The Technocentric Thesis

6 October 2016

Thursday


tech-v-man

A biological being among biological beings

A human being is a being among beings, and moreover a biological being among biological beings. We come to an awareness of ourselves, and of what we are, in a biological context. Biophilia, then, is a default consequence of being biological and finding oneself in a biological content; biophilia is a cognitive bias of biological beings. (Previously I considered the relationship between our biological nature and our biological bias in Biocentrism and Biophilia.) From both our biocentrism and our biophilia follows biocentric civilization, which I formulated in terms of the biocentric thesis, so it is natural that I would next attempt to formulate a technocentric thesis, as I have often contrasted biocentric and technocentric conceptions.

Until quite recently there was no possibility of pursing a non-biophilic bent, i.e., of pursuing a technocentric bent. Over the past several thousand years of human civilization, individual human beings had a limited opportunity to immerse themselves into the human world of civilization, and this civilization has been predominantly and pervasively biocentric. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, after which both agriculturalism and pastoralism became economically marginal, and the adoption of technology greatly increased, the ability to separate oneself from biocentric institutions has increased proportionately, but the individual has remained himself a biological being, tied to the biological world through existential needs for personal sustenance. Thus our being biological has repeatedly brought us back to our biological origins. If civilization were to fail, we could still return to an almost exclusively biocentric context and — at least for those who survived this traumatic transition — life would go on.

The emergence of a technological milieu following the industrial revolution suggests the possibility of a technocentric civilization that is the successor to biocentric civilization. Indeed, we may even understand the emergence of a fully technocentric civilization as the telos of industrialized civilization. We can formulate this in greater generality, as this process may hold for any civilization whatsoever that originates as a civilization of planetary endemism and makes the transition to a technological civilization.

Should the intelligent (biological) agents that build a civilization cease to be biological and become, for example, technological instead of biological, over time those intelligent agents could grow apart from their biocentric origins, and the social institutions in which these intelligent agents participate will become increasingly less biocentric. Biocentricity, then, is a function of biological origins, i.e., biocentrism is a consequence of being biological (as I put it in The Biocentric Thesis), and biophilia is an expression of biocentricity. As a technological civilization grows away from its biocentric origins, it is likely to become less biophiliac over time, which will in turn allow for greater expression of technophilia.

man-in-the-technological-age

An explicit formulation of the technocentric thesis

Let us try to give these ideas a more explicit formulation:

The Technocentric Thesis

Any fully technocentric civilization has evolved from a previous biocentric civilization by descent with modification.

…which implies its corollary formulated in the negative…

Technocentric Corollary

No civilization originates as a technocentric civilization.

By a “biocentric civilization” I mean a civilization that exemplifies the biocentric thesis. I have formulated a strong biocentric thesis (all civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces) and a weak biocentric thesis (all civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces), each of which has a corollary formulated in the negative. The technocentric thesis could also be given strong and weak formulations, e.g., all technocentric civilizations in our universe evolve from biocentric civilizations (strong) and all technocentric civilizations during the Stelliferous Era evolve from biocentric civilizations (weak). The weaker formulation is in each case constrained by temporal parameter while the stronger formulation is unconstrained.

The mechanism by which a technocentric civilization evolves from a biocentric civilization I call replacement, and replacement can be formulated as the replacement thesis:

The Replacement Thesis

All technocentric civilizations begin as biocentric civilizations and are transformed into technocentric civilizations through the replacement of biological constituents with technological constituents.

This in turn implies a negative formulation as its corollary:

Replacement Thesis Corollary

No technocentric civilization originates as a technocentric civilization, but emerges by replacement from a biocentric civilization of planetary endemism.

How far can replacement go? We can already see in our own industrialized civilization partial replacement, but can there be a complete replacement of biological constituents by technological constituents? For any civilizations originating in intelligent biological organisms, it is unlikely that living organisms could ever be completely eliminated, but they may be rendered superfluous for all practical purposes (i.e., superfluous to civilization).

eye-on-dark-background

The argument from consciousness

It would be possible to construct a scenario in which biology can never be completely eliminated as a constituent of civilization. Consider the following scenario, which I will call the argument from consciousness, based on the indispensability of consciousness to civilization and the unknown parameters of machine consciousness.

The Argument from Consciousness

I will assume that there is such a thing as consciousness, that human beings are conscious at least some of the time, and that this human consciousness plays a significant role in human existence and in the civilizations built by human beings. (It is necessary to make these rudimentary stipulations because it is not unusual to find consciousness dismissed, or called an “illusion,” or to see its role in the world minimized or marginalized.)

The view is prevalent, perhaps even dominant, in AI circles such that anything that can pass the Turing test must be called conscious. There is a degree of mutual reinforcement between this common view among AI researchers and the tacit positivism that continues to influence the development of contemporary science, which consigns consciousness of the sphere of metaphysics and thus rules out in principle any metaphysical entity that is consciousness. I will not here attempt to make a case for consciousness as a metaphysical entity, but I will assume, for the purposes of what follows, that a principled refusal to consider consciousness is a barrier to understanding human behavior, including the behavior of building civilizations.

Since we do not yet know what consciousness is, and we cannot produce a scientific account of consciousness, we do not know what the conditions of consciousness are. If we had a scientific theory of consciousness that allowed us to quantify consciousness by taking meaningful measures of consciousness, any putative consciousness, whether generated by a mechanism or by biology, natural or modified or fully synthetic, could be tested by such measures of consciousness and objectively determined to be conscious or not. We do not as yet possess any such science, nor can we take any such measurements.

Human and animal consciousness constitute existence proofs of the possibility of consciousness arising by natural means, and thus consciousness ought to be amenable to study by methodological naturalism, and also to replication. It is possible that consciousness can only be produced by biological means, i.e., it is possible that machine consciousness cannot be generated. The existence proof of consciousness provided by biological beings is not an existence proof of machine consciousness. Now, I personally think that machine consciousness will eventually come about, but we will not know that this is possible until it has been achieved.

Even if machine consciousness is impossible, it would still be possible to engineer consciousness by biological means, employing some variation on existing biological substrates of consciousness, or producing consciousness by way of synthetic or artificial biology. In this case, a civilization (or post-civilizational social institution) that preserves consciousness, or desires to preserve consciousness, will not be able to become purely technocentric in the sense of entirely eliminating biology, though the biology that is retained may be entirely subordinated to technical means and technical institutions. A civilization that retained consciousness through such biological means, but entirely within a technocentric context, could be called a technocentric civilization in which biology was ineradicable.

The argument from consciousness is merely an argument (and not a proof of anything), because the same absence of a science of consciousness that would allow us to take objective measures of consciousness is the absence of a science that would make it possible to prove either that consciousness can inhere in different kind of substrates (biological or mechanical, for example), or that consciousness can only be generated through biological means. Until we have a science of consciousness, we can advance this line of argumentation only through existence proofs, i.e., proofs of concept.

Even then, even given building a conscious machine, without a science of consciousness we would have no way to rigorously and objectively compare and contrast human consciousness with machine consciousness. One way to resolve this dilemma is the Turing test, as noted above, but no one who has any degree of scientific curiosity could be satisfied with cutting the Gordian knot of consciousness rather than unraveling it.

thinking-explicitly

Final thought

One of the virtues of explicitly formulating one’s ideas as theses (or as arguments), as in the above, is that one can then turn to the explicit criticism of these theses, especially to the task of unpacking the assumptions embedded in the theses. Another virtue of explicit formulations is that they can be explicitly falsified. The existence of a civilization not derived from biological complexity emergent on a planetary surface would falsify the biocentric thesis.

These explicit formulations, then, are not be taken as definitive formulations. I do not consider the biocentric thesis, the technocentric thesis, or the replacement thesis to be in any sense definitive, but rather to be a point of departure in an analysis of the nature of civilization taken in its broadest signification and extrapolated to a cosmological scale. Thus I hope to return to each of these theses in order to tease out their assumptions in order to analytically approach the intuitive conception of civilization with which I began.

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Planet of Zombies

21 August 2016

Sunday


planet of zombies 2

The Fate of Mind in the Age of Turing

We are living today in the Age of Turing. Alan Turing was responsible for the theoretical work underlying contemporary computer science, but Turing’s work went far beyond the formal theory of the computer. Like Darwin, Turing’s thought ran ahead of the science he founded, and he openly speculated on the consequences of the future development of the computers that his theory made possible.

In his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (the paper in which he introduced the “Turing Test,” which he called the “imitation game”) Turing began with the question, “Can machines think?” and went on to assert:

I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

A. M. Turing, “Computing machinery and intelligence,” Mind, 1950, 59, 433-460.

Turing’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass, but Turing was absolutely correct that one can speak of machines thinking without being contradicted. Indeed, Turing was more right than he could have guessed, as his idea that computers should be judged upon their performance — and even compared in the same way to human performance — rather than on a vague idea of thinking or consciousness, has become so commonplace that, if one maintains the contrary in public, one can expect to be contradicted.

Turing was, in respect to mind and consciousness, part of a larger intellectual movement that called into question “folk concepts,” which came to seem unacceptably vague and far too unwieldy in the light of the explanatory power of scientific concepts, the latter often constructed without reference to folk concepts, which came to be viewed as dispensable. Consciousness has been relegated to the status of a concept of “folk psychology” with no scientific basis.

While I am in sympathy with the need for rigorous scientific concepts, the eliminative approach to mind and consciousness has not resulted in greater explanatory power for scientific theories, but rather has reinforced an “explanatory gap” (a term made prominent by David Chalmers) that has resulted in a growing disconnect between the most rigorous sciences of human and animal behavior on the one hand, and on the other hand what we know to be true of our own experience, but which we cannot formulate or express in scientific terms. This is a problem. The perpetuation of this disconnect will only deepen our misunderstanding of ourselves and will continue to weaken the ability of science to explain anything that touches upon human experience. Moreover, this is not merely a human matter. We misunderstand the biosphere entire if we attempt to understand it while excluding the role of consciousness. More on this below.

