Re: computationalism and supervenience

From: Brent Meeker <>
Date: Tue, 12 Sep 2006 11:46:16 -0700

Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> Brent meeker writes:
>>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.
> I would basically agree with that. Consciousness would probably have to be a continuum
> if computationalism is true. Even if computationalism were false and only those machines
> specially blessed by God were conscious there would have to be a continuum, across
> different species and within the lifespan of an individual from birth to death. The possibility
> that consciousness comes on like a light at some point in your life, or at some point in the
> evolution of a species, seems unlikely to me.
>>>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.
> That's what I have in mind.
>>Even worse it makes it impossible for us to know whether we're talking about the same
>>thing when we use the word "consciousness".
> I know what I mean, and you probably know what I mean because despite our disagreements
> our minds are not all that different from each other. Of course, I can't be absolutely sure that
> you are conscious, but it's one of those things even philosophers only worry about when at
> work. On the other hand, there is serious debate about whether dogs are conscious, or whether
> fish feel pain.
>>>>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.
> I don't see a fundamental problem with using this sort of definition. A self-expanding
> archive is an archive which opens itself without need of external programs. "Expansion"
> and "awareness" are two possible functions that programs can have, and they can operate
> on either themselves or aspects of their environment.
>>>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.
> Why can't you have meaning during a loop? We might be doomed to repeat this discussion
> forever as part of some Nietzchian eternal return, but it will be just as meaningful to us (or
> not) every time.
>>>>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?
> They don't actually *require* them; they are what they are regardless of the outside
> world. However, something can only have meaning, or taste, or beauty in the eye of the
> beholder, and sometimes the beholder is the object as well as subject.
> Stathis Papaioannou

Aye, there's the rub. What's a beholder? It doesn't behold itself beholding and it
doesn't behold much of anything - but I might say it does "behold" the temperature or
the expansion of Hg or some such.

Brent Meeker

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Received on Tue Sep 12 2006 - 14:47:25 PDT

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