[FoRK] The State of Consciousness Studies

Stephen D. Williams <sdw at lig.net> on Mon Jul 16 11:45:54 PDT 2007

This is all nonsense.

Except when determining which animals are OK to kill for food in 
non-emergency situations, I can't see much point in any of this.  Humans 
are conscious.  The experience is intrinsic with the way our brains 
work.  We know that plenty happens mostly out of direct reach of 
consciousness.  We can control and train our conscious thoughts in 
various ways.  We all experience consciousness, probably in different 
but somewhat equivalent ways.  Our eyes see light and color with the 
same mechanisms, so it's clear that we probably experience light in a 
similar way.  Our brains might or might not have similar physical 
grounding, but it's clear that we don't think all that differently given 
the same rough cultural and educational input.

Some of us can even feel multiple threads, in a couple senses, that are 
vying for primary attention (i.e. consciousness), sometimes even 
experiencing parallel processing of unrelated thoughts and sensing.  I 
often have split my mind between multiple simultaneous or time sliced 
tasks.  I know when I'm doing reference searching, brute force 
iteration, conceptual problem solving, physical or psycho-social 
simulation, brainstorming to various degrees, etc., etc.  There's 
nothing mysterious about it.  We can't quite recreate it, yet, but there 
have been plenty of theories that seem explanatory.

The only way we will understand consciousness is to recreate it.  Most 
current AI is focused on immediate, reachable problems, but eventually 
we'll get back to making progress on the long-term goal.  In the mean 
time, this is all just more mental masturbation of little consequence 
except to confuse people.  In particular, creating complex theories full 
of mysticism to justify supernatural belief is, again, intellectually 

One of the problems with conscious intelligence is that the intrinsic 
self-awareness can itself be modeled creatively.  If you think things 
work a certain way, your mind will simulate and fill in the gaps for 
that model.  My best example is an internal one to me: I created "the 
box" long ago to control my attention.  When I decide I am done thinking 
of something but that it keeps slipping back into my train of thought, I 
vividly produce a mental 3-D box, stuff the offending thoughts and train 
of thought into it, seal the box with force, and place it in a vague 
storage area.  I know there is no box, no 3D mental space, or 
physical-mental control, but I model it this way so that one part of my 
mind can control the others.  It is nothing but a mental short hand, but 
my mind makes it work.  Another example might be the ability to turn off 
pain.  You can learn to focus on intense pain and cancel it out.  You 
have to have a lot of consistent pain to do that, and in my experience 
you have to give it your full concentration, but it can work amazingly well.

Many, maybe most, people don't understand that they can control their 
minds.  I know people who make no effort to control their thinking.  
They are either not fully self-aware or have never learned that they 
have power over themselves.  Probably less self-aware people with no 
self-mental control feel a lot more mystical about their own thinking.

I have a hard time seeing how most of the proposed theories mentioned 
below have any serious connection to rational, non-mystical reality.  If 
you take the axiom that unknown != supernaturalism, that the brain is 
just a complex, emergent, wet machine, that what we experience is 
necessarily limited by the act of experiencing it, and given all we know 
so far about physiology, psychology, neural networks, emergent 
phenomena, etc., the most you can say is that there are some interesting 
things going on that would be cool to understand and imitate for fun and 
profit.  There are plenty of facts that agree with these points.  You 
can't use the lack of deep evidence to expand this into supernaturalism, 
dualism, parallel universes, philotes, or whatever without being fully 
fallacious.  If I have followed your mushy train of argument, it is that 
consciousness == God.  What a leap.  You are utterly unconvincing.

The argument about how to prove you are conscious to another apparently 
conscious person has some interesting merit.  Not much to my mind 
though, unless you are talking about comparative benchmarks a la 
Turing.  As has been explored in the "Uplift Wars" series, it is 
important to understand how dissimilar beings, such as aliens, think.  
This will likely be of most use in having mental models of how cognitive 
AIs (CAIs) think at some distant point in the future.


