Category Archives: consciousness

A valley in the Alps

How to measure consciousness

What is consciousness? Is it an all-or-nothing affair? Or are some beings more conscious than others?

Even though we may not know the answers to many of these questions, we have some clues. It seems intuitively obvious that a bacterium is more conscious than a rock but less than a person. This may be wrong, but on the surface it seems plausible. I think I have found a way to show that, indeed, this is the case. What follows is my take on the matter.

There is already a serious attempt at describing and measuring consciousness: I am talking, of course, of Tononi’s famous Integrated Information Theory. My gut feeling -though I have very little more than that- is that Tononi’s theory at least partially describes some of the conditions for consciousness. It also seems obvious to me that highly conscious organisms will have high values of “phi,” Tononi’s measure of consciousness. However, as Scott Aaronson points out in his blog, there may be many systems with a high “phi” but nothing that we could call consciousness.

I think Tononi is missing something, and that something is the rest of the world. That is: when Tononi talks about a conscious system, he only talks about that system, but not its surroundings. But consciousness is not just consciousness: consciousness has to be consciousness of something. Organisms evolved to perceive the world around them and make sense of it in order to survive. Consciousness cannot be understood without this.

I propose that the degree of consciousness of a being is proportional to the correlation between its internal states and the state of the universe. That is: the more sensitive the internal state of a being is to the state of the universe, the more conscious it is.

This will be clearer with an example. Think about a rock: its behaviour is completely determined by its weight, shape and current position. Let’s say this rock is in a valley in the middle of the Alps: the shape of the peak 50 km from it has no bearing whatsoever on the internal structure of the rock. Neither does the colour of the tree 20 m from it, nor the rattle of the wings of a crow in the distance. Only the most immediate vicinity (and hardly so) has an influence on the internal state of the rock. I don’t need to know what is happening around the rock to understand its crystalline structure.

How about a person? Well, this morning I happened to be in that valley, looking at the mountains around me. It turns out that the shape of the peak 50 km from me had a notable influence on my internal state, as it determined the firing of my neurons. So did the rattle of the wings of the crow. Of course, the cow pasturing besides me may have felt similar things. Is it as conscious as I am? Hardly. For example, I have studied physics and know about the Big Bang and inflation. My mental states are, therefore, determined by things that happened billions of years ago and which are completely outside of the realm of what a cow may wonder about. Yesterday I was reading about the history of Rome: this means that events that transpired thousands of kilometres from my current position have a measurable influence on my internal state. I am highly interconnected with the rest of the universe. In fact, I am a more faithful mirror of the cosmos than a cow or a rock. It is safe to say, then, that I am more conscious.

How could we measure this? How can we put a number on the degree of consciousness? I have a couple of ideas, but they are half-baked (I thought of this barely 4 hours ago.) The first is to use a measure from physics called “entanglement entropy,” which measures the degree of entanglement between two systems. A highly conscious system should exhibit a high entanglement entropy between itself and the rest of the universe. Since one could theoretically add entanglement just by adding things to the system, I think that probably entanglement entropy density would be a better candidate, but the idea is the same.

Unfortunately, this would be very hard to calculate for a system such as a human. There may be other measures, based on classical probability theory. For example, I could ask myself how different my mental states would be if I changed a certain chunk of the universe, then measure the degree of correlation. This would certainly be easier, though I would have to find a systematic way of going about it. There may already be some way of measuring this type of correlation that I am not aware of: if so, please leave it in the comments and I will be eternally grateful. It could also be that the measurement is related to Tononi’s “phi,” but adding the extra requirement that the processing links to some entity outside the conscious being.

This is as far as my thoughts go as of now. I am dumping them here in hope of some sort of feedback though, after how long this blog has been in hibernation, I would be surprised to get any. If you’re still there and feel like dropping a line, it would be most welcome.

Is Artificial Intelligence Possible? Well, Yes

The debate on the possibility of artificial intelligence seems to rage on, despite the fact that one side’s position verges on the supernatural. In here I want to try to debunk once and for all the claim that it will never be possible to produce a sentient machine.

