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.
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.
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.
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.
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.