Re: computationalism and supervenience

From: Brent Meeker <>
Date: Mon, 11 Sep 2006 12:44:26 -0700

Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> Peter Jones writes:
>>Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
>>>Like Bruno, I am not claiming that this is definitely the case, just that it is the case if
>>>computationalism is true. Several philosophers (eg. Searle) have used the self-evident
>>>absurdity of the idea as an argument demonstrating that computationalism is false -
>>>that there is something non-computational about brains and consciousness. I have not
>>>yet heard an argument that rejects this idea and saves computationalism.
>>[ rolls up sleaves ]
>>The idea is easilly refuted if it can be shown that computation doesn't
>>interpretation at all. It can also be refuted more circuitously by
>>showing that
>>computation is not entirely a matter of intepretation. In everythingism
>>, eveything
>>is equal. If some computations (the ones that don't depend on
>>interpretation) are
>>"more equal than others", the way is still open for the Somethinginst
>>to object
>>that interpretation-independent computations are really real, and the
>>others are
>>mere possibilities.
>>The claim has been made that computation is "not much use" without an
>>Well, if you define a computer as somethin that is used by a human,
>>that is true.
>>It is also very problematic to the computationalist claim that the
>>human mind is a computer.
>>Is the human mind of use to a human ? Well, yes, it helps us stay alive
>>in various ways.
>>But that is more to do with reacting to a real-time environment, than
>>performing abstract symbolic manipulations or elaborate
>>re-interpretations. (Computationalists need to be careful about how
>>they define "computer". Under
>>some perfectly reasonable definitions -- for instance, defining a
>>computer as
>>a human invention -- computationalism is trivially false).
> I don't mean anything controversial (I think) when I refer to interpretation of
> computation. Take a mercury thermometer: it would still do its thing if all
> sentient life in the universe died out, or even if there were no sentient life to
> build it in the first place and by amazing luck mercury and glass had come together
> in just the right configuration. But if there were someone around to observe it and
> understand it, or if it were attached to a thermostat and heater, the thermometer
> would have extra meaning - the same thermometer, doing the same thermometer
> stuff. Now, if thermometers were conscious, then part of their "thermometer
> stuff" might include "knowing" what the temperature was - all by themselves, without
> benefit of external observer.

We should ask ourselves how do we know the thermometer isn't conscious of the
temperature? It seems that the answer has been that it's state or activity *could*
be intepreted in many ways other than indicating the temperature; therefore it must
be said to unconscious of the temperature or we must allow that it implements all
conscious thought (or at least all for which there is a possible interpretative
mapping). But I see it's state and activity as relative to our shared environment;
and this greatly constrains what it can be said to "compute", e.g. the temperature,
the expansion coefficient of Hg... With this constraint, then I think there is no
problem in saying the thermometer is conscious at the extremely low level of being
aware of the temperature or the expansion coefficient of Hg or whatever else is
within the constraint.

>Furthermore, if thermometers were conscious, they
> might be dreaming of temperatures, or contemplating the meaning of consciousness,
> again in the absence of external observers, and this time in the absence of interaction
> with the real world.
> This, then, is the difference between a computation and a conscious computation. If
> a computation is unconscious, it can only have meaning/use/interpretation in the eyes
> of a beholder or in its interaction with the environment.

But this is a useless definition of the difference. To apply we have to know whether
some putative conscious computation has meaning to itself; which we can only know by
knowing whether it is conscious or not. It makes consciousness ineffable and so
makes the question of whether computationalism is true an insoluble mystery.

Even worse it makes it impossible for us to know whether we're talking about the same
thing when we use the word "consciousness".

>If a computation is conscious,
> it may have meaning/use/interpretation in interacting with its environment, including
> other conscious beings, and for obvious reasons all the conscious computations we
> encounter will fall into that category; but a conscious computation can also have meaning
> all by itself, to itself.

I think this is implicitly circular. Consciousness supplies meaning through
intepretation. But meaning is defined only as what consciousness supplies.

It is to break this circularity that I invoke the role of the enviroment. Certainly
for language, it is our shared environment that makes it possible to assign meaning
to words.

>You might argue, as Brent Meeker has, that a conscious being would
> quickly lose consciousness if environmental interaction were cut off, but I think that is just
> a contingent fact about brains, and in any case, as Bruno Marchal has pointed out, you
> only need a nanosecond of consciousness to prove the point.

I don't think any human can experience consciousness for a nano-second. I see that
as part of the lesson of the Libet's and Grey Walter's experiments. Consciousness
has a time-scale on the order of tenths of a second. But that's only a quibble.

The real importance of the environment is not that it keeps our brains from falling
into "do loops", but that it makes interpretation or meaning possible.

>>It is of course true that the output of a programme intended to do one
>>("system S", say) could be re-interpeted as something else. But what
>>does it *mean* ?
>>If computationalism is true whoever or whatever is doing the
>>interpreting is another
>>computational process. SO the ultimate result is formed by system S in
>>with another systen. System S is merely acting as a subroutine. The
>>intended conclusion is that every physical system implements every
> That's what I'm saying, but I certainly don't think everyone agrees with me on the list, and
> I'm not completely decided as to which of the three is more absurd: every physical system
> implements every conscious computation, no physical system implements any conscious
> computation (they are all implemented non-physically in Platonia), or the idea that a
> computation can be conscious in the first place.

Why not reject the first two and accept that computations, to the degree they have
certain structures, are conscious, i.e. self-intepreting relative to their environment?

>>But the evidence -- the re-interpretation scenario -- only supports the
>>that any computational system could become part of a larger system that
>>doing something else. System S cannot be said to be simultaneously
>>every possible computation *itself*. The multiple-computaton -- i.e
>>-- scenario is dependent on a n intepreter. Having made computation
>>on interpretation, we cannot the regard the interpreter as redundant,
>>so that it
>>is all being done by the system itself. (Of course to fulfil the
>>"every" in
>>"every possible interpretation" you need not just interpreters but
>>every possible intepreter, but that is another problem for another
> Only the unconscious thermometers require external thermometer-readers.

Require for what?

Brent Meeker

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Received on Mon Sep 11 2006 - 15:45:29 PDT

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