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Steve Storck

Is consciousness only possible in biological organisms?

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Hello, all.  The title might strike everyone as an absurd question, and it is, in a way.  Currently, consciousness is only an attribute of animals.  But, if you might indulge me in a hypothetical that strikes me as at least somewhat possible, I would appreciate it.  For those who loathe dealing in hypothetical questions, I completely understand.

The field of neuroscience is always progressing.  If, in the next century or two, great progress is made, along with some breakthroughs here and there, and we gain a very good understanding of how the brain works, including new ideas for circuitry, processing, storage, architecture, and other things, it might revolutionize the field of artificial intelligence.  Surely, you know where I am headed with this.  Since we are Objectivists, and since we reject mystical notions of a soul or any other irrational idea that provides us with consciousness, it seems possible that we could create software, or computers, that are self-aware.  If they are self aware, then that seems to meet the criteria for consciousness.  The software/computer would exist, would have a sense of identity, and possess consciousness.  Is this a fair assessment?  Am I violating any of the principles of the three axiomatic concepts of existence, identity, and consciousness?  I am currently participating in a debate, and I have gotten thoroughly flamed for my suggestion, but it seems like the other people in the discussion are assuming that I mean something that I do not mean.  I will gladly expand on the ideas discussed in the debate, but I wanted to get some feedback about the initial premises of the discussion before I move onto the other concepts.

So, taking the above possibility into consideration, if you even deem it to be a possibility, is consciousness only possible in biological organisms?

 

Thanks in advance,

Steve

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Consciousness is a functionality biological mechanisms possess. So, your question boils down to: is it possible to recreate that functionality in a different mechanism?

And yes, sure. Why wouldn't it be. Of course, the brain is the most complex thing in nature, and we're still struggling with much simpler kinds of functionality found in living things, so it's going to take a lot of effort. But it's a finite amount of complexity, that will take a finite amount of effort to understand and re-create.

Edited by Nicky

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@Nicky that is my thought, as well.  If we are ever able to understand and recreate it, then that mechanism would exist, have identity, and possess consciousness.

Now for the rest of it.  Let's say that a simulation was created, and there were conscious software entities in this simulation.  This simulation was started, and it was a long-running, hands-off simulation.  Maybe the entities would develop philosophy, etc, like we do.  They might even philosophize that they are in a simulation, and discuss the programmer.  Some people would believe that there is a programmer, and others would reject it.  Still, others would insist that the programmer does not exist.  The programmer and the entities all exist in the same reality, but the software entities could never know anything about anything outside of the simulation.  A belief that there is a programmer that made the simulation would be irrational, because there would be absolutely no proof or even a shred of evidence that the programmer exists and built the simulation.  Likewise, it would be irrational for others to conclude and insist that there is no programmer for the same reason that it is irrational to think that there is one.  The only rational group would be those that simply reject the notion as irrational and leave it at that.

I'm just poking at the logic of this one.  Certainly, the burden of proof is on those that state that there is a programmer, since that is a pretty strange notion.  But there would never be any way to know.

Obviously, this is a parallel to the atheism vs theism debate.  I am not comfortable discussing a god or a deity, because there are too many attached notions and premises for my taste.  A discussion is meaningless when you discuss something that is apart from reality, and created it.  Obviously, only something that exists could ever do anything.  I reject mysticism entirely, and I reject the notion of a god.  I only wanted to discuss the irrationality on both extremes: those that insist that something exists when there is no way to gather evidence or proof, and those that insist that something definitely does not exist without any way to gather evidence or proof.  But, as always, those that come up with a notion have the burden of proof.

Edit: I didn't mention that there are two camps of atheism -- those that reject the idea of a god/deity/etc, and those that firmly assert that there is none.  The rational approach is to reject, and not make a similarly-unfounded assertion or conclusion.

I want to reiterate (before the flames heat up!) that I reject mystical claims about any deity or supernatural being, or any god in general.  I only want to discuss the irrationality and logic of drawing conclusions that cannot be proven.  I would like to hear everyone's thoughts, and if I am making any logical errors that I am missing.

Thanks again!

