Archive for ‘consciousness’

September 1, 2014

The simulation argument

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post over at Scientia Salon

Mark O’Brien asks a question and gives his own answer with:

Could a computer ever be conscious? I think so, at least in principle.

As O’Brien says, people have very different intuitions on this question.  My own intuition disagrees with that of O’Brien.


After a short introduction, O’Brien presents two starting assumptions that he makes, and that he will use to support his intuition on the question.

Empirical assumption 1: I assume naturalism. If your objection to computationalism comes from a belief that you have a supernatural soul anchored to your brain, this discussion is simply not for you.

Personally, I do not assume naturalism.  However, I also do not believe that I have a supernatural soul.  I don’t assume naturalism, because I have never been clear on what such an assumption entails.  I guess it is too much metaphysics for me.

October 2, 2013

Brain and mind

by Neil Rickert

What’s the relation between brain and mind?

That question came up yesterday, in a post on Jerry Coyne’s blog website.  Jerry was discussing a recent “60 Minutes” segment on schizophrenia, and took exception (Jerry called it a quibble) about the wording used:

After seeing this, the pair have this exchange:

Kroft: This is really a disease of the brain, and not a disease of the mind.

Lieberman: Absolutely.

That’s not good; for the mind is, as Pinker says, “what the brain does.” In the case of schizophrenia, if there is a genetically (or environmentally) based pathology of the brain, it also causes a pathology of the mind: racing thoughts, voices in the head, and desires to harm.  So it’s a disease of both the brain and the mind. Television shouldn’t perpetuate this duality.

Okay, it was only a quibble.  But it seems a rather strange quibble.

July 23, 2013

AI Skepticism

by Neil Rickert

I am sometimes asked to explain why I am skeptical about the possibility of AI (artificial intelligence).  In this post, I shall discuss where I see the problems.  I sometimes express my skepticism by way of expressing doubt about computationalism, the view of mind that is summed up with the slogan “cognition is computation.”


I’ll start by clarifying what I mean by AI.

Suppose that we could give a complete map or specification of a person, listing all of the atoms in that person’s body, and listing their exact arrangement.  Then, armed with that map, we set about creating an exact replica.  Would the result of that be a living, thinking person?  My personal opinion is that it would, indeed, be a living thinking person, a created twin or clone of the original person that was  mapped.

Let’s use the term “synthetic person” for an entity constructed in that way.  It is synthetic because we have put it together (synthesized it) from parts.  You could summarize my view as saying that a synthetic person is possible in principle, though it would be extremely difficult in practice.

To build a synthetic person, we would not need to know how it functions.  Simply copying a real biological person would do the trick.  However, if we wanted to create some sort of “person” with perhaps different materials and without it being an exact copy, then we would need to understand the principles on which it operates.  We can use the term “artificial person” for an entity so constructed.

My own opinion is that an artificial person is possible in principle, but would be very difficult to produce in practice.  And to be clear, I am saying that even if we have full knowledge of all of the principles, we would still find it very difficult to construct such an artificial person.

As I shall use the term in this post, an artificial intelligence, or an AI, is an artificial person built primarily using computation.  In the usual version, there are peripheral sensors (input devices) and effectors (output devices), but most of the work is done by a central computer so can be said to be computation.

July 9, 2013

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.


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.

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June 28, 2013

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.

June 2, 2013

Consciousness 4: Knowledge

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post in this series, I wrote:

In short, it is the problem of knowledge that needs to be explained, rather than the problem of experience.

So today I will begin discussing the question of knowledge.


My starting point is a kind of empiricism.  That is to say, I take the view that we acquire knowledge through experience.  Or, said differently, knowledge is not inherited.  The empiricism of John Locke seems in about the right direction, though of course Locke left much unexplained.  Locke talked about ideas, and I take that to be about the same as what we mean when we talk of concepts.  The question of knowledge, for Locke appears to be one of how we acquire our ideas or concepts.

