PM by eucaryote]
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Posted: 16 October 2011 10:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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On the mystery of emergence:
If we were quarks and gluons floating around in a sub-atomic plasma overwhelmed by the strong nuclear force at a time close to our universe’s beginning, we would probably find it unbelievable that we arose from a much more basic “quantum fluctuation”.  Just as unbelievable would be the likelihood of much more complex electromagnetic interactions eventually resulting in a vast world of highly-information-incorporating molecules arising in our futures: Electromagnetism (and the weak nuclear interaction) emerging from our plasma would perhaps seem as unlikely as the macroscopic effects of gravity emerging from massive coagulations of molecules in space or life emerging from mere molecules-under-the-effects-of-gravity or consciousness arising from mere biology.
At each new level the emergent properties are the result of a revolutionary but positive (i.e. more energy efficient and information incorporating) “mutation” from a prior configuration or coagulation of matter-space-time.  To me, the idea of emergence incorporates the ability of the universe to continually “bootstrap” itself, creating islands of order that defy the prior average levels of disorder and decay.  Can emergence be understood as just a broader view of evolution by selection that applies to non-living matter and consciousness as well?

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Posted: 16 October 2011 11:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Michael Kean - 17 October 2011 02:17 AM

On the mystery of emergence:
If we were quarks and gluons floating around in a sub-atomic plasma overwhelmed by the strong nuclear force at a time close to our universe’s beginning, we would probably find it unbelievable that we arose from a much more basic “quantum fluctuation”.  Just as unbelievable would be the likelihood of much more complex electromagnetic interactions eventually resulting in a vast world of highly-information-incorporating molecules arising in our futures: Electromagnetism (and the weak nuclear interaction) emerging from our plasma would perhaps seem as unlikely as the macroscopic effects of gravity emerging from massive coagulations of molecules in space or life emerging from mere molecules-under-the-effects-of-gravity or consciousness arising from mere biology.
At each new level the emergent properties are the result of a revolutionary but positive (i.e. more energy efficient and information incorporating) “mutation” from a prior configuration or coagulation of matter-space-time.  To me, the idea of emergence incorporates the ability of the universe to continually “bootstrap” itself, creating islands of order that defy the prior average levels of disorder and decay.  Can emergence be understood as just a broader view of evolution by selection that applies to non-living matter and consciousness as well?

Michael, I think you are spot on and that yes, evolution may well apply to non-living matter, at least that is the direction the research into the origins of life is pointing. Personally, I find this possibility very exciting and it may not be long before we are not only debating the meanings of consciousness and free will but also the very definition of life itself. When looked at objectively, there is, as you point out, no gap between the infinitesimal and the macroscopic, just a continuum of organization, of emergent properties. Where does ‘life’ begin and where does it end?

This soon becomes a semantic argument and at some point I think we must accept that the terms life, consciousness, and free will have meaning even if we cannot rigorously define that meaning. We may as well split hairs about the meaning of love, the color mauve, or the definition of intelligence. All of these things have subjective and contextual meaning yet for all their inaccuracies, they retain communicative value if we don’t over-analyze them.

Since our experience is one of effect and cause, not the other way around, it seems natural to find our consciousness playing catch-up to events past. There really can be no other way. The idea that there is no reality per-se, is hardly a new concept having origins in the Vedas, if not earlier. Buddhist meditations focus on the outside observer and ask the question who is the watcher that sees? It seems to me that the watcher is the consciousness focused on the events within the mind rather than focused on events from without.

Whatever the case, if Sam choose to continue along this path, I highly recommend he join the Subjective Reality community starting with the excellent and popular blog by Steve Pavlina. If you want a taste of what it’s all about, read this - please get past the headline and at least read the section on Subjective Reality: Psychic Development.

I like what Steve Pavlina writes but I part ways with him when it comes to the mystical and Subjective Reality is pretty mystical to my mind.

I also agree with @s k graham ‘s comment:

Sam’s position on the nature of consciousness is rather surprising to me, given his position on free will.  Maybe I misread his recent post about free will, or perhaps I misremember it now, but I think exactly the same case he makes presently for “consciousness” apply to the subjective self-perception of having “free will”.

If you don’t have free will and you assume a Subjective Reality perspective (one in which you create your own reality), then what is this thing we call being alive? Some pure fantasy? The Matrix? God?

These diversions into reductionist semantic arguments distract us from the business of being alive, exercising our free will, and learning as much as we can about the true nature of reality.

