Re: 3 possible views of "consciousness"

From: <>
Date: Tue, 30 Jan 2001 0:30:36 EST asks:

> Would you say, then, that it is *impossible* to *falsely* attribute
> consciousness to an entity? That the question of whether something
> is conscious, being purely subjective, is not something that you can
> be mistaken about?

I'd take a utilitarian stance. Yes, myriad interpretations of
consciousness always exist, in a mathematical sense, but why bother to
try to see them unless they confer some advantage? (Also, most require
more transformational mapping than our puny brains can muster.)

Interpretations of consciousness do confer advantage when dealing with
Turing test passers (lookup tables included) because the psychological
interpretation carries predictive power (playing chess, the Table
will probably choose to take my queen if I expose her, because it
wants to win the game). There's no advantage to not seeing the table
as conscious and volitional.

But with Putnam's rock, why bother? (Well, maybe if you're
long-stranded on a deserted island, and need someone to talk to?)

> We sometimes find ourselves tempted to treat seemingly mindless and
> even inanimate objects as conscious. Some people talk to their
> plants and feel that the plants respond. Others persuade their
> vehicles to cooperate by offering encouraging words. Primitive
> societies believed that nature in its various manifestations was
> conscious, and would talk to the crops and clouds, entreating them
> to grow, often with success.
> In your view, would you say that these attitudes are equally as
> valid as treating other human beings as conscious? If it is all
> subjective, how can we draw a line between conscious and unconscious
> entities? It seems important to do so, otherwise there a danger
> that we might say there is no moral difference between kicking a
> rock and kicking a puppy.

Utilitarianism: the effect on the rest of my life. The puppy will
probably be warped by the experience and may grow up crippled,
neurotic or vicious. I'd rather have happy dogs around. The rock
won't be much changed, from my point of view, so it doesn't much

The most effective interpretation I have of human behavior (and of
humanlike lookup tables) is the psychological one. Evolving in social
groups perfected that interpretation, and I'm usually best off using
it. That interpretation may also be effective in dealing with nature:
be nice (if cautious) to plants and animals and they will more likely
to cooperate, just like people.

But, to the consternation of some, science increasingly offers a
sometimes more effective mechanical interpretation of nature,
including humans. (To the extent that the mechanistic view leads to
social problems, it is still less effective. But maybe social science
will someday achieve the performance in Asimov's "Foundation".)

We'll probably change our mode of existence before too long: in Robot
I suggest we may recode ourselves into more and more subtle physical
implementations to squeeze more and more mind power into given amounts
of matter. Gradually, to outside observers like our present selves,
we fade away into uninterpretable thermal noise. Maybe we can exist
as thermal vibrations in a rock. I'm pretty sure we could deal with a
kick easily.
Received on Mon Jan 29 2001 - 21:39:19 PST

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