As you read this blog, many of you do not know that, according to some of our finest scientific minds, you are not conscious at all. You are a mechanical zombie, a calculating-machine idiot. You have no responsible free will. You are not even an “I”, the subject of your experiences that you naively have the illusion you have. You cannot act responsibly because machines are machines, you are a machine, and like a marble rolling down the side of a bowl, mechanisms “happen” they do not act. So you cannot act. You cannot be an autonomous agent blazing with life, its anguish and joy.
I am a scientist. Science is beautiful. But to an astonishing measure contemporary science, from the classical physics of Newton and Einstein to artificial intelligence, to much of the best neuroscience and computer science, has left us in a meaningless world of fact without value, unable even to choose.
At least the Existentialists, faced with a meaningless universe, found refuge in the meaning our choices make. But even choice is not ours, on the view of many.
I think this view is dehumanizing in the extreme, undermines our deepest selves, and is badly wrong. In its place I think there is a strong hint of safe passage to understanding that we are indeed conscious, that we do experience, that we are agents that can act responsibly.
Uncovering why I think this is so will take us to a radically different world view of ourselves as parts of a creative universe, biosphere, and evolving civilizations. The discussion will take a while, but I hope it proves worthwhile in this and successive blog posts.
The modern Western world dates in no small measure to Rene Descartes. Descartes proposed a dualism: Res Cogitans and Res Extensa. Res Extensa was his mechanical world philosophy in which our bodies, like clocks, are machines. Res Cogitans is “thinking stuff”.
The immediate problem that arose was: Just how does Res Cogitans AFFECT Res Extensa? How does mind ACT ON matter?
Descartes thought it might be the pineal gland.
Western philosophy has struggled with this issue at least since Descartes. Virtually all contemporary thinkers on the subject assume that mind and brain are identical.
But that does not solve the dualist problem. Consider Newton’s laws of motion and a table of moving billiard balls. Given the initial and boundary conditions of positions and momenta of the balls and the edges of the table, Newton taught us to use his three laws of motion in differential form, integrate the equations, and solve for the positions and momenta of the balls at the next and all successive moments.
Newton’s laws are entirely deterministic. Then if the brain is a deterministic system, like the billiard balls, the current state of the brain is entirely sufficient to determine precisely the next state of the brain. Woefully, there is NOTHING FOR MIND TO DO! Worse, there is no way for MIND TO DO ANYTHING TO BRAIN ANYWAY.
Maybe mind really is an illusion? Maybe it is an epiphenomenon?
But there are two other pathways to this impasse, one philosophic, one mathematical.
The philosophic pathway was entirely honorable. The British Empiricists about 1910 wanted to found human knowledge on the most secure foundation. We might be wrong that there is a chair in the room, but we could hardly be wrong that we “seemed to be seeing a chair”.
Now pause and look around you. If you are normal, you experience an integrated visual field, called the “unity of consciousness”. Hold on to this.
Bertrand Russell was then working on his Principia Mathematica with A.N. Whitehead, and sought to build all of mathematics on set theory and logic. Principia Mathematica concerned logic, such as “A OR B”, “A AND B”, “There exists”, “For all”. Russell and Whiteheads’ brave try failed, as demonstrated in the 1930s by Kurt Godel’s famous Incompleteness Theorem showing that mathematics cannot be derived from set theory.
But in 1910 Russell invented, WHOLE CLOTH, what he called “atoms of experience” or “sense data atoms” such as “A flat now” or “red here”. He hoped to build up our knowledge of the “external world” from logical combinations of these sense atoms. But to do so, he needed to apply his new logic. So he invented sense data STATEMENTS that could be true or false. “It is true of Kauffman that ‘red here’“. It is false of Kauffman that ‘A flat now’“.
Given a sufficient set of these sense data statements, true and false, Russell hoped to build up a maximally certain knowledge of the external world. The attempt failed, a long story.
The next major step was taken in 1943 by cyberneticians Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, who modeled a neuron in your brain as an ON or OFF, 1 or 0 device. They made a system of such “formal” neurons, in rows N wide, paralleling one another in M such rows.