Kiri-Kin-Tha’s First Law of Metaphysics:
Nothing unreal exists.
—Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Personally, I’m going to exercise my free will and close this reply now.

Thanks for the interesting discussion.

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Posted: 17 October 2011 02:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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I agree with Dennett & Pinker that the brain probably doesn’t need a special ‘understanding module’, but perhaps it does need some kind of asymmetrical feedback mechanism that enables its extrospections to gain a certain kind of depth so as to transform into and emerge as introspections.
Sentience seems to require a certain kind of overlapping signal within the brain, just as the appreciation of musical depth needs a stereophonic signal, which supplies a different signal to each ear, rather than just a monophonic one, or just as the appreciation of visual depth from a flat screen TV requires a 3D picture or stereogram, which supplies a different signal to each eye. 
Understanding surely needs a mirror, a reflection, a kind of self as object - self as subject double signal within the brain’s information-access processes.  It seems to me writers on this subject are too quick to claim that there will never be an explanation (either because it is an illusion or because there is no known evidence so far).  Why limit ourselves?  Theoretical physicists, when speaking of virtual particles and vacuum fluctuations, certainly don’t hold back when it comes to explaining indirect reality.  Would it be better to call consciousness virtual, indirect and transient rather than an illusion in order to arrive a testable model of consciousness?

[ Edited: 17 October 2011 02:50 AM by Michael Kean]
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Posted: 17 October 2011 03:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Michael Kean - 17 October 2011 06:34 AM

Understanding surely needs a mirror, a reflection, a kind of self as object - self as subject double signal within the brain’s information-access processes…Would it be better to call consciousness virtual, indirect and transient rather than an illusion in order to arrive a testable model of consciousness?

I wonder what role mirror neurons might play here. Could we use mirror neurons to visualize our own actions? I have no idea but I’m curious.

I think defining consciousness is going to be one of those slippery slope problems like what is sentience, what is intelligent, what is alive.

Some of these definitions get very thin and tricky at the edges. Self-reparing software, self-replicating computer viruses, chat-bots, AI, and vast ‘memories’ like Google are easy examples on the edge but we mostly don’t think that vaguely self-aware chat-bots are sentient any more than we think that worms are, on the other hand, dogs are and they can’t even talk.

Maybe the whole debate here is about trying to objectively define a subjective term and we should do as @eucaryote suggests: ‘“consciousness”, a term I think we should retire.’ At least when it comes to this line of inquiry.

[ Edited: 17 October 2011 03:43 AM by Kenneth Benjamin - WisdomWebsite.com]
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Posted: 17 October 2011 10:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Michael Kean - 17 October 2011 06:34 AM

Would it be better to call consciousness virtual, indirect and transient rather than an illusion in order to arrive a testable model of consciousness?

Yes, at least the evidence for “consciousness” is virtual, indirect and transient.

Kenneth Benjamin - WisdomWebsite.com - 17 October 2011 07:41 AM

I wonder what role mirror neurons might play here. Could we use mirror neurons to visualize our own actions? I have no idea but I’m curious.

Yes again. I think that mirror neurons are at least responsible for the “agency” that we identify in others. We identify ourselves by means of our observations of others. It seems that this identity may grow on us as we grow from childhood to adult.

Kenneth Benjamin - WisdomWebsite.com - 17 October 2011 07:41 AM

Maybe the whole debate here is about trying to objectively define a subjective term and we should do as @eucaryote suggests: ‘“consciousness”, a term I think we should retire.’ At least when it comes to this line of inquiry.

I think that cognition is something that all creatures share. Even Ameba and Paramecium can run mazes to find food.  Evolution has honed creatures with cognitive tools by which they make out or learn to “re-cognize”  and adapt to their environment. The tool set changes from environment to environment and creature to creature.

A great deal of memory has been added to the cognitive tool set of humans.
I think that as we grow, our brains make up a map of our environment. Our own index to the world outside and inside our organism. Most often the organism refers to this map in order to create or re-create the world as it must be. Often we experience very little 1st order cognition. In other creatures, 1st order cognition is all that’s experienced.


The experience itself must be made up of emotional responses on the part of the entire organism to cognitions and recognition. As such, experience is very much a macro-molecular passing state in a string of passing states.

I do think that it’s possible to reverse engineer a “conscious being”.  Nature and evolution have already shown us that there exist possibilities in physical design space that provide this function. If nothing else, we should be able to build an inviting physical trap which we could use to induce some “cosmic consciousness” to enter where we could isolate and study it.

