Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Deflating Consciousness

I wrote this a while back in response to Alex Rosenberg's the Atheist Guide to Reality. I have let most of it stand. The main idea is one that has been grappled with for a long time about mechanizing the world, especially that of human activity. We can see these worries from earlier thinkers, but such thoughts became more complicated in the 20th century as we began creating machines that could do complex intellectual activities better than conscious human beings could do these things. The argument that brain/mind processing is mechanistic all-the-way-down thus became more plausible. In addition to creating semi-intelligent machines, in general our ideas about what it is happening within brain/minds, including with what we call conscious processing, was improving.

The point of this argument is really to deflate what consciousness is, and to deflate other ideas that are usually tied to the power of human consciousness, such as reasoning, creativity, free will, and moral decisions. In this argument I assume a given conscious property of humans, but I take a more non-existent stance on consciousness, or claim that it is better spoken of in representational and information processing terms. That is, “consciousness” is a representational state, or some mix of world/self modeling, perceptual information and emotion/feeling/bodily structures. For a fuller expression of these ideas see previous posts on subjectivity and Michael Graziano.

One further note, and you should be able to intuit something like this, I recently read Ray Kurzweil's book How to Make a Mind and he makes some of these similar arguments. I thought the book was lacking in depth and coherence on some of these core issues, though he lays out the general problems well. It was also a fairly enjoyable, fast paced read.


An argument against free will, consciousness, and intentionality.

A) Watson and Deep Blue (machines) process information (reason, intentionalize*, choose courses of action) in a competitively useful way that matches their human opponents’ processing of information as regards the games of Jeopardy! and chess.

B) Assuming that the human processing of information has conscious elements and the computers don't, whatever structures and functions consciousness grants human beings during this type of information processing (reasoning, intentionality, decisions) is not special**. That is, whatever properties or functions adhere to human consciousness in this decision making can be duplicated or outdone by non-conscious structures, as it has been outdone in these games.

B-2) Other processing of information in different games or language use is of similar structure as that in these games.

C) There is no reason to believe that the processing of information during moral and social decisions is of a different structure (or is benefited by a different structure) than the processing of information during Chess games or Jeopardy.

D) Whatever properties and functions make up consciousness they are not special, that is, they do not grant us capacities different than that of non-free-willed***, non-conscious, behaviorally determined entities that process information and make decisions based solely on whatever their internal state is at that time, the environmental inputs, and whatever algorithmic procedure incurs.


Consciousness and free will play no useful, functional or structural role during Chess or Jeopardy decisions that could not be equally structured non-consciously. Consciousness and ‘free will’ add nothing to moral and social decision making as well.

*By intentionality here I mean the relational status in the processing between, say, thinking about "Paris" and the actual Paris. I follow Dennett and Rosenberg (among others) in saying that original intentionality never coheres and that the intentional state is a functional representational state that provides a brain or computer with appropriate structural formation and behavioral responses. The "appropriate structural formation" being that there is a correlation in the structure of, say, the real geographic relationship between Paris to Lyon or between two sides of a triangle and the brain/mind representation and perceptual models of the relationship between Paris and Lyon or between two sides of a triangle. This structural formation of brain/mind, whether human or computer, thus grants “appropriate” or shared behavioral repertoires. As was shown, consciousness does not grant us greater (more useful) intentional structures as we play Chess or Jeopardy. In other instances of human intentionality, say about a moral decision, the intentional structures that adheres to human information processing (including consciousness’s role) is of a similar intentional structure as to what Watson and humans do when they are processing information about “Paris,” and we have to assume that such grants us no behavioral or processing capabilities that could not be granted non-consciously.

**Conscious creatures may be "special" in the sense that there is "nothing else it is like to be that thing," but such specialness is probably blown out of proportion by our yearning to be special (not to mention that any complex representational system is unique in the relational qualities it is representing). That is, the things that truly make human beings special, our complex societies, projects, imagining of a great many worlds and how we can respond and build different ones, is not granted to us because of consciousness: those abilities could have been and can be produced through other non-conscious means. Though, evolutionarily speaking, that beings like us would be conscious may have been the most likely outcome.

***On free will, we can, of course, take the compatibilist route and say that both Deep Blue and Deep Blue's opponent (a human) had "free will" and were making "free choices," and that moral and social decisions are "freely chosen" in the same way. I am taking free will in the incompatibilist sense, but also hope to push the idea that the compatibilist notion makes us nothing better than complex computers, which hopefully drives a wedge into the multitude of connotations that compatibilists sneak in when they claim, baldly, that "free will" is real. Such claims of free will often sneaks in the idea that we do something substantially different in decision making and choice making than Deep Blue or Watson or some other machine when they make choices. Again, though consciousness may make a description of human choice making more complex, there will not be some strong dynamic that makes our decision making radically, functionally superior than a non-conscious computer's choice making. At least that has to be our tentative conclusion.

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