Is there anything special about conciousness? Concerns about our posthuman future

Most of the atheists, most of the tranhumanists, extropians and neuroscientists would agree that no, there is nothing special about it.But I think it is time to take a carefull look at what do these people mean exactly with this no.

First of all, we must consider what does the word “special” mean in this sentence. Certainly among the “special” things would be souls, spirits, and all the metaphisical friends some people beleive they still carry inside them. And it is obvious that these inventions are not what I’m writing about here. My problem with the “there is nothing special about consciousness” phrase is not what the special includes, but what it does not.

None of us has a spirit. And whatever is responsible for consciousness and all its processes is necessarily in our material brains, not in an invented world. Yet there is still no final conclusion about what exactly in the matter that composes our brain is responsible for being conscious. Certainly the neurons and their electrical structure are involved on it. But there is no one who has said “ our consciousness is the calcium passing”, “our consciousness is the eletrons that move between the neurons” or “our consciousness is the electrical activity within the axon” and comproved it in a irrefutable sense.

Although this has not been done, it is fair to say that we know that consciousness is a property of matter. What we call consciousness is necessarily a property of a specific agregation of matter that happens in our brain. Just like flexibility or capacity to conduce electricity, consciousness depends on how matter is rearranged, and therefore may be called a property of matter.

We know with much certainty what are many of the properties of matter due to. Being solid, or being flexible are properties that we know from what they come from, and therefore we are able, at least theoretically to reproduce this property in another set amount of matter. We can make thousands of flexible pencils, because we have knowledge enough to change matter in a way that it adquires the property “flexibility”.

We could, for instance, build flexible pencils with many kinds of material, since we know that it is possible to adquire flexibility not only with a specific material. Also we could achieve flexibility with different stuctures and the same material, since we know that it is not just one specific structure that has flexibility, but there are several structural rearranges that do so.

But the same does not happen to consciousness, we are not exactly sure what in matter has the property consciousness, and this is of extreme importance to the future development of Artificial Intelligence.

Now onwards, I will make suppositions, I do not claim any of this suppositions to be true, neither am I trying to defend one specifically, my only purpose with them is to show what are the consequences of these suppositions to the posthuman world if they were true.

Suppose, for instance, that consciousness is all about information, in this case, anything that processes information in the same way that conscious thins do would also have the property consciousness, and would therefore be conscious. In this case, we could build aritificial digital computers that are extremely powerfull, powerfull enough to do all the computations that our minds do, and these computers, even being extremely different from our brains, would still be consciouss, since the particular thing about matter that produces consciousness would be in them. That has been the supposition that part of the enthusiasts of transhumanism I’ve talked to have. But it seems to me a very dangerous supposition. To show in what sense is this supposition very dangerous I will begin showing a different supposition.

Suppose now that consciousness only emerges from higly parallel, analogic, information. Then any sistem ( biological or not) that can make massive parallel connections to transport information would also have the property of being conscious. So if we created computers with these given properties, they would be conscious, and there would be no problem, for instance, to upload yourself to one of these. But what if this suppositions is right, and we only build the computers that I have mentioned in the first supposition. The binary ones. Then we would have computers who can behave exactly as our minds do, but they are not conscious, they are only zombies. Suppose then that everyone on earth uploads himself to this binary computers, then we would have a fantastic posthuman society, with no one to see it. It would be simply a zombies society, none of the computers would be concious, and all our effort for a great posthuman world would have been wasted. Note that these machines, if were asked, would behave exactly like a human, so they would answer that they are conscious, they would act as if they have feelings. From “outside” they would be indistinguishable from us. And they certainly would pass the Turing test.

Now, we are most likely to only be able to achieve the behavior of a mind doing massive parallel analogic computers, so the dystopic scenario of this second supposition is quite improbable to happen. But I have only given these two first suppositions because they represent what most of the transhumanists already suppose, now I will show how there are other suppositions that, if proved to be true, will generate a dystopic scenario that as far as I’m concerned, no one has yet predicted or worried about.

The third supposition is that consiousness is a property of the Biological matter trat composes neurons, or of the electical activity in the neurons. In this case, none of our both computers in the above scenarios would have the property of being concious. And therefore we would have two possible dystopic scenarios, one of posthumanity with binary and other of posthumanity with analogical unconcious computers. But then, there is still a chance that the computers we develop have or the same sort of electrical patterns or are made of neurons, and in this case, we would have a pleasant conscious posthuman world.

The point I’m trying to make here is that no matter what of the suppositions (these or any of the millions of other) is right, there are some scenarios in which we have conscious posthumanity and scenarios were we have unconscious posthumanity.