Number 5 is Alive! wink

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Posted: 18 October 2011 12:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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“Yes, at least the evidence for “consciousness” is virtual, indirect and transient.”

Seriously? This can be said for matter but not consciousness. The existence of matter is indirect and virtual but our very experience is undeniable. The whole idea of matter came into existence as an explanation of experience. Now you have turned everythjing on its head? You think you know matter exists but the existence of your own consciousness you entertain may be an illusion?

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Posted: 18 October 2011 01:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Soldatheero, I completely agree.  And this is one of the main point of Sam’s article.

The only thing we each can be *objectively* certain of, beyond all doubt, is our own *subjective* agency.  (Any doubt immediately implies a doubter—that is you, who is doubting—you cannot doubt your own existence without immediately contradicting yourself).

Keep in mind that you can only be certain of your own existence as a subjective agent, not anyone else’s existence as subjective agent.

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Posted: 18 October 2011 05:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Realistically I have little reason to doubt others are conscious because I gain knowledge from others. However I think in principle that is true, that I cannot actually know you are are a conscious experiencer. This is because as it’s been pointed out, there can be no physical evidence of consciousness,why? because consciousness is invisible or more accuratly - unsensible. We cannot sense consciousness, our sensing of it is a representation of it and can never actually be it itself. The image of consciousness is not consciousness.. the problem is people give too much credibility to their own senses.

I believe it is a fact that our experience cannot be denied, consciousness cannot be denied as it is all we actually experience direcltly.

Materialists are coming to the conclusion that consiousness cannot exist because it’s existence is imcompatible with their perspective on reality - that reality is a physical thing.  Let me ask materialists this,

Is it not a bad sign that your paradigm of reality is leading you to conclude that consiousness is an illusion when in reality it is the one thing you actually know to exist!?

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Posted: 18 October 2011 05:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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“We can see other emergent properties around us all the time. Your computer, its function, an emergent property of combining certain semiconductors together into basic AND, OR, and XOR gates, linked together in ways that allow us to generate symbols, then manipulate those symbols. The ultimate result allows me to write this comment and for you to read it.


Who, when looking at the raw materials of silicon and semiconducting doping agents would visualize an internet of billions of connected machines interfaced to human beings? It is a miracle when viewed from the perspective of relative ignorance. A miracle we all take for granted. There are no holy wars about the miracle of internet creation.”

These analogies are not the same. Sure they are examples of emergence but not strong emergence. Strong emergence was coined just for consciousness (as far as I know) because consciousness emerges out of something in which it has nothing in common with - matter.

From wiki -

“Strong emergence is a type of emergence in which the emergent property is irreducible to its individual constituents. Some philosophers have proposed that qualia and consciousness demonstrate strong emergence. Strong emergence stands in contrast to weak emergence.”

The plausibility of strong emergence is questioned by some as contravening our usual understanding of physics. Mark A. Bedau observes:

“Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic. How does an irreducible but supervenient downward causal power arise, since by definition it cannot be due to the aggregation of the micro-level potentialities? Such causal powers would be quite unlike anything within our scientific ken. This not only indicates how they will discomfort reasonable forms of materialism. Their mysteriousness will only heighten the traditional worry that emergence entails illegitimately getting something from nothing.” [4]

Consciousness is supposedly the only possible example of strong emergence.

The point of Sam’s article is that this idea of strong emergence is impossible to really imagine actually happening. I think you don’t see it as being that impossible because you do not grasp what the mind really is because IMO it is likely you do not look inward.,. hence its easy for you to explain away.

“Likewise, the idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken.”

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Posted: 18 October 2011 06:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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SoldatHeero - 18 October 2011 04:49 PM

“Yes, at least the evidence for “consciousness” is virtual, indirect and transient.”

Seriously? This can be said for matter but not consciousness. The existence of matter is indirect and virtual but our very experience is undeniable. The whole idea of matter came into existence as an explanation of experience. Now you have turned everythjing on its head? You think you know matter exists but the existence of your own consciousness you entertain may be an illusion?

We have very good empirical, consensual evidence that the physical world exists outside our experience of it and regardless of the inadequacies of our experience of it. It’s simply not true that our own personal experience is all that we may believe in, count as true.

We have no empirical evidence, however, that our experience, or our so called consciousness, exists in the world outside of any of our particular, individual experiences. Essentially all we have is anecdotal evidence of consciousness, but nothing that science can confirm, even by consensus.