Edited by Steve Storck
Clarification

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There is no evidence, nor can there be, for that which in fact does not exist. Firmly asserting the non-existence of non-existents often flies in the face of those that do not grasp this.

There is evidence for consciousness in biological organisms. If the all the relevant causal relationships are put into play, and a biological organism possessing consciousness were the result, wouldn't that which was produced actually be, in fact, life?

A rheostat uses mechanical processes to turn an HVAC unit on and off based on temperature. Motion detectors can turn devices on and off. Highly complex machinery, such as a robot, have servo-mechanisms and sensors that receive and feed back data via a central processing unit. They may even be complex enough to pass some form of a Turing Test. Would we say the rheostat is consciously aware of the temperature? What about the motion detector's ability to consciously grasp a moving object? If the questions parallel the complexity of the mechanical development, I think something else would be required (I know not what at this time) to use consciousness in this realm other than as a floating abstraction or a stolen concept.

Welcome to OO, Steve Storck.

 

Edited by dream_weaver

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ARgh. Why lie about what you want to talk about? I've heard the simulation nonsense a million times. I'm not interested in it. Thanks for wasting my time.

Edited by Nicky

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5 hours ago, Steve Storck said:

Let's say that a simulation was created, and there were conscious software entities in this simulation.

Unless your software entity has some means of perceiving that which actually exists, it will never be conscious in the sense that humans are conscious. If it's merely programmed to interact with a simulated world, then it's still only a program, not a consciousness. To get anywhere near a consciousness, you would need a physical entity with sensory apparatuses capable of perceiving the real world. Otherwise all you have is a simulated consciousness in a simulated world.

As for your programmer hypothesis, keep in mind that all knowledge is contextual. When we say that something is or is not, does or does not exist, it is a certainty we hold within the relevant context of our knowledge. To persist in a never-ending state of contextless uncertainty would be unbearable and pointless. Therefore it is indeed rational to insist that we do not live in a simulation world. It's rational because nobody has provided a shred of evidence otherwise, or even shown that it's possible.

Edited by MisterSwig

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16 hours ago, Nicky said:

ARgh. Why lie about what you want to talk about? I've heard the simulation nonsense a million times. I'm not interested in it. Thanks for wasting my time.

Can you quote me on this supposed lie?  I wanted to show that I fully understand the axioms, and that I do not deny them.  If you look at my original post, I said:

23 hours ago, Steve Storck said:

 I am currently participating in a debate, and I have gotten thoroughly flamed for my suggestion, but it seems like the other people in the discussion are assuming that I mean something that I do not mean.  I will gladly expand on the ideas discussed in the debate, but I wanted to get some feedback about the initial premises of the discussion before I move onto the other concepts.

If someone showed me that I had an error in the premises, then I would have explained the debate and acknowledged my error, and that would have been that.  It seems that your response is emotional (one of frustration) and you didn't just like my topic when I revealed the rest of it.  I understand that somewhat of a thought experiment is not of much interest to many Objectivists, and I wanted to at least make sure that I did not have any errors in my understanding of the axioms, which would have lead to incorrect premises on my part.  But if you can point out an actual lie, then I will apologize.

 

16 hours ago, Nicky said:

Thanks for wasting my time.

  Remember my first paragraph where I warned that people my not want to deal in hypothetical questions?  I would apologize, but you freely gave your time despite the warning.  Either way, I appreciate your time and input.

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17 hours ago, dream_weaver said:

Would we say the rheostat is consciously aware of the temperature? What about the motion detector's ability to consciously grasp a moving object?

Since you cannot separate consciousness from identity and, specifically, the fact that one is consciously aware of their identity, we cannot suggest that input, processing, and output (no matter how complex) constitutes consciousness.  For consciousness, something would have to necessarily be *self aware*.  

 

17 hours ago, dream_weaver said:

If the questions parallel the complexity of the mechanical development, I think something else would be required (I know not what at this time) to use consciousness in this realm other than as a floating abstraction or a stolen concept.

I do not know what else would be required, either, or if it is even possible.  I acknowledge that this is the problem that renders most of these thought experiments less useful.  I also assure you that I am not trying to use consciousness as a floating abstraction or as a stolen concept.  My ideas are about actual consciousness that includes self-awareness.  

