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Why Richard Dawkins Thinks AI May Replace Us

He likes the idea because it is consistent with his naturalist philosophy

While exploring the concerns of science intellectuals like Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees about our future AI overlords, we overlooked one: Darwinian atheist Richard Dawkins. But he’s in a somewhat different category because he seems to like the idea. As he explains, it is a natural outgrowth of his philosophy.

In a brief video chat for BigThink, he explains:

“Richard Dawkins: A.I. Might Run the World Better Than Humans Do” (September 23, 2017)

From the transcript:

Richard Dawkins: When we come to artificial intelligence and the possibility of their becoming conscious we reach a profound philosophical difficulty. I am a philosophical naturalist. I am committed to the view that there’s nothing in our brains that violates the laws of physics, there’s nothing that could not in principle be reproduced in technology. It hasn’t been done yet, we’re probably quite a long way away from it, but I see no reason why in the future we shouldn’t reach the point where a human made robot is capable of consciousness and of feeling pain. We can feel pain, why shouldn’t they? …

Once again, I’m committed to the view that this is possible. I’m committed to the view that anything that a human brain can do can be replicated in silicon …

It could be said that the sum of not human happiness but the sum of sentient-being happiness might be improved, they might make a better job do a better job of running the world than we are, certainly that we are at present, and so perhaps it might not be a bad thing if we went extinct.

The question of whether an artificial intelligence can feel pain turns, of course, on the question of whether it can have a first-person perspective. That is, can it perceive events as happening to itself, the way a human (or a dog or budgie) would. That question turns on the nature of consciousness itself (the Hard Problem of consciousness).

Dawkins does not advance an argument for why “anything that a human brain can do can be replicated in silicon,” apart from the fact that he is “committed to the view that there’s nothing in our brains that violates the laws of physics.” That is, of course, a statement of faith, not a finding.

On the publication of his book of essays, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (2017), he fleshed out his view in an interview at Scientific American, which got round to the question of consciousness:

John Horgan: Is consciousness a scientifically tractable problem? Do you favor any current approaches and theories?

Richard Dawkins: It certainly isn’t tractable by me. At times I find myself inspired by the confidence of my friend Daniel Dennett. At other times I lean towards his fellow philosopher Colin McGinn’s pessimism: the view that the human mind is flatly incapable of understanding its own consciousness. Our brains evolved to understand how to survive in a hunter–gatherer way of life on the African savanna—understand the behavior of an extremely narrow range of medium-sized objects travelling at medium velocities. It is therefore a wonder, as [cognitive scientist] Steven Pinker has pointed out, that our brains have advanced to the heights of relativity and quantum mechanics. Maybe this should give us Dennettian confidence. Or maybe the “hard problem” of consciousness is forever beyond us, just as calculus is forever beyond the mentality of a chimpanzee.

John Horgan, “Richard Dawkins Offers Advice for Donald Trump, and Other Wisdom” at Scientific American (August 10, 2017)

In short, Dawkins (left) thinks that the Hard Problem of our own consciousness may be “forever beyond us” because we didn’t evolve so as to be able to understand it. But we are not to draw any inferences about consciousness from that remarkable state of affairs.

The odd situation is in fact evidence that consciousness is not wholly governed by physics, as Dawkins claims. But we are not to pursue it. Why not?

Looking back after a couple of years, the question arises: Is all this past its sell-by date?

First, the relationship between the mind and the brain is not turning out as naturalists like Dawkins expected. The mind does not appear to be simply what the brain does. Consider, to begin with, the rather loose association between the mind and the brain, as documented in widely accepted science research on people with damaged or largely absent brains. Or the ways the mind appears to act on the brain and the body, in the well-attested placebo effect. Sometimes, as in the case of Benjamin Libet’s work on “free won’t,” these findings are minimized or presented in a way that misrepresents their true significance. Materialism, naturalism, physicalism—all are running in circles around the problem of consciousness, billing their increasing speed of rotation as progress.

When Dawkins or philosopher David Papineau respond to the situation by merely restating their beliefs, they enable incurious science writers to accept them as information—and to quietly ignore the message from the findings.

The message from the findings: The human mind is neither an illusion nor a material entity. It can be studied, but on its own terms. It can’t be shoehorned into some other problem and studied less controversially from there. The rise of panpsychism (“everything is conscious”) as a discussable idea in science attests to this growing realization.

Further reading:

Four researchers whose work sheds light on the reality of the mind The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot, says Michael Egnor. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple.

Philosopher: Consciousness is not a problem: Dualism is. Physicalist David Papineau says consciousness is just “brain processes that feel like something.”


Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious”)?

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Why Richard Dawkins Thinks AI May Replace Us