Here are the two sides of the debate:

  1. Intelligence can be reproduced artificially.
  2. Intelligence cannot be reproduced artificially.

In between those there are a number of shades of gray. For example, Penrose would be on the “artificial intelligence is possible” side while adding “but we would need a quantum computer for that.”

In order to argue my point I will assume we are material beings. That is, our intelligence and understanding do not come from a soul that resides outside the physical realm, but from the workings of our brain. I think any rational, scientifically-minded person will agree with this.

Frog Brains <i>in</i>, umm... <i>sort of vivo</i>?

Frog Brains in, umm… sort of vivo? (Photo credit: Mal Cubed)

If we accept that we are material beings and that intelligence is what brains do, then the two sides of the debate are reduced to:

  1. It is possible to create an artificial brain.
  2. It is impossible to create an artificial brain.

If by “artificial” we mean “made by people” then there is no debate: artificial brains have been created already. In fact, they are being produced by the scores every day, using a very ancient and pleasant procedure most of us are quite familiar with.

If by “artificial” we mean “made by means other than having babies” then, no, we still haven’t created a brain. Is it possible? Certainly yes. Using stem cells we can produce neurons which we can then connect. Given enough time, we could definitely create a brain: maybe not a human brain (not in a while, anyway) but a brain nonetheless.

However, by “artificial” most people mean “non-biological.” In this case, things seem to be a bit more debatable. But consider this: it is possible to create a machine or a piece of software that reproduces the behavior of a neuron, at least in its relevant parts. This has not only been done, but is the basis for a lot of our current technology. Yes, these virtual neurons are not the same as real ones, but that is because we have no need to add self-maintaining routines and reproduction. We have stripped neurons down to the characteristics that are important for cognition.

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given enough neurons and enough information on how to place them, it is fairly obvious we could create a thinking brain. You can think of it this way: I make a machine that mimics the behavior of a neuron and I replace one of your real, live neurons with it. I repeat the procedure millions of times until your whole brain is made up of those artificial neurons. There you go: an artificial brain.

This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of the objections to the possibility of artificial intelligence. Most of them include a somewhat veiled belief on the soul, as well as a romanticized view of what “knowledge” and “understanding” mean.

I think the issue that prevents people from intuitively agreeing that machines will be (or are) able to think is that they confuse knowledge and understanding with the feeling of knowing or understanding. Our brains are statistical processors: they receive inputs from the exterior and construct statistical models based on the most likely scenario. This allows them to operate with insufficient information and to optimize problem-solving algorithms which would otherwise take too long to process. Certainty is expensive.

However, that is not what we feel. When we know something, we can feel it. We know we know. We can almost touch the certainty. We also feel understanding in a way that we cannot readily explain and therefore are unable to imagine a machine, which is a mechanical being, understanding anything. But those feelings are not knowing and understanding: they are just ways our bodies have of telling us a certain model is trustworthy, in the sense that operating according to it has a very small chance of resulting in an unfavorable outcome.

English: Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons...

English: Complete neuron cell diagram. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think the “Chinese room” argument by John Searle is so appealing precisely because it appeals to our feelings of understanding and not to its operational definition. In this thought experiment, there is a person in a room who only speaks English but who, following a certain amount of rules in his language, is able to build strings of Chinese characters that sound like native speech. Searle equates saying that a machine “understands” with saying the English person in the room can speak Chinese. He certainly doesn’t!

This argument is misguided because it does not understand how intelligence works. For example, each of the neurons in my brain acts according to a specific set of rules. And, indeed, none of them speak English. What speaks English is the aggregate of neurons that makes up my self: the knowledge resides in the system. Similarly, while the person in the Chinese room does not speak Chinese, the expert system constituted by him and the set of rules certainly does. The argument fails because it assumes knowledge has to be placed in a singular location, whereas it is actually distributed. The fact that the same thought experiment can be applied to our own brains to reach exactly the same conclusion should tell us one of two things:

  1. There is really no intelligence, natural or artificial.
  2. Intelligence is distributed and is not what Searle thinks it is.

The intuitive argument against artificial intelligence is, however, extremely powerful, since it is grounded on very vivid feelings and strong beliefs. I don’t expect to have convinced anyone, but at least I hope you will consider the possibility that knowledge and understanding are not equivalent to the feeling of having them; I would also be greatly pleased if this made you reflect on the nature of intelligence and understanding; even more if you shared your thoughts below.

