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Cosmology, Quantum Mechanics & Consciousness Message Board › Consciousness, by Andrew

Consciousness, by Andrew

A former member
Post #: 74
OK Ian, about your question 'What is consciousness?'   I will try to tackle this using plain English at all times and if anyone does not understand my meaning they should say so please. Equally if I do not understand what anyone else is saying I will ask for full clarification in terms of plain English before we can proceed. 

Right then, here are some home-made definitions:

An ' information processor'  is defined as any kind of entity that accepts data or physical inputs, that processes that data and uses the results of that processing to generate data or physical outputs.(Thus, both computers and humans fit the definition.)

An 'autonomous information processor' is defined as an information processor that acts without external programming or control of its ongoing processes. (adaptive neural networks are intended to fit this definition.)

An 'automaton' is defined as an autonomous information processor whose inputs and outputs refer to its own environment. (So inputs correspond to sensory inputs and outputs correspond to directed physical actions. Humans and animals fit this definition, but probably no robots at present. Future robots that are unprogrammed, instead fully relying on adaptive neural networks, would qualify.)

An automaton is defined to be 'aware' if it applies its processes to formulate and maintain an internal representation of  the world in order to inform its output choices. 

This definition attributes 'awareness' to all animals. I doubt if there is a single animal on the planet, however small and primitive, that does not process sensory information to form some kind of mental representation of its environment, in order to enhance the survival prospects for its genes. 

The real question of course is whether human consciousness is qualitatively different from awareness as defined above. That must be so, since I do believe that my state of conscious awareness is quite different from the awareness possessed by a sea slug (though the alternative has sometimes been argued). I don't believe that a sea slug forms a mental picture of the world the way that I do. But I do expect that higher animals such as birds and mammals have  mental pictures. So it seems to me that consciousness is a higher level of awareness in which the mental representation of the environment becomes a mental picture. Of course this definition is woolly. The key question is whether there is any qualitative difference between awareness and consciousness. Does the mental picture indicate a novel phenomenon?  Is there a more precise definition ? Those are the pertinent questions.

Four points to note about the definition: 
1. Consciousness is very much about sensory inputs. (Your senses are dormant when you sleep.)
2. Consciousness is very much about deciding physical actions. (Your actions while asleep are involuntary.)
3. Self-awareness is merely a by-product of consciousness in which the self forms part of the mental picture. 
4. Human consciousness is distinguished by our ability to think in terms of symbolic representations of complicated concepts, most notably in the form of words and language. That separates us from all or nearly all animals but this distinction does not seem to be problematic. So I am talking about the broader notion of consciousness as described above, the sort that applies similarly in humans and all the higher animals. That is what I mean by the word.

This notion of consciousness is right at the interface between the senses and the responses in physical action. It exists in the ever-present moment, the mysterious 'now'.

Next I am going to develop the idea that consciousness and free will are very closely related, almost two sides of the same coin. I am sure that you are waiting, Ian , for me to develop a theme that you can critique, so in due course I hope to oblige. I will not forget that your interest lies in the so-called hard problem which is best expressed in terms of 'how do our brains give us the experience of colour?' Please be patient while I work towards that ( and work out my position on it!)

To be continued in the next day or so.........
A former member
Post #: 50

I'm not going to start my own thread, at least not right now, even though Andrew invited me to, because I think it will simply cause the discussion to fragment in ways that are not constructive.

I fully support Andrew's view that we should try (as much as possible) to discuss this in Plain English, and that this really should be possible, provided that we adopt some additional terms and take the trouble to define those additional terms carefully. I shall call these additional terms defined terms.

I think we should adopt some typographic conventions; and, based on experience in the previous Consciousness thread, I would like to suggest:

1. Italics should not be used, because when you "quote" someone else's post this message board turns the quoted text into italics.

2. Colour should be used only to identify the originator/poster of some statement. Ian, in particular, was careful to do this and it did help greatly.