Science has been misled in the study of consciousness by an analogy with the study of life. Life was once believed to be inexplicable in terms of pure science, and so there was a dispute between “mechanism” and “vitalism,” with the vitalists believing that there was some supernatural or other principle superadded to inanimate matter, and that possession of this distinctively vital element unaccountable in scientific terms distinguished the animate from the animate. Physics and chemistry alone could explain inanimate matter, but something more was needed, according to vitalism, to explain life. But with the progress of biology, vitalism was not so much refuted as made irrelevant. We now have a good grasp of biochemistry, and while a distinction is made between inorganic chemistry and biochemistry, it is all understood to be chemistry, and no vital spark is invoked to explain the chemistry distinctive of life.

Similarly, consciousness has been believed to be a “divine spark” within a human being that distinguishes a distinctively human perspective on the world, but consciousness “explained” in this way comes with considerable theological baggage, as explicitly theological terms like “soul” and “spirit” are typically used interchangeably with “consciousness” and “mind.” From a scientific perspective, this leaves much to be desired, and we could do much better. I agree with this. Turing’s imitation game seems to present us with an operational definition of consciousness that allows us to investigate mind and consciousness without reference to the theological baggage. There is much to gained by Turing’s approach, but the problem is that we have here no equivalent of chemistry — no underlying physical theory that could account for consciousness in the way that life is accounted for by biochemistry.

Part of the problem, and the problem that most interests me at present, is the anthropocentrism of both traditional theological formulations and contemporary scientific formulations. If we understand human consciousness not as an exception that definitively separates us from the rest of life on the planet, not as a naturalistic stand-in for a “divine spark” that would differentiate human beings from the “lower” animals, but as a distinctive development of consciousness already emergent in other forms preceding human beings, then we understand that human consciousness is continuous with other forms of consciousness in nature, and that, as conscious beings, we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is a biosphere in which consciousness is commonplace, like vision or flight.

There are naturalistic alternatives to an anthropocentric conception of consciousness, alternatives that place consciousness in the natural world, and which also have the virtue of avoiding the obvious problems of eliminativist of reductivist accounts of consciousness. I will consider the views of Antonio Damasio and John Searle. I do not fully agree with either of these authors, but I am in sympathy with these approaches, which seem to me to offer the possibility of further development, as fully scientific as Turing’s approach, but without the denial of consciousness as a distinctive constituent of the world.

Antonio R. Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens distinguished between core consciousness and extended consciousness. Core consciousness, he wrote:

“…provides the organism with a sense of self about one moment — now — and about one place — here. The scope of core consciousness is the here and now. Core consciousness does not illuminate the future, and the only past it vaguely lets us glimpse is that which occurred in the instant just before. There is no elsewhere, there is no before, there is no after.”

Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt, Inc., 1999, p. 16

…and…

“…core consciousness is a simple, biological phenomenon; it has one single level of organization; it is stable across the lifetime of the organism; it is not exclusively human; and it is not dependent on conventional memory, working memory, reasoning, or language.”

Loc. cit.

The simplicity of core consciousness gives it a generality across organisms, and across the life span of a given organism; at any one time, it is always more or less the same. Extended consciousness, on the other hand, is both more complex and less robust, dependent upon an underlying core consciousness, but constructing from core consciousness what Damasio calls the “autobiographical self” in contradistinction to the ephemeral “core self” of core consciousness. Extended consciousness, Damasio says:

“…provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self — an identity and a person, you or me, no less — and places that person at a point in individual historical time, richly aware of the lived past and of the anticipated future, and keenly cognizant of the world beside it.”

Loc. cit.

…and…

“…extended consciousness is a complex biological phenomenon; it has several levels of organization; and it evolves across the lifetime of the organism. Although I believe extended consciousness is also present in some nonhumans, at simple levels, it only attains its highest reaches in humans. It depends on conventional memory and working memory. When it attains its human peak, it is also enhanced by language.”

Loc. cit.

…but…

“…extended consciousness is not an independent variety of consciousness: on the contrary, it is built on the foundation of core consciousness.”

Op. cit., p. 17

One might add to this formulation by noting that, as extended consciousness is built on core consciousness, core consciousness is, in turn, built on the foundation of biological processes. I would probably describe consciousness in a somewhat different way, and would make different distinctions, but I find Damasio’s approach helpful, as he makes no attempt to explain away consciousness or to reduce it to something that it is not. Damasio seeks to describe and to explain consciousness as consciousness, and, moreover, sees consciousness as part of the natural world that is to be found embodied in many beings in addition to human beings, which latter constitutes, “…extended consciousness at its zenith.”

Damasio’s formulation of both core consciousness and extended consciousness as biological phenomena might be compared to what John Searle calls “biological naturalism.” What Searle, a philosopher, and Damasio, a neuroscientist, have in common is an interest in a naturalistic account of mind which is not eliminativist or reductivist. To this end, both emphasize the biological nature of consciousness. Searle has conveniently summarized his biological naturalism in six theses, as follows:

1. Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes. It has therefore a first-person ontology.

2. Because it has a first-person ontology, consciousness cannot be reduced to a third-person phenomena in the way that it is typical of other natural phenomena such as heat, liquidity, or solidity.

3. Consciousness is, above all, a biological phenomenon. Conscious processes are biological processes.

4. Conscious processes are caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain.

5. Consciousness consists of higher-level processes realized in the structure of the brain.

6. There is, as far as we know, no reason in principle why we could not build an artificial brain that also causes and realizes consciousness.

John R. Searle, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 53

Searle’s formulations — again, as with Damasio, I would probably formulate these ideas a bit differently, but, on the whole, I am sympathetic to Searle’s approach — are a reaction against a reaction, i.e., against a reactionary theory of mind, which is the materialist theory of mind formulated in consciousness contradistinction to Cartesian dualism. Searle devotes a considerable portion of several books to the problems with this latter philosophy. I think the most important lesson to take away from Searle’s critique is not the technical dispute, but the thematic motives that underlie this philosophy of mind:

“How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false? Extreme views in philosophy are almost never unintelligent; there are generally very deep and powerful reasons why they are held. I believe one of the unstated assumptions behind the current batch of views is that they represent the only scientifically acceptable alternatives to the antiscientism that went with traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on. Acceptance of the current views is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives.”

John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, Chap. 1

The biologism of both Damasio and Searle make it possible not only to approach human consciousness scientifically, but also to place consciousness in nature — the alternatives being denying human consciousness or approaching it non-scientifically, and denying consciousness a place in nature. These alternatives have come to have a colorful representation in contemporary philosophy in the discussion of “philosophical zombies.” Philosophical zombies are beings like ourselves, but without consciousness. The question, then, is whether we can distinguish philosophical zombies from human beings in possession of consciousness. I hope that the reader will have noticed that, in the discussion of philosophical zombies we encounter another anthropocentric formulation. (I previously touched on some of the issues related to philosophical zombies in The Limitations of Human Consciousness, A Note on Soulless Zombies, and The Prodigal Philosopher Returns.)

The anthropocentrism of philosophical zombies can be amended by addressing philosophical zombies in a more comprehensive context, in which not only human beings have consciousness, but consciousness is common in the biosphere. Then the question becomes not, “can we distinguish between philosophical zombies and conscious human beings” but “can we distinguish between a biosphere in which consciousness plays a constitutive role and a biosphere in which consciousness is entirely absent”? This is potentially a very rich question, and I could unfold it over several volumes, rather than the several paragraphs that follow, which should be understood as only the barest sketch of the problem.

As I see it, reconstructing biosphere evolution should include the reconstruction, to the extent possible, of the evolution of consciousness as a component of the biosphere — when did it emerge? When did the structures upon which is supervenes emerge? How did consciousness evolve and adapt to changing selection pressures? How did consciousness radiate, and what forms has it taken? These questions are obviously entailed by biological naturalism. Presumably consciousness evolved gradually from earlier antecedents that were not consciousness. Damasio writes, “natural low-level attention precedes consciousness,” and, “consciousness and wakefulness, as well as consciousness and low-level attention, can be separated.” Again, I would formulate this a bit differently, but, in principle, states of a central nervous system prior to the emergence of consciousness would precede even rudimentary core consciousness. If these states of a central nervous system prior to consciousness include wakefulness and low-level attention, this would constitute a particular seriation of the evolution of consciousness.

Damasio calls human consciousness, “consciousness at its zenith,” and a naturalistic conception of consciousness recognizes this by placing this zenith of human consciousness at the far end of the continuum of consciousness, but still on a continuum that we share with other beings with which we share the biosphere. A human being is not only a being among beings, but also one biological being among other biological beings. Given Searle’s biological naturalism, our common biology — especially the common biology of our central nervous systems and brains — points to our being a conscious being among other conscious beings. This seems to be borne out in our ordinary experience, as we usually understand our experience. We interact with other conscious beings on the level of consciousness, but the quality of consciousness may differ among beings. Interacting with other beings on the level of awareness means that our relationships with other conscious beings are marked by mutual awareness: not only are we aware of the other, but the other is also aware of us.

Above and beyond mere consciousness is sentient consciousness, i.e., consciousness with an emotional element superadded. We interact with other sentient beings on the level of sentience, that is to say, on the level of feeling. Our relationships with other mammals, especially those we have made part of our civilization, like dogs and horses, are intimate, personal relationships, not mediated by intelligence, but mostly mediated by the emotional lives we share with our fellow mammals, endowed, like us, with a limbic system. We intuitively understand the interactions and group dynamics of other social species, because we are ourselves a social species, Even when the institutions of, for example, gorilla society or chimpanzee society, are radically different from the institutions of human society, we can recognize that these are societies, and we can sometimes recognize the different rules that govern these societies.

Even when human beings are absent from interactions in the biosphere, there are still interactions on the level of consciousness and sentience. When a bobcat chases a hare, both interact on the level of two core consciousnesses, and also, as mammals, they interact on a sentient level. The hare has that level of fear and panic possible for core consciousness, and the bobcat, no doubt, experiences the core consciousness equivalent of satisfaction if it catches the hare, and frustration if the hare escapes. Or when a herd of wild horses panics and stampedes, their common sentient response to some environmental stimulation provides the basis of their interaction as a herd species.