We are producing posthumanity the wrong way. When we choose to produce flexible pencils, first we learn what assures flexibility to matter, then we reproduce matter in order to achieve flexible pencils. But with consciousness, we are going the wrong way. First we are trying to reproduce Intelligence ( which is a different property of matter than consciousness) and we are faithfully beleiving that as soon as we learn how to produce intelligent matter, we will also be producing concious matter. Intelligence, as most tranhumanists and computer analists think, is a behavior. Things may behave intelligently, in the sense that they make the complex associations that we call intelligent associations. But this does not mean they make this associations conciously, they may simply compute this associations, and they would not feel anything while doing it.

Intelligence and consciousness are two different properties of matter, and we should take extreme care with ourselves if we do not want to become a society that has no conscious beings on it. Producing intelligence is very important, including to understand consciousness, but being able to produce intelligent matter does not mean we are able do produce concious matter, and I beleive that the most important thing for the transhumanist thinkers and developers should be to run away from the easy two suppositions (that say that consciousness is only about information), and admit that, as long as we are not exactly sure of what in matter generates conciousness, it is very risky and even undesirable to transport your “self” to a different agregation of matter that the one we already know that is conscious, the neural networks, composed of biological neurons.

I am not saying that we should stay like we are today, I’m just saying that we should first understand what is exactly, without a doubt, what is responsible for consciousness in matter, and then reproduce it in order to create or upload sentients. I’m just trying to prevent what I beleive that would be one of the catastrophes we usually call “human extinction scenarios”.

It is, of course, possible that consciousness is indeed only a structural property, and therefore anything with the same structure as the brain would necessarily be concious, even if the electricity travelled faster, even if made by nanotubes or silicon. But we should not blindly and faithfully expent all our efforts in a supposition. We have already ultrapassed 4 Singularities, and I do not feel like we should waste all this time and probability by simply assuming a supposition is right. Bertrand Russell said that “religion is what we invent, Science is what we know, and phlosophy is what we don’t know” The problem of consciousness has been for hundreds of years a matter of philosophy and religion, finally it has started to make its way through science, but as long as we don’t have a very good theory about it, it is not worth it to waste billions of years of hard effort in our egoistic necessity of saying “I was one of the producers of the singularity”.

It is rather improbable, but the problem of consciousness may still take a while to be completely solved, and I beleive that it is worth the effort to lose some posthuman time in not becoming posthuman sooner than that.

The science of AC, Artificial consciousness will probably run much faster than AI, since the evolutive processes are growing exponencially. If we have waited for AI, It won’t be that bad to also wait for AC in order to finally achieve the condition we have been seeking for so long, the posthuman condition.

In a conversation with Bill Gates, Ray Kurzweil has said that we now need a new faith, and in this new faith, from the sciences and arts, we should inherit the respect for knowledge, and from the tradition of religions, we should inherit the respect for conciousness, it was in order to acomplish this second task that I have written this text, and I hope it achieves the eye-opening objective that I have developed for it.

13 opiniões sobre “Is there anything special about conciousness? Concerns about our posthuman future”

  1. Gostei do texto, principalmente pq vc menciona hipóteses concretas, acho que elas ilustram claramente como nós não fazemos idéia do que produz a consciência.

    Eu chutaria que a consciência tem a ver com a integração de informação, a existência de uma atividade que a mantém em movimento e interação com outras informações. Neste sentido um computador teria um pouquinho de consciência cada vez que processa umas dúzias de bits em cada ciclo… mas enfim, é pura especulação sem fundamento.

  2. Acrescentando uma colocação evolucionista que desmerece um pouco minha hipótese, por que será que nós, seres conscientes, desenvolvemos a capacidade de perceber nossa consciência, isto é, perceber que somos conscientes?

    Acho que ou isto tem alguma utilidade, ou então a natureza do fenômeno da consciência é tal que isso tende a ocorrer, isto é, o fenômeno da consciência tende a gerar consciência de si mesmo.

    Se nós fôssemos zumbis, e percebêssemos falsamente que somos conscientes, teríamos que explicar qual a utilidade disso.

    Creio que as duas coisas devam ocorrer; seja lá qual for o fenômeno físico que provoque a consciência, ele deve provocar a percepção dela e isto deve ter algum grau de utilidade.

