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  1. #1
    Post Human Post Qlip's Avatar
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    Default What is consciousness?

    I've been listening to a lecture on the the Philosophy of Mind. The subject of consciouness fascinates me more than any other subject in the universe. It is a great big interesting place, but the most interesting question to me is how it is that there is 'anyone' here to perceive it to be interesting.

    I guess the nature of consciousness and how it works in our physical universe is one of those nagging unanswered questions in the sciences. As being heavy perceiver, and a bit of a solipsist, the fact that consciousness exists never seemed like a problem at all. The nature of everything else always seemed to worry me more.

    Define consciousness. What do you believe consciousness is, and how it works? Do you think it's a process that can be recreated mechanically? Let's talk about this stuff.

  2. #2
    Occasional Member Evan's Avatar
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    I personally think consciousness isn't a "thing" that's out there; what's out there is the brain -- a biological input/output mechanism. The actions of each human can be explained in terms of chemical processes. Unfortunately, this isn't satisfying to most people, because it sidesteps the issue of first-person experience. So the way I solve that is to think in hierarchical terms.

    There are all sorts of different perspectives you can take to describe something. You can call a car a car, you can call it a bunch of metal and plastic and wires, you can call it a bunch of chemicals, or you can call it a bunch of subatomic particles. Describing it in terms of subatomic particles might give you a "complete" picture in a certain sense, but it doesn't really help you figure out how comfortable a specific car is or the answer to other questions like that (well, it could, but it would be a complicated mess of a computational model and totally not worth working through). So I think of these methods of description as useful only in terms of their problem-solving utility. In other words, if you want to know how comfortable a car is, you sit down in the seats, you drive it, you ask other people about it -- you don't study the molecular bonds that make up each square millimeter. But if you wanted to know, well, some random physics thing about the car, you study the bonds and don't bother asking people how it "feels".

    So with humans, you can think of all sorts of methods of description that may be useful. If you want to know what a body is made up of, you talk about physiology. If you want to know how neurons send signals to other neurons in the brain, you talk about neurobiology. If you want to talk about what someone is feeling, you talk about psychology, or even just root yourself to the common-everyday-human-interaction framework. My perspective on consciousness is that it's only a meaningful descriptive term in certain frameworks. When you're talking about physiology or biology or chemistry or physics, "consciousness" is nonsense; it's like trying to describe how a car "feels" by talking about molecules. But since we don't generally describe things to others in reductionist-physical terms, consciousness is useful as a term most of the time -- it just describes a kind of thing that exists in the common-everyday-human-interaction framework.

    Edit: Also, yes, I believe in can be recreated mechanically, because it is a property of a mechanical system (the body/brain).

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    Post Human Post Qlip's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Evan View Post
    I personally think consciousness isn't a "thing" that's out there; what's out there is the brain -- a biological input/output mechanism. The actions of each human can be explained in terms of chemical processes. Unfortunately, this isn't satisfying to most people, because it sidesteps the issue of first-person experience. So the way I solve that is to think in hierarchical terms.

    There are all sorts of different perspectives you can take to describe something. You can call a car a car, you can call it a bunch of metal and plastic and wires, you can call it a bunch of chemicals, or you can call it a bunch of subatomic particles. Describing it in terms of subatomic particles might give you a "complete" picture in a certain sense, but it doesn't really help you figure out how comfortable a specific car is or the answer to other questions like that (well, it could, but it would be a complicated mess of a computational model and totally not worth working through). So I think of these methods of description as useful only in terms of their problem-solving utility. In other words, if you want to know how comfortable a car is, you sit down in the seats, you drive it, you ask other people about it -- you don't study the molecular bonds that make up each square millimeter. But if you wanted to know, well, some random physics thing about the car, you study the bonds and don't bother asking people how it "feels".

    So with humans, you can think of all sorts of methods of description that may be useful. If you want to know what a body is made up of, you talk about physiology. If you want to know how neurons send signals to other neurons in the brain, you talk about neurobiology. If you want to talk about what someone is feeling, you talk about psychology, or even just root yourself to the common-everyday-human-interaction framework. My perspective on consciousness is that it's only a meaningful descriptive term in certain frameworks. When you're talking about physiology or biology or chemistry or physics, "consciousness" is nonsense; it's like trying to describe how a car "feels" by talking about molecules. But since we don't generally describe things to others in reductionist-physical terms, consciousness is useful as a term most of the time -- it just describes a kind of thing that exists in the common-everyday-human-interaction framework.

    Edit: Also, yes, I believe in can be recreated mechanically, because it is a property of a mechanical system (the body/brain).
    This is what I thought before, now I'm not so sure. I'm not going to claim to know anything about it, but I got thrown for a loop when I heard Roger Penrose's belief on the matter. I haven't read any of his books, but he does not think that the process that brings about consciousness is not completely algorithmic, which means it wouldn't be able to be reproduced in a Turing machine. Which is not to say it couldn't be reproduced at all, just not without some missing ingredient not available with our current understanding of physics.