3. Bold should be used only to create emphasis

4. Underline should be used only to indicate a defined term, and all defined terms must be presented underlined.

I also think we should try to separate out posts which are solely intended to establish defined terms or other related tools of the discussion such as typographic conventions or the direct and (hopefully) undisputed consequences of those tools, from posts that attempt to advance some point of view using those tools.

Accordingly... this post ends here.

A former member
Post #: 52

I suppose it would be useful if I tried to explain my views of what consciousness is, and how it arises; but I have a problem:

Literally: I do not see what the problem is.

As far as I am concerned, intelligence, consciousness, etc. are perfectly normal emergent phenomena of the sort you would to arise in any suitable system.

That rather begs the question "what is a suitable system?" of course, but to keep it simple I'll just describe it as anything with enough computing power plus the ability to reference and modify themselves, and some collection of desires which force it to change its state in order to try to achieve a more desirable state learn rather than just sit and vegetate. Our brains (plus attendant sensory inputs) meet these criteria: typical current computing systems not only lack the computing power, but also do not have either the set of desires or the ability for self reference and self modification required. So, though I am confident that AI (possibly silicone based) will one day exist, I don't think we will necessarily ever see an AI system which remotely resembled a computer system, or even any development of what we currently conceive of as a computer system.

I emphasize this lest my use of the word "system" leads people to think of a computer system. In fact it is broadly what Andrew means by the term automaton.

This meaning of the word "system" was in fact defined (using very different words, but broadly, I think, the same meaning), in the earlier thread on consciousness; so I will treat it as a defined term - system - from now on.

Now, as far as I can make out. Andrew and I differ in our view of consciousness principally in that he thinks that Quantum Mechanics uncertainty is necessary to inject some level of unpredictability into the Universe, and into systems that potentially exhibit consciousness; whereas I think that the lack of predictability in non-analytic systems alone is sufficient.

To put it another way, if the Greeks had been right, if the atom was genuinely unsplittable, and sub-atomic physics did not exist, then I think that consciousness would still have arisen, whereas Andrew (as I understand it - I'm sure he'll correct me if I have got him wrong) thinks that under those circumstances, intelligence and consciousness would not arise.

By contrast, again as I understand it, Ian and Camilla disagree fundamentally with either my or Andrew's view. The believe as far as I can make out, that all science can be reduced to basic physics in principle, i.e. that everything can ultimately be explained in terms of physics, and that our current inability to do this is just that - a current inability, caused only by our current lack of knowledge - and not an issue of in principle.

If they are right then the sort of emergent phenomena needed to support the view I proposed earlier, namely:
"intelligence, consciousness, etc. are perfectly normal emergent phenomena of the sort you would to arise in any suitable system."
simply could not arise.

I mention all this to try to show how critical the concept of emergent phenomena is, and also how important the idea of predictability is, because it is the concept of unpredictable emergent that lies at the heart of the disagreement.

Again, it might help to look at this another way. Let's consider a complete working model of the UK economy, of the sort the Treasury wold love to have, but cannot even begin to build. This would involve having a complete profile of every person whose actions had any effect on the UK economy enabling us to determine every decision they would make in any given set of circumstances.

We all agree that we cannot in practice do that; but that is not the point. I am even prepared to concede (for the sake of argument) that we might be able to construct a set of equations that did in fact capture all these decisions and the factors that effect them. The difference lies in that I do not believe that the equations have an analytic solution (sorry, mathematical term, but nothing less will do)and so, in my opinion, you can only use these equations to make predictions by running simulations which have the potential for error built into them in principle.

This is key. If these emergent phenomena in non-analytic systems really cannot be deduced from the lower level description because their behaviour cannot be predicted from the lower level description, then things like consciousness simply do not exist at the lower level - the only thing that exists is the emergent phenomenon itself. No other explanation exists, so all we can say is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon exhibited by a suitable system.

