Why Can't The World's Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery of Consciousness

Adeon Writer

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It’s kind of a false question? I disagree with the premise. We know a great deal about consciousness. The feeling of consciousness is a feedback loop. Thoughts aware of themselves, the feeling of thoughts thinking about thoughts. You can remove the loop and the thoughts still exist and keep happening -complex thought processes can execute in your brain without you even being aware that it happened because they had no input back in on themselves for you to experience having those thoughts - it just is now thoughts that have no perception of themselves. That’s the same as doing things without thinking about it.

It’s not super complex, but people don’t like thinking that what feels like the most special thing about them is just a material physical process.
 
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Kalel

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Lots of juicy quotes in here..



he said that on the basis of his recent research he thought it wasn’t impossible that his iPhone might have feelings.
“Look, I’m not a zombie, and I pray that you’re not a zombie,” Chalmers said, one Sunday before Christmas, “but the point is that evolution could have produced zombies instead of conscious creatures – and it didn’t!”

“Let’s relegate zombies to B-movies and try to be a little more serious about our philosophy, shall we?” Yes, it may be true that most of us, in our daily lives, think of consciousness as something over and above our physical being – as if your mind were “a chauffeur inside your own body”, to quote the spiritual author Alan Watts. But to accept this as a scientific principle would mean rewriting the laws of physics. Everything we know about the universe tells us that reality consists only of physical things: atoms and their component particles, busily colliding and combining. Above all, critics point out, if this non-physical mental stuff did exist, how could it cause physical things to happen – as when the feeling of pain causes me to jerk my fingers away from the saucepan’s edge?

early scientists were convinced that there had to be some magical spirit – the élan vital – that distinguished living beings from mere machines. But there wasn’t, of course. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce. Eventually, neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. Churchland said: “The history of science really gives you perspective on how easy it is to talk ourselves into this sort of thinking – that if my big, wonderful brain can’t envisage the solution, then it must be a really, really hard problem!”

This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations. Koch concedes that this sounds ridiculous: when he mentions panpsychism, he has written, “I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” But when it comes to grappling with the Hard Problem, crazy-sounding theories are an occupational hazard. Besides, panpsychism might help unravel an enigma that has attached to the study of consciousness from the start: if humans have it, and apes have it, and dogs and pigs probably have it, and maybe birds, too – well, where does it stop?

Since we don’t know how the brains of mammals create consciousness, we have no grounds for assuming it’s only the brains of mammals that do so – or even that consciousness requires a brain at all.
It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself.
 

Bartholomew Gallacher

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Well I do see it pragmatically: either we're going to figure it out somewhere, and we're somewhere able to copy our conscience into a computer like Ray Kurzweil predicted - or we won't.

The first one might be interesting, but also create many types of ethical new questions, but I do expect the second one - that I will not be able to witness it this lifetime. Which is better by the way, because the better we do understand the inner workings of the brain, the more it also might create opportunities for government agencies and such to play around with it.

An interesting Sci Fi series by the way about some implications is "Altered Carbon" by Richard K. Morgan.
 
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Cristiano

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It's a topic I've always found fascinating on multiple levels. Animals have consciousness as well - what is it that somehow separated humans to evolve into even higher states of consciousness? Why have other creatures not followed similar paths?
 
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Chalice Yao

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Well I do see it pragmatically: either we're going to figure it out somewhere, and we're somewhere able to copy our conscience into a computer like Ray Kurzweil predicted - or we won't.
Knowing how conciousness actually works does not also equal the very physical ability of copying it. The latter does not necessarily get enabled by the former.

And vice versa, really - we could simulate a human brain at some point, 1:1, but we still would not know if that simulation in any way, shape or form is actually concious, or...well. Just simulates it.

There is actually an intriguing philosophical thought construct that explores this very idea in a simple example:

Very worth the read. The thought construct uses the concept of the 'Philosophical Zombie', which is essentially the idea of a human that.... acts human. Behaves 100% human. But actually has no conciousness at all. That's where the 'Zombie' part comes from.
The problem: It would be literally impossible to separate that human from a human that has a conciousness. They both would react the same way, act the same way. Only one would be aware of it though. Scary thought.
But that's exactly also why, even when we manage to one day create the most complex, realistic acting, amazing Artificial Intelligence in the oldschool-sense of the word...we will never know if it *actually* has any conciousness.


Now, the second issue is that so many futurists tend to compare the brain to a computer, when it comes to the whole 'We will upload ourselves into a computer!' spiel.
The whole brain = computer thing is one of the biggest self-perpetuating misunderstandings/comparisons: Your Brain is Not a Computer

Either way - we might one day find out how conciousness works. Might. Let's say we do, sure.
But the whole futurist, Kurzweilish pseudo-scientific wet dream of copying a conciousness onto a computer is, to me, just belief, not science. It is literally just born out of sci-fi daydreams. I have no idea why everybody takes Kurzweil seriously, aside of wishful thinking, and an obsessive ignoring of human nature.

