01 January 2022

A little New Years musing on Consciousness

The great Epicurean Democritus (c.460-370 BCE), of whose writings next to nothing has come down to us, supposedly said: "Sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, and color is color. But in reality there are only atoms and the void."  

This may seem trivial, but in focusing on the qualia of mind, it points up the "hard problem"* of consciousness, one of the greatest of unsolved mysteries. [*David Chalmers]. Really very little progress on this particular area of inquiry was made from the time of Democritus until perhaps the 17th century, when light was split by a prism into its component colors, and some hint that odors and tastes were the byproduct of chemical reactions that could be replicated and categorized, came about. But the real essence of the problem remains. You can describe and measure the wavelength of light, describe the chemistry of sugar and even synthesize molecules that fool the tongue into believing something is sweet when it isn't even food. We have come to understand that heat is randomized kinetic energy of atoms and molecules, and discovered the laws of thermodynamics, which even hint at how it must have been possible (indeed must have actually happened), given a disequilibriated natural energy gradient, that living organisms spontaneously arose from nonliving chemistry and gave rise through the process of Darwinian evolution to an entire biosphere on this lonely planet. (And cold is nothing other than a lower state of that same randomized kinetic energy). But none of that explains the feeling of cold or hot, or the experience of color, or what sounds sound like (which Democritus might just as well have mentioned).  

These are essential features, or states, of the entirely internal reality of consciousness, about which we still know next to nothing. Daniel Dennett presumed to explain it all for us in his 1990 book Consciousness Explained, which I read. It didn't accomplish its goal, at least not to my satisfaction. Of course, you can make the statement that consciousness is the emergent system from a complex neurochemical matrix we call a nervous system, and that through its operation the illusion or apparent experience of awareness (circular a little?) emerges. But what does that really mean? How does that provide even the slightest insight into what it actually means to perceive red when light of about f=650 nm encounters your retina? It's certainly not the same thing as a computer registering that measurement on an algorithmic matrix. 

The issue, I think, comes down to the essential nature of scientific inquiry. Science objectifies. It simplifies assumptions, creates models, looks for patterns and mathematical relationships that can yield algorithms and technologies that allow external reality to be not only understood but manipulated. Its methodology has been spectacularly successful, particularly over the past 500 years. Even such seemingly intractable problems as the Climate Catastrophe are not really scientifically intractable: they have yielded, and continue to yield, to investigation and modeling quite nicely: the problems are more political than scientific. (Although political problems can kill us just as dead, so I don't mean to minimize them). 

Psychology, and traditional spiritual practices, have given us tools to "work with" our minds, and have yielded very useful tools and insights into what is important in consciousness, and how to examine it from the inside, to the benefit of our species, and, possibly, through beneficial insight, the benefit of all life. But are we really any closer to understanding what consciousness actually is, objectively? Where is it? What is it? What is it made of? What are the laws that govern its continuing existence and transformations? 

I ask, but I have no answers. I've read a fair amount of the popular literature on the subject, including the chapter on consciousness in Biran Greene's Until the End of Time just recently. And it still seems, from what I can gather, that this remains the "hard problem" that the finest minds of our species are not really even close to understanding. 

I laugh a little when I read about people like Ray Kurzweil and arrogant narcissists like Peter Thiel who think that we are on the verge of a singularity, whereby our wonderful computing machines will suddenly emerge not only faster and more computationally competent than our own brains, but also self aware, i.e., conscious. To my thinking this is absurd. Think about your interactions with computers. Oh, they are very clever at various functions that seem mindlike. But ask yourself, have you ever had even the slightest hint that there is a mind on the other side of that screen that is actually aware? The way a dog is obviously aware when it looks at you? I submit, no, because the architecture of "thinking machines" makes them anything but that. They do not think. They process data. And those are not at all the same thing. I am not being rigorous here, but I intuitively know that there is a crucial distinction here. 

We may have trouble if we build computers we can't control, but it will not be because they are self-aware. Whatever it is in the course of Darwinian evolution that caused consciousness to arise is not being replicated in the cybernetic sphere. I am not making a religious pronouncement here. I feel pretty sure that whatever consciousness is, it isn't magic. It exists in the physical world and complies with the laws of physics, like all matter and energy. But what I am pretty sure of is that for all our scientific and technological achievements, our species, as yet, knows very, very little about consciousness, and has essentially no ability to model or replicate it. Certainly our computers are not conscious, and don't really show any signs of even developing in that direction. Computation and control are useful tools, but they are not by any means the only, or even the primary, function, of minds. Which is probably why our brains are so very, very bad at computation. Even a $10 calculator is much better at it. 

If any of my farflung correspondents can point me in the direction of materials that would lead to a different conclusion, I would be grateful. Otherwise, my sole purpose in this little New Years' essay is to point out that we don't know a whole lot, we humans, and there are whole areas of crucial, really vital knowledge where we know next to nothing. And consciousness; what it is, how it arose, and what its ultimate destiny in the universe may be, is almost entirely in that area I like to think of as the Sea of Unknowing. I suspect that as time passes this will become more and more the focus of human intellectual effort, as other, more tractable, problems become better and better understood, leaving room to ponder the hardest problem. 

Happy New Year, everyone. 

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