    As far as consciousness not being a 'thing', I often wonder about this, and I'd be more comfortable to talk about it if I studied some epistemology. But I find differentiating between 'things' and 'not things' difficult when it seems that every 'thing' and 'not thing' are essentially are whorls of energy that interact with each other in different ways.

  4. #4
    morose bourgeoisie
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    I think consciousness is bult into the very energy that matter is made of. It's part of the basic fabric of the cosmos, and therefore is everywhere, in everything. That we can recognize ourselves in a mirror, and make clever machines, is a detail of neurology by way of evolution.

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    Quote Originally Posted by nebbykoo View Post
    I think consciousness is bult into the very energy that matter is made of. It's part of the basic fabric of the cosmos, and therefore is everywhere, in everything. That we can recognize ourselves in a mirror, and make clever machines, is a detail of neurology by way of evolution.
    Crackpot...

    Nah, just kidding. I can't really think of anything more magical than consciousness. It seems like the way of Scientism is to explain something and then demote it. Even if you could explain the functions that made consciousness from mechanical processes and if you could recreate it, it couldn't detract from the extraordinariness of something that is conscious. It would be in effect an evocation of something greater, like a spell.

    Along with consciousness comes free will, or the illusion of free will if you'd like. Even if you decide to believe in determinism, you first have to believe that you choosing to believing anything makes a difference at all. It's a strange thing for a human to call themselves a monist and determinist when every thing they do in their life is dualist and based on the idea of free will.

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    Occasional Member Evan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Qlip View Post
    This is what I thought before, now I'm not so sure. I'm not going to claim to know anything about it, but I got thrown for a loop when I heard Roger Penrose's belief on the matter. I haven't read any of his books, but he does not think that the process that brings about consciousness is not completely algorithmic, which means it wouldn't be able to be reproduced in a Turing machine. Which is not to say it couldn't be reproduced at all, just not without some missing ingredient not available with our current understanding of physics.
    I find that viewpoint to be pretty misguided. So there's thing thing in the universe outside of the scope of mechanistic explanation, and it just happened to not exist until the last few million years on earth? Properties of the universe may be oddly distributed, but it seems pretty unlikely that even on earth, this property only applies to one species of millions. I might consider the viewpoint more if I saw any problem with applying mechanistic descriptions to human behavior, but I really don't (and I studied cognitive science so I've thought about this more than 99% of people).

    Our brains are made up of physical units. Physical units follow physical laws. Physics doesn't look at everything in the universe and see the brain as different for some reason. The brain is just some subset of physical units.

    And assuming I'm completely wrong, and there is something about the brain that doesn't follow mechanistic rules, we have to explain how that not-physical-rule-following-thing interacts with everything else in a way that preserves physical laws. Seems like a much harder task than just accepting that we're little bags of matter following physical laws.

  7. #7
    Occasional Member Evan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Qlip View Post
    I can't really think of anything more magical than consciousness. It seems like the way of Scientism is to explain something and then demote it.
    Maybe it seems that way, but to me, I find it beautiful to think that everything is just some stuff following some laws. It fascinates me how complex everything looks yet how simple everything really is. I mean seriously, we've got a representation of the universe that's like 4 lines of code. That's pretty incredible. Given, there are some bugs in our model (dark matter/energy) -- we still have a ways to go, but it's just... well... awesome.


    Even if you could explain the functions that made consciousness from mechanical processes and if you could recreate it, it couldn't detract from the extraordinariness of something that is conscious. It would be in effect an evocation of something greater, like a spell.
    Yes. Even if it's true that the mechanism determines we find it beautiful, it's still beautiful.

    Along with consciousness comes free will, or the illusion of free will if you'd like. Even if you decide to believe in determinism, you first have to believe that you choosing to believing anything makes a difference at all. It's a strange thing for a human to call themselves a monist and determinist when every thing they do in their life is dualist and based on the idea of free will.
    Yes, it is strange. I am definitely a monist and a determinist, and yet I make choices every moment. The way I resolve this is similar to what I was talking about in my first post in this thread. 'Determinism' and 'monism' are descriptors, and descriptors tie you to a framework. A framework is a set of assumptions. So to even use the words, you pin yourself to assumptions that make the words are useful. Determinism/monism/functionalism/reductionism are all useful terms when you're describing the way the universe works -- they assume a physical mechanistic framework. The words 'choice' and 'good' and 'responsibility' have no place in this framework -- they don't help describe anything from this perspective and are in fact nonsensical here.

    On the other hand, when you want to talk about everyday human stuff, 'determinism' is a useless term. It doesn't help you brainstorm with people or decide where to go to breakfast or anything in your day-to-day life. This framework (the everyday-human framework) uses terms like 'choice' and 'good' and 'pain' and has no room for 'monism' nor any way to make sense of the term.

    The idea of free will and determinism being at conflict with one another is a framing error. These concepts never exist in the same framework at the same time, and are therefore never at odds. They're both true given the assumption sets they are pinned to.

  8. #8
    Post Human Post Qlip's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Evan View Post
    I find that viewpoint to be pretty misguided. So there's thing thing in the universe outside of the scope of mechanistic explanation, and it just happened to not exist until the last few million years on earth? Properties of the universe may be oddly distributed, but it seems pretty unlikely that even on earth, this property only applies to one species of millions. I might consider the viewpoint more if I saw any problem with applying mechanistic descriptions to human behavior, but I really don't (and I studied cognitive science so I've thought about this more than 99% of people).