All of this can be denied, and we can study nature as though consciousness were no part of it. While I have assimilated the denial of consciousness in nature to anthropocentrism, many more assimilate the attribution of consciousness to other species as a form of anthropocentrism. Clearly, we need to better define anthropocentrism, where and how it misleads us, and where and how it better helps us to understand our fellow beings with which we share the biosphere. That position that identifies consciousness as peculiarly human and denies it to the rest of the biosphere is, in effect asserting that a biosphere of zombies is indistinguishable from a biosphere of consciousness beings; I can understand how this grows out of a legitimate concern to avoid anthropocentric extrapolations, but I can also recognize the violation of the Copernican principle in this position. The view that recognizes consciousness throughout the macroscopic biosphere can also be interpreted as consistent with avoiding anthropocentrism, but also is consonant with Copernicanism broadly construed.

To adopt an eliminativist or reductionist account of consciousness, i.e., to deny the reality of consciousness, is not only to deny consciousness to human beings (a denial that would be thoroughly anthropocentric), it is to deny consciousness to the whole of nature, to deny all consciousness of all kinds throughout nature. It is to assert that consciousness has no place in nature, and that a planet of zombies is indistinguishable from a planet of consciousness agents. Without consciousness, the world entire would be a planet of zombies.

To deny consciousness is to deny that there are any other species, or any other biospheres, in the universe in which consciousness plays a role. If we deny consciousness we also deny consciousness elsewhere in the universe, unless we insist that terrestrial life is the exception, and that, again, would be a non-Copernican position to take. To deny consciousness is to deny that consciousness will ever inhere in some non-biological substrate, i.e., it is to deny that machines will never become conscious, because there is no such thing as consciousness. To deny consciousness is to constitute in place of the biosphere we have, in which conscious interaction plays a prominent role in the lifeways of megafauna, a planet of zombies in which all of these apparent interactions are mere appearance, and the reality is non-conscious beings interacting mechanically and only mechanically. I am not presenting this as a moral horror, that we should avoid because it offends us, but as naturalistically — indeed, biologically — false. Our world is not a planet of zombies.

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Computational Omniscience

18 December 2013

Wednesday


hal9000

What does it mean for a body of knowledge to be founded in fact? This is a central question in the philosophy of science: do the facts suggest hypotheses, or are hypotheses used to give meanings to facts? These questions are also posed in history and the philosophy of history. Is history a body of knowledge founded on facts? What else could it be? But do the facts of history suggest historical hypotheses, or do our historical hypotheses give meaning and value to historical facts, without which the bare facts would add up to nothing?

Is history a science? Can we analyze the body of historical knowledge in terms of facts and hypotheses? Is history subject to the same constraints and possibilities as science? An hypothesis is an opportunity — an opportunity to transform facts in the image of meaning; facts are limitations that constrain hypotheses. An hypothesis is an epistemic opportunity — an opportunity to make sense of the world — and therefore an hypothesis is also at the same time an epistemic risk — a risk of getting interpreting the world incorrectly and misunderstanding events.

The ancient question of whether history is an art or a science would seem to have been settled by the emergence of scientific historiography, which clearly is a science, but this does not answer the question of what history was before scientific historiography. One might reasonably maintain that scientific historiography was the implicit telos of all previous historiographical study, but this fails to acknowledge the role of historical narratives in shaping our multiple human identities — personal, cultural, ethnic, political, mythological.

If Big History should become the basis of some future axialization of industrial-technological civilization, then scientific historiography too will play a constitutive role in human identity, and while other and older identity narratives presently coexist and furnish different individuals with a different sense of their place in the world, we have already seen the beginnings of an identity shaped by science.

There is a sense in which the scientific historian today knows much more about the past than those who lived in the past and experienced that past as an immediate yet fragmentary present. One might infer the possibility of a total knowledge of the past through the cumulative knowledge scientific historiography — a condition denied to those who actually lived in the past — although this “total” knowledge must fall short of the peculiar kind of knowledge derived from immediate personal experience, as contemplated in the thought experiment known as “Mary’s room.”

In the thought experiment known as Mary’s room, also called the knowledge argument, we imagine a condition of total knowledge and compare this with the peculiar kind of knowledge that is derived from experience, in contradistinction to the knowledge of knowledge we come to through science. Here is the source of the Mary’s room thought experiment:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982)

Philosophers disagree on whether Mary learns anything upon leaving Mary’s room. As a thought experiment, it is intended not to give as a definitive answer to a circumstance that is never likely to occur in fact, but to sharpen our intuitions and refine our formulations. We can try to do the same with formulations of an ideal totality of knowledge derived from scientific historiography. There is a sense in which scientific historiography allows us to know much more about the past than those who lived in the past. To echo a question of Thomas Nagel, was there something that it was like to be in the past? Are there, or were there, historical qualia? Is the total knowledge of history afforded by scientific historiography short of capturing historical qualia?

In the Mary’s room thought experiment the agent in question is human and the experience is imposed colorblindness. Many people live with colorblindness within the condition greatly impacting their lives, so in this context it is plausible that Mary learns nothing upon the lifting of her imposed colorblindness, since the gap between these conditions is not as intuitively obvious as the gap between agents of a fundamentally different kind (as, e.g., distinct species) or between experiences of a fundamental different kind in which it is not plausible that the the lifting of an imposed limitation on experience results in no significant impact on one’s life.

We can sharpen the formulation of Mary’s room, and thus potentially sharpen our own intuitions, by taking a more intense experience than that of color vision. We can also alter the sense of this thought experiment by considering the question across distinct species or across the division between minds and machines. For example, if a machine learned everything that there is to know about eating would that machine know what it was like to eat? Would total knowledge after the manner of Mary’s knowledge of color suffice to exhaust knowledge of eating, even in the absence of an actual experience of eating? I doubt that many would be convinced that learning about eating without the experience of eating would be sufficient to exhaust what there is to know about eating. Thomas Nagel’s thought experiment in “What is it like to be a bat?” alluded to above poses the knowledge argument across species.

We can give this same thought experiment yet another twist if we reverse the roles of minds and machines, and asking of machine experience, should machine consciousness emerge, the questions we have asked of human experience (or bat experience). If a human being learned everything there is to know about AI and machine consciousness, would such a human being know what it is like to be a machine? Could knowledge of machines exhaust uniquely machine experience?

The kind of total scientific knowledge of the world implicit in scientific historiography is not unlike what Pierre Simon LaPlace had in mind when he posited the possibility of predicting the entire state of the universe, past or future, on the basis of an exhaustive knowledge of the present. LaPlace’s argument is also a classic determinist position:

“We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it — an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis — it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes. The human mind offers, in the perfection which it has been able to give to astronomy, a feeble idea of this intelligence. Its discoveries in mechanics and geometry, added to that of universal gravity, have enabled it to comprehend in the same analytical expressions the past and future states of the system of the world. Applying the same method to some other objects of its knowledge, it has succeeded in referring to general laws observed phenomena and in foreseeing those which given circumstances ought to produce. All these efforts in the search for truth tend to lead it back continually to the vast intelligence which we have just mentioned, but from which it will always remain infinitely removed. This tendency, peculiar to the human race, is that which renders it superior to animals; and their progress in this respect distinguishes nations and ages and constitutes their true glory.”

A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, PIERRE SIMON, MARQUIS DE LAPLACE, WITH AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE BY E. T. BELL, DOVER PUBLICATIONS, INC., New York, CHAPTER II.

While such a LaPlacean calculation of the universe would lie beyond the capability of any human being, it might someday lie within the capacity of another kind of intelligence. What LaPlace here calls, “an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis,” suggests the possibility of a sufficiently advanced (i.e., sufficiently large and fast) computer that could make this calculation, thereby achieving a kind of computational omniscience.

Long before we have reached the point of an “intelligence explosion” (the storied “technological singularity”) and machines surpass the intelligence of human beings, and each generation of machine is able to build a yet more intelligent successor (i.e., an “intelligence explosion”), the computational power at our disposal will for all practical purposes exhaust the world and will thus have obtained computational omniscience. We have already begun to converge upon this kind of total knowledge of the cosmos with the Bolshoi Cosmological Simulations and similar efforts with other supercomputers.

It is this kind of reasoning in regard to the future of cosmological simulations that has led to contemporary formulations of the “Simulation Hypothesis” — the hypothesis that we are, ourselves, at this moment, living in a computer simulation. According to the simulation argument, cosmological simulations become so elaborate and are refined to such a fine-grained level of detail that the simulation eventually populates itself with conscious agents, i.e., ourselves. Here, the map really does coincide with the territory, at least for us. The entity or entities conducting such a grand simulation, and presumably standing outside the whole simulation observing, can see the simulation for the simulation that it is. (The connection between cosmology and the simulation argument is nicely explained in the episode “Are We Real?” of the television series “What We Still Don’t Know” hosted by noted cosmologist Martin Rees.)

One way to formulate the idea of omniscience is to define omniscience as knowledge of the absolute infinite. The absolute infinite is an inconsistent multiplicity (in Cantorian terms). There is a certain reasonableness in this, as the logical principle of explosion, also known as ex falso quodlibet (namely, the principle that anything follows from a contradiction), means that an inconsistent multiplicity that incorporates contradictions is far richer than any consistent multiplicity. In so far as omniscience could be defined as knowledge of the absolute infinite, few would, I think, be willing to argue for the possibility of computational omniscience, so we will below pursue this from another angle, but I wanted to mention this idea of defining omniscience as knowledge of the absolute infinite because it strikes me as interesting. But no more of this for now.

The claim of computational omniscience must be qualified, since computational omniscience can exhaust only that portion of the world exhaustible by computational means; computational omniscience is the kind of omniscience that we encountered in the “Mary’s room” thought experiment, which might plausibly be thought to exhaust the world, or which might with equal plausibility be seen as falling far short of all that might be known of some body of knowledge.

