Consciousness 5: Emergence

by Neil Rickert

It should be evident from this series of posts, that I take consciousness as emergent from the way that the neural system works.  It is not enough to simple say “emergence” and treat it as if magical.  I do not consider it at all magical.  Rather, I see it as consistent with the principles that I outlined in an earlier post, “A semantic conception of mind.”

My view is that the way the brain works is simple in principle, but complex in detail.  So I see it as pretty much certain that consciousness would evolve, though the kind of consciousness that emerges might not be identical to human consciousness.  So I see all mammals as being conscious, with perhaps their consciousness being somewhat similar to ours, though lacking the enrichment that language gives us.  Other complex creatures such as an octopus or a bee are surely conscious in some way or another, but it is a little hard for us to imagine how they would experience that consciousness.

So why is there a “hard problem” of consciousness?  This is because people are looking at it in the wrong way.  They are trying to understand how to design consciousness, instead of trying to understand how it would evolve.  To me, it seems very unlikely that a designed robotic system could ever lead to consciousness.  I expect our designed robots to all be zombies.

This brief posts completes my series on consciousness.  I will continue to post on other topics, such as knowledge and perception, that are related to consciousness.  I realize that many will find my series unsatisfactory, in that it failed to explain to them what they wanted explained.  Philosophy seems to be dominated by a kind of design thinking, and an explanation of consciousness does not fit with design thinking.

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13 Responses to “Consciousness 5: Emergence”

  1. To me, it seems very unlikely that a designed robotic system could ever lead to consciousness.

    Seems very pessimistic to me. Why couldn’t a designed robotic system use evolution in its design? Why couldn’t a designed robotic system develop a picture of the world that included itself?

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    • Having an internal picture is easy. Having a self is a lot harder.

      A designed system is likely to finish up as a projection of the designers self, instead of being its own self. It would be difficult for a designer to avoid that problem.

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  2. If consciousness is indeed entirely emergent (I’m not disagreeing with you there necessarily by the way), and if our universe plays according to the rules we tend depend on it to, then I see no reason we can not discuss it in the “design” sense. Yes, the design would inevitably at least somewhat a manifestation of the “creator”‘s wishes, and in that sense you might dub it robotic (it follows a predetermined direction). However, you can’t erase the hard problem of it by looking at it from an evolutionary standpoint, especially as some sort of predetermined direction still exists. Here the creator is just a concept (natural selection) instead of a tangible being and the goal is survival, flavored by the anisotropy of past events. But even still, that there a predetermined direction for either doesn’t diminish the wackiness of experience’s non-physical existence or the hard question of what degree or set of processes allow for self-aware experiences. (for instance, by what criteria would we judge a machination of our’s to truly be self-aware?)

    Insane stuff to and vastly messy on the logic, although I do agree that it is probably all simple in principle and complex in detail.

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    • I’ll grant that I didn’t explain myself well enough.

      If you think of evolution as providing the DNA, then evolution can be considered a kind of design process. But you don’t get biology with just DNA. There’s the entire development process which is highly adaptive. And, post development, an organism continues to adapt somewhat as atoms are replaced by other atoms.

      It is really the adaptive development process and the continued adaptive growth that matters. Roughly speaking, I see those adaptive processes as entailed by evolution and as contrary to design.

      Perhaps a designer can design something that has a similar adaptive development and adaptive growth stage. But in that case, the final result is not what was designed because those adaptive processes changed it from the design specifications.

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      • This is why I threw in that little tidbit of the universe behaving how we kind of depend it to. What I was saying was that, if our universe is at least largely deterministic (and on all classical scales it is, minus the big WTF of the quantum world), we should be able to look at the end result of any said adaptive processes and reproduce them. The final result is what’s important, not the process that gets it there. Now if you’re saying that the final result is including the ability to adapt (and thus sticking that somehow into what it means to experience), we should still be able to copy that from nature as well, with enough understanding.

        So I guess what I was getting at is that whether it’s design or evolution or adaptive or whatever is quite semantic and non-issue. What’s really the question is what is currently present in any system giving it the capabilities to X? And even beyond that, how does this seemingly non-physical (even if it is emergent) exist in our rather physical-seeming universe?

