Re: computationalism and supervenience

From: Brent Meeker <>
Date: Sun, 10 Sep 2006 20:35:20 -0700

Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> 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 is not necessarily so. First, evolution is constrained by what goes before.
Its engineering solutions often seem rube-goldberg, e.g. backward retina in mammals.
  Second, there is selection against some evolved feature only to the extent it has a
(net) cost. For example, Jaynes explanation of consciousness conforms to these two
criteria. I think that any species that evolves intelligence comparable to ours will
be conscious for reasons somewhat like Jaynes theory. They will be social and this
combined with intelligence will make language a good evolutionary move. Once they
have language, remembering what has happened, in order to communicate and plan, in
symbolic terms will be a easy and natural evolvement. Whether that leads to hearing
your own narrative in your head, as Jaynes supposes, is questionable; but it would be
consistent with evolution. It takes advantage of existing structure and functions to
realize a useful new function.

>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.

But my point is that this may come down to what we would mean by a computer being
conscious. Bruno has an answer in terms of what the computer can prove. Jaynes (and
probably John McCarthy) would say a computer is conscious if it creates a narrative
of its experience which it can access as memory.

Brent Meeker

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Received on Sun Sep 10 2006 - 23:36:23 PDT

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