Computational omniscience is distinct from omniscience simpliciter; while exhaustive in one respect, it fails to capture certain aspects of the world. Computational omniscience may be defined as the computation of all that is potentially computable, which leaves aside that which is not computable. The non-computable aspects of the world include, but are not limited to, non-computable functions, quantum indeterminacy, that which is non-quantifiable (for whatever reason), the qualitative dimension of conscious experience (i.e., qualia), and that which is inferred but not observable. These are pretty significant exceptions. What is left over? What part of the world is computable? This is a philosophical question that we must ask once we understand that computability has limits and that these limits may be distinct from the limits of human intelligence. Just as conscious biological agents face intrinsic epistemic limits, so also non-biological agents would also face intrinsic epistemic limits — in so far as a non-biological agent can be considered an epistemic agent — but these limitations on biological and non-biological agents are not necessarily the same.

The ultimate inadequacy of computational omniscience points to the possibility of limited omniscience — though one might well assert that omniscience that is limited is not really omniscience at all. The limited omniscience of a computer capable of computing the fate of the known universe may be compared to recent research on what Daniel Kahneman calls the bounded rationality of human minds. Artificial intelligence is likely to be a bounded intelligence that exemplifies bounded rationality, although its boundaries will not necessarily coincide precisely with the boundaries that defined human bounded rationality.

The idea of limited omniscience has been explored in mathematics, particular in regard to constructivism. Constructivist mathematicians have formulated principles of omniscience, and, wary of both unrestricted use of tertium non datur and of its complete interdiction in the manner of intuitionism, the limited principle of omniscience has been proposed as a specific way to skirt around some of the problems implicit in the realism of unrestricted tertium non datur.

When we allow our mathematical thought to coincide with realities and infinities — an approach that we are assured is practical and empirical, and bound to only yield benefits — we find ourselves mired in paradoxes, and in the interest of freeing ourselves from this conceptual mire we are driven to a position like Einstein’s famous aphorism that, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” We separate and compartmentalize factual realities and mathematical infinities because we have difficulty, “to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Indeed, it was Russell’s attempt to bring together Cantorian conceptions of set theory with practical measures of the actual world that begat the definitive paradox of set theory that bear Russell’s name, and the responses to which have in large measure shaped post-Cantorian mathematics. Russell gives the following account of his discovery of his eponymous paradox in his Autobiography:

Cantor had a proof that there is no greatest number, and it seemed to me that the number of all the things in the world ought to be the greatest possible. Accordingly, I examined his proof with some minuteness, and endeavoured to apply it to the class of all the things there are. This led me to consider those classes which are not members of themselves, and to ask whether the class of such classes is or is not a member of itself. I found that either answer implies its contradictory.

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol. II, 1872-1914, “Principia Mathematica”

None of the great problems of philosophical logic from this era — i.e., the fruitful period in which Russell and several colleagues created mathematical logic — were “solved”; rather, a consensus emerged among philosophers of logic, conventions were established, and, perhaps most importantly, Zermelo’s axiomatization of set theory became the preferred mathematical treatment of set theory, which allowed mathematicians to skirt the difficult issues in philosophical logic and to focus on the mathematics of set theory largely without logical distractions.

It is an irony of intellectual history that the next great revolution in mathematics to follow after set theory — which latter is, essentially, the mathematical theory of the infinite — was to be that of computer science, which constitutes the antithesis of set theory in so far as it is the strictest of strict finitisms. It would be fair to characterize the implicit theoretical position of computer science as a species of ultra-finitism, since computers cannot formulate even the most tepid potential infinite. All computing machines have an upper bound of calculation, and this is a physical instantiation of the theoretical position of ultra-finitism. This finitude follows from embodiment, which a computer shares with the world itself, and which therefore makes ultra-finite computing consistent with an ultra-finite world. In an ultra-finite world, it is possible that the finite may exhaust the finite and computational omniscience realized.

The universe defined by the Big Bang and all that followed from the Big Bang is a finite universe, and may in virtue of its finitude admit of exhaustive calculation, though this finite universe of observable cosmology may be set in an infinite context. Indeed, even the finite universe may not be as rigorously finite as we suppose, given that the limitations of our observations are not necessarily the limits of the real, but rather are defined by the limit of the speed of light. Leonard Susskind has rightly observed that what we observe of the universe is like being inside a room, the walls of which are the distant regions of the universe receding from us at superluminous velocity at the point at which they disappear from our view.

Recently in The Size of the World I quoted this passage from Leonard Susskind:

“In every direction that we look, galaxies are passing the point at which they are moving away from us faster than light can travel. Each of us is surrounded by a cosmic horizon — a sphere where things are receding with the speed of light — and no signal can reach us from beyond that horizon. When a star passes the point of no return, it is gone forever. Far out, at about fifteen billion light years, our cosmic horizon is swallowing galaxies, stars, and probably even life. It is as if we all live in our own private inside-out black hole.”

Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, pp. 437-438

This observation has not yet been sufficiently appreciated (as I previously noted in The Size of the World). What lies beyond Susskind’s cosmic horizon is unobservable, just as anything that disappears beyond the event horizon of a black hole has become unobservable. We might term such empirical realities just beyond our grasp empirical unobservables. Empirical unobservables include (but are presumably not limited to — our “out” clause) all that which lies beyond the event horizon of Susskind’s inside-out black hole, that which lies beneath the event horizon of a black hole as conventionally conceived, and that which lies outside the lightcone defined by our present. There may be other empirical unobservables that follow from the structure of relativistic space. There are, moreover, many empirically inaccessible points of view, such as the interiors of stars, which cannot be observed for contingent reasons distinct from the impossibility of observing certain structures of the world hidden from us by the nature of spacetime structure.

What if the greater part of the universe passes in the oblivion of the empirical unobservables? This is a question that was posed by a paper appeared that in 2007, The Return of a Static Universe and the End of Cosmology, which garnered some attention because of its quasi-apocalyptic claim of the “end of cosmology” (which sounds a lot like Heidegger’s proclamation of the “end of philosophy” or any number of other proclamations of the “end of x“). This paper was eventually published in Scientific American as The End of Cosmology? An accelerating universe wipes out traces of its own origins by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer.

In calling the “end of cosmology” a “quasi-apocalyptic” claim I don’t mean to criticize or ridicule the paper or its argument, which is of the greatest interest. As in the subtitle of the Scientific American article, it appears to be the case that an accelerating universe wipes out traces of its own origins. If a quasi-apocalyptic claim can be scientifically justified, it is a legitimate and deserves our intellectual respect. Indeed, the study of existential risk could be considered a scientific study of apocalyptic claims, and I regard this as an undertaking of the first importance. We need to think seriously about existential risks in order to mitigate them rationally to the extent possible.

In my posts on the prediction and retrodiction walls (The Retrodiction Wall and Addendum on the Retrodiction Wall) I introduced the idea of effective history, which is that span of time which lies between the retrodiction wall in the past and the prediction wall in the future. One might similarly define effective cosmology as consisting of that region or those regions of space within the practical limits of observational cosmology, and excluding those regions of space that cannot be observed — not merely what is hidden from us by contingent circumstances, but that which are are incapable of observing because of the very structure of the universe and our place (ontologically speaking) within it.

There are limits to what we can know that are intrinsic to what we might call the human condition, except that this formulation is anthropocentric. The epistemic limits represented by effective history and effective cosmology are limitations that would hold for any sentient, conscious organism emergent from natural history, i.e., would hold for any peer species. Some of these limitations are limitations intrinsic to our biology and to the kind of mind that is emergent from biological organisms. Some of these limitations are limitations intrinsic to the world in which we find ourselves, and the vantage point from within the cosmos that we view our world. Ultimately, these limitations are one and the same, as the kind of biological beings that we are is a function of the kind of cosmos in which we have emerged, and which has served as the context of our natural history.

Within the domains of effective history and effective cosmology, we are limited further still by the non-quantifiable aspects of the world noted above. Setting aside non-quantifiable aspects of the world, what I have elsewhere called intrinsically arithmetical realities are a paradigm case of what remains computable once we have separated out the non-computable exceptions. (Beyond the domains of effective history and effective cosmology, hence beyond the domain of computational omniscience, there lies the infinite context of our finite world, about which we will say no more at present.) Intrinsically arithmetical realities are intrinsically amenable to quantitative methods are potentially exhaustible by computational omniscience.

Some have argued that the whole of the universe is intrinsically arithmetical in the sense of being essentially mathematical, as in the “Mathematical Universe Hypothesis” of Max Tegmark. Tegmark writes:

“[The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis] explains the utility of mathematics for describing the physical world as a natural consequence of the fact that the latter is a mathematical structure, and we are simply uncovering this bit by bit.”

The Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark

Tegmark also explicitly formulates two companion principles:

External Reality Hypothesis (ERH): There exists an external physical reality completely independent of us humans.

…and…

Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH): Our external physical reality is a mathematical structure.

I find these formulations to be philosophically naïve in the extreme, but as a contemporary example of a perennial tradition of philosophical thought Tegmark is worth citing. Tegmark is seeking an explicit answer to Wigner’s famous question about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” It is to be expected that some responses to Wigner will take the form that Tegmark represents, but even if our universe is a mathematical structure, we do not yet know how much of that mathematical structure is computable and how much of that mathematical structure is not computable.

In my Centauri Dreams post on SETI, METI, and Existential Risk I mentioned that I found myself unable to identify with either the proponents of unregulated METI or those who argue for the regulation of METI efforts, since I disagreed with key postulates on both sides of the argument. METI advocates typically hold that interstellar flight is impossible, therefore METI can pose no risk. Advocates of METI regulation typically hold that unintentional EM spectrum leakage is not detectable at interstellar distances, therefore METI poses a risk we do not face at present. Since I hold that interstellar flight is possible, and that unintentional EM spectrum radiation is (or will be) detectable, I can’t comfortably align myself with either party in the discussion.

