Re: computationalism and supervenience

From: Brent Meeker <>
Date: Fri, 08 Sep 2006 00:38:15 -0700

Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> Brent Meeker writes:
>>>A non-conscious computation cannot be *useful* without the manual/interpretation,
>>>and in this sense could be called just a potential computation, but a conscious
>>>computation is still *conscious* even if no-one else is able to figure this out or
>>>interact with it. If a working brain in a vat were sealed in a box and sent into
>>>space, it could still be dreaming away even after the whole human race and all
>>>their information on brain function are destroyed in a supernova explosion. As far
>>>as any alien is concerned who comes across it, the brain might be completely
>>>inscrutable, but that would not make the slightest difference to its conscious
>>Suppose the aliens re-implanted the brain in a human body so they could interact with
>>it. They ask it what is was "dreaming" all those years? I think the answer might
>>be, "Years? What years? It was just a few seconds ago I was in the hospital for an
>>appendectomy. What happened? And who are you guys?"
> Maybe so; even more likely, the brain would just die. But these are contingent facts about
> human brains, while thought experiments rely on theoretical possibility.
>>>>>>>then it can be seen as implementing more than one computation
>>>>>>>simultaneously during the given interval.
>>>>>>AFAICS that is only true in terms of dictionaries.
>>>>>Right: without the dictionary, it's not very interesting or relevant to *us*.
>>>>>If we were to actually map a random physical process onto an arbitrary
>>>>>computation of interest, that would be at least as much work as building and
>>>>>programming a conventional computer to carry out the computation. However,
>>>>>doing the mapping does not make a difference to the *system* (assuming we
>>>>>aren't going to use it to interact with it). If we say that under a certain
>>>>>interpretation - here it is, printed out on paper - the system is implementing
>>>>>a conscious computation, it would still be implementing that computation if we
>>>>>had never determined and printed out the interpretation.
>>And if you added the random values of the physical process as an appendix in the
>>manual, would the manual itself then be a computation (the record problem)? If so
>>how would you tell if it were a conscious computation?
> The actual physical process becomes almost irrelevant. In the limiting case, all of the
> computation is contained in the manual, the physical existence of which makes no
> difference to whether or not the computation is implemented, since it makes no difference
> to the actual physical activity of the system and the theory under consideration is that
> consciousness supervenes on this physical activity. If we get rid of the qualifier "almost"
> the result is close to Bruno's theory, according to which the physical activity is irrelevant
> and the computation is "run" by virtue of its status as a Platonic object. As I understand
> it, Bruno arrives at this idea because it seems less absurd than the idea that consciousness
> supervenes on any and every physical process, while Maudlin finds both ideas absurd and
> thinks there is something wrong with computationalism.
>>>>The problem remains that the system's own self awareness, or lack thereof, is
>>>>not observer-relative. something has to give.
>>>Self-awareness is observer-relative with the observer being oneself. Where is the
>>Self-awareness is awareness of some specific aspect of a construct called "myself".
>>It is not strictly reflexive awareness of the being aware of being aware... So in
>>the abstract computation it is just this part of a computation having some relation
>>we identify as "awareness" relative to some other part of the computation. I think
>>it is a matter of constructing a narrative for memory in which "I" is just another
> I don't think "self-awareness" captures the essence of consciousness.

Neither do I; I was just responding to you noting that self-awareness is
"observer-relative". The "observer" is really just a construct forced on us by
grammar which demands that an action be done by someone or something. We could more
accurately say there is observation.

>We commonly think
> that consciousness is associated with intelligence, which is perhaps why it is often stated
> that a recording cannot be conscious, since a recording will not adapt to its environment in
> the manner we normally expect of intelligent agents. However, consider the experience of
> pain when you put your hand over a flame. There is certainly intelligent behaviour associated
> with this experience - learning to avoid it - but there is nothing "intelligent" about the raw
> experience of pain itself. It simply seems that when certain neurons in the brain fire, you
> experience a pain, as reliably and as stupidly as flicking a switch turns on a light. When an
> infant or an animal screams in agony it is not engaging in self-reflection, and for that matter
> neither is a philosopher: acute pain usually displaces every other concurrent conscious
> experience. A being played a recording of a painful experience over and over into the relevant
> neural pathways may not be able to meaningfully interact with its environment, but it will
> be hellishly conscious nonetheless.
> Stathis Papaioannou

I could make a robot that, having suitable thermocouples, would quickly withdraw it's
hand from a fire; but not be conscious of it. Even if I provide the robot with
"feelings", i.e. judgements about good/bad/pain/pleasure I'm not sure it would be
conscious. But if I provide it with "attention" and memory, so that it noted the
painful event as important and necessary to remember because of it's strong negative
affect; then I think it would be conscious.

Brent Meeker

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Received on Fri Sep 08 2006 - 03:40:28 PDT

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