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A Mind Made of Nothing

In yesterday’s post I defended the idea that the mind is substrate-independent. After reading some of the comments, I realized I had done a terrible job of explaining what I meant by substrate independence. Today I will set out to correct that mistake by providing numerous examples of what I mean, hopefully making my point clearer.

The first substrate-independent structure that comes to mind is a fractal. A fractal is an infinitely intricate geometrical shape that can be generated by performing the same operation on some initial image over and over. The perfect example, which I already used in a previous post, is the Sierpinski triangle, depicted below.

Animated construction of a Sierpinski triangle

Animated construction of a Sierpinski triangle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sierpinski triangle is generated by taking an initial triangle, shrinking it to half the length of its sides and placing three copies in each vertex. By repeating this operation (shrink, copy, move) an infinite number of times, we obtain the finished fractal. Bear in mind that the Sierpinski triangle is not any stage of this figure, but the result of infinitely repeating this operation.

So what is the Sierpinski triangle made of? Well, it seems to be made of an infinite number of infinitely small triangles. I can infer this because, at each step, the figure is made of a series of triangles of a certain size. Therefore, if I keep shrinking indefinitely, I can assume the final figure will also be made of triangles.

However, this is a wrong assumption. Because it turns out that, should I start with a different figure (a portrait of Barack Obama, for instance) if I apply exactly the same operations of shrinking, copying and moving I will eventually obtain exactly the same figure. That is: the starting shape is irrelevant to the make-up of the fractal. All that matters is the operation of shrinking, copying and moving. The initial shape could have been anything. Absolutely anything.

I call this “substrate independence.”  What I mean is that it’s wrong to think that the fractal is made of anything. The fractal is the operation of shrinking and moving. Each of its infinitely small points could have absolutely any shape. The figure does not depend on the substrate. It only depends on the process. There is no “substance.” Or, put another way, the “substance” could be anything.

algorithms doodle

algorithms doodle (Photo credit: Shreyans Bhansali)

Another case of substrate independence is an algorithm, which is just a set of abstract operations. For example: ”start with 2, add 3, multiply by 5, subtract 7.” This is an algorithm. Almost everything (some people would argue everything) can be seen as an algorithm. Our thought processes, the universe, a TV program. These are all sets of instructions that some machine performs.

Computer programs are algorithms. Each computer program is just a set of instructions telling the computer what to do. Simulations are also algorithms, since they are computer programs. What is the substrate of an algorithm? There are different ways to answer this. One could say the substrate is the programming language that executes it or the computer that carries it out. With either definition, algorithms are substrate-independent. Let’s see what I mean by that.

First, an algorithm will produce exactly the same result, no matter which computer is running it. This is what makes it possible for you to run Windows in your computer and expect it will behave in the same way as in mine. The substrate (the computer) is completely irrelevant to the result. If you were a simulated mind, you’d have no way to tell whether you’re running in a computer or another.

Second, computers can be made in the most bizarre ways. In fact, they only have to be able to perform a very limited number of logical operations, with which they can build the rest. They only have to be capable of manipulating bits (zeros and ones) and transforming them according to certain rules. For example, a NOT gate takes a 1 and turns it into a 0 and vice-versa. An AND gate take two bits and turns them into one, which will be 1 if they are both 1 and 0 otherwise. These extremely simple operations are the basis for every single program we can build.

Crab logic

Crab logic (Photo credit: dronir)

The simplicity of a computer’s basic operations makes it very easy to build them using the weirdest materials. I could make a computer with people and pieces of paper, for example. Each person would be a logical door (an AND gate, for example) and would give pieces of paper to the next person using certain rules. For example, if I was a NOT gate I’d pass on pieces of paper containing a 1 if I got a 0 and vice-versa. Or I could make a completely mechanical computer, with gears and levers and so on. Or a computer made of blue cheese or bananas or peanut butter. As long as it performed the same operations of a regular computer, the algorithms it ran would be completely equivalent. If I was a simulated mind run by a set of billions of people passing papers around, I would also not be able to tell the difference. This may seem mind-boggling, but it is a well-established mathematical result.

