Disagreeable Me asked me to look at this interesting TED talk by Professor Mark Bishop.
The entire talk is well worth the time (20 minutes) for anyone interested in consciousness and the computational theory of mind, but here’s my very quick summation:
- The human mind, and hence consciousness, is a computational system.
- Since animal minds are computational, then other computational systems that interact with their environment, such as the robots Dr. Bishop discusses in the video, should be conscious.
- Everything in nature is a computational system.
- Given 3, everything in nature has at least some glimmers of consciousness. Consciousness pervades the universe.
The conclusion in 4 is generally a philosophy called panpsychism. It’s a conclusion that many intelligent people reach.
First, let me say that I fully agree with 1. Although it’s often a ferociously controversial conclusion, no other theory of mind holds as much explanatory power as the computational one. Indeed, many of the other theories that people often prefer seem to be more about preserving and protecting the mystery and magic of consciousness, forestalling explanation as long as possible, rather than making an actual attempt at it.
I also cautiously agree with 3. Indeed, I might say that I fully agree with it, because if we find some aspect of nature that we can’t mathematically model, we’ll expand mathematics as necessary to do it. (See Newton’s invention (discovery?) of calculus in order to calculate gravitational interactions.) We could argue about exactly what computation is and whether something like a rock does it in any meaningful sense, but with a broad and long enough view (geological time scales), I think we can conclude that it does.
When pondering 2, I think we have to consider our working definition of consciousness. We could choose to define it as a computational system that interacts with the environment. If we do, then everything else follows, including panpsychism.
But here’s where I think pansychism fails for me. Because then the question we need to ask is, what follows from it? If everything is conscious, what does that mean for our understanding of the universe? Does it tell us anything useful about human or animal consciousness?
Or have we just moved the goal line from trying to understand what separates conscious from non-conscious systems, to trying to understand what separates animal consciousness from the consciousness of protons, storm systems, or robots? Panpsychists may assert that the insight is that there’s no sharp distinction, that’s it’s all only a matter of degree. I’m not sure I’d agree, but even if we take it as given, those degrees remain important, and we’re still left trying to understand what triggers our intuitive sense of consciousness.
My own view is that consciousness is a computational system. Indeed, all conscious systems are computational. However, the reverse is not true. Not all computational systems are necessarily conscious. Of course, since no one can authoritatively say exactly what consciousness is, this currently comes down to a philosophical preference.
People have been trying to define consciousness for centuries, and I’m not a neuroscientist, psychologist, or professional philosopher, so I won’t attempt my own. (At least not today. :-) ) But often when definitions are illusive, it can help to list what we perceive to be the necessary attributes. So, here are aspects of consciousness I think would be important to trigger our intuitive sense that something is in fact conscious:
- Interaction with the environment.
- An internal state that is influenced by past interactions and that influences future interactions, i.e. memory.
- A functional feedback model of that internal state, i.e. awareness.
I think these factors can get us to a type of machine consciousness. But biological systems contain a few primary motivating impulses. Without these impulses, this evolutionary programming, I’m not sure our intuitive sense of consciousness would be triggered.
What are the impulses? Survival and propagation of genes. If you think carefully about what motivates all animals, it ultimately comes down to these directives. (And technically survival is a special case of the gene propagation impulse.) In mammals and social species, it gets far more complex with subsidiary impulses involving care of offspring and insuring secure social positions for oneself and one’s kin (in other words, love), but ultimately the drive is the same.
It’s a drive we share with every living thing, and a system that is missing it may have a hard time triggering out intuitive sense of agency detection, at least in any sustained manner. I think it’s why a fruit fly feels more conscious to us than a robot, even if the robot has more processing power than the fly’s brain.
Of course, a sophisticated enough system might cause us to project these qualities unto it, much as humans have done throughout history. (Think worship of volcanoes, the sea, storms, or nature overall.) But knowing we’re looking at an artifact created by humans seems like it would short circuit that projection. Maybe.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on this. What do you think? Am I maybe overlooking some epistemic virtues of panpsychism? Or is my list of what would trigger our consciousness intuition too small? Or is there another hole in my thinking somewhere?
Update: It appears I misinterpreted Professor Bishop’s views in the video. He weighs in with a clarification in the comments. I stand by what I said above about general panpsychism, but his view is a bit more complex, and he actually intended it as a presentation of an absurd consequence of the idea of machine consciousness.