By the time we get to Hume, the discussion has changed.  Empiricism, to Hume, seems to be a question of how we decide which statements are true.  Now that’s a huge change.  You cannot even have a statement until you have the necessary concepts.  So an account of how we decide which statements are true will fall far short of explaining how we acquire concepts.  My version of empiricism is closer to that of Locke than to that of Hume.

May 16, 2013

Consciousness 2: Phenomena

by Neil Rickert

Philosophers often use the word “phenomena” to refer to appearances.  Here is some text quoted from Wikipedia:

In modern philosophical use, the term ‘phenomena’ has come to mean what is experienced as given. In Immanuel Kant’s Inaugural Dissertation, On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World (1770), Kant theorizes that the human mind is restricted to the logical world and thus can only interpret and understand occurrences according to their physical appearances. He wrote that humans could infer only as much as their senses allowed, but not experience the actual object itself. Thus, the term phenomenon refers to any incident deserving of inquiry and investigation, especially events that are particularly unusual or of distinctive importance.  According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, “Modern philosophers have used ‘phenomenon’ to designate what is apprehended before judgment is applied.”

Kant’s point of view appears to have been that our investigation of the world begins with appearances, or phenomena.  What Kant saw as noumena, or the world in itself, was not accessible to us.  We would have to make do with phenomena.

May 11, 2013

Consciousness 1: How is experience possible?

by Neil Rickert

The Chalmers “hard problem” has to do with experience.  It seems that many people think of experience as something that requires explanation.  I never thought of it as a particular problem, perhaps because the way I am looking at consciousness is different from the way others look at it.

Chalmers was particularly concerned with explaining why experience has the particular form that it has.  Why do red things have the particular appearance that we experience.  I won’t be addressing that in this post, though I plan to revisit it in the future.  The concern, for today’s post, is why do we have any experience at all.  Or, in the terminology that Chalmers uses, why are we not zombies.

May 8, 2013

Consciousness 0: An introduction

by Neil Rickert

I’ve decided to attempt to explain consciousness.  I might not succeed, but it is worth a try.  The way that I look at consciousness is very different from the way that most people look at it.  And that make communication difficult.

I won’t be saying much about conciousness in this introductory post.  But I do plan to get into more detail in future posts in this series.  As a warm up, you might want to watch this youtube video, where Alva Noe gives his ideas:

My way of looking at it is somewhat along the lines that Noe suggests.

When you watch that, you might get the impression that Noe is being a tad mystical.  Perhaps that’s what one can expect from a philosopher.  But, then, if you read Maturana and Varela, you might get a similar impression.  However, Maturana and Varela are not philosophers, they are biologists.  For that matter, some people who read J.J. Gibson, on his ecological theory of perception, think that he is appealing to magic.  However, Gibson was a down to earth experimenter in perceptual psychology.

That you might get a mystical impression is partly a reflection of the difficulty of discussing this topic.  And one of the reasons it is difficult, is that people have many preconceived notions about consciousness.  So an attempt to explain consciousness that does not fit with those preconceived notions is going to be difficult to follow.

I have said enough for now.  I will get into more detail in future posts.

April 20, 2013

Why the hard problem is hard

by Neil Rickert

In short, the hard problem is hard because it is bogus.

The “hard problem” here refers, of course, to what David Chalmers has referred to as “the hard problem of consciousness.”  There was a recent post about this at the Rationally Speaking blog.

Lopresto starts by talking about location problems, and the “problem” of locating consciousness in the physical world:

My project here is to ask whether it’s possible to locate consciousness in the physical world. That is, can we locate phenomenal properties in the physical world? My thesis is that given our conception of the physical world, it is in fact extremely difficult to locate phenomenal properties within it.

Talk of “phenomenal properties” already sounds dubious to me.  For sure, philosophers have long used the word “phenomena” to refer to sensory experience.  But what is it that is supposed to make sensory experience a kind of property?