I find myself similarly hamstrung on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to computability, the cosmos, and determinism. Computer scientists and singulatarian enthusiasts of exponential increasing computer power ultimately culminating in an intelligence explosion seem content to assume that the universe is not only computable, and presents no fundamental barriers to computation, but foresee a day when matter itself is transformed into computronium and the whole universe becomes a grand computer. Critics of such enthusiasts often take the form of denying the possibility of AI or denying the possibility of machine consciousness, denying this or that is technically possible, and so on. It seems clear to me that only a portion of the world will ever be computable, but that portion is considerable and that a great many technological developments will fundamentally change our relationship to the world. But no matter how much either human beings or machines are transformed by the continuing development of industrial-technological civilization, non-computable functions will remain non-computable. This I cannot count myself either as a singulatarian or a Luddite.

How are we to understand the limitations to computational omniscience imposed by the limits of computation? The transcomputational problem, rather than laying bare human limitations, points to the way in which minds are not subject to computational limits. Minds as minds do not function computationally, so the evolution of mind (which drives the evolution of civilization) embodies different bounds and different limits than the Bekenstein bound and Bremermann’s limit, as well as different possibilities and different opportunities. The evolutionary possibilities of the mind are radically distinct from the evolutionary possibilities of bodies subject to computational limits, even though minds are dependent upon the bodies in which they are embodied.

Bremermann’s limit is 1093, which is somewhat arbitrary, but whether we draw the line here or elsewhere it doesn’t really matter for the principle at stake. Embodied computing must run into intrinsic limits, e.g., from relativity — a computer that exceeded Bremerman’s limit by too much would be subject to relativistic effects that would mean that gains in size would reach a point of diminishing returns. Recent brain research was suggested that the human brain is already close to the biological limit for effective signal transmission within and between the various parts of the brain, so that a larger brain would not necessarily be smarter or faster or more efficient. Indeed, it has been pointed out the elephant and whale brains are larger than mammal brains, although the encephalization quotient is much higher in human beings despite the difference in absolute brain size.

The function of organic bodies easily peaks over 1093. The Wikipedia entry on the transcomputational problem says:

“The retina contains about a million light-sensitive cells. Even if there were only two possible states for each cell (say, an active state and an inactive state) the processing of the retina as a whole requires processing of more than 10 to the 300,000 bits of information. This is far beyond Bremermann’s limit.”

This is just the eye alone. The body has far more nerve ending inputs than just those of the eye, and essentially a limitless number of outputs. So exhausting the possible computational states of even a relatively simple organism easily surpasses Bremermann’s limit and is therefore transcomputational. Some very simple organisms might not be transcomputational, given certain quantifiable parameters, but I think most complex life, and certainly things are complex as mammals, are radically transcomputational. Therefore the mind (whatever it is) is embodied in a transcomputational body, of which no computer could exhaustively calculate its possible states. The brain itself is radically transcomputational with its 100 billion neurons (each of which can take at minimum two distinct states, and possibly more).

Yet even machine embodiments can be computationally intractable (in the same way that organic bodies are computationally intractable), exceeding the possibility of exhaustively calculating every possible material state of the mechanism (on a molecular or atomic level). Thus the emergence of machine consciousness would also supervene upon a transcomputational embodiment. It is, at present, impossible to say whether a machine embodiment of consciousness would be a limitation upon that consciousness (because the embodiment is likely to be less radically transcomputational than the brain) or a facilitation of consciousness (because machines can be arbitrarily scaled up in a way that organic bodies cannot be).

Since the mind stands outside the possibilities of embodied computation, if machine consciousness emerges, machine embodiments will be as non-transparent to machine minds as organic embodiment is non-transparent to organic minds, but the machine minds, non-transparent to their embodiment as they are, will have access to energy sources far beyond any resources an organic body could provide. Such machine consciousness would not be bound by brute force calculation or linear models (as organic minds are not so bound), but would have far greater resources at its command for the development of its consciousness.

Since the body that today embodies mind already far exceeds Bremermann’s limit, and no machine as machine is likely to exceed this limit, machine consciousness emergent from computationally tractable bodies may, rather than being super-intelligent in ways that biologically derived minds can never be, may on the contrary be a pale shadow of an organic mind in an essentially transcomputational body. This gives a whole new twist to the much-discussed idea of the mind’s embodiment.

Computation is not the be-all and end-all of of mind; it is, in fact, only peripheral to mind as mind. If we had to rely upon calculation to make it through our day, we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning; most of the world is simply too complex to calculate. But we have a “work around” — consciousness. Marginalized as the “hard problem” in the philosophy of mind, or simply neglected in scientific studies, consciousness enables us to cut the Gordian Knot of transcomputability and to act in a complex world that far exceeds our ability to calculate.

Neither is consciousness the be-all and end-all of mind, although the rise of computer science and the increasing role of computers in our life has led many to conclude that computation is primary and that it is consciousness is that is peripheral. and, to be sure, in some contexts, consciousness is peripheral. In many of the same contexts of our EEA in which calculation is impossible due to complexity, consciousness is also irrelevant because we respond by an instinct that is deeper than and other than consciousness. In such cases, the mechanism of instinct takes over, but this is a biologically specific mechanism, evolved to serve the purpose of differential survival and reproduction; it would be difficult to re-purpose a biologically specific mechanism for any kind of abstract computing task, and not particularly helpful either.

Consciousness is not the be-all and end-all not only because instinct largely circumvents it, but also because machines have a “work around” for consciousness just as consciousness is a “work around” for the limits of computability; mechanism is a “work around” for the inefficiencies of consciousness. Machine mechanisms can perform precisely those tasks that so tax organic minds as to be virtually unsolvable, in a way that is perfectly parallel to the conscious mind’s ability to perform tasks that machines cannot yet even approach — not because machines can’t do the calculations, but because machines don’t possess the “work around” ability of consciousness.

It is when computers have the “work around” capacity that conscious beings have that they will be in a position to effect an intelligence explosion. That is to say, machine consciousness is crucial to AI that is able to perform in that way that AI is expected to perform, though AI researchers tend to be dismissive of consciousness. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, well, then it is consciousness that allows us to “chunk the proofs” (i.e., to divide the proof into individually manageable pieces) and get to the eating all the more efficiently.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Kantian Critters

7 May 2013

Tuesday


The Transcendental Aesthetic and the Finding of

Other Minds in Other Species


An extrapolation of the “problem of other minds” to other species

What philosophers call “the problem of other minds” is closely related to what philosophers call the “mind-body problem” (both fall within philosophy of mind), and both are paradigmatic metaphysical questions that have been with philosophy from the beginning. Lately I’ve written a good deal about the mind-body problem on my other blog (e.g., in Naturalism and the Mind, Of Distinctions Weak and Strong, Of Distinctions, Principled and Otherwise, Cartesian Formalism, etc.), and this has got me to thinking about the problem of other minds.

I have never found the idea of other minds in other species to be in the least problematic. When you look into the eyes of another living being, whether human being or other being, you are well aware of the moment of mutual recognition, and you are equally well aware at that moment of mutual recognition that you are sharing that moment with another consciousness (that is to say, you experience a social temporality).

In The Eye of the Other I wrote:

It is when we look into the eye of the other that we recognize the consciousness of the other. Even if we feel that the reality of other minds is beyond philosophical demonstration, even if we are skeptics of other minds, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look into the eyes of another and not experience that immediate reaction of recognition of another mind. When we look not only into the eyes of another being but also into the eyes of another species, there is simultaneously the recognition of the awareness of the other and of the alien nature of that awareness.

Some people feel obliged to deny this inter-species recognition of common consciousness on ideological grounds, although few ever think of speciesism as a ideology. As I have recently observed in relationship to geopolitics, which I characterized as an ideology that does not know itself to be an ideology, so too with speciesism: for many it is simply an unexamined presupposition and is never formalized as an explicit article of belief.

While I myself don’t find anything in the least problematic about consciousness in other species, and I think that anyone that takes a naturalistic point of view would be hard-pressed to deny it, I cannot deny that there are some persons who feel a real sense of moral horror in recognizing the consciousness of other species. I am fully aware of this moral horror, and I am utterly unsympathetic to it. To paraphrase Freud on the “oceanic” feeling, I am unable to discover this moral horror in myself.

Some of those who are uncomfortable with the ascription of consciousness to other species simply don’t like animals, and some of those similarly disposed are just completely uninterested in animals and find it peculiar that some human beings seem to be closer to their dogs and cats than they are to other human beings. Such persons sometimes become visibly discomfited at any mention of Johnson’s Hodge or Greyfriars Bobby or Hachikō, all memorialized by statues. I have personally heard individuals of this particular temperament indignantly lecture others (myself included) on the dangers of anthropomorphizing our companion animals. If I were to be so lectured today, I would lecture right back on anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind, which is utterly out of place and unbecoming of a philosopher (which in this instance includes anyone who makes, or who implies, philosophical assertions about mind, specifically, denying mind to certain classes of existents).

Such persons often live in an exclusively human world, and to them the animal world seems inexplicably alien. This in itself is an implicit recognition of an animal world, that is to say, a world constituted by animal consciousness. But, of course, not all who deny consciousness to other species can be so pigeon-holed. Some who have completely succumbed to anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind are in no sense living in an exclusively human world, and certainly when the dogma of human exceptionalism in consciousness gained currency, long before our industrial-technological civilization freed us from animal muscle power as the motive force of civilization, almost everyone lived intimately with animals.

In this latter context, prior to industrialization, there was always a theological overlay to the denial of consciousness to other species. Indeed, it is very likely that, if the terms of the philosophical problem of other minds were carefully explained, those with a theological world view might well without hesitation grant consciousness of other species, and simply deny they other species possess a “soul,” which is simply a theologically-legitimized devalorization. In practice, it comes to much the same as the denial of consciousness to other species and a sedulous distinction between the human and the animal realms.

I observed in The Origins of Physicalism that Cartesianism was the original “mechanical philosophy,” and while Cartesianism in the time of Descartes and immediately afterward incorporated human exceptionalism into the philosophy (i.e., it institutionalized anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind), the logical extrapolation of the theory was evident, and what the Cartesians practised upon other species later philosophers in the mechanistic tradition came to practise also upon human beings: the denial of consciousness.