A former member
Post #: 76
I am willing in principle to underline words with definitions in the same thread. But in practice I will not underline words much if at all. Reasons: there are 400 members of this group. Although few of them are following this I want to explain myself to the 'man in the Clapham omnibus'. Even someone such as me who is active on the board can lose the thread of many definitions located elsewhere. Better to keep to simple terms throughout where possible, or to re-clarify a meaning where it is not clear from the context.

Anyway back to business. I seem to have given the impression that I will insist on quantum physics being part of the explanation. I never said that. Indeed I claim the moral high ground of the scientific point of view that I will not know the answer until neuroscience has the technology to explain the consciousness phenomenon. I intend to expound my ideas more fully on this - my own thread - but I don't mind jumping ahead.

My position is this. One day we will have clarified ideas about consciousness, we will have the computer technology and we will build a computer that appears for all purposes to have conscious thought like us. And yet that computer might not have consciousness like us. How could that be so? Well, try to imagine the experience of a simple animal if all its visual processing occurs and ends at the sub-conscious level. Its sub-conscious does all the work steering it around obstacles, foraging for food, avoiding predators etc. Or imagine what it would be like for you in that situation. It can be envisaged. Indeed I think some people with brain defects can exhibit partial features of this kind - seeing without conscious awareness. I will dig out a reference or two if required.

Now, I think consciousness is an evolved feature of our minds that improves upon this sub-conscious way of life. It enables better instant decisions for survival. The problem which Ian has emphasised and which I have tried to define above is that we do not know how the mind generates that conscious form of mental experience, as in the experience of the colour red, as distinct from the unconscious form that any of today's computers exhibit. A computer will record and process the wavelength of the light and it will assign a digital code to the colour red, but it will not share our conscious experience of red. Nor do we know how to program that experience. That is where the problem lies. If, Peter or anyone else reading this, if you still do not get the issue then we should stay on discussion of this point until you do!

Frankly the positions of Ian and Camilla seem little different from yours and indeed from mine if I go down the non-quantum route. The differences that I think I see are to do with philosophical distinctions that are of importance only to philosophers.

I had better own up now to one significant bit of stirring-up that I plan for you lot. I am going to argue that determinism is a false idea, an illusion born of incorrect statistical inference, and that the universe and everything within it is utterly indeterministic. My plausibility argument for some currently unknown quantum mechanism will come from that direction. But please don't comment on that, wait for me to develop the theme! This is why I wanted to start my own thread.
A former member
Post #: 53
Hi Andrew,

I finished my post - I was adding to it and re-posting it over 5-6 hours to avoid losing bits - after your subsequent post.

My first concern is that you have already defined a number of terms in entirely reasonable and comprehensible ways; but ways that, nevertheless, differ from normal English. We need to be able to distinguish these two meanings - hence my suggestion of underlining defined terms.

I'm sorry for saying your view depended on QM uncertainty. I had gained that impression. Thanks for correcting me.

I've obviously failed to explain my position properly. I completely agree that we cannot report on our experience of the colour red, or on our experience of consciousness, or indeed on any sensation. My point is that this difficulty is fundamental. IMO no explanation in terms of neuroscience or physics can ever exist, in principle. We will (I am sure) one day have AI systems that are indeed intelligent and conscious, but their inner workings, and the source of those attributes will be no more amenable to reductionist logic, no more capable of analysis, no more predictable, than our own minds. There is (again IMO) no possibility that we will ever be able to "program that experience". Those AIs will not be computers in any sense that we currently understand that term, whether or not they are composed of silicone circuits at a physical level.

So when I say that I do not see what the problem is, I'm really saying:
Your objective is, in my view, illusionary: no explanation at the level of the brain's physical workings can, in principle, exist. All you have is an Emergent Phenomenon which (to my mind) provides an entirely coherent explanation of all these sensations: that's all I believe you can ever have, and as I'm perfectly content with that, I see no problem.

A former member
Post #: 77
In that case Peter I fully understand your position on both underlines and what science will or will not be able to say about consciousness. I probably did not really understand you on the other thread, so maybe this is what progress looks like.