  3. Até onde eu entendo (e eu não entendo quase nada desse assunto, hehe) consciência envolve um processo sob um processo. Eu faço um processo mental X e eu ter consciência desse processo X implica numa nova operação sobre ele, que é justamente a operação de ser consciente. Assim a consciência não quer dizer consciência de nenhum processo especifico ou nenhum nível de processo, qualquer entidade que tenha essa propriedade de efetuar o processo consciência sob um processo X deve ser consciente de ser consciente, pois o processo X pode ser a própria consciência.
    Por ser um processo sob um processo eu não entendo como alguém pode fazer a hipótese de que consciência surja em computadores que não possuam processamento paralelo e analógico em larga escala. Como um computador que só executa uma tarefa de cada vez, em que os dados trafegam sempre em seqüência “um por vez” pode executar um processo que implica em dois processamentos paralelos em que um se executa sob o outro ao mesmo tempo? Qual o argumento que se usa para justificar essa hipótese?
    Uma vez o Diego me perguntou se o meio importava para que a consciência apareça, eu disse que não. Com isso estava querendo dizer que não se precisa ter neurônios como os nossos, ser orgânico, etc.. para ter consciência. Mas parece obvio que processamento paralelo em larga escala é inerente a consciência.
    A pergunta sobre a consciencidade da matéria, tal como a da flexibilidade da matéria, deve ser, ao meu ver, uma pergunta sob qual a natureza desse processo efetuado sob outro. Me parece que esse segundo processo tem a natureza de “saber” o que o primeiro processo esta fazendo. Por exemplo, eu posso seguir certas leis lingüísticas inerentes a linguagem sem o saber, ou eu posso ter consciência dessas leis e as seguir. No segundo caso existe um segundo processo que identifica sob quais leis o primeiro esta operando. Ou seja é quando o processo é posto como objeto de outro processo. Quais as propriedades que fazem um processo poder ser processo de outro? Uma delas claramente é o processamento serial.

  4. O autor desse texto é você, Diego?

    Concordo bastante com o autor do texto. Até o texto me chamou a atenção para algo que não havia pensado, a possibilidade de criarmos seres cuja existência de consciência não podemos provar.

    Assim como dito muito bem pelo João, para mim a consciência é um processo físico “intencional” do cérebro, produzido no neo-córtex com um possível papel do tálamo. Não se pode ter consciência sem uma “máquina” que a molde de um jeito tal que ela se torne consciência como a chamamos. Antes disso ela pode existir como consciência, mas essa consciência “propriedade” não teria o conteúdo e significado que entendemos por consciência.

    Não acredito que a consciência tenha a ver com informação e complexidade, exceto que a informação e complexidade possam ser parte do conteúdo da consciência, e parte da significação que damos à idéia de consciência.

    Antes de criar pós humanos diferentes demais temos que investigar melhor a causação da consciência. Antes disso, e para isso, podemos modificar os humanos de forma que ainda permaneçam semelhantes o suficiente para sabermos que têm consciência, e sejam mais inteligentes para poderem investigar a consciência de forma mais apta que nós.

  5. Jonatas,

    Me surgiu uma dúvida lendo seu comentário sobre meu texto. O que você quer dizer com a consciência é um processo intencional do cérebro. Eu sei o que é intencionalidade, e sei o que é um cérebro, mas não entendi o conceito.

    A intencionalidade é o que causa a consciência?
    A intencionalidade é a consciência? (sugiro que não adote essa posição, tenho fortes argumentos contra ela)
    A intencionalidade é condição sine qua non para a consciência?

    Qual a relação entre elas, o que você quis dizer??

  6. Diego,

    Usei a palavra errada, intencional , talvez por causa do hábito de falar com teleologia, mas não acredito nesse tipo de teleologia. Não é intencional realmente o que quis dizer.

    Quis dizer que o cérebro tem uma parte especial (e não intencional) para a criação da consciência. É isso…

    Mais sobre isso aqui (aliás o livro todo, não só este capítulo, é interessante):
    http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Consciousness_Studies/Neuroscience_1

  7. I admire the attitude of this article, which avoids the pitfall of reasoning from ignorance. Here’s another (extreme) example of how the question *might* play out:

    We live in a universe that exhibits multifractal patterns at all scales. It’s worth remembering that this mess of nested multifractals has *another* interesting property, in that its time evolution remains multifractal. This provides the possibility that the physical arrangement of particles (at all scales and layers of abstraction) is *not* random.

    We usually think about physics by identifying general laws which can be applied to any arrangement of particles, but it may be that the *actual* positions are as entangled in the deep definition of reality as the deepest general laws are. (We accept entanglement at the smallest scales, so this flight of fancy really just moves the boundaries a bit.)

