Re: consciousness based on information or computation?

From: Jacques M Mallah <>
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 15:50:18 -0500

On Wed, 27 Jan 1999, Wei Dai wrote:
> On Wed, Jan 27, 1999 at 01:22:02PM -0500, Jacques M Mallah wrote:
> > And it's not at all clear to me that static strings, without
> > dynamics or decisions, could have anything to do with consciousness.
> > Stalemate. We may never agree on this one. I think more people
> > would support my position than yours, but that's not saying much.
> You don't seem to think that pure structure is sufficient for
> consciousness. Why? Clearly we experience dynamics and decisions, but
> could they not just be illusions? Is there a deeper reason why dynamics
> and decisions are necessary for consciousness?

        A lot of things are illusions, but you need to start out with
something that is not too trivial either. Strings seem too trivial;
dynamics and decisions seem to supply the missing ingredient. Of course
there are plenty of people who would object at this point and say that
even computations are too trivial. I know what my intuition has to say
about where to draw the line. I think there is a deep reason, but I am
not able to explain it in words.
        Of course your way has rather counterintuitive consequences which
computationalism avoids. The recently dead, for example, could have about
as much measure in your scheme as the living, since the brain would have
about the same chemical structure but would no longer compute. What do
you think it would feel like to be such a consciousness? I doubt it would
feel like anything, but that's just a restatement of my above position.

> > No, that's not what I said. For the shortest program, the
> > simulated environment would no doubt be vastly simplified compared to what
> > we observe. But the basic elements of competition for survival and
> > the advantages of communication would be there. It will take many
> > generations to evolve intelligence, of course.
> But there is no reason to think that intelligence will easily evolve in
> any competitive environment. Neural networks have been in existence a lot
> longer than intelligence. Some people even argue that the evolution of
> intelligence on earth is a pure coincidence. I wouldn't go that far, but
> the evolution of intelligence clearly depends on a fairly small set of
> environments.

        I doubt that. Remember, in these artificial neural nets, brain
size is already present (easy to make em' big). All that remains is for
them to start exploiting the niche of intelligence, and since it would
have advantages, it should be a fairly steady and stable progression,
with plenty of time to let it happen.

> I think your approach is an interesting one, and not hopeless (as far as I
> can see). But then it's quite difficult to discuss an approach that
> is missing the definition for a basic concept.

        These are uncharted waters.
        Right now, an implementation is like pornography vs. art: you know
it when you see it, but it's hard to define precisely. I think the
approach described on my home page is a step in the right direction.
Implementations are a way of characterizing a system, of quantifying the
structure of the dynamics in terms of structures (computations) thought to
be conscious, and therefore of quantifying the consciousness in the
original dynamics.

> > Just that it would take a big program.
> Ok, you have your estimate, and I have mine.

        Which is why we could use a neutral and authoritative estimate.

> > On the contrary. Some programs will just rewrite the same part of
> > the tape, and those we can neglect for now. But some will keep printing
> > out copies of the same string end on end, and the ones that halt will have
> > zero measure compared to those, since more copies means more measure.
> > This gives a slight advantage to short strings.
> No I assume that each tape only contributes to the measure of the entire
> string on the tape, not to the measures of substrings. (I.e., you can only
> be an entire tape, not part of a tape, if you want to think of it that
> way)

        That doesn't make much sense to me. If there's something that
it's like to be a string, why should that be ruined just because it's
surrounded by other strings? There are no external observers here, just
internal observers. Is your idea that the concious part of the tape must
be printed out at the beginning of the tape?
        Compuations would not be ruined just because they're surrounded by
other computations, that's for sure.

> Otherwise the measure will be completely dominated by simple counting
> programs that write out 0's and 1's as fast as they can.

        Je ne comprende pas aussi! Most strings that counting programs
would print would not be conscious, and the fraction that are would be
negligable compared to what the repeat printers of the same string would
print out.

> > Here is a serious problem for you. The Turing machines start out
> > will all possible programs, that is, with all possible infinite strings on
> > the tapes. At any finite time, no matter how large [and therefore in the
> > limit], the fraction of the tape that even the repeat printers have
> > covered is equal to zero. So the printed strings have zero measure
> > compared to the infinity of random strings on the as yet untouched part of
> > the tape, even though the fraction of those that are conscious is small.
> That is not the model I have in mind. It doesn't seem sensible to think of
> a universe with a continuous infinity of Turing machines.

        Why not? The set of all possible programs - what could be more
natural than that? It seems closest to Max's 'everything' idea as well.

> Instead I assume
> that the universe starts with one Turing machine with a blank (read-only)
> input tape, then before each clock cycle each existing Turing machine is
> cloned, with 0 appended to the input tape of one copy, and 1 appended to
> the input tape of the other.

        Why should nature do it that way? That's just one particular
model of physics, and far from the most natural. It sounds like you've
concocted it specifically to avoid the problem I mentioned above, with no
other justification. That's what gives free parameters a bad name.
        Note that with the set of all possible programs, the random
strings on the untouched parts of the tapes would be completely harmless
with computationalism, since they don't implement computations. Most of
the measure would be in the shortest programs that implement conscious
computations (and presumably restart if need be should they stop doing so,
e.g. due to heat death of the simulated universe). Such programs would
not have to find any brain states, just run the simulation, so would be
shorter than with your proposal. The artificial neural net programs would
still compete, but against a shorter competitor (those estimates would
still come in handy so we can try to rule this idea out).

                         - - - - - - -
              Jacques Mallah (
       Graduate Student / Many Worlder / Devil's Advocate
"I know what no one else knows" - 'Runaway Train', Soul Asylum
            My URL:
Received on Thu Jan 28 1999 - 12:54:40 PST

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