Quite simply, we never know something until we know it, as with any technological or intellectual/philosophical advancement.  We would need to understand neuroscience very well before the question of creating consciousness with technology could be seriously considered.

With the debate that I was having, talking about this possibility is interesting, but I am more interested that given the situation where it *is* possible, the logic of coming to either conclusion of "definite true" or "definite false" are equally irrational, and that the rejection of both conclusions being the only rational option.

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15 hours ago, MisterSwig said:

If it's merely programmed to interact with a simulated world, then it's still only a program, not a consciousness. To get anywhere near a consciousness, you would need a physical entity with sensory apparatuses capable of perceiving the real world. Otherwise all you have is a simulated consciousness in a simulated world.

I agree completely.  My whole premise hinges on understanding neuroscience enough to replicate what the brain does, whatever it does that results in consciousness.  It very well may be impossible.  Even with a full understanding, recreating real consciousness may be beyond our grasp because of something else, whatever it may be.  Our perceptions, though we are perceiving something real, are only impulses that our senses relay to our brains.  In a simulation, the program (or whatever it might be at that point in our technological advancement and capabilities) would provide stimuli, and the corresponding programmatic senses would relay those signals for interpretation.

This is beginning to diverge from the logic that I am trying to vet, though.  Though I am only discussing a possibility, it is not something that we can immediately disregard, since we are physical beings and, this suggests, our consciousness is most likely a result of our physical selves.  Unless I have missed something, and there is no chance of technology approaching this point, I would still like to explore the logic and test if it is sound.  I would be agreeable to applying the situation to a different narrative if we could come up with something analogous, but much more concrete to avoid tying things to possibilities.  Can you think of a better scenario to apply my dilemma to?

 

15 hours ago, MisterSwig said:

To persist in a never-ending state of contextless uncertainty would be unbearable and pointless. Therefore it is indeed rational to insist that we do not live in a simulation world. It's rational because nobody has provided a shred of evidence otherwise, or even shown that it's possible.

This, I think, illustrates my point, and this is probably where my dilemma lies.  Within the context of your knowledge, you can still arrive at an irrational conclusion.  While, within your contextual knowledge, it is *entirely rational* to reject implausible or unsupported conclusions, making an opposite conclusion is equally unsupported and, therefore, it is irrational.  If someone theorizes the electromagnetic spectrum, but we have no way of gathering empirical evidence that such a spectrum outside of our sensory perception exists, then it is quite rational to reject the theory.  The burden of proof is, of course, on the person that endorses the unproven theory.  Today, we are quite well aware that it exists, and so much of our technology utilizes it.  But someone concluding that *it does not exist* would be wrong, and since they have no evidence that it does not exist, they are coming to an irrational conclusion.

Another example would be if your wife wakes you in the night, telling you that there is an intruder in the house.  If you reject this notion, you could search the house, and look in every room and every space that could conceal an intruder.  After a thorough search, you can rationally conclude that such an intruder does not exist, since the laws of physics dictate that a certain amount of matter can only fit into adequate space.  However, if your wife tells you that there is a mouse in the house, you could look around and not see it, but since you could not check every space that could conceal a mouse, you would be irrational in concluding that the mouse is not there.

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1 hour ago, Steve Storck said:

For consciousness, something would have to necessarily be *self aware*.

So you are delimiting your scope of inquiry to conceptual consciousness?

1 hour ago, Steve Storck said:

I do not know what else would be required, either, or if it is even possible.  I acknowledge that this is the problem that renders most of these thought experiments less useful.

To qualify something as "possible", there must be some evidence for and nothing which contradicts it. Does adhering to this present an obstacle to the guidance of thought?

 

1 hour ago, Steve Storck said:

I am more interested that given the situation where it *is* possible, the logic of coming to either conclusion of "definite true" or "definite false" are equally irrational, and that the rejection of both conclusions being the only rational option.

If you stick with the guidance rule, possible only requires some evidence for a given possibility with no contradictions. For something to be definitely true, it requires a preponderance of evidence for it without anything that contradicts it. If you encounter something that contradicts the possibility, what is irrational about identifying it as false?

