Ruminations on Consciousness

descartes_mind_and_body
Descartes’ illustration of the mind-body problem

There is an interesting unanswered question that humanity still hasn’t managed to put to rest, and it is:

“What is consciousness?”

Is human consciousness magical or mechanical?

Is there some magical thing called a soul in all animals that makes us who we are, drives our actions and makes us conscious of the world around us?

Various religious traditions have different explanations for consciousness.

Traditional Hypothesis

Semitic traditions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – don’t talk much about consciousness but they have an implicit position on the subject.  On the other hand, Hindu philosophical traditions talk explicitly about it, and the following are some of the more well-known philosophical positions:

  1. a) Advaita – the consciousness of creatures on earth is essentially the same as that of the divine.
  2. b) Dvaita – there are two kinds of consciousness – that of earthly creatures and that of the divine.
  3. c) Vishishtadvaita – there are two kinds of consciousness – earthly and divine – and the former can become one with the latter.

So, Hindu philosophies take one of the following positions:

Dvaita:

phil_dvaita

The earthly consciousness is singular from the point of view of the individual.  Each person (and in some traditions each animal) is believed to have one.

Advaita:

phil_advaita

The view of all Semitic religions, though not explicitly stated, seems to be closer to that of Dvaita philosophy, in that souls are considered distinct entities from the gods (after death, these souls end up in a good place or a bad place for a long time).

I say gods in plural because all Semitic religions seem to believe in the existence of a good divine being and an evil divine being (satan/shaitan/iblees) who is different from the good divine being and not fully subject to him (which is different from Hindu philosophies where the concept of an absolutely bad/evil divine being doesn’t seem to exist).

phil_semitic

So, there are two or more (if you count the lesser divine beings called angels, jinns, etc) divine consciousnesses in Judaism, Islam or Christianity.

Judeo-Christian Beliefs

In Judeo-Christian literature, for example, a text about a man called Job deals with this concept of a bad divine being.  The Wikipedia says: “Between Job 1:9–10 and 2:4–5, Satan points out that God has given Job everything that a man could want, so of course Job would be loyal to God; Satan suggests that Job’s faith would collapse if all he has been given (even his health) were to be taken away from him. God therefore gives Satan permission to test Job.”  There are also in this belief system conceptions of other divine beings: a holy trinity, a pantheon of angels, etc.

Islamic Beliefs

In an account by al-Tabari, a 9th century scholar, the prophet Muhammad is described as having endorsed in verse three dieties of the Kaaba other than Al-Lah at one point (they were called Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat), and later withdrawn the endorsement with the explanation that Satan (who in Islamic theology is believed to have only the power to put ideas into people’s minds) had made him do it.  The verses endorsing these other deities (later withdrawn) are referred to in some places as the Satanic Verses (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanic_Verses).

All the above religious belief systems imagine one single soul as resident in each living thing on earth.

However, in the Baha’i faith, it appears that there is a concept of a good and an evil side in each living thing, though possibly not as two consciousnesses.  Abdu’l-Bahá is supposed to have said: “This lower nature in man is symbolized as Satan — the evil ego within us, not an evil personality outside.”

In fiction, there have been imaginings of more than one conscious ‘soul’ being resident in a human.

Take the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  In it, the character of Jekyll/Hyde is described as having two consciousnesses, one good and one bad – each akin to one of the principal divine beings in Semitic religions.

phil_jekyll_hyde.png

So, in Jekyll/Hyde’s world, there is a multiplicity of consciousnesses, not just in the divine plane, but also on earth.

Extrapolation

So, it appears that we can imagine multiple divine beings in existence, and multiple consciousnesses existing in each of us.  We can also imagine a single divine being in existence, and a single conscious soul.  We can even imagine the earthly soul/consciousness being the same as the divine soul/consciousness.

The obvious question is:  can we imagine the absence of the magical soul since we can imagine the absence of a divine being (atheistic belief systems have existed since times immemorial)?

