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What is the origin of consciousness? or What is Consciousness?

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I admit I'm pretty new in my exposure to Objectivism. I have purchased many of the books, and am working my way through them. I have also spent a lot of time reading various threads here on this forum, and listening to online lectures by Peikoff. 

The question I keep coming back to, which I cannot seem to find an answer, is this: "What is the origin of consciousness?" 

Probably the preliminary question is this: "What is consciousness?" 

From what I understand so far, Objectivism seems to state that consciousness arises from existence, and is an attribute of some existing entities. 

As such, consciousness arises from the mind's abilities of sensory perception, memory, and abstraction. 

Is this close? Help me understand. 

And if I AM close to the Objectivism view of consciousness, here are my two follow-up questions:

  1. How does something that is purely material develop the abilities for sensory perception, memory, and abstraction?
  2. What is stopping an advanced AI from gaining consciousness? 
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1. Life.

2. Life. But in the future, artificial life could have artificial intelligence with a consciousness.

2 hours ago, Boydstun said:

In Rand's Galt's Speech (GS, 1957), she broaches the topic of sensory illusions, which she takes to be only illusions insofar as one has made an error in judgement-identifications about what is there. And this was because the sensory systems are purely physical, therefore purely deterministic, and being without free will, unlike conscious thinking, the senses have no power to "deceive" one. It's an old philosophic picture—held most famously by Kant: the inerrancy of the senses. Own up to it or not, that picture put forth in GS implies there are no perceptual illusions that one cannot expunge from experience by intellectual understanding of how they are caused. That picture of Rand (and others) is false, beginning to end. There is no such physical determinism even in the classical regular regime of physical law when one gets down to real physical processes taken in their intersecting independent causal streams as in nature. (I don't care how many thousands of times that phony picture of physical determinism in the classical regime has been repeated by way of introducing the "problem of free will", it is still baloney, as ever it was down from LaPlace.)

As Peter noted above, Rand held to the modern view which, most reasonably, takes all occasions of consciousness to be features of living animal brain. She writes in GS that mind is not possible without physical life: "Your mind is your life" and "neither is possible without the other." Also, in an oral exchange a dozen years later, Rand remarked concerning consciousness: "It's a concept that could not enter your mind or your language unless in the form of a faculty of a living entity. That's what the concept means." (ITOE App., 252; cf. Binswanger 2014, 30–41; and the article by Robert Efron in The Objectivist which Peter mentioned earlier.) 

Any free will and any volitional, fallible consciousness are undergirded by living brain processes. Just as when we drift on habit, engage in evasion, or get things right.

None of my retuning of Rand on classical physical process (including living sensory process), which I published in Objectivity in the 1990's and was likewise put forth later by Alan Gotthelf in his little book On Ayn Rand (only with my talk of independent causal 'streams' replaced with independent causal 'chains' and without remarking that he was departing from Rand) affects at all the fundamental principle permeating good epistemology that consciousness is identification (focally, of existence). 


7 minutes ago, Boydstun said:

No. Although Rand may have had a view here or there that suggested dualism, her general metaphysics and biocentric ethics and psychology would not be consistent with dualism. At least not in the sense of dualism as usually meant: of some sort of fundamental dichotomy of the physical and the mental.

Rand did not have a fundamental dichotomy between the inanimate and the animate, even though the latter has a profoundly different character than the former. Living systems can have even the feature of non-intentional, non-conscious teleological causes of individual life cycles, ways of life, and reproduction to continue the species, which is entirely absent in the inanimate components whose activities make possible that overall ends-pursuits of the living system. It would be untrue to all that reality to deny the existence of either the living things or the non-living things and their very deep differences in character (or the relationships in which they stand to each other). One does not have to choose between eliminative reduction of life to the inanimate on the one hand or dualism of the living things and the non-living things on the other.

Similarly, conscious mind is not a biological feature that one must think of as either really just non-conscious living activities on the one hand or dualism on the other. Those alternatives are not the only ones under which one might comprehend the relation between conscious mind and the physical. Indeed they leave out the alternative relation that is the truth (for which one needs neuroscience and not only the philosopher's armchair).


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Your question about what consciousness is, is apt insofar as Objectivism deals with human consciousness and not the cognitive state of octopuses. Tiny creatures like bacteria, placozoans, jellyfish and tardigrades have some kind of biomechanical system for responding to external events (rocks and plants also respond to external events). While we generally hold that a brain is a minimum requirement for consciousness, that does sort of beg the question of whether a computer program can be conscious in the broader sense.

The details of how humans developed faculties of sensory perception, memory, and abstraction are technical scientific matters, not philosophical questions, but one can still apply philosophical principles to learn something about this domain. Abstraction logically depends on sensory perception – you cannot “abstract” if you cannot perceive. You cannot perceive if you cannot sense. Therefore the fundamental question (a scientific one) is, exactly how did ‘sensing’ evolve? A simple albeit conjectural answer is that some mutation enhanced a physical reaction which gave the bearers of that mutation a better chance of escaping danger. The ones without the mutation just died or turned into ferns. Note that “mutation” presupposes a mechanism like DNA / RNA that makes “life” possible.