Hence the claim that minds are substrate-independent: they are an algorithm and, as an algorithm, they can be run by any computer. Computers can be made in the most bizarre ways imaginable. Any universe with a computer running the algorithm that is you mind will contain you. By definition, all of those minds are completely equivalent. Ergo, your existence does not depend on the substrate where you arise, but only on the set of operations that define you.

You, like a fractal, are not the atoms you’re made of. You are an abstract process, an algorithm. Just like the universe. Just like pretty much anything else you can imagine.

Whether that’s depressing or exhilarating, I’ll leave the choice to you.

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Universes and Minds

Today I want to argue that our primary impressions (color, smell) are as real as primary physical quantities such as electric charge. That is, our minds can be seen as miniature universes and are as real as any physical quantity.

If you’re read this blog for a while you may be familiar with the simulation argument. Just in case, I will repeat it here. It goes like this: how can you be sure you’re not living in a perfect simulation?

Now, before I go on, I must give some clarification. This does not mean you are real and connected to a Matrix-like simulation: this means you are a simulated being inside a perfect simulation. That is, you are made of (virtual) protons and electron that interact according to some (virtual) laws of physics. Every single detail, down to the smallest particle, is taken into account. Every experiment gives the same result. Everything is exactly the same: that’s why the simulation is perfect. You are surrounded by other (virtual) people who are also made of (virtual) atoms.

Abstract Colorful Universe Wallpaper - TTdesign

Abstract Colorful Universe Wallpaper – TTdesign (Photo credit: tomt6788)

So, can you tell whether you’re living in such a simulation? The obvious answer is you can’t. The only way would be to find some kind of glitch but, since the simulation is perfect, there can be no glitches. Therefore, your life in a perfect simulation would be identical to your life now. That is: a perfect simulation is indistinguishable from reality. But what is a simulation made of?

A simulation can be thought of as a series of abstract operations performed by a Turing machine, which is some kind of idealized computer with infinite resources. Turing machines do not depend on the substrate: I can make them with cheese, chickpeas, cars or people. Their output will be the same, as long as they follow the same abstract rules. That is, a simulation is a series of abstract operations that are background-independent. For all we care, there is no physical substrate, since any substrate will do the trick.

Since our reality is exactly equivalent to a bunch of abstract operations with no physical substrate, the next logical step is to assume that reality is nothing but a bunch of abstract operation with no physical substrate.

Turing machine 2

Turing machine 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now to the mind. Again, the same question: how can you tell your mind is not a perfect simulation of a mind? And, again, you can’t. Therefore and by virtue of the above argument, your mind is nothing but a bunch of abstract operations without a physical substrate. But here’s the catch: the existence of the mind does not imply the existence of a parent universe.

Imagine this situation: there’s a universe where, instead of protons and electrons, we have something called “blobs” which interact in a bizarre manner. Now, these blobs are arranged in such a way that they give rise to the set of abstract operations that defines your mind. In this case, you would still have the perception of living in a universe with protons and electrons, even though your mind would be simulated in a completely different environment.

Another way to see this is by realizing that our mind’s operations are more high-level than our universe’s. That is, we don’t need all the complexity of our universe to create our mind. Our mind’s abstract processes can be greatly summarized into a set of rules that is completely different from that of our universe. Any reality that implements this set of rules will give rise to your mind. Our minds are a set of abstract rules without a substrate and these rules are different from those of their containing universe. They are emergent, in the sense that they can be derived from the lower-level rules but, once they are, they can be implemented on their own.

This means our minds are somehow disconnected from reality, in the sense that we cannot know in which reality they are b

English: Snapshot from a simulation of large s...

English: Snapshot from a simulation of large scale structure formation in a ΛCDM universe. The size of the box is (50 h -1 Mpc) 3 . Run using GADGET (GPL software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

eing implemented. For all we know, our minds could be a universe in themselves: just as we assume the laws of physics are all there is and not part of a bigger reality that gives rise to them, we could assume our minds are similarly self-contained. Just like a miniature universe (and in fact probably bigger, since the complexity needed to specify a mind is probably greater than that needed to state the laws of physics) our impressions could just be the fundamental constituents of our universe. The color “blue,” then, would be as real as the electric charge. It is no wonder, then, that we cannot express the impression of “blue” through the equations of physics. “Blue” is part of a different, emergent set of rules and is a fundamental (irreducible) object of those.

