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Consciousness Studies Is a “Bizarre” Field of Science

The question of whether machines can be conscious is bound up with attempts to study immaterial things while denying their existence

The question of whether machines can be persons hinges in part on whether they can be “conscious” entities that have intentions. That’s a difficult question today, not because machines really act like they are intelligent or have intentions independent of their programmers.

No, the problem is that human consciousness as a concept is easy to experience and hard to grasp (the Hard Problem of consciousness). So people can say unusual things about consciousness with comparative impunity. From a recent piece at Salvo, for example,

Cognitive computing professor Mark Bishop outlines a dilemma in New Scientist: If we can develop a sophisticated machine that experiences consciousness, “then an infinitude of consciousnesses must be everywhere: in the cup of tea I am drinking, in the seat that I am sitting on.” Bishop presents this as an impossible view, but serious thinkers, not cranks, do attempt to resolve the issue in precisely this way, by claiming that everything, even inanimate objects, is conscious to some extent (panpsychism).

On that view, your laptop is already conscious, as is your coffee mug. But, however ridiculous that sounds, it follows directly from naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.” From a naturalist perspective, there is no such thing as an immaterial entity. Either the mug is conscious or—and this is the more common alternative offered by naturalism—you, a purely material entity, are not conscious yourself. Your consciousness is an evolved illusion. The word “evolved” may soften the blow. It may make you think that maybe that is the answer because evolution is science after all. Notice, however, that no actual evidence is offered for the proposition. In any event,

Apart from untenable theories, the field as a whole is a mess. In June 2018, Tom Bartlett attended an academic conference on consciousness on behalf of The Chronicle of Higher Education and summarized it by asking, “Is this the world’s most bizarre scholarly meeting?” If that is a key question, we can infer that consciousness studies will shed little light on artificial consciousness. We are left with no way to define what we are even talking about, let alone aim for it.

A prominent ID theorist identifies the problem this mess creates for discussion of machines and consciousness, the problem of infinite regress:

Bill Dembski likens the search for a machine self that would enable the machine to think creatively to the early modern search for the “homunculus,” the tiny human that was once thought to animate the early embryo: “We have no precedent or idea what such a homunculus would look like. And obviously, it would do no good to see the homunculus itself as a library of AI algorithms controlled by a still more deeply embedded homunculus.” Denyse O’Leary, “It Comes Naturally” at Salvo

That is, the person who is trying to build consciousness into a machine has only a human model so he is trying to build a little human into the machine. He cannot do so but he can try to make himself and others believe that he has done it. Thus, we hear a great deal of artificial intelligence hype on this subject in the media and comparatively little straightforward discussion of the problems.

See also: Can machines be persons

Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug


AI Hype Top Ten 2018: Help, not hype, from a computer science prof

Consciousness Studies Is a “Bizarre” Field of Science