What primarily stops an AI from developing consciousness in any sense is the same thing that stops a light from turning itself on. The apt question, IMO, is “can we craft an AI that is conscious?”, in some sense. An AI can’t do anything on its own. Can we take a pile of non-living materials and make it actually be alive? We have at least crafted crude sensory and memory systems that resemble the behavior of living beings. The main technical impediment to AI development is that the Supreme Beings designing them are utterly misguided by the Turing Test (although they know that the test has been debunked so they have dialed back their claims, without improving what they do).

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29 minutes ago, necrovore said:

A baby can't give birth to itself, either...

Nor can God make a stone so heavy that he can't lift it. A baby can't give birth to anything, but it may have the potential to do so, whereas programs and light bulbs don't have the capacity for self-generated action.

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54 minutes ago, Easy Truth said:

Isn't the key element of human consciousness free will? If so, can a deterministic machine that mutates, in a sense be guided toward "free will" by its environment? Similar to human evolution.

In that sense then, DO would be right in that we didn't craft it, nature or nature's god did through random chance( which is a weird concept in the context of determinism).

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1 hour ago, DavidOdden said:

programs and light bulbs don't have the capacity for self-generated action.

Maybe I don't know what you mean by "self-generated action" here. There are a lot of phenomena which cannot start themselves but, once started, can go on by themselves. Fire is an example, and fire isn't even alive.

If you mean "free will," if you mean that a consciousness can choose its next action, then that's more complicated. My own free will is self-evident to me. Other people's free will isn't self-evident per se but it follows logically both from the fact that people speak, write, and act as if they have free will, and also from the fact that I am human and I have it, and other people are human too, so they must have it, too.

The argument from "all humans have it" doesn't apply to a machine. However, the argument that an entity could speak, write, and act like it has free will, while not having it, does not make sense, because the argument from humanity depends on the argument from words and actions. If nobody's words or actions were consistent with the idea that they had free will, then I'd be justified in concluding that I was the only one who had it. But clearly, people's words and actions do support the idea that they have free will.

Further, the only way to tell whether free will exists is by inferring it from words and actions.

Some people say that AIs don't actually have free will and are faking it. Sometimes this can be seen to be true (e.g., if an AI gets stuck in an infinite loop or something). And it's easy to write a simple program that displays "I have free will" on the screen, but that doesn't mean the program has free will.

Determining whether something has free will requires seeing its words and actions over time, and in a variety of circumstances. It's even more telling if you can ask questions and see how it answers. (That's kind of the idea behind the Turing Test, but the test can be gamed because of its limited scope.)

Suppose somebody said that some rocks obey the laws of physics, but other rocks only look like they are obeying the laws of physics, and are actually faking it. There is no basis for such a conclusion: it's arbitrary. The same thing would apply when saying that AIs don't have free will but are faking it.

If you have evidence that a particular AI is faking it, that's fine; bring it forth. But you can't say they're faking it in general, especially without evidence. If you could, then you could also say it about certain kinds of people, which historically has led to atrocities and wars.

Edited by necrovore
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4 hours ago, necrovore said:

Suppose somebody said that some rocks obey the laws of physics, but other rocks only look like they are obeying the laws of physics, and are actually faking it.

Humans obey the laws of physics as well. But that's a metaphorical obedience, e.g. obeying gravity is different from obeying a decision.

If we go with OPAR, humans do have something in common with rocks: they can't choose not to choose, just as they can't choose to be free from the laws of physics. Quote:

". . .the action itself, the fact of choosing as such, in one direction or the other, is unavoidable. Since man is an entity of a certain kind, since his brain and consciousness possess a certain identity, he must act in a certain way." (Ch. 2, Human Actions, Mental and Physical, as Both Caused and Free)

"But," someone might reply, "what about the content of my choice - the thing I actually pick? Does that flow inevitably and naturally from my constitution?"

To this I would answer: "No, that would be determinism - and determinism is bad!". And I'd hold onto my position.

...unless, of course, someone showed me an alternative: "Freedom and blind lawfulness are two sides of the same coin, they're never actually apart. As a consequence, Nature will look purposeful when it clearly isn't, and human choice will appear deterministic when it clearly isn't."

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On 12/13/2023 at 3:41 PM, KyaryPamyu said:

If we go with OPAR, humans do have something in common with rocks: they can't choose not to choose, just as they can't choose to be free from the laws of physics.

Nevertheless, the implication is that with the laws of physics, laws that "predict" the behavior of matter and energy, one cannot determine/predict what choice is going to be made by a human who consists of matter and energy. Either physics can't predict, or humans are not physical, or maybe physics can't predict "sometimes". 

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