This idea actually helps me. Before, I would listen to a melody and think its beauty wasn’t real, since it was just a bunch of pressure differentials in the air surrounding me. Now I can interpret a melody as a set of sounds, which are fundamental constituents of my reality. The melody and the sounds are real. The pleasure is real. This makes things more meaningful for me.

Funnily, this goes in exactly the opposite direction as all of the self-denying articles I’ve written before. So what do I believe? I’ll say this much: what I believe is irrelevant. I only have faith in doubt.

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Genius or Moronic? The Enlightenment Machine

Last day I was reading this post by bloggingisaresponsibility and I had a crazy idea. I am so excited about it that I decided to write an article to gauge people’s opinions. It’s one of those things which is either genius or completely stupid. I’m still not sure which one.

Bloggingisaresponsibility’s post talked about a psychological approach to enlightenment. The idea is that enlightenment is a mental state that can be brought about by eliminating certain tendencies in the brain. By telling people to focus on a certain object, we override some of these tendencies and create a different experience: enlightenment.

What are these tendencies that get in the way? You may be familiar with the main culprit: it’s you. The belief in a self is precisely what precludes us from experiencing a unity between us and the rest of the world. Once we perceive this unity and the self evaporates, we instantly become less selfish (“selfish” without “self” is just “ish,” after all) and our worries fade away, since we don’t have a self attached to them.

Seen in this light, enlightenment can be seen as an impairment: the removal of a certain subroutine from our brain, in this case, the self. Why aren’t people born enlightened? Well, probably because going around without a self is not the best strategy for survival. The self or the illusion of one is crucial in self-preservation. The opposite would be not-self-preservation which sounds a lot like death. So when we practice meditation we are in fact training ourselves to cripple our brains: to avoid using certain functionality that came pre-installed. We are trying to get used of all this programming that, while successful for reproduction and survival, is not effective when trying to reach happiness.


Nirvana (Photo credit: Dunechaser)

Now, there are several ways of getting rid of this programming. Continuing with the computer software analogy, I’ll say we can either do it the “hardware” way or the “software” way. Changing the software is called “meditation”: it consists of training our neural net to react to stimuli differently, avoiding the circuitry of the self. It is a lengthy process requiring years of practice, but it is relatively safe. The “hardware” way is much more straightforward: remove the undesired areas. Done.

Of course, nobody likes having a piece of brain removed. Well, nobody I know. So surgery is probably not an option. But we have a next best thing: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS.) TMS is routinely used by neurologists to produce virtual lesions on patients. The way it works is the machine sends a magnetic pulse to a certain brain region, which becomes temporarily deactivated. This allows researchers to find out what happens if you remove certain parts of the brain, without having to actually wait for people to get injured. This is also how we recently found out that there’s a part of the brain associated with morality which, when deactivated, makes people utilitarians. Oh, and the risk involved with using TMS is very low: it can at most produce seizures in patients with some previous condition.

So I did some research and found out that researchers have already found candidate areas for where the self is located. We have a map. Therefore, all we have to do is configure our TMS to deactivate those areas and there you go! No self. Enlightenment with a button.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magneti...

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magnetism to safely stimulate or inhibit parts of the brain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A unit costs around 25,000 dollars. I’m seriously tempted to buy one.

So why would this be so awesome? Well, for one, you’d be able to reach enlightenment without years of mediation. That’s something. Also, you wouldn’t have to take anyone’s word for it. For example, one of the things that keeps me from fully pursuing meditation is a lack of conviction. Yes, people keep telling you that you’ll reach Nirvana. But these people have spent their whole lives trying: of course they won’t tell you that it’s not worth the trouble! Can you imagine? “Spent my whole life doing eight hours of meditation per day. Reached Nirvana. Wasn’t as great as I thought.” Maybe some monks tell themselves they’ve reached Nirvana without having done so.

