RE: The Meaning of Life

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Sun, 14 Jan 2007 13:02:52 +1100

Brent Meeker writes:

> > I make the claim that a rock can be conscious assuming that computationalism
> > is true; it may not be true, in which case neither a rock nor a computer may be
> > conscious. There is no natural syntax or semantics for a computer telling us
> > what should count as a "1" or a "0", what should count as a red perception, and
> > so on. These things are determined by how the computer is designed to interact
> > with its environment, whether that mean outputting the sum of two numbers to
> > a screen or interacting with a human to convince him that it is conscious. But what
> > if the environment is made part of the computer? The constraint on meaning and
> > syntax would then go, and the vibration of atoms in a rock could be implementing
> > any computation, including any conscious computation, if such there are.
> >
> > John Searle, among others, believes this is absurd, and that therefore it disproves
> > computationalism. Another approach is that it shows that it is absurd that consciousness
> > supervenes on physical activity of any sort, but we can keep computationalism and
> > drop the physical supervenience criterion, as Bruno has.
> >
> > Stathis Papaioannou
> I have a view that seems to me to be slightly different. Consciousness requires interaction with an environment; consciousness implicitly requires a distinction between "I" and "the world". So when you attribute consciousness to a rock, incorporating "the world" as part of the rock, while the remainder of the rock is "conscious" that raises problems. We can say that this part of the rock is conscious of that part; making some arbitrary division of the rock. But then it's not conscious in/of our universe.

That's right: if it's conscious, then it's conscious in its own isolated virtual universe. It's
another means to a many worlds theory.

> When you say there is no canonical syntax, which is what allows anything to be a computation of anything else, I think that is overstates the case. Suppose a particular pair of iron atoms in the rock are magnetically aligned and the syntax counts that as "0" while anti-aligned counts as "1". Then what computation is implemented by "0000000..."? The arbitrariness of syntax supposedly allows this to be translated into "27" or some other number. But then the translation has to have all possible words in it and the relational meanings of those words; including the words for all the numbers in that world. This places a pretty strong restriction on the size of the rock-world - there are only some 10^25 atoms to do all this representing.

The rock can make numbers and universes as big as you want through the method of
parallel computing. Suppose the rock had only a few distinct physical states. If we place
no restriction on what these states can represent, then they can represent multiple
binary strings or finite numbers or sentences or whatever - all in parallel. Any serial
computation can be made up of multiple parallel computations, and vice versa. You
can't say, aha, we've used that string for "dog" so we can't now use it for "cat", because
who is going to patrol the universe to enforce this rule? This is what you are left with if
you eliminate the constraint that the computation has to interact with an external observer.

I am aware that this is a very strange idea, perhaps even an absurd idea, but I don't see
any way out of it without ruining computationalism, as by saying that it's all bunk, or only
computations that can interact with the environment at the level of their implementation
can be conscious. Because if you insist on the latter, it implies something like ESP: the
computer will know the difference between a false sensory stimulus and one emanating
from the environment... possible, but not very Turing-emulable.

Stathis Papaioannou
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Received on Sat Jan 13 2007 - 21:14:29 PST

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