RE: What do you lose if you simply accept...

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Mon, 23 May 2005 01:03:20 +1000


There are some things that can be known by examination of an object, and
there are other things that can only be known by being the object. When the
object is a human brain, this latter class of things is consciousness. (When
the object is something else, this latter class of thing is... well, how
would I know?) I think that the distinction between these two types of
knowledge is surprising, and I would never have noticed it had I not been
conscious myself. I also think that there is a sense in which this special
first person knowledge can be called fundamental, because by definition it
cannot be derived from any other fact about the universe.

The response of those who think that consciousness is nothing special to the
above is that it is not surprising that there is a difference between a
description of an object and the object itself, and that what I have called
"knowledge" in reference to conscious experiences is not really knowledge,
but part of the package that comes with being a thing. I can't really argue
against this; as I said, it is just a different way of looking at the same

Much has been written about particular formulations of the mind/body problem
(or, if you prefer, "problem"). For example, Douglas Hofstadter's commentary
on Thomas Nagel's famous essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (which I
looked up at your suggestion) makes the point that the logic of the titular
question itself is muddled: if Nagel were a bat, he would not be Nagel, and
he would therefore not be Nagel asking the question. If Nagel were actually
asking what it would be like for him to stay Nagel and experience being a
bat, perhaps by having his brain stimulated in a batty way, then that is (a)
a different question, and (b) in theory possible, and not the intractable
problem originally advertised. This is fair enough, so I shall try to avoid
talking about qualia in the way Nagel does. However, I can't get rid of the
idea that there is something special and fundamental about first person

--Stathis Papaioannou

>Stathis writes
> > > > I did not
> > > > mean that there is no explanation possible for consciousness.
> > > > It is likely that in the course of time the neuronal
> > > > mechanisms behind the phenomenon will be worked out and it
> > > > will be possible to build intelligent, conscious machines.
> > > > Imagine that advanced aliens have already achieved this
> > > > through surreptitious study of humans over a number of
> > > > decades. Their models of human brain function are so good
> > > > that by running an emulation of one or more humans and their
> > > > environment they can predict their behaviour better than the
> > > > humans can themselves.
>Well put.
>An interesting point to add is that since human behavior
>is almost surely not compressible, the *only* way that they
>can learn what a human is going to do is to, in effect, run
>one (the mocked up one in their lab). As you say, they run
>an *emulation*.
>But this could mean that they had *no* special insight into
>consciousness, because by adjusting the teleporter, Scotty
>can "find out" things too just by making a physical copy of
>the Captain, and, for example, finding out what he'd say
>about giving the engineers a raise.
>But you have described Martian science very well. Here is
>what I think that they are capable of that *is* important:
>they could tell (or announce) with very high accuracy
>whether a species was conscious, and to what extent, in
>its natural environment, and do all this just from the
>creature's DNA (and perhaps a little info on the inter-
>uterine environment).
>Here is an analogy: in a cold hut in the Scottish highlands
>in 1440, two bright, but shivering, people are debating the
>nature of warmth. Says one: "Brrr. Some day the scientists
>will be so advanced that the can objectively measure hotness,
>and you and I will more closely agree." And he turned out
>to be right, as we know now.
> > > > Now, I think you will agree (although
> > > > Jonathan Colvin may not) that despite this excellent
> > > > understanding of the processes giving rise to human conscious
> > > > experience, the aliens may still have absolutely no idea what
> > > > the experience is actually like.
>Yes, but what does that mean? What does it mean for, say,
>you to know what it's like when I play 1. e4 in a game of
>chess? I can tell you that it's probably nothing at all
>like when *you* play 1. e4. But it's strickly a function of
>how similar our chess careers have been, whether we both
>have the same opinion of the Alapin counter to the Sicilian,
>and so forth. So in effect, it really comes down to how
>much you are already me when you play 1. e4.
>Somebody here said it much better than I: they said that
>you have to almost be someone to in order to know what
>it's like to be them.
>Jonathan then says
> > > No, I'd agree that they have no idea what the experience is like. But
> > > is no more remarkable than the fact that allthough we may have an
> > > understanding of photons, we can not travel at the speed of light, or
> > > although we may have an excellent understanding of trees, yet we can
> > > photosynthesize. Neither of these "problems" seem particularly hard.
>I totally agree.
> > We are thus at an impasse, agreeing on all the facts but differing in
> > appraisal of the facts.
>Maybe. But since you (Stathis) write so well, could you summarize
>what your adversaries seem to be saying and what you say? I'm less
>sure (than you) that no progress can be made.

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Received on Sun May 22 2005 - 11:30:36 PDT

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