Much recent attention has been given to studies of the brain and questions of artificial intelligence and consciousness. Here I discuss some relevant aspects from a philosophical point of view.
The famous physicist and proponent of string theory, Brian Greene, recently (March/April 2016) participated in a discussion on ABC (Australian) television dealing with important recent developments in science. He raised exciting developments in string theory, the theory of multiverses, and artificial intelligence. Defending the value of pure science and the importance of supporting scientific work even if it has no foreseeable practical, i.e. economic, applications, he asked the audience if they would not be interested in knowing whether there are duplicates of themselves in other universes, and whether they would not like to become immortal by having their consciousness imprinted in silicon molecules, thus preserving it for eternity (my phrase)? He (Greene) certainly would!
Stephen Wolfram, the famous inventor of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha and the Wolfram Language, and author of A New Kind of Science, recently published his very interesting views of what he calls ‘consciousness’. However, he discusses not consciousness which, according to him, is located in (not clearly defined) ‘souls’, but the physical correlates of it, namely intelligence and neural networks, as well as artificial intelligence, the history and importance of symbolic languages, etc. See here: http://edge.org/conversation/stephen_wolfram-ai-the-future-of-civilization
‘Here’s one of my scenarios that I’m curious about. Let’s say there’s a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls. …………This question of realizing that there isn’t this distinction between intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine the future of civilization ends up being the box of trillion souls, and then what is the purpose of that?’
Both these scientists take it apparently for granted that human consciousness is equivalent to intelligence, and that it can be digitalized.
However, there are serious problems with this proposition. Firstly, it is obvious that human consciousness does not only encompass intelligence, but emotions such as love, fear and ecstasy, to mention only a few, as well. Even assuming that intelligence can be digitalized, which does not seem unlikely, digitalizing emotions may seem more difficult. But perhaps it is not impossible, because emotions are connected with nervous activity and why should these nerve processes, like those connected with intelligence, not be digitalizable? Which would imply that even robots (‘artificial intelligences’) could show all the ‘symptoms’ of human consiousness, including not only intelligence but emotions as well. But are they indeed conscious ?
To answer this question, we have look into ourselves and ask ‘what do we know about our consciousness and the physical world in which we live?’ As pointed out by various great minds in history (John Locke, David Hume, Bishop Berkeley, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer), our perception of the ‘objective’ world is at best incomplete. According to Kant, we perceive phenomena using categories of our mind (space, time and causality) but have no access to the noumena (the thing-in-itself) behind them. Schopenhauer argued convincingly that the phenomenal (objective) world can indeed be perceived only with the categories of our mind (space, time and causality), but that we also have access to the thing-in-itself because we are not only objects of perception but the subjects who do the perceiving as well. He calls this conscious subject ‘Will’. I refer to is as ‘consciousness’. For a detailed discussion see https://krohde.wordpress.com/2016/03/07/space-time-and-causality-in-kants-and-schopenhauers-philosophy-and-in-physics/
This implies that our primary knowledge is consciousness, all our knowledge about the physical world is derived from it and therefore secondary. I can be absolutely sure that my consciousness exists, and only analogue conclusions allow me to assume consciousness in others as well. There can hardly be any doubt that other humans, apes and other mammals are conscious (unless one wants to take an extreme solipsistic position), we (at least I) are convinced that other vertebrates are conscious, but the degree of certainty decreases the further along the evolutionary chain we go. Are earthworms conscious? Some people who have given some thought to the problem even attribute some elementary consciousness to molecules and atoms. This extreme position implies that consciousness is a fundamental characteristic of the universe like various physical characteristics such as the spin of electrons. An opposite position holds that consciousness evolved only at a late stage of evolution once a certain complexity (of unknown degree) has been reached (for a historical discussion see Rensch 1968).
For the question of immortality of consciousness (which was raised by Brian Greene) it does not really matter at which stage (at the atomic level or even lower vs. in complex organisms) it has originated. The unconscious ‘eras’ are ignored because there is no conscious mind to perceive them, consciousness is always existent for consciousness. However, for the question of whether robots can be conscious the problem is very well relevant. If all matter has a conscious component, we can be assured that robots are conscious. If consciousness develops in organisms of a certain complexity, we must be far less certain, because we do not really know what the basis of consciousness is. We cannot exclude the possibility that consciousness evolves only in organisms based on proteins and DNA, etc.. Robots with a chemistry and physiology similar to ours could be assumed to be conscious, for robots with a totally different structure, for example one based on silicon molecules, we would not be sure at all. After all, there is in principle no way to perform experiments (even at the quantum level) that would settle the question, because consciousness can only be experienced by a subject and not be ‘seen’ from the outside by an observer.
In reply to Greene’s question whether I would like to become immortal by being digitalized on a molecule or otherwise, I would say: certainly not, imagine you have all the emotions of love etc. but no means of fulfilling them! And we are immortal anyway, not in the sense that – once we are dead – we would remember all our pleasant and not so pleasant experiences of our present life, but in the sense that consciousness survives in one form or another, unknown to us!
Concerning Wolfram’s proposition that consciousnesses are located in souls, as far as we know all physiological processes in the nervous system are continuous in the sense that they do not ‘produce’ consciousness which is separate from these nervous processes, like physiological processes in the kidney produce urine. The only possible interpretation is that consciousness is the ‘other side’ of the coin, i.e., of certain nervous processes. We experience in our consciousness what the physiologist measures. In other words: in the universe (or multiverses) there is a side of physical/chemical processes deducted by us from experiences within our consciousness, and there is a conscious side which we can only experience as subjects of experience. In the physical world there exist strict (perhaps causal?) ‘rules’, in the conscious world we feel free and assume that we can act following our free will. Since the physical/chemical world is eternal (at least from one big bang to perhaps the next), the conscious world must be immortal as well, since both are just two sides of one coin.
John Locke (1689). Essay concerning human understanding.
David Hume (1739). A treatise on human nature.
Immanuel Kant (1781). Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Engl.transl. Critique of pure reason).
[Also: Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können (1783) (Engl.transl. Prolegomena to any future metaphysics that will be able to present itself as science.]
Arthur Schopenhauer (1818). Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (Engl. transl. The world as will and representation).
Bernhard Rensch (1968). Biophilosophie (Engl. transl. Biophilosophy 1971).
An illustrated example of how we might make consciousness in carbon-based robots at least likely. We consider not only intelligence but emotions as well. Put robots in a pub and see how they react. If they behave like humans, showing all the emotions of enjoyment and intoxication, we can feel reasonably assured that they have something like consciousness. Wolfram and Greene are wrong: it is not only intelligence that must be considered! And beware, once robots are self-reproducing with the consequence that they will be exposed to mutations, they might very well ignore ‘commands’ that they should not be harmful to humans (the first law of robotics????) and do what they consider good for their own kind, with intelligences vastly greater than we possess (possibly based on minds running like quantum computers)! Stephen Hawkins may well be right in warning that robots may be a great danger to humankind!
Carbon-based and drunk, likely to be conscious, but dangerous!
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All illustrations my originals