I was arguing that consciousness is a mystery, because the most convincing explanation--that it is simply a natural phenomenon that emerges from the brain's complexity--is not satisfactory. If the brain's complexity is all you need to create consciousness, I was arguing, couldn't we create a machine that thinks? And why wouldn't a slower version of the brain--say, a trillion conveyor belts that exchange pieces of paper exactly as brain cells exchange neurochemicals and firing signals, but do it at one billionth the speed--be conscious as well?
If the same sequence of chemical reactions happening in one millisecond my brain were recreated in a machine, with the same exact chemicals, would there be a flicker of consciousness? And if the properties of physics make matter itself a universal computer at the tiniest level, as Stephen Wolfram and others say, then what reason could there possibly be that my brain produces awareness, but a bucket of paint does not?
These questions are endlessly fascinating to me. They are not endlessly fascinating to my girlfriend.
Ben: What if you slowly replaced my brain cells, one by one, with larger, functionally equivalent objects that traded gumballs with each other, but interacted chemically with the remaining brain cells? At any moment in the conversion process, the remaining brain cells would have no way of knowing the difference. Nothing would work differently, but it's hard to imagine I'd still be conscious when I became a gumball factory!My instinct here, which is probably wrong, is to reduce our difference to gender. Why do I do that? Well, when I think back, the only people I've ever had exciting conversations about stuff like this with have been men (white men, in fact). Is there a gener divide with abstract philosophy? Are men, especially intellectual-class white men, more likely to be interested in philosophy, and more likely to think they know enough to be amateur philosophers, than women? Or is it self-selecting, because I already think of men as people I discuss abstract ideas with, and women as people I discuss concrete ideas with, fall in love with, etc.? (I don't see the same pattern with sexuality--many of the guys whom I have talked about this kind of thing with have been gay or bisexual.)
Kate: You don't really know what you're talking about. How can you, when it's impossible for scientists to track all the behaviors of a single cell, let alone construct a cell from scratch? Anyway, gumballs just can't talk or think.
Getting back to the question of consciousness, am I right or is Kate right? That is, is it remarkable that in addition to just performing complicated tasks, we find ourselves actually experiencing existence? Or is it a mistake to think this experience can even be described separately from its underlying physical processes? Should it even be surprising? I do feel the pull of the explanation (by Kate, Daniel Dennett and others) that awareness is just a meaningless illusion. After all, you could ask a robot if it was conscious, and if it said yes you could never know if this was true or not; for that matter, you can never know if anyone but you experiences awareness either. In a way, we make the anthropomorphic error every time we assume that another person, or animal, is a thinking being. Couldn't we just be making the anthropomorphic error regarding ourselves, all the time? That's Dennett's take on it, more or less.
Here's Dennett in the NY Times magazine (interviewed by an idiot):
Q. I take it you do not subscribe to the idea of an everlasting soul, which is part of almost every religion.
A. Ugh. I certainly don't believe in the soul as an enduring entity. Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul.
Q. That strikes me as a very reductive and uninteresting approach to religious feeling.
Of course, Dennett is correct, just as he was in Consciousness Explained (where his thesis was that the process of thinking evolved from talking to ourselves), but there's something he's avoiding with his certainty. He might accurately be describing consciousness, awareness, and the nature of the soul, but that just doesn't explain why awareness exists, when it seems it could just as easily not.
The only terms I can find for describing my objection to Dennett sound religious. All I know is that I do feel, and I am. It could all be an illusion, but just as a Christian knows God exists, I know that my awareness exists. It is not merely that there are chemical and electrical transactions that carry my thoughts; it is as though there is an additional step, that turns that activity, rather than any other similar activity somewhere else, into my awareness.
But if I have no justification for the existence of such a special step from activity to awareness, couldn't that mean that a rock, or at least a star, has experience as well? That's the conclusion of computer scientist, mathematician and novelist Rudy Rucker, who (besides also believing in the Wolfram idea of the universe as computer) ascribes to panpsychism:
Yes, the workings of a human brain are a deterministic computation that could be emulated by any universal computer. And, yes, I sense more to my mental phenomena than the rule-bound exfoliation of reactions to inputs: this residue is the inner light, the raw sensation of existence. But, no, that inner glow is not the exclusive birthright of humans, nor is it solely limited to biological organisms.So if inorganic matter has potential for a phenomenon related to awareness, how does that work? Maybe awareness clicks on only in the right combination of complex circumstances: a whale, and a monkey, and a mouse, have it, but a worm doesn't. Or maybe awareness isn't an all-or-nothing thing; maybe a human has more than a whale, which has more than a fish, which has more than a worm, which has more than a tree, which has more than air, which has more than empty space. Maybe awareness exists to greater and lesser degrees in all of the infinite relationships between all things, reaching human levels when those relationships are massively clustered and networked, but remaining at a whisper between all things.
This is the argument of the emergentist view of consciousness, which is popular among theoreticians associated with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, including my father and Steven "bad boy" Johnson. This is an exciting belief because if it is correct, human awareness is just the tip of an enormous iceberg of higher consciousness. There are people who try to achieve such a higher consciousness, a sort of secular, scientifically-based nirvana, through meditation and other methods, like deep interpersonal intimacy. Some say they have succeeded in expanding their consciousness, usually for brief amounts of time.
Whatever the nature of awareness, it seems like there must be ways to augment it, or to fuse awareness between two people through advanced technology. For an excellent treatment of these themes, see Joe Haldeman's sci-fi novel Forever Peace, in which the US military develops such technology so that troops can act in perfect coordination, but the technology is hijacked and used for all sorts of other purposes. It contains an incredible sci-fi sex scene (Joe Haldeman is the best writer of sci-fi sex I know), between two people with fused consciousness.
A last thought: since black holes bring together matter in an infinitely dense arrangement, could they possess a god-like level of awareness?