Today we have a school of thought that is not exactly the denial of consciousness but rather the revaluation, or, better, the devaluation of consciousness, which latter is called a “user illusion” — at least, in techno-philosophy the denial of consciousness is called the “user illusion.” In traditional philosophy, the denial of the existence of consciousness is called “eliminativism,” since instead of seeking to reduce consciousness to something else that is not consciousness (and thereby exemplifying reductivism), eliminativism cuts the Gordian Knot and simply denies that there is any such thing as consciousness — meaning that there is nothing to be “explained away.” I am sure that I am not the only one who finds this to be a thoroughly unsatisfying “solution” to a perennial philosophical problem.

How then are we to understand the minds of other species, i.e., the problem of other minds as generalized to include non-human species? What philosophical framework exists that can provide a conceptual infrastructure for such an understanding? There are many possibilities, but today I would like to consider a Kantian approach.

If we take as the lesson of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic that the mind is being continually bombarded by a riot of sensations from all the various bodily sensory organs, and that the mind then constitutes a kind of conceptual sieve that shapes, channels and directs the mass of sensory experience into something coherent upon which an organism can act, we can recognize that much the same process occurs in other species. All mammals have more or less similar bodies and similar sensory endowments, so that all living mammals are constantly being bombarded by a riot of sensations which each creature must sort into coherent experience. The fact that we can play fetch with a dog, and both successfully interact in one and the same world, simultaneously recognizing the stick at the center of the game as an object that passes between two or more organism involved in a game of fetch, suggests that we and the dog constitute and cognize the world in a remarkably similar fashion.

The dog, like us, is receiving sensory signals from his eyes, ears, nose, and so forth, as well as experiencing kinesthetic sensations from the movement of his body as he exerts himself in lunging after the stick. From all of this sensation the dog successfully distills a world, and that world is remarkably similar to our world.

A few years ago I had an interesting experience that bears directly on games of fetch and shared experience, when I had an opportunity to feel what it was like to be a dog among dogs. I was at a vacation house on a river, and had brought my wetsuit along so I could swim. The river is fed by snow melt from Mt. Hood and it is one of the coldest rivers in which I have ever been swimming. I put on my wetsuit and got into the water just as others were beginning to play fetch with a large black lab that they had brought along. They threw a stick into the frigid waters of the river, and the lab plunged into to fetch the stick. The next time the stick was thrown I started swimming toward it the same time that the lab started swimming toward it. The lab looked at me and instantly saw me as a competitor for the stick. He swam all the harder and made it to the stick before me with an obvious sense of triumphalism.

Of course, most people have had experiences like this in life, and some people will dismiss such experiences as readily as Descartes dismissed his correspondent’s stories attempting to prove that animals are not mere mechanisms. However we interpret such experiences, we share and interact in a common world. Although this is utterly contrary to the spirit of Kant, I have to observe that any animal that could not distill coherent experience of the world out of its mass of sensation would never survive. Evolution selects for those organisms that can best hunt or avoid being prey in the common world in which predator and prey interact. This is a naturalistic point of view, whereas Kant’s point of view was decidedly that of idealism.

Even if one rejects Kant’s idealism, as I do, there seems to me to be some residual value in the idea of the mind being involved in the constitution of experience. I think that Kant was right that we have certain a priori intuitions that order our experience, but I think that this was much more fluid and pluralistic than Kant’s exposition of the transcendental aesthetic allows. While I wrote above that mammals all have a relatively similarly experience of the world, a function of a similar sensory and cognitive endowments, I would allow that there is some important variation. Sight plays a very large role in how human beings cognize the world; smell plays a disproportionate role in how dogs cognize the world; sound plays a disproportionate role in how dolphins cognize the world.

All terrestrial critters of a given level of cognitive complexity have to distill coherent experience of one and the same world out of a mass of sensation, but that mass of sensation differs among different species. I suspect that this sensory difference means that different species also have different a priori conceptions that help them to organize their experience into a coherent whole, and that, just sensory experience differs from species to species, but admits of degrees of greater or less, so too the a priori ideas of distinct species different from species to species but also admit of greater or less similarity. That is to say, smell may shape the world of a dog far more than it shapes our world, but we probably share far more in terms of sensory experience and organizing ideas with a dog than with a marine mammal, and probably we share much more with a marine mammal than with an octopus or other cephalopod. This is a function and an illustration of a point I recently tried to make about the relationship between mind and embodiment.

primate minds

I tried to make this point in my above referenced post, The Eye of the Other, since when I unexpectedly looked into the eyes of a sealion, a marine mammal, we immediately recognized each other, and in the same moment of recognition also recognized the profound differences between the two of us. Common mammalian minds, differently embodied and living in profoundly different environments, will involve different sensory stimulation, different kinesthetic sensations, and different a priori concepts for organizing experience. But not too different. A shark, with a mind very different from a mammalian mind, can predate marine mammals, so that both sharks and marine mammals interact in the same marine environment just as human beings and tigers interact in the same terrestrial environment.

vertebrate minds

I suspect that, at least in some senses, the tiger’s mind and the human mind share concepts derived from their common terrestrial environment, while the shark and the marine mammal share concepts derived from the common marine environment, so that a tiger’s mind is more like a human mind than a sea lion’s mind is like a human mind, and, vice versa, a sea lion’s mind is more like a shark’s mind than it is like a human mind. Nevertheless, the human mind and the sea lion mind will share some concepts due to their common mammalian constitution. To employ a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase, the different sensations, concepts, and minds of distinct species overlap and intersect.

vertebrate and other minds

The recognition of consciousness in other species is no marginal and recondite inquiry; if, in the fullness of time, we encounter other intelligent species in the universe of extraterrestrial origin, we will need a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness among other organic species, and if research into artificial intelligence and machine consciousness ever issues in a self-aware mechanism, fashioned by human hands in the same way that we might build a car or a house, we will again require a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness even more generally, comprehending both naturally-emergent consciousness from organic substrates and artificially emergent consciousness of non-organic substrates.

all minds

We need a robust philosophy of mind that does not stagnate in questions of whether there is mind or whether minds can be reduced to other phenomena or eliminated altogether. Such doctrines are — would be — utterly unhelpful in coming to understand what Husserl called the “structures of consciousness.” It is likely that the structures of consciousness vary incrementally among individuals of the same species, vary a little more across distinct species, and will vary even more among minds derived from different sources — different ecosystems and biospheres in the case of organically-originating extraterrestrial minds, and different mechanisms of implementation in the case of inorganically-originating minds of machine consciousness.

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Saturday


fusion and consciousness

Fusion: nature got there first

Fusion came very early in the history of the universe, and consciousness came very late in the history of the universe — this pair of natural technologies come so early and so late, respectively, that one could say that they “bookend” cosmological history as the Alpha and Omega of cosmic evolution.

big bang nucleosynthesis

After an initial period of big bang nucleosynthesis in the first twenty minutes of the life of the cosmos, the universe did little in the way of producing more baryonic matter until gravity took over, and the baryonic matter condensed into early stars. Stars began to “light up” about 100 million years after the big bang, which in cosmological terms is not a terribly long time. This “lighting up” of the stars has been said to mark the advent of the stelliferous era.

nucleosynthesis1

In the almost 14 billion years of the universe’s history, stars have been shining for all but the first 100 million years — the vast majority of the age of the universe. What this means is that fusion has been around for the vast majority of the history of the universe. Nature innovated fusion technology early on, and fusion has continued to be central to the natural processes of the universe up to the present time and for the foreseeable future.

It has been said that human beings are a solar species. I wrote about this in my post Human Beings: A Solar Species. To say that human beings are a solar species is to say that we are a species dependent upon fusion. All life, and not only our species, is dependent upon the energy generated by fusion, so that fusion is responsible for all (or almost all) subsequent emergent complexity.

Fusion is a basic technology of the universe, a conditio sine qua non of cosmological order and its history. As such, fusion is a robust and durable technology proved over billions of years. Fusion as a natural source of energy is achieved through gravitational containment, and while human technology is not yet in a position to exploit the technology of gravitational containment, we have a very clear idea of its mechanism, as we have sophisticated physical theories to account for it. In other words, we have a good understanding of a technology that is one of the early building blocks of the universe.

Other technologies of nature

It is interesting, in this context, to consider other natural technologies and their place in cosmological natural history. We know, for example, from a 1972 discovery at Gabon, Africa, that fission, like fusion, is a natural technology. At Oklo in Gabon, about 1.7 billion years ago, just the right elements came together with a critical mass of fissionables to produce self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions.

oklo gabon

Fissionables are relatively rare, and we know that these heavier elements are created by supernovae, so that natural fission reactors cannot come about until after (at very minimum) generation III stars have gone supernovae and flung their radioactive remnants into the universe. The date of the natural reactor at Gabon makes it quite old, but still not half as old as the earth itself, and nowhere nearly as old as fusion. It has been proposed that there was a “paleo-reactor” on Mars in the distant past, and it is interesting to speculate how widely spread, or how rare, fission technology is in the universe. We will not know until we explore in detail.

Another natural technology of note is life itself. Current biological thought suggests that life emerged on earth not long after the planet began to cool. The Earth is thought to be about 4.54 billion years old, and life may have arisen as much as 3.9 billion years ago. In other words, the Earth has hosted life for much longer than its initial sterility. The earth has, in turn, existed for almost a third as long as the entire universe, so that means that life (at very least on earth, if nowhere else) has been around for a quarter of the age of the known universe. That makes life a well-established and robust natural technology.

A recent paper, Life Before Earth by Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon, suggests that if the complexity of life is extrapolated backward in time we must posit an origin of life at about 9.7 billion years ago, which is almost twice as old as the earth, which suggests in turn that earth was “seeded” with life as soon as its was cool enough to support life, rather than independently arising on Earth. While this thesis is, in my judgment, rather tenuous, its cannot be dismissed out of hand, and if it is correct, it shows life to be an even longer-lived and more durable technology than we now suspect it to be.