Despite our confusion we have no reason to extrapolate the supernatural, the immaterial or the extra-natural. To do this is to beg the question and end the conversation.

We are simply left with the ongoing processes of cognition, something all creatures, even plants and single cell organisms share. It’s very likely that we will reverse engineer the phenomenon we know as “consciousness”.

We may do this with “artificial” electronic or biologic creations of our own. “Beings” who not only behave exactly as we might expect conscious creatures to behave, but who in turn also claim to be conscious, and demonstrate consciousness in undeniable ways. Again, nature has already shown us that this is possible.

There is no “real” magic in the world only stage magic. That is to say that the phenomenon of “consciousness” is ultimately explicable and technically represents itself in the real, material world the only way it can.

If you want to know whether “artificial intelligence” is possible, all you have to do is look at yourself.

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Posted: 18 October 2011 06:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Consciousness is not the only thing that materialist know to exist. I can’t speak for all materialists, but I do not limit my evidence of the physical world to the direct experiences of my five senses or my subjective experience. I can’t see a microbe without a microscope, but I know they exist. I can’t see the Galilean moons without a telescope, but I believe they exist. I can’t directly experience any one else’s experiences, but I don’t doubt they have them.

Arguing that materialists world view is self contradicting is just playing with words.

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Posted: 18 October 2011 07:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Eukaryote,  neither Sam in his article, nor I in my posts, are arguing that artificial intelligence is impossible.  To the contrary, I fully expect that we will be able to create machines that demonstrate human-like intelligence, creativity, emotion, and even super-human creativity and intelligence.  I expect this to be possible within a single human lifetime from the present day.  (I emphasize “possible” because it may never come about as other advances may render the idea of a stand-alone artificial intelligence superfluous—in particular the blending of human nervous system with machine and/or the enhancement of biological nervous systems by means of genetic engineering).  If a stand-alone, intelligent, creative automata is constructed, I expect that it will think about and discuss the very issues we are discussing here.


An artificial intelligence may agree with the strict materialists (and, in my view, be wrong).  It may also point to circuit diagrams of its own hardware and source code listing of its software and say “Nothing here explains to me why I exist—why I have experience of myself.  The diagrams and software listings explain my behavior, explain limitations on my capacity to think and solve problems, but they do not explain ‘me’.  I am not my hardware.  I am not my software.  I am not the data the represents my ‘thoughts’.”


Consider how you answer the following questions:


  Are you your body?
  Are you your DNA?
  Are you your genome (as abstract sequence of symbols)?
  Are you your brain?
  Are you the patterns of electro-chemical activity within your brain?
  Are you your thoughts?


I answer “no” to all of these.  The last two ares at least a little tempting to answer “yes” to.  Ultimately, the patterns of electro-chemcal activity are are still just physical “things” bouncing around blindly according to physical laws (or so it seems).  I really have no more reason to think that I am those patterns than I do to think that I am my brain or physical body.  As to my “thoughts”... I have the experience of having thoughts, outs me as something other than the thoughts themselves.  Thoughts are something that I have, thinking is something that I do.  I am not my thoughts.


I am not proposing anything supernatural here.  But the very nature of what it is to be a “subjective agent” simply is not explicable in terms of formal materialistic “laws” or “equations”.


When you say, “We have very good empirical, consensual evidence that the physical world exists outside our experience of it and regardless of the inadequacies of our experience of it.”, I am afraid you are simply wrong.  I have absolutely no evidence that anything exists outside my experience, and neither do you.  Your experience is all that you have, and you have absolutely no way to know that you are not some ‘brain in a vat’ being fed some kind of ‘virtual world’ experience.  For all you know, the rest of us could be like the non-player-characters in a game like World of Warcraft.  The “real world” may be so different from world of your experience (“this world”) as to be incomprehensible in terms of “this world”.  Your “brain” and the “vat” may have no resemblance what-so-ever to the “brains” and “vats” conceivable in “this world”.


I am not saying that we should go around making wild assumptions about “this world” being an illusion or what the “real world” behind that illusion might be.  We have no evidence upon which to base any hypotheses. 


“Science” operates to find patterns (laws, equations) that describe consistent, predictable regularities in “this world”, the world-of-our-experience.  We make the pragmatic assumption that there is a shared, objective world out there.  But there really is no particular basis for that assumption, and even if the assumption is true, we have no basis to assume that the world of our experience is, in fact, the shared objective reality that we think it is.  We study it because, by our limited experience, it is the only game in town.

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