3 possible views of "consciousness"

From: Jesse Mazer <lasermazer.domain.name.hidden>
Date: Sun, 28 Jan 2001 00:21:08 -0500

George Levy wrote:

>Excellent, Bruno. Thank you for the explanation of computational
>for the first person point of view.
>Most of the disagreement here originates from the failure of some
>to appreciate the distinction bewteen first vs third person perspectives.
>James Higgo even manages to see it both ways without being explicit about
>facts that perspectives can be relative. He says
>"All that exists of 'you' is this very present thought,"
>he is right .... from the first person perspective.. His earlier comment
>"Consciousness - a flow of related thoughts in time - does not exist, any
>than time itself exists," I believe, attempts to address the issue of
>consciousness from the third person perspective. He comes to the obvious
>conclusion that first person consciousness as seen from the third person
>not exist. His lacks of awareness of the relativity of these issue leads

I agree that confusion often arises from not clearly stating one's implicit
beliefs about consciousness, but I think it's actually useful to
differentiate between 3 different positions here:

1. Consciousness is not "real"--our decision to call a system "conscious"
or not is based only on subjective aesthetic criteria, like "cuteness"
(Daniel Dennett's example). The only facts about reality are third-person
facts, in this view.

2. Consciousness is real, but the feeling of continuity of consciousness
over time (the 'flow of related thoughts in time' above) is not. In this
view, only moments of experience exist, but nothing flows between these

3. Consciousness is real, and so is continuity of consciousness over time.
Proponents of this view may still believe that identity can split or merge
though (think of many-worlds, or replicator experiments).

As I said, I think a lot of the problem in consciousness-related debates is
that people don't make their assumptions explicit. For example, the
"quantum immortality" idea looks quite plausible if you accept #3, given a
few additional assumptions...but it's liable to seem pretty silly otherwise.

Personally I think #3 is most likely. If you accept #1, you're saying that
consciousness should be *defined* as "ability to pass the Turing Test," that
there's no truth about whether it is like anything to be a given system or
not. I think that I would continue to be conscious even if everyone else
thought I wasn't...but see Chalmers' "The Conscious Mind" for more arguments
on why we should "take consciousness seriously" and reject #1.

If you accept #2, you are saying that expectations of future outcomes are
illusions. "I" would have no more reason to fear being tortured tomorrow
than to fear my twin's being tortured (although in both cases I would feel
empathy for the victim). Likewise, if I was about to be replicated it would
be meaningless to wonder if I was going to "become" the original or the

I have a lot of sympathy for #2 though--it's certainly true that "I think
therefore I am" applies only to the present moment, and that memories are
just another type of experience I can have right *now*. But even the
Buddhists, whose philosophy carries strong echoes of the "only the present
exists" idea, also talk about the difference between absolute truth and
relative truth. Identity-over-time may not be true in the absolute sense,
but it's generally seen as being true in the relative sense, just like the
distinction between "my" consciousness and "yours" (which advocates of #2
assume is real).

If we ever develop a "theory of consciousness" in the sense that Chalmers
talks about, it's not so unreasonable to imagine it would quantify some
measure of "similarity" between distinct moment-of-consciousness-patterns,
which we might interpret as giving the probability of "becoming" one version
or another in a replicator experiment (such a theory would be especially
useful in the case of imperfect copies).

I'd be interested to hear other people's opinions about which view is most
plausible, though.

Jesse Mazer
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Received on Sat Jan 27 2001 - 21:25:21 PST

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