    In such a universe, there’s an alternative origin of consciousness in the interaction of inputs to a nervous system. This might include abstract (“poetic”) isomorphisms, pseudo-random cosmic rays flipping the occasional nerve cell, or a bit of birdsong – all in the context of the prior data to have assailed the organism.

    In such a situation, conscious experience would not be generated as we experience it, but instead be laid out, waiting, as a large and convergent wave train surrounding each conscious object. General laws, specific configuration and consciousness would then be three phenomena with a single origin at the start of time.

    I don’t deny that such a picture reeks of mysticism – it’s part of a bigger notion which has a remarkable fit to several source documents, which is why I find it interesting. For the purpose of responding to your article this doesn’t matter – I can propose one way your argument might be valid without requiring you to feel comfortable with it!

    In this case, studying the functional operation of structures within the brain in order to understand consciousness would be a blind alley. The stuff we find there would be messy, evolved I/O systems, and indeed we’ve had much success finding and understanding those systems.

    On the other hand, constructing synthetic consciousness might be easier than we’ve guessed. Any sufficiently sensitive resonant bucket would do. The problem would be establishing I/O, or the bucket would be a pure introspector!

  8. Alan

    I appreciate both your commentary and your website.
    I do however not grasp entirely what you mean on your approach to conciousness.
    “In such a universe, there’s an alternative origin of consciousness in the interaction of inputs to a nervous system. This might include abstract (”poetic”) isomorphisms, pseudo-random cosmic rays flipping the occasional nerve cell, or a bit of birdsong – all in the context of the prior data to have assailed the organism.”

    Would you give more specific examples of this things influencing consciouness, so that we are able to clearly grasp your point?

  9. Think of it this way (and it *is* just a flight of imagination, although fun):

    After the initial singularity (Big Bang) the universe cooled, the four forces de-unified and the laws of physics settled down. Some people conjecture that they might have settled down differently (vacuum phase transitions and blah blah). We assume that the laws of physics are sublime in their universality and self-consistency, and if that assumption is ever seriously challenged lots of people will develop nervous twitches!

    At the same time that the laws of physics were appearing, stuff was also appearing. At first the stuff was hard X rays which took a little while to even condense into protons and electrons, and then it took them ages to make hydrogen. Unlike the laws, which we assume are consistent and self-consistent everywhere, we assume that the stuff is *randomly* distributed. Perhaps this isn’t reasonable, such that if (what became) the Milky Way were located somewhere else, the charge on the electron would necessarily have been different. (There’s room here for explaining why we observe ubiquitous multifractal structure, even spanning regions which haven’t had time to communicate once yet.) Perhaps there’s even more structure than we realize, concealed like David Bohm’s “implicate order” demonstration where he would introduce a drop of ink between two closely fitting perspex cylinders. If he rotated the inner one, the ink drop would seem to disappear, but if he turned it back the drop would reform.

    Now think of the way that a beat between two high pitched sound beams can seemingly create a low pitched noise in mid air. The low noise isn’t really appearing out of nowhere, it’s already encoded in the pair of beams travelling across the room.

    Perhaps the ceaseless trains of data which are constantly impinging on our bodies, sometimes being stored, sometimes not, have a high degree of hidden order, allowing some self-detection. Then my qualia don’t really appear in my brain. I’m just a self-detecting pattern in the block universe. Then we wouldn’t be able to build mechanisms which give rise to consciousness, but we might be able to provide resonant buckets for the self-detection to occur in. Nor could we make whatever consciousness we like, in the same way that we can’t make whatever gravitational potential we like. We can only work with what’s already built in.

    Does that make any more sense?

  10. I don’t think it’s something that can be clearly understood from a small post, it’s still vaguely explained, but the way I understood it, I agree (although it could be that I understood it as something else from what you meant). I favor the implicate order possibility over the inverse. I prefer David Bohm’s explanation to quantum phenomena over indeterministic views.

    And about consciousness, it could be that we have a similar view or it could be that I understood it incorrectly. Is what you proposed a form of panprotopsychism or a variation of it? I think there are two possibilities: either consciousness can be given rise to, or it already exists everywhere in a latent, unconscious, form. Both possibilities are almost equal in effect.

    I believe even the most basic conscious experience depends on specific mechanisms in the brain, such as perception of time, perception of self, proprioception, etc., so that a conscious bucket can be only just as conscious as an unconscious person.

  11. This text is already old, and I see my use of many terms, like material, physical etc has been an imprecise one.

    The spirit of the text stil works thogh. The reason for which it has been written is to raise doubt, and that it does.

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