Formal neurons in each row sent outputs to serve as inputs to the formal neurons of the next row. Each neuron beyond the first rank of neurons calculated a logical function on its one or many inputs, such as turning ON if both of its inputs in the previous row were ON the moment before - this is the logical AND function.
McCulloch and Pitts then borrowed Russell’s sense data statements, and set the formal neurons in the first row equal to 1 or 0, in correspondence to the truth or falseness of sense data statements. Thus if “For Kauffman, ‘A flat now’ is True”, set formal neuron 1 in rank one to ON = 1. If “For Kauffman, ‘Red here’ is False”, set formal neuron 2 in rank one to OFF = 0, and so on.
McCulloch and Pitts then showed that their feedforward network of formal neurons could calculate any logical function desired on the set of sense data statements in the first row.
They called their paper “A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in the mind”.
The mind, as you can see, was on its way to becoming a logical and mechanical computing machine. This effort spawned the entire field of neural networks in contemporary artificial intelligence and computer science.
A few years earlier was the more purely mathematical strand, the invention by Turing of his famous Turing machine, the basis of all our digital computers today.
I will not describe the Turing machine itself, space is limited. But I stress four things. First, the behavior of the Turing machine is ABSOLUTELY DEFINITE. Given a state of the machine and its input tape, the next state of the machine and tape is completely definite. In this, the Turing machine is the perfect embodiment of Descartes’ Res Extensa. Res Cogitans is gone. Second, the Turing machine is the very definition of “algorithmic”. Very many experts in computer science, cognitive science and neuroscience are certain that the mind MUST BE algorithmic. Third, Turing machines and neural network models have led to the belief among most workers that IF consciousness is real, consciousness will somehow emerge when sufficiently many computer chips are coupled together. Forth, the McCulloch Pitts neural network and the Turing machine are ENTIRELY CLASSICAL PHYSICS.
In the world of classical physics, the only hope its proponents hold out for consciousness so that we are not zombies is that a sufficiently complex network of calculating gadgets will “emerge” into consciousness. A first trouble is that the gadgets could be billions of water buckets, each with a threshold level separating 0 from 1 levels of water, pouring water into one another.
My personal opinion is that billions of water buckets pouring water into one another may be able to carry out a calculation WE set it, but it will never be aware. My point relies on the physical absurdity of a system of water buckets “emerging” into consciousness.
But there is a much more important point about the “emergence” of complex networks of water bowls into consciousness. The bowls, or networks of chips, are busy computing away, whether we are less complex networks, so not conscious, or more complex networks, so, thankfully, conscious. But when blessedly conscious, what role, if any, does this consciousness of ours play in the unfolding of the universe? It seems the consciousness so achieved is a mere epiphenomenon that can have no effect upon the world.
In reality my issue hangs on a deeper assumption. All the discussion above is based purely on classical physics. Why ignore quantum mechanics? In the past several blog posts I have discussed closed quantum systems, open quantum systems open to decohrence to classicity for all practical purposes, or classicity per se, and recoherence to open quantum system behavior, the Poised Realm which may mediate between the world of open quantum systems and the classical world, and Trans -Turing Systems which are partially open quantum systems, partially Poised Realm systems, partially classical systems that NON-ALGORITHMICALLY process information as inputs and outputs.
These posts very strongly suggests that the mind brain system NEED NOT be an algorithmic classical computer at all. I strongly suspect that our mind-brain system is one or many coupled Trans-Turing Systems. I will, in future posts, associate such Trans-Turing Systems with neurotransmitter receptors in the synapses of your brain. We will find hypotheses about what consciousness IS, the loci of qualia - the experience of the blueness of blue, the subject “I” having those experiences, the unity of consciousness torn apart by Russell into “atoms of sense data”, and a responsible ontologically free will that really acts in the world. Minds are not useless epiphenomena. Some of these hypotheses are testable in the near future. We will, I hope, scientifically find ourselves as full humans, not machines.