        I also don’t suppose any strong answers to those questions fair warning. I think if there were a great answer, said individual would have won the nobel peace prize by now and artificial intelligence algorithms would be quite farther than they are.

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        • What I was saying was that, if our universe is at least largely deterministic (and on all classical scales it is, minus the big WTF of the quantum world), we should be able to look at the end result of any said adaptive processes and reproduce them.

          I’ve never understood why many people are convinced of determinism. The evidence is not there.

          There is no end result (except death) of an adaptive process. The process continues to be adaptive until it fails.

          No design process is ever going to come up with biology. Design is all about control by the designer, while biology is all about autonomy, about independence from external control.

          What’s really the question is what is currently present in any system giving it the capabilities to X?

          I can agree with that. I think I understand how it works well enough, but I have been unable to find a way of explaining it. It has become quite clear that most people think along design lines, and the way that cognition works is incompatible with that design way of thinking.

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  3. I think you’re getting unnecessarily stuck on the semantics here. In practice the only question of “design” is what allots for consciousness in a reductive sense (what we were agreeing on), and if we know that, then therefore we could likely design (read “replicate”) it. Who comes up with the original “design,” whether it be natural processes or us is quite irrelevant to the end product in terms of asking what that product is and its qualities.

    Determinism though…. hah and oh my. People are convinced of it because otherwise there’s an implication that our universe might not be intelligible. We thoroughly depend on causality for science after all (even if current science is damaging that perspective a little), so to lose that is a subtle implication that “anything (potentially) goes.” It’s not an easy position to go against without fighting the overall paradigm.

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    • I think you’re getting unnecessarily stuck on the semantics here.

      It is more likely that we are talking past one another. The issue that concerns you is one that I have long put behind me. My interest has been in understanding how it all works, and a design viewpoint seems to lead to misdirection.

      Determinism though…. hah and oh my. People are convinced of it because otherwise there’s an implication that our universe might not be intelligible.

      I doubt that there is any such implication.

      We thoroughly depend on causality for science after all …

      But statistical causation is enough to be useful, and that’s too weak to imply determinism.

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      • Im quite confused then because “how it works” is what I’m talking about (if you can reduce consciousness to its simplest constituent processes, you begin to get an idea of how it works), which you say you’ve put behind you.

        I wasn’t saying determinism objectively arises from that by the way, just that we tend not go against it because it’s the paradigm we’ve lived with. (and people dont think logically all the time of course)

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        • Im quite confused then because “how it works” is what I’m talking about (if you can reduce consciousness to its simplest constituent processes, you begin to get an idea of how it works), which you say you’ve put behind you.

          You have just given me an idea for a future post on this topic. Stay tuned.

          Put simply, design means mechanical design. But maybe consciousness is not mechanical. Maybe the simplest constituent parts of consciousness are not mechanical parts.

          I wasn’t saying determinism objectively arises from that by the way, just that we tend not go against it because it’s the paradigm we’ve lived with.

          Our scientific laws are mostly deterministic. As I see it, we prefer deterministic laws because those are the most useful; they give us the most control. But I can’t see a basis for jumping from deterministic laws to a deterministic cosmos. In a way, Einstein showed the problem with determinism. Our scientific laws are local and relative to our inertial frame. You would need universal laws that applied everywhere the same way to be able to properly discuss whether the cosmos is deterministic. And Einstein pretty well persuaded us that we cannot have universal laws.

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          • Einstein didn’t show that there aren’t universal laws. One might even say he did the opposite. He show us the importance of “perspective,” but the laws that cause those varying perspectives are indeed the same law. Our universe does (minus QM) seem local as he supported, whereas the general recipe to break causality is nonlocal events.

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          • whoops didnt finish. You’re right though that we make a presumptive jump to a deterministic cosmos I think. I do believe indeed it is a preference thing.

            Not sure what you mean on consciousness still though hah, so I’ll try and drop back in again for that other post.

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