RE: computationalism and supervenience

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Mon, 11 Sep 2006 11:54:49 +1000

Brent Meeker writes:

> >>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.
> >
> >
> > It's interesting that people actually withdraw their hand from the fire *before* they experience
> > the pain. The withdrawl is a reflex, presumably evolved in organisms with the most primitive
> > central nervour systems, while the pain seems to be there as an afterthought to teach us a
> > lesson so we won't do it again. Thus, from consideration of evolutionary utility consciousness
> > does indeed seem to be a side-effect of memory and learning.
> Even more curious, volitional action also occurs before one is aware of it. Are you
> familiar with the experiments of Benjamin Libet and Grey Walter?

These experiments showed that in apparently voluntarily initiated motion, motor cortex activity
actually preceded the subject's awareness of his intention by a substantial fraction of a second.
In other words, we act first, then "decide" to act. These studies did not examine pre-planned
action (presumably that would be far more technically difficult) but it is easy to imagine the analogous
situation whereby the action is unconsciously "planned" before we become aware of our decision. In
other words, free will is just a feeling which occurs after the fact. This is consistent with the logical
impossibility of something that is neither random nor determined, which is what I feel my free will to be.

> > I also think that this is an argument against zombies. If it were possible for an organism to
> > behave just like a conscious being, but actually be unconscious, then why would consciousness
> > have evolved?
> An interesting point - but hard to give any answer before pinning down what we mean
> by consciousness. For example Bruno, Julian Jaynes, and Daniel Dennett have
> explanations; but they explain somewhat different consciousnesses, or at least
> different aspects.

Consciousness is the hardest thing to explain but the easiest thing to understand, if it's your own
consciousness at issue. I think we can go a long way discussing it assuming that we do know what
we are talking about even though we can't explain it. The question I ask is, why did people evolve
with this consciousness thing, whatever it is? The answer must be, I think, that it is a necessary
side-effect of the sort of neural complexity that underpins our behaviour. If it were not, and it
were possible that beings could behave exactly like humans and not be conscious, then it would
have been wasteful of nature to have provided us with consciousness. This does not necessarily
mean that computers can be conscious: maybe if we had evolved with electronic circuits in our
heads rather than neurons consciousness would not have been a necessary side-effect.

Stathis Papaioannou
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Received on Sun Sep 10 2006 - 21:55:46 PDT

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