Lion Kimbro wrote:
>  Here is, as far as I see it, a rough outline of the state of
>  the study of Consciousness.  I'm just putting this together
>  on the spot, so expect neither miracles, completeness,
>  nor correct spelling of names.
>  << this >> means paraphrasing, "this means literal quote."
>  Broad Sweeping Generalization on the Sociology of the Study of 
> Consciousness:
>  Perspectives:
>  * <<Consciousness doesn't really exist.>>  -- Daniel Dennett
>  * <<Consciousness is not explained,
>    and we should study and think about that.>>  -- Chalmers
>  Narratives:
>  * Consciousness is a God of the Gaps thing.
>    Consciousness will fall to science, if it hasn't already,
>    as part of the continuous crushing of religion by science.
>    Unh!
>      -- "Science Rising" story
>  * Consciousness is really mysterious, and damn, it'd be
>    really neat if we could figure things out about it;  If only
>    we weren't being bugged by all these people who insist
>    it doesn't exist.
>     -- "What am I?" story
>  My personal inquiry, and the inquiry of a number of my peers,
>  is, "What am I?"
>  The inquiry of a number of people, is the question, "How do we
>  best finally rid ourselves of the fables of religion?"  (An effort that
>  I basically support.)
>  Naturally, there is a butting of heads between the two.
>  The problem isn't that there's a reasonable disagreement;
>  Rather, the problem is that the two sides aren't even talking about
>  the same things, nor has an interest even in even talking about the
>  same thing, save in very narrow regions of overlap.
>  People who are interested in "What am I?" are absolutely bored
>  to tears of descriptions of the mechanics of how shapes are rotated
>  in the brain.  The "Science Rising" people can't get enough of it.
>  As soon as the "What am I?" crowd starts to describe what exactly
>  it is that they're talking about, the "Science Rising" crew starts to
>  lose attention, and zone out.
>  As far as I can tell, it's not a failure of reason and rationality;  
> Rather,
>  it's a failure of misaligned motivation.  The people on the one side
>  want to understand what they are, the people on the other side keep
>  just want to make sure you're not talking about anything spiritual
>  or other-worldly.  They can confuse or ignore whatever they like, 
> because
>  they have no actual inquiry into their self-nature;  Rather, they just
>  want to make sure that you're ridding yourself of religious fables.
>  Dennett, Francis Crick, it's quite clear.
>  Most of scientific society has no conscious agenda, really,
>  (aside from vague distrust of agendas,) and yet they in general
>  induce into the same basic stream of thinking.
>  Important Questions in the Study of Consciousness
>  The most important question right now, as far as I can tell, is:
>    "How is it that we're having this conversation about Consciousness?"
>  That is, if epiphenominalism is true, then there should be no trace
>  of the epiphenominon within the system.
>  This would imply interactionist dualism ("Consciousness
>  over matter," or David Chalmers "Class D dualism,") or Conscious
>  Monism ("Matter is intrinsicly conscious," or "All information is
>  conscious," Chalmer's Class F Monism,) ...
>  That said, it could also include Class E epiphenominalism, if we
>  take the "radio" story, that Jaron Lanier has championed.  This is
>  the view that the epiphenomenon does not affect the world, but it
>  does get a say in which channel it picks from the radio of
>  mathematically possible worlds.  Perhap's it's Max Tegmark's
>  radio of mathematically possible worlds.
>  Earnestly, there are no real good answers, just lots of bad ones,
>  that bust balls whichever one you choose.  And, no, "simple materialism"
>  doesn't do, because, hey, we're conscious, even though you're rather
>  believe that we're not.  Well, at least I'm conscious, and that's enough
>  for me.  The rest can choose to erase your existence from your minds
>  however you like.
>  Fortunately, and the reason I say this is the most important question,
>  is this:  We can actually trace this one.
>  We can put the debugger on our universe, perhaps using nanites or
>  something, and track back:  "What patterns of neural firings are those,
>  that are representing the word, "Consciousness?" ""
>  And you want to find those separate nodes in the brain for 
> "Consciousness1"
>  vs. "Consciousness2."  You want to find the one that's talking about
>  "actual experience," rather than the one that's talking about
> "processing in the
>  brain," and so on.
>  And then, what you want to do, is you want to run the debugger
>  *backwards.*  You want one of those omniscient debuggers, that keep a
>  trace.
>  And -- that might not be possible, so -- you might have to perform some
>  unethical experiments on children.  You might have to introduce
>  nanites into the brain, to find out, "Where did this concept of 
> consciousness
>  as something distinct from just processing, -- where did that come 
> from?"
