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Can We Engineer Consciousness in a Robot?

One neuroscientist thinks we need only “simple guidelines.” His underlying assumptions are just wrong

In earlier posts (linked below), I have been discussing an essay by neuroscientist Michael Graziano on the ‘mystery of the mind’. I have been responding to Dr. Graziano line-by-line—I’m still (after 3 posts) on the subtitle! Correcting materialists is no breeze. With this post, we’ll at least get through the subtitle.


Far from being a mystical “ghost in the machine,” consciousness evolved as a practical mental tool and we could engineer it in a robot using these simple guidelines

So, can we engineer consciousness in a machine using simple guidelines?

No. The assertion that we can do so is based on functionalism, which would seem to be Graziano’s theory of mind, to the extent that he has a coherent one. It posits that the mind is generated by the organizational state of the brain. Colloquially, one might say, the mind is what the brain does.

Functionalism is not the only materialist theory of the mind on offer. There is also identity theory (the mind is the brain), behaviorism (“let’s ignore the mind”), eliminative materialism (“the mind doesn’t exist”), and mysterianism (“who the hell knows!”—yes, that’s a real theory). Functionalism, in contrast to the others, is usually expressed in terms of computation. The brain is a computer and the mind is what it computes. The brain is to the mind as hardware is to software.

Functionalism is an error.

If the timing strikes you as a revealing coincidence—we just discover that the mind is computation in the same era that we discover computation—you’d be right. Ancient philosophers thought the mind was fire (not too long after the discovery of fire). Early modern philosophers thought the mind was a machine (just as the machine age got started). Humans have an amusing tendency to attribute the mind to whatever dominates the technology chatter of the era. Perhaps in the next few decades, the mind will be an iPhone or a Tesla autopilot. “Neuroscientists finally discover how mind works—read about it in Popular Science!”

But metaphors are lousy metaphysics. Computation is not thought. Thought always has meaning. It is always about something. Computation always lacks meaning. Your word processor doesn’t care at all about the point you’re arguing in your essay. It just matches keystrokes to electrons.

Not only is the mind not computation, it is, in fact, the antithesis of computation. The mind has meaning. The essence of the mind is that it has meaning. But computation is blind to meaning. Computation always lacks meaning. A mind without meaning is unintelligible. A computation with meaning is unintelligible.

A computer program with meaning would keep getting in the way—who wants a word processor with an opinion? Not to worry. Word processors will never have opinions. Organizational patterns in machines are just organizational patterns in machines. Nothing more.

The fundamental metaphysical error that gives rise to functionalism is nominalism. Nominalism is the belief that there are no essences in nature. Nominalists believe that we only think of things in categories or types because we group them that way in our minds. Nominalism is nonsense—a catastrophic medieval metaphysical error that still infests modern thought.

The true perspective is essentialism. Essentialism is the theory that things in nature have natures. Things in nature have stuff they naturally do, which is part of what they are. Essentialism posits that only animals—men and beasts—have minds. A mind consists of several powers of the soul—sensation, perception, imagination, memory, emotions, and (in man) intellect and will. Machines like computers, coffee-makers, and toasters are artifacts—artificial things made by men that have no natural essences at all, aside from the physical properties of the metal and plastic that make them up.

It is the essence of man that he has a mind. It is not of the essence of a machine that it has a mind—a machine has no natural essence at all. Machines can, if properly constructed and programmed, do things that imitate minds, but it’s just imitation.

Graziano’s notion that we can “engineer” minds is nonsense. It is a word-salad characteristic of modern materialists who haven’t a clue about the metaphysical basis of nature or natural science.

Fifty years ago, a man who said his machine could think would have been referred for psychiatric evaluation. Now it’s de rigueur cutting-edge science at Princeton. The inmates haven’t only taken over the asylum—they now teach in it.

Here are neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s three earlier articles on Michael Graziano’s approach to consciousness:

Neuroscientist Michael Graziano should meet the p-zombie. A p-zombie (a philosopher’s thought experiment) behaves exactly like a human being but has no first-person (subjective) experience. The meat robot violates no physical principles. Yet we KNOW we are not p-zombies. Think what that means.

Did consciousness “evolve”? One neuroscientist doesn’t seem to understand the problems the idea raises. Darwinian evolution must select physical attributes. If consciousness evolved as a mere byproduct of physical brain processes, it is powerless in itself. Thus Graziano’s theories of consciousness are themselves mindless accidents.


Did consciousness evolve to find love? It’s an attractive idea but it comes with a hidden price tag If consciousness is a mere tool of human sexual selection, it is mere plumage, a pretty enticement, of no meaning or import otherwise. But then what becomes of Dr. Graziano’s own intellectual labors?

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Can We Engineer Consciousness in a Robot?