    Our brains are made up of physical units. Physical units follow physical laws. Physics doesn't look at everything in the universe and see the brain as different for some reason. The brain is just some subset of physical units.

    And assuming I'm completely wrong, and there is something about the brain that doesn't follow mechanistic rules, we have to explain how that not-physical-rule-following-thing interacts with everything else in a way that preserves physical laws. Seems like a much harder task than just accepting that we're little bags of matter following physical laws.
    Well, I can't say. All I know is that I feel like I would have to respect Penrose's views, at least enough to track down and read his books. And I'm a little unclear on what it means not being Turing Machine compatible.. it may mean that it might be reproducable with a turing machine, but not in any practical manner. I do know that the latest news is that photosynthesis seems to use quantum effects to create usable energy more efficiently, the brain maybe use some sort of quantum effect.

    Our knowledge of the world is quite young even with the advances we've made in the past couple hundred years. I suppose the real test would be to be able to recreate consciousness. But even then, I guess there are entire libraries of philosphy written debating on how to recognize if something is conscious or not.

  9. #9
    Occasional Member Evan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Qlip View Post
    Well, I can't say. All I know is that I feel like I would have to respect Penrose's views, at least enough to track down and read his books. And I'm a little unclear on what it means not being Turing Machine compatible.. it may mean that it might be reproducable with a turing machine, but not in any practical manner.
    It means that you cannot represent it with a Turing Machine at all.

    I do know that the latest news is that photosynthesis seems to use quantum effects to create usable energy more efficiently, the brain maybe use some sort of quantum effect.

    Our knowledge of the world is quite young even with the advances we've made in the past couple hundred years. I suppose the real test would be to be able to recreate consciousness. But even then, I guess there are entire libraries of philosphy written debating on how to recognize if something is conscious or not.
    Sure, our knowledge is quite young, but I don't see why we should throw away perfectly good working models because of it. Of course we haven't re-created consciousness on a computer yet; cognitive science is only half a century old. But we have some ways of looking at the mind that are, well, mind-blowing. (Do some research on Bayesian modeling applied to learning and beliefs, and how Monte Carlo methods could be implemented in neural networks to approximate these models. Totally fascinating stuff.)

    One interesting metric for determining whether something is conscious is called the Turing Test. If an input/output mechanism can fool someone into thinking it is conscious, then it is conscious. For example, if you had a chat with a bot on gchat and it could answer all your questions in such a way that you thought it was conscious, the Turing Test would call it conscious. Interesting food for thought... you can imagine that bot implemented in a computer that looks like a human -- how would you be able to tell it apart from something else that was conscious? For that matter, how do you know that we aren't all bots in computers that look like humans? And if you can imagine that, how do you know that YOU aren't a bot in a computer that looks like a human, with part of your programming being that you think you're a biological entity with properties that can't be explained mechanistically?

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    Post Human Post Qlip's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Evan View Post
    It means that you cannot represent it with a Turing Machine at all.



    Sure, our knowledge is quite young, but I don't see why we should throw away perfectly good working models because of it. Of course we haven't re-created consciousness on a computer yet; cognitive science is only half a century old. But we have some ways of looking at the mind that are, well, mind-blowing. (Do some research on Bayesian modeling applied to learning and beliefs, and how Monte Carlo methods could be implemented in neural networks to approximate these models. Totally fascinating stuff.)

    One interesting metric for determining whether something is conscious is called the Turing Test. If an input/output mechanism can fool someone into thinking it is conscious, then it is conscious. For example, if you had a chat with a bot on gchat and it could answer all your questions in such a way that you thought it was conscious, the Turing Test would call it conscious. Interesting food for thought... you can imagine that bot implemented in a computer that looks like a human -- how would you be able to tell it apart from something else that was conscious? For that matter, how do you know that we aren't all bots in computers that look like humans? And if you can imagine that, how do you know that YOU aren't a bot in a computer that looks like a human, with part of your programming being that you think you're a biological entity with properties that can't be explained mechanistically?
    I'll have to look into Bayesian inference. My interests usually are on the less technical side of life, so it may take some work on my part :/

    But, yeah, I'm familiar with the Turing test. I believe there is a chatbot that has passed it in a limited test. Also, I read tons of Philip K. Dick. My interest in Penrose's claims are because they are different than what many scientists claim, and he is a very well respected mathematician. I don't feel the need to call wetware special, but I still believe consciousness is special, no matter what processes it arises from.

    But something about the Turing test does bother me. It's a good 'rule of thumb' test and it is probably the best we have. There is this eternal gulf between knowing that I know what pain feels like, and thinking that you know what pain feels like. But there is no way for me to know that you experience pain in actuality. I know you could trick people, depending on their abilities and the circumstances with forms of the Turing test using todays technology. But this doesn't mean that the chatbot you tricked them with is conscious. Hell, there are people who (I assume) are conscious and couldn't pass the Turing test.

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