What is Consciousness For?
Posted 27 Jul 2005 at 22:50 UTC by steve
Scientists and philosophers have argued over what consciouness is and
how to give it to machines for years. Lee Pierson
and Monroe Trout have
released a new paper that addresses a more fundamental question, What is
Consciousness For? (PDF
format). They also answer the question: "Our hypothesis
is that the ultimate adaptive function of consciousness is to make
volitional movement possible. All conscious processes exist to subserve
that ultimate function. Thus, we believe that all conscious organisms
possess at least some volitional capability. Consciousness makes
volitional attention possible; volitional attention, in turn, makes
volitional movement possible. There is, as far as we know, no valid
theoretical argument that consciousness is needed for any function other
than volitional movement and no convincing empirical evidence that
consciousness performs any other ultimate function."
IAAP, posted 28 Jul 2005 at 15:13 UTC by dogsbody_d »
Consciousness needed for volition? Doesn't that strike you as a bit
This is new..., posted 28 Jul 2005 at 17:25 UTC by Axiom »
I haven't heard anyone talk about free will for a while now... I'd say
this is a step in the right direction.
There are so many AI gurus out there who claim to have "solved AI" -
the most popular approach being to claim that consciousness is
superfluous, and that once computers become fast enough, qualia and
human-like behaviour will just magically emerge. Our own AI4U seems to
be under the impression that some cryptic Forth program running on his
server contains all there is to human nature... The whole thing seems
to me like one giant evasion on the part of the AI field i.e, "the
problem of consciousness is too hard, so let's just ignore it and push
ahead hoping things will work out somehow."
This paper doesn't have the answer of course, but the whole point of it
is to stress the importance of the question. Searle et al have been
saying as much for a while now, but let's home Mr. Pierson and Mr.
Trout have better luck with it.
Freewill, posted 28 Jul 2005 at 17:40 UTC by steve »
On the topic of freewill, I highly recommend Daniel Dennett's book, Freedom
Evolves. He's one of the few philosphers to address the topic in what
seems to me a logical way. He points out the logical problems with the
unfortunately common view that freewill is in some way incompatible with
a deterministic universe. His more popular book, Consciouness Explained, is
also quite fascinating. I find Dennett's ideas much more useful for AI
and robotics application than Searle's, who mostly seems to argue that
AI is impossible. Of course, Dennett also argues, and I agree, that the
whole idea of "qualia" is bogus.
Anyway, I found this paper interesting in that the authors looked at the
problem in a slightly different way than most of the papers on
consciouness I've read in the last year or so.
Okay, so I didn't actually RTFA, my comments might only apply to the
lovely summary presented here.
There's a good reason that AI researchers have been ignoring the problem
of consciousness recently, namely the failure of Big AI in the Big Old
Bad Old Days of Giant Room Filling Computers. Folks in those days used
to think that intelligence amounted to one big algorithm, a bit like
he-who-must-not-be-named. The people trying to find intelligence seemed
focussed on the things that they thought were intelligent, like solving
maths problems and playing chess. The irony is that if they'd been
interested in playing football things would be different. If only folks
had listened more to Grey-Walter, we might have got bit further.
There's nothing wrong with trying to find the low-level intelligence
upon which our own must have involved. It's got us a lot of good
results. If we are all trying to invent cars, that doesn't make us
wrong for not inventing aeroplanes, we'll get to it.
Finbally, I was lucky enough to see Daniel Dennett lecture on "Freedom
Evolves." I do indeed urge you to read his work,
Dennet, posted 29 Jul 2005 at 15:45 UTC by Axiom »
Dennet is one of the people I was implicitly reffering to actually -
his view is that free will is just a "user illusion", which as the
paper in the article convincingly argues is not a tenable position.
It's not tenable because 1. What's the point? i.e, in an evolutionary
sense? 2. If it's just a user illusion, then the concept of truth
versus falsehood has no meaning anymore.
Regarding #2 specifically, think of it this way: the only thing Dennet
can say is that "well, I may be programmed by genes/nature to believe
in determinism, but I'm programmed correctly!"... but then he must
admit "I'm programmed to believe that I'm programmed correctly" and
then "I'm programmed to believe that I'm programmed to believe that I'm
programmed correctly..." ad infinitum. There's no escaping the
Dennett definitely doesn't believe freewill is an illusion - quite the
opposite. In fact, I think the recurring myth that he believes that is
even addressed in Freedom Evolves somewhere. Perhaps the idea that he
doesn't believe in freewill comes from cases in which he has pointed out
logical fallacies in some of the common "thought exercises" used to
debate the issue. As far as determinism in general, that's a seperate
issue altogether. In other words, Dennett believes freewill can and does
exist regardless of whether the Universe is deterministic or
non-deterministic. Thought, if such a thing
as non-deterministic freewill
could exist, I'm not clear on how it could differ from randomness and
if choice is constrained by the output of a random process it doesn't
sound very free!
Like consciousness, I think a lot of the misunderstanding over
things like determinism and freewill comes from no one defining the
terms before they start debating their existence.
Dennett, posted 30 Jul 2005 at 00:59 UTC by Axiom »
I'll admit that I haven't read Freedom Evolves, but I am reasonably
sure that Dennett is indeed a determinist. He does not believe in free
will in the classical sense - i.e, human choice as a first cause.
Rather, he simply redefines it to something akin to soft determinism.
determinism, posted 30 Jul 2005 at 14:51 UTC by steve »
He's a determinist. I wouldn't say he redefines freewill so much as he
defines it. The first part of the book looks at and dispells common
myths about what freewill is, such as something supernatural. The second
part presents Dennett's analysis of what it is and how it evolved. It's
been a while since I read it so I couldn't give a verbatim definition.
(somebody correct me if I'm too far off here...)
His general position is that determinism isn't the same as
inevitability. Determinism means outcomes have causes, inevitiblility
means outcomes can't be avoided. Intelligent
agents can make real, moral choices that affect the outcomes of events.
So the outcomes are "evitable" as he likes to say. The number and
complexity of the choices has grown more complex along with the creatures
I think he uses the example of a pitcher who throws a baseball
directly at your head.
The deterministic universe says the ball is going to reach a certain
point at a certain time but you can choose to move your head out of
the way or not. Did your choice have a "cause"? Sure, you probably
didn't want to get hit in the head by the ball. So is a choice with a
cause not freewill - does choosing to do something for a reason mean you
aren't free to choose among multiple outcomes?
Anyway, read the book if you get the chance - you may still disagree but
it's a fascinating read.