One of the reasons for postulating the existence of divine beings is that they give us a way of explaining inexplicable phenomena.  In antiquity, when humans needed to explain thunder and tides, they imagined thunder gods and sea gods.  Later, when they became better able to explain (or at least to be conscious of unchangeable patterns in and to fend against) nature, they began to adopt more abstract conceptions of deities that reflected human consciousness, and where the religious traditions served to provide an explanation for the phenomenon of life, and an ethical framework for reasoning during the period of life.

Once the creation of living things could be explained, and social contracts became things one could reason about, humans seem to have found it easier to surmise that no gods were needed to explain creation, life and ethical values.

Similarly, as we become better able to explain how our minds work, and to understand perception, memory, cognition and language, and also phenomena such as hallucination and mental illnesses, beliefs in magical phenomena such as spirits taking possession of individuals have begun to diminish.

By extrapolation, one might suppose that with time, the belief in an immortal soul will also diminish.

Alternative Hypothesis

What is likely to replace the concept of a magical soul in all living things?

One of the modern theories of consciousness (according to David Chalmers) seems to be that the mind and the brain are one (see the mind-brain identity theory of 1950 mentioned in http://consc.net/papers/five.pdf).

However, since the brain itself is little understood, we’d merely be explaining something we don’t understand using something that we don’t understand (though we’d be seeing it as something physical).

It seems to me that it might be better to explain our consciousness to ourselves in terms of how computers do the things that we are conscious of doing, since computers are well-understood.

It appears that a definition of consciousness as:  “the ability to perceive the world, form a model of the world (including imagined worlds), retain a memory of the perceptions and models, reason independently about those models, and optionally, to act on the perceptions” would be accurate.

So any machine could be considered conscious if it is able to perceive the world, form a model of the world (including imagined worlds), retain a memory of the perceptions and models, reason independently about those models, and optionally act on the perceptions.

There are already theories that seem to come close to the above definition.  They are called Representationalist Theories.  And many of them, interestingly, seem to have been developed only in the last 20 years: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/#RepThe

Here are some other discussions of the aforesaid theories:

  1. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-representational/
  2. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia/

A concept such as qualia (see preceding link), which seems so troubling to a representationalist philosopher, would appear trivial to someone well-versed in machine learning, because in machine learning, we already have names for concepts that go beyond these, such as features and models.

So it seems to me at first glance that representationalist theories of consciousness with the addition of concepts from machine learning can adequately explain consciousness in all animals.

Buddhist Philosophy

Now, it turns out that this alternative hypothesis that there is no soul is not such a recent supposition.  It seems to have appeared a long time ago.

In fact, it formed a central tenet of another Indian religion – Buddhism.

In Buddhism the concept of the non-existence of the soul is called Anatta from an (not, without) and attā (soul).

So, it appears that in one Indian philosophical tradition, there is no place for the supernatural consciousness.

anatta

Consequences and More Questions

The consequences of reducing the being/soul/consciousness to a mechanical process would be very interesting.

If, we accept the above definition, we would have to think of humans as computers, because if human perceptions of the physical world are nothing more than a mental model of the same, then an electronic model of the world in a computer or a physical model in a mechanical device would also qualify as consciousness of the world.

Can we say that a computer or a mechanical model is conscious of the world in the same way that we are?

If we go with the theory that we have no magical soul, then the only alternative that remains is to accept that if a physical representation of the world can be created of its own volition by a machine that can also reason about it, then the machine is also conscious of the world.  In other words, our consciousness would have to be accepted as consisting of nothing more than our memories of the world we perceive and the models we create in our minds, and our ability to think about and reason over them.  Anything that can similarly perceive, model and remember things would have to be considered as possessing consciousness, leading to other interesting questions such as:  are humans machines, is ‘consciousness’ = ‘life’, can we have consciousness without life, and finally,  what is life?

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