You may be right. The idea that one day we will be able to deal with consciousness as if it were any other aspect of physical science may well be false. Instead it may be like trying to peer inside a black hole - impossible so far as we know. I wonder if that analogy would satisfy Ian and Camilla about their philosophical problems?

On the other hand you may be wrong! Suppose one day we can connect a person to a computer and examine their neural circuits in real time, indeed experiment with them to see what affects what. The subject may be interrogated about his vision of the colour red while the experiment goes on. Maybe that will identify the precise location of the relevant circuits. Those could be copied into an intelligent machine which could then answer the same questions and maybe give the same responses. That's science fiction at present but if it turns into fact one day, would you admit you were wrong?
A former member
Post #: 55
Hi Andrew,


While you were typing I responded in the other thread, trying to explain my views more fully.

My views are that it is simply impossible in principle (not in just in practice, but in principle) to connect and interrogate a system in the way you describe and copy the information into some other system, and thereby achieve the identical sensations.

But if you could successfully do that you would have disproved my views - no question.

One subtle caveat - you might be able to do this if the two systems were 100% perfect identical clones. However, merely performing the experiment you describe would make them diverge, so you'd have to site them in different (but identical) universes, and copy the information in both directions simultaneously. By definition this would result in no change as both clones would be identical when you performed the experiment.

I did in fact discuss this idea earlier. My view is that if two systems are truly identical not only in themselves but in every aspect of the universes they inhabit (they can't be in the same one as by definition they would then also occupy the same space - any variation in location is a difference and they are no longer clones) than they are in fact the same entity. This observation stops you from being able to run one Universe ahead of the other and thereby reliably predict the behaviour of systems in the latter, by observing what happens in the former, thus potentially robbing the system in the latter of free will.

A former member
Post #: 79
Peter: again I understand! So perhaps after one day of messages on two threads you and I see eye to eye. When I feel so inclined I will write some more about my own ideas. Or perhaps I should hurry before Ian returns!
A former member
Post #: 57
Hi Andrew,

... I probably did not really understand you on the other thread, so maybe this is what progress looks like.

The problem with the other thread was that everything I tried to explain seemed to be attacked immediately with bucket loads of philosophese, forcing me to respond with more and more careful logic and precise definitions addressing obscure points to counter the assertions made in attacking my views.

The result was a discussion that totally lost both coherance and any ability to develop ideas or explain anything.

Valid logic and precise definitions remain important, but they should be the servant of the discussion, not its master.

In this thread I will simply ignore responses couched in philosophese in order to focus on developing and explaining ideas.

A former member
Post #: 83
I have already mapped out my argument in another thread last year but in outline it is this. Free will, the freedom of human choice from deterministic causality, exists and is an important component of the consciousness phenomenon. Human choice is free from past causality in the same way that quantum particles are free from past causality (a result from mathematical physics, not neuroscience or hand- waving). Quantum physics is not just about fuzziness at the tiniest scale. It is much more than that. The reality behind quantum physics is a puzzle that is still being debated. There is no consensus on what makes a photon suddenly 'decide' to jump from an atom with higher-energy electrons.

The universe is made of quantum stuff and so it is fundamentally indeterministic. Arguments to the effect that quantum fuzziness washes out at larger scales will be opposed with examples including possible effects within brains or computers. Non-local quantum entanglement shows that current understanding of space and time will have to be radically revised before we get a better understanding of quantum physics (and its connection with gravity which is the real problem in physics at present).

The definition of determinism will be exposed as meaningless and false. With that background I will then pose the question: if you don't truly understand the physical mechanism for inducing full human consciousness, and if your thinking is based on false or incomplete conceptions of space, time, quantum physics and determinism, why do you exclude from consideration the possibility that your false or incomplete conceptions need to be revised before you will be able to understand the consciousness phenomenon?

Writing the above makes my project look like a PhD thesis which I am not qualified to do. I expect to come under heavy attack. I picture Ian at his desk, not working, drooling with the anticipation at all this. So probably I will not fulfil my plan but I will make a start some time soon.
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