Buddhists always emphasize their religion is “experimental” because you can go and see for yourself. The catch is, you need to spend years training your mind before you can. After you spent so many years, you’re probably quite invested in the idea of enlightenment or you wouldn’t have done it in the first place. So, when deciding whether to start, I have to take their word for it. And I don’t like taking people’s word for stuff.

But this way, I wouldn’t have to! It’s the perfect shortcut. It fits perfectly with my scientifically-minded persona. Build a machine. Test it. Test it again. Tweak it. Test it. Reach enlightenment. There.

And then, all I need to do is sell it or rent it or give it away and the whole world can become enlightened. Can you imagine? A world of selfless, generous people? A world of happy people? A world of people full of empathy?

So, should I launch a Kickstarter campaign and start building the monster?

Or should I get myself checked?

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Consciousness and Time

Both time and consciousness are a mystery, the latter a little more than the former now that the theory of relativity has clarified time is just another dimension. Today I want to focus on the relationship between them, if there’s any.

Before I write most posts I usually have a clear idea of what I want to say. In this case, however, I just have a bunch of questions and no specific answers, so my idea is to start writing and see how it goes. I am hoping that, by the end of this article, things make some sense. But maybe they won’t and that’s the point: that we really have no idea what we’re talking about when we tackle the issues of consciousness and time. Also bear in mind that, as I write this, I am trying an experiment (for a class, not to get high) that involves styrofoam and nail polish remover and I’m starting to feel more than a little dizzy. So this may end up being quite lysergic.

Nail Polish Remover IN2IT_resize

I’m sniffing this while I write (Photo credit: poipoy)

I want to focus on a thought that occurred to me when I was around twenty and that, at the time, I felt was a great revelation. Now I’m not so sure and, in fact, I’ve argued the exact opposite in some other posts. So back then I was in bed, reading Erwin Schroedinger’s “What is life?” (a highly recommendable little book) and thinking about what it was to be alive. I may remember this wrong (it was quite a while ago) but my probably made-up recollection is that the book emphasized the dynamic nature of life. That life is made to deal with changes in the environment, not with static external circumstances.

This lead me to re-evaluate my old belief that, in order to be aware of your existence, you need only one instant of time. What if, instead, you need two? It makes sense: your brain is designed to manage change. Precisely because of this, it would have to compare two instants: the immediate past with the present. Your conscious experience would actually be the result of the comparison, the derivative, in mathematical terms, of your informational content versus time.

This paints a pretty fascinating picture: a consciousness that dances between two instants, never in the past or in the present, but always in between, in an instant that does not exist in reality. Consciousness would create its own time (its set of points between instants) inside of time. It’s pretty to think about it.

The Passage of Time

The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

Now before we all start to stand up and clap, I need to add this probably doesn’t make any sense or, at least, brings up more questions than it solves. In fact, I believe those questions to be the only salvageable part of this article. Here they are, numbered for your convenience.

  1. Is time divided in instants? That is, is time continuous or discrete? Is it made of indivisible “atoms of time” or is it perfectly smooth? I believe the answer to this question is not straightforward and, when it is resolved, will lead to a much greater understanding of physics. Even though current theories would make us think time has to be continuous (as it is in the equations of both quantum mechanics and general relativity) it turns out that their description breaks down at a minimum time interval (the Planck time). When we consider space and time at the Planck scale, our notions of space and time break down and we have, well, we have no idea what we have and whoever finds out is getting a Nobel prize. But this does not mean time is discrete: as Lubos Motl tirelessly points out, a discrete time (or space) leads to predictions that break Lorentz invariance, which is, for non-physicists, very, very bad. So the solution will have to be somewhere in between or, even more likely, completely opposite to both conceptions.
  2. Does consciousness have time atoms?That is: does our brain process in continuous or discrete steps? Could it still process continuously in a universe with time atoms? Could it still process discretely in a universe with a continuous time? How does the brain manage time? How does synchronicity work inside it? When we perceive two events as simultaneous, does this mean they are processed simultaneously? Or is it just an illusion?
  3. Could there be consciousness in a frozen universe? If I was right before when I believed we only need one instant to be aware of existing, the answer should be yes. My intuition says no, but the “Total recall experiment” (what if my whole life until this last millisecond was a fake memory?) says yes.
  4. If consciousness is just a process, how to we explain the qualia (the color blue, for example)? Or maybe the qualia are unrelated to consciousness?
  5. What is the role of the self in all this? Does it play any? Is consciousness even possible without a self? What the heck do we mean by “consciousness?”

