Re: How would a computer know if it were conscious?

From: Colin Hales <>
Date: Wed, 20 Jun 2007 12:35:40 +1000 (EST)

Dear David,
(see below.. I left your original text here...
> 4) Belief in 'magical emergence' .... qualitative novelty of a kind
> utterly unrelated to the componentry.

Hi Colin

I think there's a link here with the dialogue in the 'Asifism' thread
between Bruno and me. I've been reading Galen Strawson's
"Consciousness and its place in Nature", which has re-ignited some of
the old hoo-hah over 'panpsychism', with the usual attendant
embarrassment and name-calling. It motivated me to try to unpack the
basic semantic components that are difficult to pin down in these
debates, and for this reason tend to lead to mutual incomprehension.

Strawson refers to the 'magical emergence' you mention, and what is in
his view (and mine) the disanalogy of 'emergent' accounts of
consciousness with, say, how 'liquidity' supervenes on molecular
behaviour. So I started from the question: what would have to be the
case at the 'component' level for such 'emergence' to make sense (and
I'm aiming at the semantics here, not 'ultimate truth', whatever that
might be). My answer is simply that for 'sensing' and 'acting' to
'emerge' (i.e. supervene on) some lower level, that lower level must
itself 'sense' and 'act' (or 'grasp', a word that can carry the
meaning of both).

What sense does it make to say that, for example, sub-atomic
particles, strings, or even Bruno's numbers, 'grasp' each other?
Well, semantically, the alternative would be that they would shun and
ignore each other, and we wouldn't get very far on that basis. They
clearly seem to relate according to certain 'rules', but we're not so
naive (are we?) as to suppose that these are actually 'laws' handily
supplied from some 'external' domain. Since we're talking 'primitives
here', then such relating, such mutual 'grasping', must just *be*.
There's nothing wrong conceptually here, we always need an axiomatic
base, the question is simply where to situate it, and semantically IMO
the buck stops here or somewhere closely adjacent.

The cool thing about this is, that if we start from such primitive
'grasping', then higher-level emergent forms of full sense-action can
now emerge organically by (now entirely valid) analogy with purely
action-related accounts such as liquidity, or for that matter, the
emergence of living behaviour from 'dead matter'. And the obvious
complexity of the relation between, say quantum mechanics and, say,
the life cycle of the sphex wasp, should alert us to an equivalent
complexity in the relationship between primitive 'grasp' and its fully
qualitative (read: participatory) emergents - so please let's have no
(oh-so-embarrassing) 'conscious electrons' here.

Further, it shows us in what way 'software consciousness' is
disanalogous with the evolved kind. A computer, or a rock for that
matter, is of course also a natural emergent from primitive grasping,
and this brings with it sense-action, but in the case of these objects
more action than sense at the emergent level. The software level of
description, however, is merely an imputation, supplied externally
(i.e. by us) and imposed as an interpretation (one of infinitely many)
on the fundamental grasped relations of the substrate components. By
contrast, the brain (and here comes the research programme) must have
evolved (crucially) to deploy a supremely complex set of 'mirroring'
processes that is (per evolution) genuinely emergent from the
primitive 'grasp' of the component level.

>From this comes (possibly) the coolest consequence of these semantics:
our intrinsic 'grasp' of our own motivation (i.e. will, whether 'free'
or not), our participative qualitative modalities, the relation of our
suffering to subsequent action, and so forth, emerge as indeed
'something like' the primitive roots from which they inherit these
characteristics. This is *real* emergence, not magical, and at one
stroke demolishes epiphenomenalism, zombies, uploading fantasies and
all the other illusory consequences of confusing the 'external
world' (i.e. a projection) with the participatory one in which we are

Methinks you 'get it'. You are far more eloquent than I am, but we talk of
the same thing..

Liquidity is to H2O
<<<???>>> is to consciousness (qualia)

where I identify <<<???>>> as a "necessary primitive" and comment that
'computation' or 'information' or 'complexity' have only the vaguest of an
arm waving grip on any claim to such a specific role. Such is the 'magical
emergence' genre.

I have a viable candidate for the 'necessary primitive' of the kind you
seek. Note that regardless of what anyone's suggestion for such a thing
might be, the process of declaring it valid must arise in the form of (as
you intuit above) an axiom. That is, it must come in the form of a
statement such as

X = "It is a fundamental principle of the natural world that <<< such and
such a thing>> is the ultimate necessary primitive state of affairs that
must be the case for consciousness to a) deliver a faculty of observation
at all and then b) for biological delivery that, when observing its own
processes delivering observation, looks like brain material when that it
is happening and NOT when it isn't"

This is the generic form of the kind of 'fundamental principle' that
Chalmers called for in his 1996 book. You cannot escape the reality of
some form of X, regardless of <<<such and such a thing>>. In terms of X:

liquidity is to H2O
The property X is to consciousness (qualia)

Such a statement, in one fell swoop, eliminates the
circularity/self-fulfilment of the magical emergence kind...that which I
have been at pains to point out (dialog with Russel) is inherent at
multiple levels in the 'computationalist' or 'eliminativist' or
'functionalist' or 'representationalist' flavours of magical emergence. A
principle of the kind X must exist or we wouldn't be having this
discussion. There is no way to characterise explanation through magical
emergence that enables empirical testing. Not even in principle. They are
impotent at all prediction. You adopt the position and the whole job is
done and is a matter of belief = NOT SCIENCE.

Remaining at the 'meta' level of general discussion of statements of the
kind X, we can make a couple of important observations:
1) X must be consistent with all empirical (neuroscience/cognitive) evidence.
2) X must at least in principle be able to make verifiable novel
predictions of the natural world critically dependent on X being the case.

If it cannot do this then it is not viable. If it can make even ONE then
it is a better proposition than magical emergence.

Note there is a unique character to X that is unlike anything science has
ever encountered. Direct evidence for X is not any specific observation.
It is the cause of the mere possibility of any observation at all. As I
have said in previous posts.... "that which is seen (contents of
consciousness) is our traditional demanded source of explicit scientific
evidence. However..."Seeing" (any observation/consciousness at all) is
intrinsic/implicit evidence of the existence of circumstances that
necessarily exist or no explicit observation would exist. Every explicit
act of scientific observation also delivers implicit evidence of an
ability to observe. In other words evidence of the lack of qualia is the
failure to observe.

The only third party verifyable circumstance where failure to observe can
be counted as evidence is in the failure of the scientific act. Hence my
insistence that science and the scientific act be the evidentiary
circumstances of a viable empirical science directed at proving X.

Other than this strangeness (scientists themselves are evidence), the
process is just like any other scientific process. Business as usual.

If Galen Strawson is setting fire to the magical emergence camp....GOOD!

I have an X proposition that delivers what looks like panpsychism, but
isn't actually....well... if X is a principle that applies universally
(something that exists at all spatial scales... inherent in the whole
universe) and is intrinsic, logically unavoidable and implicit...then does
that count as panpsychism? I don't know. Frankly I don't care!...X is a
member of the class "Law of Physics". Where it fits philosophically is
someone else's problem. Not such characterisation has any impact on the
empirical work... and I am fiendishly empirical to the bitter end...

Before I re-deliver my X... I'd like to leave the discussion at the META-X
level (about any X or about all possible Xs)....over to you....

colin hales

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Received on Tue Jun 19 2007 - 22:35:53 PDT

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