But worse, they all ignore the simple fact that *copying* is not *transfer*. I think we can agree that conciousness has very physical elements in the brain, so literally transferring that from physical matter into bits and bytes is not quite possible. So, alright, we copy whatever structural info into a simulation instead.

But. *Copying* your conciousness would leave you in the same place you were before: In your body, while a copy of your conciousness now sits inside a computer and you gained nothing. You're still going to die, and we can't even find out if there is an actual conciousness inside that simulation running in the machine. Nobody wins, they just hope they do.

In the end though, the TL;DR is:
The brain still remains, literally, the most complex object in the universe we know of. It is an amazing thing. We don't even understand many of the simplest malfunctions or behaviors, and neuroscience ever so often gets a hard reset in some parts because what seemed definitive gets tossed out the window again. Understanding conciousness is so very far off, we don't even need to consider it.
 

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Why have other creatures not followed similar paths YET?
FIFY

You might enjoy watching Prof. Sapolsky's lectures on Youtube - I think he skirts the question several times there...

He is not adressing it directly though but many things there helped me understand the whole field of science better - and coming from ecology I of course favour his behavourist approaches above neurologist ones =^.^=
 
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It’s kind of a false question? I disagree with the premise. We know a great deal about consciousness. The feeling of consciousness is a feedback loop. Thoughts aware of themselves, the feeling of thoughts thinking about thoughts. You can remove the loop and the thoughts still exist and keep happening -complex thought processes can execute in your brain without you even being aware that it happened because they had no input back in on themselves for you to experience having those thoughts - it just is now thoughts that have no perception of themselves. That’s the same as doing things without thinking about it.

It’s not super complex, but people don’t like thinking that what feels like the most special thing about them is just a material physical process.
Agreed. Consciousness isn't even continuous. When you're performing a routine rote process consciousness can just cut out for an extended period. That's what the various meditative states independently discovered by various traditions are... being able to enter this state on demand.

Consciousness not your mind, it's more like a flashlight that gets turned on to observe your mind and surroundings and override the subconscious when unexpected events happen or when trained procedures (like reflexes) are not adequate.
 
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Also, the consciousness that you speak of when you talk about "copying your consciousness into a computer" and the self-awareness that is our everyday experience of consciousness are two different things. Most of what would be transferred is subconscious. And when you in a computer has to deal with novel events or thoughts, that's when your actual consciousness would briefly appear there just as it does in your meat brain.
 
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It's a topic I've always found fascinating on multiple levels. Animals have consciousness as well - what is it that somehow separated humans to evolve into even higher states of consciousness? Why have other creatures not followed similar paths?
How do you know they haven't?
 

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I think it can be at least safely said that all species that we consider very intelligent (Great Apes like us, Corvids and smarter Parrots, Dolphins etc.) and other beings that recognize themselves in the mirror probably have consciousness. The recognition of oneself. There is no reason why it should be limited to humans, or human levels of intelligence and abstract thinking.

EDIT: I actually can't really think of anything in general that is *exclusive* to humans. Consciousness, abstract thinking, lieing, mourning, tool use, sex for profit, bullying, deception, drug use, tribal wars, homosexuality, thinking ahead, empathy, bonding with other species, jealousy, the urge to control territory as much as possible...nothing of it is exclusive to humans. Most of it probably was around before we were. and a *lot* of our actions, conscious or not, are driven by animal instinct, or have animal instinct at its core.
We humans just are special in the way of how abstract and complex our thoughts can go. But that's about it.

The only things I can think of that no other species really has exhibited on its own is what humans have started long, long long ago: Music and art.

It is curious, in a way. And again, we are technically not the only species that *can* perform such acts - other Great Apes, if you show them how to, begin to do artsy things or make a sort of music for their enjoyment. They just haven't made the self-perpetuating step of discovering it and propagating it among themselves on their own yet. If they ever do, I believe that it will quite change the viewpoint of them.
 
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Chalice Yao

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How about a spoken language, letters, religion and science?
it gets blurry with the basic priciples of spoken lanaguage and science, actually.
There are species where individuals actually even have names. As in, specific sounds that are used to call that specific individual. Which is kind of neat, given that it once more gives a sense of self and individuality in those species. No other species comes to the full langauge capabilities of humans though, with our brain having a big, dedicated portion just for it.

The line of science is equally blurry in its very basic principles in the way that there are some species that learn on their own from observation, repetition and results, and pass on that knowledge to their offspring. Though none exhibit (To our knowledge) the abstract thinking of humans that allows us to explore concepts or sit around, look at the sky and figure out black holes. We are awesome.