Tossing out the requirement for evidence is akin to saying "Let's play arbitrary suggestions, while not actually asserting anything." After all since it is irrational to construe something as being "definitely true or false" where can such pseudo-logic lead.

Practicing sound logic leads to sound thought processes. If unsound logic is practiced, the practitioner is bound to become very good at it.

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2 hours ago, Steve Storck said:

However, if your wife tells you that there is a mouse in the house, you could look around and not see it, but since you could not check every space that could conceal a mouse, you would be irrational in concluding that the mouse is not there.

I suspect there is a fundamental problem with context-dropping here. You have provided some examples where the context is clearly this world and our knowledge of it, such as the "mouse in the house." But with your "consciousness in the simulation" example you seem to switch to a context where there is a simulated world and we're unaware of its nature.

With the house and mouse, our context is this realm. With the consciousness and simulation, the context is another realm, a fake one beyond the real one.

But we don't live in that fake realm, so how can we apply logic to any questions pertaining to it? If we don't live in the simulation, and are not even aware of there being a simulation, how can we know anything about its nature or its alleged programmer? All we can say is that the assertion of such a world is irrational, because it posits a world we cannot know and which must therefore be utter fantasy.

You will never get a satisfactory answer to your questions, as long as you drop the context that you are living in this world and not the other.

Edited by MisterSwig

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Side question: How pervasive is this whole "maybe we're in The Matrix" idea? I know there are books and even college courses on it. But, man, how many young people take this seriously?

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Ah, I see that my example is keeping us from focusing on the real logical dilemma that I am trying to ensure that my logic is sound.  If person A makes a claim that is without supporting evidence, and person B makes the opposite claim without supporting evidence, then they are both coming to irrational conclusions.  Person C that simply rejects the claim of person A is the only person that is being rational.  Is there any case where, without any evidence either way , when someone says that "X is true!" that someone can rationally say "X is false!"? 

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I don't take it seriously.  I was overcomplicating the situation, when I really only need to test the logic.  The situation around the logic is probably not all that important.  But, then again, I'm 43, so I'm not all that young, either.

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19 minutes ago, Steve Storck said:

Ah, I see that my example is keeping us from focusing on the real logical dilemma that I am trying to ensure that my logic is sound.  If person A makes a claim that is without supporting evidence, and person B makes the opposite claim without supporting evidence, then they are both coming to irrational conclusions.  Person C that simply rejects the claim of person A is the only person that is being rational.  Is there any case where, without any evidence either way , when someone says that "X is true!" that someone can rationally say "X is false!"? 

The rational procedure in regard to an arbitrary assertion is to dismiss it out of hand, merely identifying it as arbitrary, and as such inadmissible and undiscussable. — Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series, Lecture 6

Arbitrary — Ayn Rand Lexicon

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On 10/25/2016 at 2:41 PM, Steve Storck said:

So, taking the above possibility into consideration, if you even deem it to be a possibility, is consciousness only possible in biological organisms?

I'm not sure how your simulation thought experiment relates to this question here. Are you asking about how to evaluate claims where your evidence is lacking for a definite yes or no? At least regarding claims about consciousness?

Maybe consciousness is only biological. It's a fine hypothesis. It is a scientific question, so you need to define biological. Do you mean "not man-made"? Do you mean only organic compounds? Or it could mean "more than electricity"? All we can say to the last two is "i don't know", the first I'd say is circular probably so "definitely wrong".

As for the simulation questions, those aren't about consciousness in the same way. It's just a thought experiment about the nature of reality. IF we were in a simulation, it wouldn't undo the axiomatic concepts. They would apply to the "real" reality. After all, you're still conscious OF something, and something exists to be conscious. The simulation would be part of reality, and have identity, and created in reality. Physics may be different, though, just like "Half Life 2" compared to "Call of Duty".

I wrote a paper, posted in my "Eioul's Investigations" subforum, about evidence. You might want to read it.

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1 hour ago, MisterSwig said:

Side question: How pervasive is this whole "maybe we're in The Matrix" idea? I know there are books and even college courses on it. But, man, how many young people take this seriously?