Just as we are curious if there have been other naturally occurring fission reactors in the universe, we are intensely interested in the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe: the robust and durable technology of life on earth suggests that this technology may well be replicated elsewhere, as pervasive in the universe, where conditions are right, as fusion technology is pervasive in the universe. The existence of life elsewhere is the cosmos is one of the great scientific questions of our time.

Consciousness: nature got there first, too

In contradistinction to fusion, the technology of consciousness arrives late in the history of the universe. While there were likely rudimentary forms of consciousness prior to the particular forms of mammalian consciousness familiar to us both in ourselves and in the other mammals with whom we often share our lives, and mammalian consciousness is a robust natural technology about 160 million years old (interestingly, not so much more distant from the present as the lighting up of stars was distant from big bang), the intelligent, self-reflective consciousness of human beings seems to be even younger than the bodies of anatomically modern human beings.

The late emergence of consciousness in the history of the universe is interesting in so far as it demonstrates that the universe, even at its present advanced age, is still capable of technological innovation.

In regard to consciousness, we are closing in on the mechanisms of the brain that enable the emergence of consciousness from a material substrate, but, unlike the case with fusion, we have no idea whatsoever what consciousness is and have no theory to account for it. Of course I am aware that many will disagree with me on this — even, if not especially, those scientifically-oriented readers who found themselves nodding over what I wrote above about fusion, and who have convinced themselves of the truth of some reductivist or eliminativist theory of consciousness.

Hugo de Garis, who appeared in the film about Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man, said in an interview (Interview with Hugo de Garis: Approaches to AI, Neuroscience, Engineering, Intelligence Theory, Cyborgs interviewed, filmed and edited by Adam A. Ford) that, “…we have ourselves as the existence proof that nature has found a way to [build] a conscious, intelligent creature.” (We could, in the same spirit, say that stars are the existence proof of fusion energy.) This is a perfect evocation of the weak anthropic principle as applied to consciousness and intelligence: we’re here, and we’re conscious, therefore consciousness is possible and the universe is consistent with the emergence of conscious life.

The possibility of conscious knowledge of consciousness

These natural technologies are not just randomly jumbled together, but are in fact closely related. The fusion technology of stars enabled energy production that was exploited by life, which latter grew in complexity until it made possible the even more subtle and complex technology of conscious intelligence. The earliest of these technologies, fusion, we understand well; the latest of these technologies, not surprisingly, still eludes us.

And in saying that a full understanding of consciousness still eludes us, what we are saying is that consciousness so far understands the natural technologies that made itself possible, but it does not yet understand itself in the same way. We may yet attain the full measure of reflexive self-awareness of consciousness when consciousness knows itself in the same way that it understands fusion technology. This will take time, since, as we have noted, consciousness is a youthful technology of nature.

Consciousness may, too, someday become as pervasive in the universe as fusion. Indeed, the fact that we know, that we can see, that fusion is operating everywhere in the known universe, is the first precondition of life, and if life too has been made pervasive by pervasive fusion energy sources, the technology of life may, in the fullness of time, give rise to the technology of conscious intelligence. But consciousness is a late-comer in cosmological order, and has not yet shown itself to be a technology of nature as robust and as durable as fusion. Only the test of time can demonstrate this.

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Thursday


Recently in The Limitations of Human Consciousness I reviewed a typology of “philosophical zombies,” which latter are employed as thought experiments to investigate the possibility of human (or quasi-human) existence without consciousness. One species of philosophical zombie is referred to as a “soulless zombie,” and I want to take a few minutes to think about what exactly a soulless zombie would be.

What is a soulless zombie? The Neuronarrative blog defines a soulless zombie in passing as that which, “which looks like a human, has a brain, but lacks, wait for it, a soul (as defined by said inquirer).” The Wikipedia article on philosophical zombies is similarly terse, simply saying that the soulless zombie, “lacks a ‘soul’.” Well, we knew that much from the etymology of the term. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Zombies doesn’t even mention “soulless zombies.” Given that the “soul” is a concept that many philosophers have likely consigned to the category of folk psychology, the idea of a soulless zombie may well be more discussed outside philosophy than in, but it represents a kind of moral intuition, and for that reason alone commands our attention.

Theories of soulless zombies will bifurcate based on the distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic explications of the soul. One can follow the lead of Aristotle’s On the Soul and give an essentially naturalistic account of the soul, or one can insist upon the irreducibly non-naturalistic character of the soul, which Plato sometimes called the “divine spark.”

The non-naturalistic interpretation is a dead end for science and philosophy and therefore uninteresting. Theologians may have something more to say on this head, but a non-naturalistic soul means that by definition no naturalistic investigation can shed light on the soul (or that part of the soul that is irreducibly non-naturalistic, if any internal complexity or structure of the soul is recognized; often the advocates of a non-naturalistic soul insist upon the simplicity of the soul, in which case the simply non-naturalistic soul is closed to naturalistic investigation). There remains the possibility that, if the surrounding naturalistic context of the non-naturalistic soul can be better elucidated, this may in turn improve the terms of the discussion surrounding the non-naturalistic soul, but I will leave that possibility aside for now.

If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the legitimacy of the naturalistic account of the soul (as in Aristotle), there is no reason to suppose that the methodological naturalism of science cannot converge upon an adequate (by which I mean non-reductive and non-eliminative) account of the soul and the ensouled person. It is only in the case of the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul and personhood (in at least one of the aspects of personhood) that the methods of science and naturalistic philosophy must fail to capture the essential nature of human persons. If it is categorically denied that naturalistic methods as such can fully account for the human person or the human soul, then it is likely that such a denier will also hold the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul (although I can think of an exception to this which I will not attempt to explicate here).

In discussing philosophical zombies, soulless zombies, and scientific philosophy, the reader may well have Daniel Dennett in mind, so I am going to quote Dennett here in order to point out the way in which the inquiry I have suggested differs in essentials from Dennett’s approach, despite the similarly of the terminology I have employed. Here’s the passage from Dennett:

There is a powerful and ubiquitous intuition that computational, mechanistic models of consciousness, of the sort we naturalists favor, must leave something out — something important. Just what must they leave out? The critics have found that it’s hard to say, exactly: qualia, feelings, emotions, the what-it’s-likeness (Nagel) or the ontological subjectivity (Searle) of consciousness. Each of these attempts to characterize the phantom residue has met with serious objections and been abandoned by many who nevertheless want to cling to the intuition, so there has been a gradual process of distillation, leaving just about all the reactionaries, for all their disagreements among themselves, united in the conviction that there is a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie — let’s call that intuition the Zombic Hunch — leading them to the thesis of Zombism: that the fundamental flaw in any mechanistic theory of consciousness is that it cannot account for this important difference. A hundred years from now, I expect this claim will be scarcely credible, but let the record show that in 1999, John Searle, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn, Joseph Levine and many other philosophers of mind don’t just feel the tug of the Zombic Hunch (I can feel the tug as well as anybody), they credit it. They are, however reluctantly, Zombists, who maintain that the zombie challenge is a serious criticism.

Daniel Dennett, The Zombic Hunch: Extinction of an Intuition?

Dennett here invokes “we naturalists,” but although I definitely count myself among the naturalists, I do not share Dennett’s point of view on this matter. What Dennett calls a “phantom residue” might be compared to what I called the “irreducible non-naturalistic” nature of the soul, but what Dennett is suggesting is far more radical. Dennett not only rejects the soul (much less the theological, non-naturalistic soul), he rejects the very existence of consciousness and subjectivity. Dennett’s is a eliminativist account, which he pursues despite admitting that he feels the tug of the intuition. Thus for Dennett, a naturalistic account is a mechanistic account, and this is a far more circumscribed conception of naturalism than I would accept or advocate.

However, when Dennett makes the distinction between, “a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie,” he does inadvertently hit upon the essential idea of a soulless zombie: it would be distinct from a conscious person. Thus Dennett’s “perfect zombie” would seem to be what I am here calling a “soulless zombie,” though I could go on to add that Dennett denies even the possibility of a perfect zombie without a naturalistic form of consciousness. In this context it would be very easy to conflate naturalistic and non-naturalistic conceptions of consciousness, but the distinction is most vital where it is most likely to be conflated.

I think that once we make the distinction we can up the ante of the soulless zombie problem, or, in Dennett’s terms, the zombie hunch. To do this we can draw upon a naturalistic account of the soul formulated for the explicit purpose of a sociological explication of religion. I am thinking here of Emile Durkheim’s conception of the soul in his seminal work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

Durkheim in famous for treating religion as an essentially social phenomenon, even in its apparently most private forms. Here is a typical passage from Durkheim:

“…it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion. Now in order that these principal aspects of the collective life may have commenced by being only varied aspects of the religious life, it is obviously necessary that the religious life be the eminent form and, as it were, the concentrated expression of the whole collective life. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”

This differs radically from, for example, Alfred North Whitehead’s conception of religion as being, “what the individual does with his solitude.”

Here is a passage from Durkheim specific to the soul, and incorporating his sociological conception of religious ideas:

“Thus the notion of the soul is a particular application of the beliefs relative to sacred beings. This is the explanation of the religious character which this idea has had from the moment when it first appeared in history, and which it still retains to-day. In fact, the soul has always been considered a sacred thing; on this ground, it is opposed to the body which is, in itself, profane. It is not merely distinguished from its material envelope as the inside from the outside; it is not merely represented as made out of a more subtle and fluid matter; but more than this, it inspires those sentiments which are everywhere reserved for that which is divine. If it is not made into a god, it is at least regarded as a spark of the divinity. This essential characteristic would be inexplicable if the idea of the soul were only a pre-scientific solution given to the problem of dreams; for there is nothing in the dream to awaken religious emotions, so the cause by which these are explained could not have such a character. But if the soul is a part of the divine substance, it represents something not ourselves that is within us; if it is made of the same mental matter as the sacred beings, it is natural that it should become the object of the same sentiments.”