Religion, to me, is more a result of said missing detailed language, letters, art and music. Essentially what other species seem to be missing is folklore and stories, which pretty much is the origin of religion. It is not necessarily the intelligence that is missing in some species to develop it - many Great Apes have essentially the intelligence of small human children, and we know how creative those can get - but they are missing the means.

EDIT:
A case in point is actually stuff like us teaching a Gorilla (Koko) sign language..and it worked. She understood over 2000 words and could sign around 1000.
Of course then later hilarious things happened, like Koko blaming her kitten friend for a sink that was ripped out of a wall. Heh.
By the way, she actually asked for that kitten since she wanted a pet friend. I guess that's another thing that's not unique to humans.
 
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How about a spoken language, letters, religion and science?
How about a 2.2 pound brain in a hundred-pound-odd body (one that's traded the ability to distinguish and process scents for symbolic manipulation) and prehensile thumb? Just getting over a threshold in capability first doesn't make for a qualitative difference in consciousness. And we don't individually develop a spoken or written language, or a formal religious doctrine, or the collective organizations that produced science. All these things are the result of collective effort over tens of thousands of years.

Maybe some of our extinct kin could have hit that threshold as well, had we not outcompeted them.

The thought construct uses the concept of the 'Philosophical Zombie', which is essentially the idea of a human that.... acts human. Behaves 100% human. But actually has no conciousness at all. That's where the 'Zombie' part comes from.
This is an old and tired concept, and part of a remnant of pre-scientific thought that's hung on under the name "philosophy". I see no reason to grant it any more credibility than any other comparable system of thought such as religion. Philosophers don't "understand consciousness", really the only part of philosophy that has any value at all is the basis of logic that falls under the label "philosophy of science" and would really be part of mathematics. It's one of those weird side effects of how western science has evolved... like how dentists and opticians are put in separate groups than doctors.

I don't see any reason to treat the philosophical zombie with any more credibility than phlogiston or the luminiferous aether. It's basically bad science fiction.
 
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Chalice Yao

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This is an old and tired concept, and part of a remnant of pre-scientific thought that's hung on under the name "philosophy". I see no reason to grant it any more credibility than any other comparable system of thought such as religion.
I think what you're referring there is people using the Philosophical Zombie to push some 'Conciousness is more than matter!' argument. Yeah, I don't subscribe to that either, it pushes the boundaries into esoterics.
But I like to use its core to make a point in regards to us currently not even being able to prove wether a being is, or is not actually in possession of conciousness.

None of us can even technically prove that any other humans we see are conscious, or prove to others that we *are*. It's such an intangible, personal thing. We're just going off the notion of 'I have consciousness, so all humans must be conscious'. Which, you know, would be absurd if it wasn't actually true. The same goes for said species above that recognize themselves in the mirror. They are probably in possession of consciousness. I believe they are, based on such behaviors. But I can't even prove my own. Yet.
 
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I find it stretches credibility to seriously argue that an entity could act as if it were conscious in an unscripted extended test where it interacts with known conscious beings without it actually having the self-analysis and introspection loops that manifest as self-awareness. Our dogs and cats model their own actions into the future, for example acting guilty when they're just anticipating wrongdoing. I can not model them without including their consciousness in that model. For something operating at the level of a human with language and everything?
 
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What if we’re running away from the realization that *we* are the zombies?

When I reflect on my behavior, I’m only reviewing a piece of it. If I’m remembering the excitement of driving past a huge, dormant volcano for the first time, I’m not remembering what I was doing with the accelerator and the wheel.

So I have a self-image that I think is this thread of continuity going back over half a century. But it’s really a story I tell myself, and it has breaks in it from sleep, anaesthesia and forgetting.

People would doubt evolution less, and possibly knock humans off our pedestal a bit, if a few of the species intermediate between apes and humans still survived. It seems clear to me mammals are all pretty much one thing with just a difference in degree.

If a mind is an emergent and is gone when too many of its processes are gone, it also suggests mammalian minds need not be the only consciousness. What would a highly evolved octopod be like?
 

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When I reflect on my behavior, I’m only reviewing a piece of it. If I’m remembering the excitement of driving past a huge, dormant volcano for the first time, I’m not remembering what I was doing with the accelerator and the wheel.
You weren't consciously aware of that, because you've "compiled" driving into almost autonomous processes and procedures.

That's what I mean when I say that consciousness is like an intermittent flashlight that plays over your subconscious mind, drawing your attention to only some what you're doing and thinking, and only some of the time. It's what handles things that haven't become automatic yet.

This is OK. This is normal.
 
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