I watched Ex Machina recently. A co-worker referenced the robot Ava, as being caged and even betraying Caleb. Nobody thinks twice about locking a lawnmower up in a shed. Why do these same people suggest that an inanimate object is capable of a conscious act of betrayal? After putting 'betrayal' in those terms, the statement was couched as a vendetta on Ava's behalf. Again: is an inanimate object capable of the conscious act of vengeance?

The Matrix, Short Circuit, Ex Machina, et al, put forth the theme of 'what-if' self-aware (conceptual) consciousness' .

Half-jokingly I compared Ex Machina to Frankenstein, only with a more highly seductive element to it. Keep in mind that both Nathan and Caleb (presumably) died in the movie. Consider here the number of farmers that die from a tractor accident, or the number of operators that lose a finger, hand, arm, or life, to a manufacturing press.

If Ex Machina is a Turning Test Fantasy, I have to ask if it is man that fails the test by being unable to differentiate between a conceptual consciousness and an inanimate object simulating a conceptual consciousness?

The Pollock painting, No. 5, 1948, featured in the film, and the conversation that centered on it, makes me think of trying to unravel a tangled fishing line.

 

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2 hours ago, Steve Storck said:

If person A makes a claim that is without supporting evidence, and person B makes the opposite claim without supporting evidence, then they are both coming to irrational conclusions.  Person C that simply rejects the claim of person A is the only person that is being rational.  Is there any case where, without any evidence either way , when someone says that "X is true!" that someone can rationally say "X is false!"?

If you're talking about a purely arbitrary claim, where the claim itself cannot be evaluated by man's reason, then no, you can't rationally affirm or deny it. A claim must be checkable in order to be checked. If we say, "God exists," that is arbitrary. "God" is merely three letters bunched together. But if we say, "God is infinite," then that is false, because it violates the Law of Identity. 

 

41 minutes ago, dream_weaver said:

If Ex Machina is a Turning Test Fantasy, I have to ask if it is man that fails the test by being unable to differentiate between a conceptual consciousness and an inanimate object simulating a conceptual consciousness?

That was a pretty cool movie. Though it was a little emotionalistic, using Ava's attractiveness to distract from more intellectual questions such as yours. In the end I don't know if it would matter very much if the consciousness were real or simulated, or whether we could tell the difference. More important to me would be a test for volition. I don't see a mere simulation ever achieving volition, which is another problem I have with the Matrix-world theory.

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On 10/25/2016 at 2:19 PM, epistemologue said:

If there's not some immaterial soul - not of a mystical variety, but some metaphysical identity - wouldn't that contradict the Objectivist belief in volition (among other things)?

What would an immaterial but non-mystical soul look like?

If you're using "Immaterial" to literally mean something other than a solid object then it's not very informative; I've never seen anyone try to claim that you can put "consciousness" itself in a bottle and weigh it. If you're using "immaterial" in its more common sense (as something that is simply beyond our puny mortal minds) then what you're referring to would necessarily be mystical.

 

Good sir, what does that sentence mean?!

Edited by Harrison Danneskjold
Clarity

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On 10/25/2016 at 6:03 PM, Steve Storck said:

I only wanted to discuss the irrationality on both extremes: those that insist that something exists when there is no way to gather evidence or proof, and those that insist that something definitely does not exist without any way to gather evidence or proof.

On 10/25/2016 at 8:23 PM, dream_weaver said:

There is no evidence, nor can there be, for that which in fact does not exist. Firmly asserting the non-existence of non-existents often flies in the face of those that do not grasp this.

 

But can we be certain of some thing's actual nonexistence, from the lack of any contrary evidence?

Since that would be an argument from ignorance, strictly speaking, I don't believe it is valid to say "X cannot possibly be the case, in reality, because I don't see it".

 

And that doesn't mean that everybody has to make all of their decisions on the basis of whatever outlandish things we don't know anything about. If there is absolutely no evidence for something then that probably is because it isn't real.

The key is that it's only a "probably"; not a "necessarily".

 

Welcome to the forum!

 

--- PS:

 

Sorry for commandeering your post, DW.

Edited by Harrison Danneskjold
Postscript

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