The Question of Consciousness

The current science of consciousness has been widely discussed on the Internet, and considering the many claims that soon we will be blessed or damned by conscious machines, it is remarkable how little is known about it. 

The essential question involves explaining how a physical universe gives rise to non-physical intelligent awareness, and this boggles everyone, because it is explainable by no current scientific knowledge, physical or quantum.

There are various theories, two of which are considered the most promising. One, which is favoured by traditional science and supports the idea that computers could be conscious, holds that after a certain level of complexity is reached, consciousness emerges naturally, all by itself. In neurology, consciousness is always mentioned in connection with the human brain, which, of course is the most complex. Quantities of rambling text, much of it of a speculative and highly philosophical nature, have been written on the theory, including such unexpected claims as Daniel Dennett's, that his thermostat was conscious.

When I read of it, this raised my suspicions immediately, since at the time, I was formulating an argument, based on research from other fields of science, that my sharks felt pain when they were finned. My pleas that they be protected in the middle of their slaughter were laughed at by fishermen, who claimed that science had proven that fish could not feel pain, because it was impossible that they were conscious because they lacked a human brain.

Yet, no study had been done to determine this; the idea was nothing more than a declaration by fishermen scientists, that lacked supporting evidence. Were a human brain necessary for sentience, then the pet phenomenon would be impossible.

Further, in the same year, different researchers had found that fish were capable of all the varieties of cognition (with the exception of imitation), that had been identified in the "higher" animals, including primates. Others felt that cognition is impossible without consciousness in some form, since the act of cognition indicates the presence of an intelligent awareness that is doing the thinking.

No brain is simple, as anyone who has watched the activities of a spider will appreciate.

It seemed extraordinary that scientists believed that their thermostats were conscious, but that animals who shared up to 80% of their genes, were not. This was one of the first indications I found of how wonky science has become, and formed the backdrop to my research into the subject of consciousness.

The idea that consciousness can be created by man has always been a high-profile one, and has captured the public imagination through science-fiction tales and films that have made intelligent robots seem possible. The current efforts by artificial intelligence research (AI) to imitate the human brain, (sometimes by creating a machine with as many connections in it as the brain has), have been more widely publicized than other areas of research into consciousness.

More importantly, the hype that surrounds it has been of vital importance in generating grants for further research into AI.

But, apart from the point that this theory minimizes the difference between the intensively programmed machine, and the self-serving living creature, it directly predicts high levels of consciousness where most people would deny that consciousness is possible, such as in your CD.

Here is a bit of a description, written by John Horgan on March 22, 2016:

“Like heaven, the Singularity [the name for the union of man and machine] comes in many versions, but most involve bionic brain boosting. At first, we'll become cyborgs, as brain chips soup up our perception, memory, and intelligence and eliminate the need for annoying TV remotes. Eventually, we will abandon our flesh-and-blood selves entirely and upload our digitized psyches into computers. We will then dwell happily forever in cyberspace, where, to paraphrase Woody Allen, we'll never need to look for a parking space.

Singularity enthusiasts, or Singularitarians, tend to be computer specialists. . .”

A worrying point in this scheme, that has not come up in any discussions that I have found, is that computers not only just compute without comprehension, but they use only decimal numbers. Yet, there are an infinity of numbers which are impossible to write as decimal numbers. For example, the number one third, easily comprehended by the smallest child trying to cut a cake into three for him and his two sisters, becomes 3.3333333. . . ad infinitum in decimals, so any computer would soon round it off!

You don't have to go very far with numbers to find such surprises. Another example, represented perfectly for all life forms on Earth in the shape of the sun and full moon, is the relationship between the diameter and the circumference of a circle—the irrational number pi. Pi, and all such other numbers that go on and on without foreseeable endings, are rounded off by computers!

Would such over-simplified approximations to the true universal values still result in the generation of consciousness? No thoughts on this obvious point have been offered! That such inconsistencies are considered irrelevant seems quite an assumption for those claiming to be on the verge of producing conscious machines, when those machines cannot even represent one third correctly.

Given the mind-boggling complexity of the universe—we are personally about halfway in size-scale between the universal and the sub-atomic ranges of sizes—human considerations are really fairly simple.

Though in the eighties, exaggerated claims were made about the conscious machine that would soon be created, as time passed, none of the algorithms (combinations of mathematical formulae) originally postulated to imitate cognitive functions were successful. Many of the leading AI labs eventually shut down, and no new algorithms have been developed. The progress that we have seen since, has been due to advances in complexity, miniaturization, and size, which have increased the computational power of computers, but have not given them the power of understanding.

You can demonstrate this to yourself by typing any short piece of writing into Google Translate, to see how well it is translated into a different language of your choice. The poor ability of robots to translate phrases from one language to another is due to the inability of the computer to understand the words. Those meanings are conceptual, not computational.