As I promised, more questions than answers. Actually, this article feels like a pretty far-fetched idea followed by a bunch of unanswerable questions. The one about time may actually deserve further discussion.

All in all, I hoped you enjoyed it and it made you think. I felt I needed some philosophy after my two last light-hearted posts.

PS: By the way, my last post on advice got the highest pageviews ever. It also caused me to lose three followers. I guess some people got angry, which is unfortunate because I really didn’t mean to upset anyone!

Anyway, here’s a disclaimer for future posts like that:

Sometimes I rant. I do it because it’s fun and to provoke a little. It’s just harmless banter, really. I try very hard to convey that I don’t take whatever I’m saying seriously, though sometimes I fail.

So, please don’t take me seriously. Like, ever.

PS2: Thanks to livelyskeptic for giving me the idea for this post.

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The Truth about Zombies

I wonder if you’ve ever heard about zombies. The philosophical kind, that is. They don’t bite your brain or wobble their way through your garden. They don’t turn you into one of them after they chew your arm. They look and talk just like you. The laugh, cry and take care of their children. They talk passionately about baseball. They write philosophy blogs and lucubrate about the mysteries of consciousness. However, they are not aware of anything they do.

A philosophical zombie is, by definition, indistinguishable from a normal human. If you prick their finger, they will bleed and say “ouch!” and probably act mad at you. But they will feel no pain. If you show them your latest painting they will tell you it’s amazing. But they will not perceive it. Zombies are just like normal humans, but they lack qualia. They are unable to perceive color, sound or touch. They don’t have conscious experiences.

Brisbane Zombie Walk 2009

Brisbane Zombie Walk 2009 (Photo credit: yinyang)

Philosopher David Chalmers has made extensive use of zombies in order to attack the physicalist world-view. This world-view states there are only the laws of physics: there is nothing in the universe outside them.

For example, imagine there’s a God who creates the universe. He makes every single particle and places it in its appropriate position. He creates the rules for the movement and interactions of every particle. He then presses the “play” button and watches things unfold. If you’re a physicalist, you believe that’s all God needs to do in order to get conscious beings to appear. If you’re not, you believe that God had to add something else to the equation. That the laws of physics per se were not sufficient.

Here’s how Chalmers uses the zombies to attack physicalism. He argues:

  1. Zombies are conceivable.
  2. Everything that’s conceivable is possible.
  3. Zombies are possible.
  4. Therefore, physicalism is false.

That is: if we can conceive of a world where humans are exactly as us but have no consciousness, it follows that our physical make-up is not a sufficient condition for consciousness, ergo there must be something else and physicalism is false.

I am a physicalist, but I see some merit in Chalmers’s argument. He is right that, should it be possible for a being with my exact physical make-up and no consciousness to exist, physicalism would be denied. However, I do not believe such a thing to be a possibility. So I guess I have to deny that every conceivable thing is possible.


zombie (Photo credit: Irregular Shed)

I can conceive of a lot of stuff. I can conceive of a triangle the angles of which add up to 200º, but that does not make them possible. The human brain has great capacity for contradiction, which does not mean reality is populated by contradictory facts or that it could be. In the same sense, a lacking understanding of consciousness (because of our innate dualism) makes it conceivable for us that zombies could exist. But the fact is they couldn’t: any physical process that is exactly like me entails my perception. It is my perception.

To me, the idea of Chalmers zombies is fascinating because it raises a related question that has nothing to do with physicalism: I can definitely conceive of a being which looks externally like me and has the exact same behavior, but which is internally very different. The question is: is it possible for this being to not have a consciousness?

Answering this question correctly will be crucial when determining which kind of beings our computers will be in twenty years’ time, when the first of them manage to pass the Turing test. Should we treat them as conscious beings? Or as super-intelligent automats? Should they have rights?

I personally have no idea, but I would love to hear your opinion.

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