Consciousness 6: why it cannot be designed

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, I wrote: “To me, it seems very unlikely that a designed robotic system could ever lead to consciousness.”  I have received some push back in the comments.  In this post, I shall attempt to explain why I doubt that design of consciousness is possible.

Design

When we design something, we typically start with an idea of what we want.  That leads to a stage of planning where we examine the requirements.  We use that planning to prepare a design.  Typically, a design is a set of specifications on how to build the final product out of component parts.

“Design” then, pretty much means mechanical design.  It means specifying how the components are put together mechanically to achieve the intended result.

We see, then, that design is implicitly reductionist in a fairly strict sense.  A product can only be designed if it can be seen as built out of component parts in accordance with specifications.  The final designed product is thus reducible to its component parts and their relationships.

There’s an irony here.  The Intelligent Design movement comes from people who are fiercely anti-reductionist.  Yet they argue for intelligent design which is implicitly reductionist.  The Thomist philosophers (followers of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas) have pointed this out to the ID proponents, but ID proponents are not open to such arguments.

Craftsmanship

A craftsman may have a broad idea about what he is producing, but he never has a precise specification.  The craftsman uses that broad idea as a starting guide.  But once he has something that fits the broad idea, he will begin his crafting work which amounts to a lot of tweaking and fine tuning, so that the final product does just what the craftsman wants it to do.  Often, the craftsman is looking for something in the final product that cannot be mechanically specified, and it is his use of tweaking and fine tuning that can achieve the desired result.

The piano

I’ll try to illustrate the point by looking at a piano.

We can start by looking at a piano as a piece of furniture.  As furniture, it is not hard to design a piano.  We need only specify enough to provide the right external appearance.  Building a product to that design would result in an item that worked as a piano in the sense of furniture.  But if you tried to play music on it, that would probably not sound very pleasing to the ears.

If you were to go to a piano manufacturer, you might find them building the basic unit to a furniture design.  But that’s when the real work begins.  That’s when the craftsmen get to work.  A craftsman then has to listen to the sound coming from that piano, and make changes (the tweaking and fine tuning) to give the desired tonal quality.  That might mean adjusting the sounding board, so that it resonates in the right way.  Perhaps the craftsman will require a chisel and rasp to adjust the resonance at various pitches.

What is happening here, is that the design of the piano as furniture sets up the basic parts — the keyboard and strings — that produce the mechanical motions.  But music is not reducible to mechanical motions in any straightforward way.  We usually think of music as composed of elementary tones, rather than of simple motions.  We might perhaps say that music is reducible to the tones (or notes) used.

We do have available the Fourier Transform, which we can use to convert a description in terms of motions to a description in terms on notes.  However, with a Fourier transform, a simple note corresponds to an infinitely complex combination of motions, and a simple motions corresponds to an infinitely complex combination of tones.  So the Fourier Transform is not a reduction is a straightforward way, though some people might define “reduction” broadly enough to allow the Fourier Transform.

This perhaps fits the notion of supervenience.  We might reasonably say that the music supervenes on the mechanical motions but is not reducible to those motions.

Consciousness

I see the situation with consciousness as being analogous to that with music.  A design might specify the mechanical components and how they fit together.  But consciousness is not itself mechanical.  In order to have consciousness, it would seem that a lot of tweaking and fine tuning is needed to get everything working together just right so that the system can be conscious.

So consciousness might arise from craftsmanship, but not from strict design.  But if craftsmanship is required, who can be the craftsman.  It looks to me as if the only realistic candidate for crafting an organism’s consciousness, is the organism itself.  So consciousness depends on an adaptive development phase, and perhaps on adaptive growth after the development has completed.

And that is what I mean, when I suggest that consciousness cannot be designed.

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9 Comments to “Consciousness 6: why it cannot be designed”

  1. “I see the situation with consciousness as being analogous to that with music. A design might specify the mechanical components and how they fit together. But consciousness is not itself mechanical. In order to have consciousness, it would seem that a lot of tweaking and fine tuning is needed to get everything working together just right so that the system can be conscious.”

    Yes, but ultimately, even using this analogy, if a designer fully understands what is needed in order to make a working piano, then he can indeed design the piano. Likewise, if one fully understands what is needed physically in order for consciousness to operate or exist, then one can in theory design a machine to accomplish it. It seems that you are trying to differentiate between designing something mechanically vs. designing something that is not mechanical. However, even if the music a piano is able to play isn’t itself mechanical, the mechanically designed piano accomplishes the playing of music regardless, so the designer has designed something with the intention that it plays music. Personally, I would say that anything that exists can in theory be designed/mimicked/replicated if one has the proper knowledge of how it is supposed to work, and one has the technology to manipulate the components. For example, if a machine was created that atomically cloned a conscious being (with the required starting materials), as long as it was made in a particular way, it would function just like the original.