Yet, robot hype continues at a high pitch, though, like everyone else, the researchers involved have no idea what consciousness is, or what is required for its manifestation.

The other main theory of consciousness was put forth and argued by Roger Penrose, a mathematician at Oxford, and originator of black hole theory, among other things. He believes that consciousness, along with quite a few other things in this universe, is essentially not computable, so no computer could ever be conscious, no matter how big it might be. He postulates that consciousness is a manifestation of quantum mechanical behaviour.

He regrets that biologists are unaware of how matter really behaves, because they ignore the actions of matter at a sub-atomic level, which, after all, takes place all the time all around and within us, not just in physicists' particle accelerators.

You have likely heard of the big problem in physics—that the laws found that govern the universe, as described by such lights as Euclid and Einstein, do not agree with those found in the sub-atomic world of quantum mechanics. One of the curious things about quantum mechanical behaviour, is that at a very small size scale, our universe becomes a mush of probabilities—probabilities that this or that will come down.

The peculiar aspect of this phenomenon is that it appears to be conscious awareness of the probabilities, that makes one or the other actually come to pass. The name given to the transition from the probabilistic state to the collapse into reality is reduction. The need for consciousness to trigger reduction, is another clue to it, that appears in a completely different way.

The subatomic reality is not like the mechanical one we can see, nor does it operate by the same rules, and no one, not even the rocket scientists, have found a way to picture it in their minds. Decades of experimentation in which this was tested repeatedly, and mind boggling mathematics, were necessary before it was accepted at all.

Penrose started one chapter in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, by describing a poor lost man trying to walk home from the pub, and not being able to figure out which way to go. He sits down, gazes at the moon, and goes up, instead. He goes into Plato's world.

Plato first described a world we could access only by the intellect, one which appears to have an independent existence outside of space and time, where the transcendent laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry, music, and maybe even ethics and beauty, exist. Only by going there can we understand the world and the universe, and Plato's world reveals itself to each of us through conscious reflection.

An example of something that exists only in Plato’s world is the square root of minus one. This is the number which, when multiplied by itself, will give minus one. While at first glance this could seem like nothing more than a mathematical joke, since all numbers when squared are positive, the square root of minus one has proved indispensable for working out some of the details of the functioning of the universe--the behaviour of subatomic particles cannot be understood without it!

The mathematical phenomenon known as the Mandelbrot set is the solution to an equation invoking the square root of minus one.

The illustration shows it graphed, and then a part of the set magnified over a million times. The intricate boundary does not change on magnification, which is one of the qualities of a fractal.

The remarkable beauty of the graphed Mandelbrot set, named for Benoît Mandelbrot who found it, was inaccessible until we developed the computational power to unveil it. Yet, it was always there in Plato's world!

Music, too, leads us into Plato’s world, and since some birds sing using the humanly defined scale, it appears to be accessible to other species.

Roger Penrose offered this way of conceiving the idea. He describes three worlds, the mental world of consciousness, the physical universe, and Plato's world, or the place where mathematical reality lies. He calls the relationships between them the three profound mysteries.

As shown in the diagram, in the physical world appears consciousness, which reflects and finds Plato's world, the truths of which lie behind the manifestation of the physical world.

Working with a biologist, Stuart Hameroff, Penrose has developed his complex theory of quantum consciousness further, since, and has written more books on these subjects, including Shadows of the Mind, and The Road to Reality.

There are other theories discussed at the conferences on the Science of Consciousness, including one that states that just as rats cannot do arithmetic, so we are not capable of comprehending consciousness, though of course, we can't give up!

Others cover a vast range of subjects including evidence from altered mental states, taking hallucinogenic drugs, and the realms of the paranormal.

Yet, in all of these writings on the subject, an assessment of how consciousness manifests in life on Earth has not been mentioned. Its as if only humans and their machines are of any concern, though evidence of cognition has been found in all animals studied, from the great apes to sharks, octopi, bees, and even Paramecia. These are one-celled animals, so they have no brain, or even nerves, yet they can learn, remember, and make decisions based on whether or not they were in a place before, and whether or not, when they were there, they had a good time (Armus et al 2006, Day and Bentley 2016).

This fact throws cold water on some of science's assumptions that only "higher" animals are capable of cognition in the sense I had to argue it for the sharks. And if one-celled animals show this level of awareness, it leads to the question of whether or not such awareness may be an intrinsic aspect of life itself.

Yet, the question of life is not included in the discussions of consciousness, possibly because that would exclude computers!

This strange state of affairs ably represents the current state of disconnection apparent between science and the facts, a subject I will return to again. And, in contradiction to what traditional science (which in the case of sharks means "fisheries") claimed, my beloved sharks suffered when they were finned and died.

Ila France Porcher, author of The Shark Sessions


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