>  When did the brain first start forming those patterns of thought?
>  This may be difficult, but it's not "hard" in the sense of "the hard 
> problem."
>  Rather, instead, this is all "easy problem of consciousness" work.  
> It's just
>  labor, and it could, in theory, (provided the engineering of nanites 
> work out,
>  and that neurons are, by engineering, observable, and I think that they
>  should be,) be done, and an answer could, in theory, be found.
>  From there, you should be able to narrow down some possibilities about
>  consciousness.
>  We are philosophers, and can gedankenize and so on.
>  Let's ask ourselves, "What kinds of things might we find out?"
>  1.  "It's nothing.  There's nothing there."
>    - that is, we could find out that there is no separate distinction
>      between consciousness1 and consciousness2;  There's just
>      consciousness, and some people making up something just
>      because they've been so persuaded by religious nuttery.
>  2.  "There's a pattern that is formed out of the swirl of
>        chaos.  It doesn't form in all brains, but it does form in quite
>        a few of them."
>   - This is an interesting possibility, more on this in a bit.
>  3.  "The notion of consciousness1 vs. consciousness2 is a
>       strange, but persistent error."
>   - This could be evidence of dualist interactionism.
>     I personally doubt it'd go this way, but, there it is.
>  4. This test is impossible.  Thoughts "don't work like that."
>     Instead, there's some sort of cloud of obscurity, like looking
>     for the positions and speeds of particles, or something hokey
>     like that.
>     - I doubt it, but it's conceivable.
>  The most interesting of these possibilities, is #1.
>  The least interesting of these possibilities, is #4,
>  if it means, "We can't really look at what's happening
>  at the level of thought, in the brain."
>  #1 would, for the untrained scientists mind, seem to prove,
>  "Well, there it is, dag nabbit-- You're not REALLY Consciousness,
>   and I've got yer data, to PROVE it to you!"
>  Well, thanks for the tip, but it does no such thing.
>  You forget that my consciousness is axiomatic to me.
>  It can't be countered.
>  (This is part of how I "hook language coordinates" with other people,
>   who, quite independently, have also discovered "What do you mean
>   by Consciousness."  That is, we enumerate properties that this
>   thing has, and then we say, "Oh, I agree, yes, I agree, yes,
>   I know something that goes by that description, too," and then
>   with sufficient agreement of properties, we say, "That's it!  We're
>   talking about the same thing!"  Those who can't follow the description,
>   can't identify it.
>   Anyways, this "axiomatic, undoubtable" nature, is one of those
>   things.)
>  So, if #1 turned out to be true, then I could, very confidently say,
>  "The universe is a joke, and it's trying to hide itself from me."
>  Except that I, and others like me, know the joke, and the cover is 
> blown.
>  Good evidence that we live in the Matrix, or a dream, or something
>  like that.  It's not real, it's just a cool set.
>  That'd be a *really neat discovery.*
>  Unfortunately, we'd hear no end of it from the ridiculous,
>  "Consciousness isn't real" crowd.  Whatever.  You can't
>  please everybody.  So, the rest of the time living in the inescapable
>  "joke" might be a little bit miserable.
>  #2 is the "it's a chaotic formation" thing.
>  That'd be interesting evidence pointing towards...
>  ...nothing.  It could be class D, E, or F monism.
>  But perhaps the "consciousness isn't weird" crowd might subdue.
>  #3 is the "magical universe" thing.
>  Dualism would probably true, and interactionist dualism,
>  "The worst kind," at that.  NOW we'd have to go and apologize
>  to all the crazies.
>  I personally see this as the least likely.  But, hey;  Who knows,
>  it could happen.
>  One interesting thing to note, here, though, is that we would have
>  **STILL** not solved the hard problem of consciousness..!
>  You would **still** not know if anyone, other than yourself, was
>  actually conscious!
>  Rather, you'd just have evidence that there's some kind of
>  super-dimensional machinery, that was responsive to, and
>  poking information back into, this dimension.  "But is that machinery
>  conscious?"  You'd still have no way of knowing.
>  Even if it could reveal itself to us by glowing golden radiant white 
> light
>  and by singing songs that filled our hearts with divine warm golden
>  love, and you heard harps and lutes and bagpipes and bells and so
>  on, and your dead relatives came back to greet you through this light
>  -- you'd still have no freakin' CLUE whether it was actually conscious
>  or not.  Not epistemologically speaking, at least.  You just couldn't
>  know.
>  Any belief in the consciousness of an "other" is purely an induction.
>  And we can't show our "credentials" to anybody else, no matter
>  how advanced their technology.
>  Such is the state of things.
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