    Does this mean that we can design a conscious being out of metal and silicon (i.e. like a typical robot or computer)? Not necessarily. It may mean that we have to use bio-molecules such as proteins, sugars, and lipids, to name a few, in order to accomplish such a task. We may end up designing a conscious being mimetically by first designing some unique sequence of DNA (one that would lead to an organism with something equal or comparable to a brain) and accelerating its ontogenic evolution until the brain or biological source of consciousness is developed and functioning. That is, we may have to “grow” something that we design to be conscious which is a technique that we haven’t really used anywhere other than agriculture. My main point is that the tools that we use for designing things may change over time, and even the process of how we implement those designs may change, but design is still design, and if we were provided with the right amount of knowledge and means for material manipulation, we should be able to design a conscious being. If the body can produce a conscious being through sexual reproduction, starting with non-conscious DNA, gametes, zygotes, etc., and adding a few materials like food, water, oxygen, etc., then all we’d have to do is mimic this biological engineering. Our main problem seems to be that we don’t know how it works very well at all, and that is why it can’t be designed at the moment. If we knew how it worked in terms of what is going on inside the brain and how to replicate those principles, creating a conscious being should be just a matter of time.

    Don’t get me wrong, as I understand that consciousness (the way we roughly define it anyways) seems to have arisen via the process of trial and error (mutations, etc.) and natural selection, and it took an incredibly long time to precipitate. But if nothing else, we should see that we have been successfully mimicking “nature” for thousands of years in our technological innovations, and consciousness may end up being no different. It may not be reducible or explained with a reductionist approach, but then again, at atom may not be reducible either, and yet that hasn’t stopped us from making things out of atoms. I don’t think we’ll ever know how consciousness works, but I believe that the best way for us to attempt to get there is to start with a conscious being, and start reverse engineering it, specifically removing parts until the consciousness is altered or disappears. If we can improve our ways of doing this, we may have a chance at designing something conscious from scratch once we know what is required. Those are my two cents anyways.

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    • Yes, but ultimately, even using this analogy, if a designer fully understands what is needed in order to make a working piano, then he can indeed design the piano.

      You are arguing ideology, while I am more concerned with pragmatics.

      In the meantime, the best violin makers still cannot reproduce a Stradivarius.

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      • “You are arguing ideology, while I am more concerned with pragmatics.”

        The issue that you’re arguing is what constitutes “design”, and I think that design is a far more inclusive term than you are implying or using. At best, I think that you could try and argue that one can’t mechanically design consciousness, but even that would need more clarification to see if it has any merit.

        “In the meantime, the best violin makers still cannot reproduce a Stradivarius.”

        This doesn’t matter. Just as the best hypothetical consciousness designer wouldn’t have to design an Einstein consciousness, to successfully design a conscious entity, a violin maker likewise wouldn’t have to make a Stradivarius if they are simply trying to produce a violin.

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        • The issue that you’re arguing is what constitutes “design”, and I think that design is a far more inclusive term than you are implying or using.

          Actually, no, I was not arguing what constitutes design.

          I was describing what I take design to be, and explaining why I conclude that consciousness cannot be a product of design (as I understand design).

          It’s clear from the comments that some folk have different ideas about what “design” means. Welcome to the world of natural language where meanings unavoidably vary from person to person.

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          • “Actually, no, I was not arguing what constitutes design.”

            Okay…

            “I was describing what I take design to be.”

            In order to argue what qualifies as being designable, you are either directly or indirectly arguing what design means, and thus what constitutes it. I believe that you are limiting the more commonly accepted definition of design such that it excludes consciousness.

            “It’s clear from the comments that some folk have different ideas about what “design” means. Welcome to the world of natural language where meanings unavoidably vary from person to person.”

            I agree with you here. This is definitely the case.

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  2. “”Design” then, pretty much means mechanical design.”

    Do you mean the design process as performed by humans is mechanistic, following a plan or a model as a guide to building what is designed, the designed object? Indeed, you are describing the mechanistic element of craftsmanship, the skill of manufacturing what is designed.

    This is a rather limited view of design that I think most designers would not recognise as design, but as the process of bringing a design to life, to fruition. At best it can be considered as one stage of design. The actual design is the creating element that is far from mechanistic, but tends to be associated with words like ‘spontaneous’, ‘intuitive’, ‘inspired’.

    The ‘tweaking’ and ‘fine tuning’ is a pragmatic part of the process that comes when the creative concept either fails to meet expectation in the flesh, or is unable to be realised and some adaptation is required to make it realisable. “Often, the craftsman is looking for something in the final product that cannot be …” Quite. But that is just a part of the process.

    In some artists these elements of creativity and tweaking may be integrated into a fluid iterative continuum, with the creative idea adapting live as the artist creates. In engineering design there may indeed be more planning and mechanism to achieve the final product, but the fluid integrated creativity and production then goes on ahead of the mechanistic design. Engineering designers flesh out ideas in their sketches, drawings, computers, just as any artist does. The engineer, though, may have an eye to feasibility early on, so his experience may prevent many dead ends.