EMILE DURKHEIM, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH WARD SWAIN, Chapter VIII, “The Idea of the Soul,” section IV

Durkheim’s naturalistic-socialogical conception of the soul has been formulated in a particularly compelling manner by professor Charles B. Jones:

“The soul is nothing but the image of society introjected into the individual and appropriated by the individual as his or her most essential identity. When a person has been successfully integrated into the religious life of a social group they then take that image of the group and of all the virtues and goals, the mission of the group, the ideals that it adheres to, and brings it on board as part of their own being.”

Charles B. Jones, Ph.D., University of Virginia, The Catholic University of America, Introduction to the Study of Religion, published by The Teaching Company

I think that this nicely captures the sense of necessity that people typically invoke in relation to the soul by contextualizing it as implicated in the individual’s identity and being.

Now, a perfect zombie would presumably be able to be successfully integrated into the religious life of a group (if a zombie failed to do so its behavioral emulation of human beings would be imperfect) and so would able to appropriate the group identity as its own.

Would there be a difference between a religiously socialized zombie, perhaps even a zombie that believed itself to have a soul, and if asked, “Do you have a soul?” would respond in the affirmative, and a human being who was also religiously socialized, also self-identified as having a soul, and also affirmed the possession of a soul when asked?

I think that this sharpens the dilemma a bit, because it is possible for me to imagine a soulless zombie undergoing initiation rites in the religion and mimicking all those aspects of behavior that Durkheim associated with the social manifestation of the concept of the soul, and yet still that soulless or perfect zombie would be without any feeling (i.e., qualia) of what it is like to be a member of that community and to feel the fellowship of the share ritualism of a liturgy that affirms the soul.

As far as a naturalistic conception of the soul can go, then — and I admit that it very well may not go far enough — there still seems to be room for an explanatory gap between a soulless zombie and a human being.

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Tuesday


Beyond Philosophical Zombies:

A Thought Experiment in Absolute Consciousness


One of the thought experiments in contemporary philosophy of mind that has a certain traction with popular culture is that of “philosophical zombies.” It is a little surprising that this interest in philosophical zombies should coincide with a popular culture zombie craze, but that seems to be the case — unless we posit a zombie conspiracy that seeks to acculturate and familiarize human beings with zombie being so that when the zombies take over we will be easy prey, so to speak (sort of like — but not exactly like — the plot in Aurthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End).

Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D. (Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University) begins his Teaching Company lectures on philosophy of mind with an initial lecture on philosophical zombies. Dr. Robinson distinguishes at least three (3) species of philosophical zombie (a tripartite distinction that he credits to Güven Güzeldere):

● behavioral zombies such that the zombie is behaviorally indistinguishable from a human being possessing consciousness

● functional zombies also apparently called a neurological zombie, which is physiologically indistinguishable from a conscious human being, and

● identical zombies such that the zombie is anatomically indistinguishable from a conscious human being; it is not clear to me exactly how a functional or neurological zombie is supposed to differ from an identical zombie unless we go a step further and, invoking theological language, assert that the identical zombie has no soul, while a conscious human being does have a soul (this qualification yields what is called a soulless zombie)

Given the pop-culture resonance of philosophical zombies an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the idea, and it is not my wish simply to add another discussion to an already burgeoning field of zombie studies. What I would like to do, however, is to use the idea of philosophical zombies in order to broach the possibility of a thought experiment antithetical to that of philosophical zombies.

Philosophical zombies are employed as a thought experiment in order to investigate the possibility of entities that are somehow less than full human beings. What about the possibility of entities that are somehow more than human beings? That is to say, what about superior beings, i.e., being superior to human being?

I would like to propose a thought experiment in what might be called absolute consciousness. If zombies lack all consciousness, the antithetical condition to that of a zombie would be that of greatly enhanced consciousness — i.e., consciousness enhanced or extended beyond ordinary human consciousness.

It's not only zombies that have a pop culture resonance: Megamind represents a popular culture expression of enhanced and expanded human consciousness.

In order to consider the possibility of absolute consciousness, we must attempt to investigate the limitations, weaknesses, and constraints of human consciousness, and to attempt to imagine a consciousness from which these limitations, weaknesses, and constraints have been removed. This is not easy to do. As Dr. Robinson observes in his lectures, human beings experience consciousness in the way that fish experience water — it is so pervasive and so complete that it would be difficult to even identify it. But just as we learned to investigate the air we breathe and which surrounds us our entire life — and which we also took for granted in a pre-scientific stage of civilization — so too we can learn to investigate consciousness. And we have, in fact, done so in some degree of detail.

If we consider modern psychiatry and psychology since Freud — and I specifically appeal to the Freudian tradition since Freud was a physician who sought to treat specific pathologies — we are presented with a detailed account of all the ways in which a mind can “go wrong,” as it were. So, first of all, absolute consciousness would experience no mental illness. This is a highly problematic claim, since it implies a distinction between mental health and mental pathology that may be relatively clear from the clinical standpoint but which is difficult to justify from a philosophical perspective. Are mental pathologies limitations to human consciousness? They are in so far as the inhibit the activity of consciousness, but I suspect that absolute consciousness (were it possible) would probably appear profoundly alien and, yes, pathological.

One of the most obvious forms of limitation of human consciousness is memory. Human memory is highly imperfect in terms of recall and accuracy. Absolute consciousness would be characterized by perfect recall with perfect accuracy. Borges wrote a short story about this that I discussed in ¡Feliz cumpleaños Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo! The character of Ireneo Funes, whom Borges memorably describes as a “vernacular superman” (in other words, a provincial Nietzschean Übermensch), has a perfect memory with perfectly accurate recall of everything. This story is so singularly beautiful that it is an act of vandalism to quote only an excerpt, but here is the narrator’s description of his encounter with Funes:

“He told me that previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been — like any Christian — blind, deaf-mute, somnambulistic, memoryless. (I tried to remind him of his precise perception of time, his memory for proper names; he paid no attention to me.) For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. A little later he realized that he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now, his perception and his memory were infallible.”

Ireneo Funes, then, possessed the greater part of absolute consciousness — perfect memory and perfect perception. But these things are problematic also, as Borges begins to point out, when he shows Funes to be contemplating an absolute language and an absolute catalogue of memories, which the narrator realizes neither serve the essential function of language or thought. Funes is not overwhelmed by this absolute consciousness, but he is at least staggered by it, and in seeking so way to order the vast stores of memory and perception that he has at his command, descends to a level beneath that of which limited consciousness served by limited language and limited cognitive resources command.

Human calculating power is manifestly deficient. The simplest mechanical or electronic calculator can calculate with greater rapidity or accuracy than almost any human being. Similarly, logic and mathematics, though human creations, are difficult in the extreme. Many of us go our entire lives without mastering them, and those who spend their lives on logic and mathematics master only a portion, and that at the opportunity cost of many other human endeavors. Presumably absolute consciousness would be perfect in calculation. And this, too, is problematic, since anyone who has studied logic or mathematics and passed beyond the rudiments of these subjects knows that they are fascinating disciplines torn by internal controversies precisely because they are imbued with the spirit of philosophy. The further reaches of logic and set theory are, in fact, difficult to differentiate from philosophy proper.

It was traditional to maintain that Adam knew all philosophy; it is not clear whether this knowledge preceded or followed the drawing out of Eve from his side.

And this brings us to philosophy proper, since absolute consciousness would presumably be philosophically perfect as well. At this point we have probably reached the reductio ad absurdum of the very idea of absolute consciousness, since it is almost ludicrous to speak of a philosophically perfect mind. Not that people haven’t entertained this idea. In the early modern period in Europe it was the tradition to maintain that Adam had a perfect knowledge of philosophy, that this knowledge was subsequently lost, and all philosophy since the time of Adam was simply the rediscovery of the philosophy that Adam knew in virtue of his proximity to the fons et origo of all being and knowledge. One might think of this as a Christian re-telling of the Platonic theory of knowledge as recollection.

Plato had Socrates draw an ideal knowledge out of the slave boy Meno; for Plato, knowledge was absolute, and embodied in the Forms; today we are not so likely to acknowledge an ideal and absolute knowledge.

Absolute consciousness may well be impossible for reasons given above, but even if impossible is remains an interesting thought experiment. What I have written here is only a rough first sketch of what might be done with the idea. If certain conventions are observed — the sort of conventions implicit in Plato’s theory of knowledge as recollection, most famously presented in the dialogue Meno — one can arrive at an “absolute” formulation of anything, but if we acknowledge that human thought routinely transcends established conventions, it cannot be so easily maintained that there is any absolute or perfect form that consciousness could take. And what is the investigation of the limits of consciousness but the investigation of the transcendence of such limitations? On the other hand, even if absolute and perfect consciousness is not possible, it doesn’t take much effort to conceive of a consciousness that is markedly superior to that which we now possess.

Angels, traditionally holding a place in the Great Chain of Being between divinity and humanity, can be thought of as examplars of absolute consciousness, which falls between ordinary human consciousness and omniscience in the scale of awareness.

Absolute consciousness, while it would radically outstrip the capabilities and capacities of ordinary human consciousness, still falls far short of the idea of omniscience. Indeed, we could define absolute consciousness as here sketched as personal omniscience, i.e., absolute knowledge of oneself, of one’s experiences, and of the contents of one’s own mind. Omniscience simpliciter, traditionally conceived as a divine attribute, would be absolute knowledge of everything, of all experiences, and of the contents of all minds. Thus while there is a yawning chasm between ordinary human consciousness and absolute consciousness, there is an equally yawning chasm between absolute consciousness and omniscience, and this in itself makes the thought experiment of absolute consciousness interesting, because it posits a degree of being between human being and divine being as traditionally understood. Absolute consciousness is, if you like, the consciousness of angels.

If absolute consciousness is problematic, as we have seen that it indeed is, then a fortiori the idea of omniscience itself is problematic. This is, of course, not a new idea. Radical Ockhamists like Richard Holcot and Adam Wodeham attempted to think through the logic of omniscience and came to some disturbing conclusions, but this is another story for another time.

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