    The artists who is not an engineer, but who dabbles in big physical designs, may learn his engineering craftsmanship through many failures. The sculptor in traditional materials has a long history of learning to draw on, while sculptors in metals need to learn some mechanics, some metallurgy sometimes.

    “As furniture, it is not hard to design a piano.”

    Utter nonsense. With a long history of pianos it is indeed easy to ‘manufacture’, ‘reproduce’ existing designs; but these are copies with a flourish of difference here and there. This is not creative design. The design of a piano, that results in the functionality of a piano, that is also novel, is a challenging design problem. Being creative while also fitting some very specific brief (a regular pianist must still be able to get the same sort of tunes out of it, and yet it must be a novel piece of furniture, for example) is a lot harder than you make out.

    Try these:
    https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=creative+piano+designs&rlz=1C1CHFX_en-GBGB455GB455&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=i4TcUd-VE-jR7Aa-64CQBw&ved=0CAkQ_AUoAQ&biw=1600&bih=742

    On the other hand, if you say take the principle of a piano, and be creative with the musicality and playability of the instrument, then you’ll end up with a novel design that is not a piano. This is of course how we got the piano in the first place, as a creative adaptation of string and percussive instruments. The piano as we now know it was indeed designed creatively, even if the countless near copies vary little from it.

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  3. Supervenience?

    Another quaint notion used to skirt around the fact that we cannot explain what appear as macro properties that sit on top of micro properties, as if they exceed the sum of the parts. The error is in the appearance that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It never is. Well, not without contravening the second law of thermodynamics.

    The error in the ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ notion can be explained through the example of the computer. A tiny electronic signal of a few microvolts, as ones and noughts, enters a computer, and wow, there’s a spread sheet on the screen, or a grand image. But this neglects the part that the computer power supply plays in supplying power, that is used by the ‘designed’ electronics that decodes and amplifies the tiny signal, and the ‘designed’ software that converts it patterns on the screen that is the spread sheet.

    “We might reasonably say that the music supervenes on the mechanical motions but is not reducible to those motions.”

    We might say that, but that would be to misunderstand what’s happening there.

    The ‘music’ that touches our brain is not some magic greater than the sum of the parts of the musical notes emanating from the piano. It is not some magical unexplained enhancement of a Fourier series. It is also the human input that ‘designed’ that music that touches the brain, that causes sensations of melody and emotion. The notion of the ‘whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ conveniently neglects to mention all else that is involved in the writing, the playing on a piano, the listening, the receptivity of a brain tuned to like that particular type of music. The sounds in the air are a small part of this.

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  4. “But consciousness is not itself mechanical.”

    Isn’t it? How do you know that? If we don’t really know what consciousness is, if we know too little to design it, that suggests we don’t really understand it yet and your claim is just an assertion. Perhaps consciousness is merely a poor model for the physical process that go on in the brain. Just because it feels to us as if there is something real there that is not just neurons in action does not mean that this is how it actually is. Nothing has yet been discovered that could be consciousness. Note that consciousness is what this thing feel like to the object perceiving itself as best it can. Consciousness is what the typical human brain feels, when it is operating and observing itself. That’s not necessarily a good clue as to what consciousness actually is, if anything other than a brains model of itself in action.

    “In order to have consciousness, it would seem that a lot of tweaking and fine tuning is needed to get everything working together just right so that the system can be conscious.”

    You don’t know that to be the case at all. Given how much damage a brain can sustain and still remain conscious I’d say that’s pretty far from what we should expect. We have yet to fully understand the different type of consciousness in all animals with central nervous systems – a central nervous system seems to be necessary, though not necessarily sufficient.

    It could be that AI craftsman design a non-biological system of the size and complexity of the brain, and still without knowing why or how the thing shows signs of consciousness. Of course it would be hard to detect. An infant brain, though it might have many pre-programmed skills, like breathing and suckling, there is little sign of consciousness as we like to think of it. This is part of the problem, of course. We tend to think of adult human consciousness, and that preconception clouds the issue.

    “It looks to me as if the only realistic candidate for crafting an organism’s consciousness, is the organism itself.”

    Why? If anything the organisms that were present as precursors of consciousness emerged had no active ‘agency’ role in it at all. That’s the point of ‘natural selection’.

    You seem to make the same sort of mistake as ID’ers, except in reverse. They see one example of design, human designed artefacts, and infer there must be a designer whenever there is apparent design. You see no design and infer design is not possible at all, just because it wasn’t involved in this one example of consciousness we know of?

    Over history there must be plenty of people who ever only saw animals fly, and they might naturally assume that flight cannot be designed. Perhaps you are just as short sighted.

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  5. Oh my. Speculating on the existence of mind independent machines. I offer a million dollars to anybody who, using accepted scientific methodology, can offer me proof of such things.

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