Why I Don’t Believe Those Who Don’t Believe in Consciousness

Original article was published by Gerald R. Baron on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


Why I Don’t Believe Those Who Don’t Believe in Consciousness

Image: Tachina Lee on unsplash. Are we conscious? And what does that mean? Is it inevitable that machines will become self-aware, and does that prove subjective experience doesn’t exist as one Medium writer believes?

Duncan Riach recently posted an interesting article on Medium explaining why he doesn’t believe in consciousness. I’m glad he did so because, as someone who definitely does believe in consciousness, I’m trying to understand the reasons that those who disagree provide to support their position. Daniel Dennett, perhaps the most recognized “denier” of consciousness makes his reasons quite obvious. As a philosopher he is committed to the physicalist dogma that there is nothing beyond particles and forces. But the “promissory materialism” (Karl Popper’s phrase) that drives him, and apparently most scientists and philosophers who study the mind-brain issue, is looking more and more forlorn.

Dennett’s denial of consciousness is rebutted by leading experts such as philosopher David Chalmers, physicist Henry Stapp, neuroscientist Christof Koch and others. I wrote about Koch’s comments about the denial of consciousness in a Medium post in August called “The Great Silliness.”

That was not my description, but his. Here is his uncompromising quotation from his 2020 book The Feeling of Life Itself:

“With the modern devaluation of metaphysics and the rise of analytic philosophy, the last century evicted the mental entirely, not only from most university departments but also from the universe at large. But this denial of consciousness is now being viewed as the “Great Silliness,” and panpsychism is undergoing a revival within the academe.”

Mr. Riach describes himself as an engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I’m tempted to ask if an engineer-psychologist studies the personality of machines. But, that would be getting ahead of myself.

Image: Unsplash. Is there a promising future for engineer-psychologists, needed to study personality disorders in machines?

While Dennett’s denial appears to be based on a thorough commitment to physicalism, Riach’s denial appears based on a firm belief in the future of Artificial Intelligence. He comments on the intelligence of Facebook’s facial recognition software and the fact that as intelligent as it clearly is, most would agree that it is not conscious. He then explains that is because Facebook’s algorithms are apparently not self-aware:

“So then why do humans claim to be conscious while denying consciousness to Facebook’s facial recognition algorithm? Well the story is that we’re conscious because not only is there a faculty of distinguishing things, but also a faculty of recognizing the presence of the first faculty. I can say that I am seeing the computer screen and there does seem to be what is commonly called an experience. That could easily be interpreted as something separate (the illusive me) witnessing the visual stimulus from somewhere inside this body.”

Riach equates consciousness to self-awareness and identifies this with what “is commonly called an experience.” From there he goes on to suggest that all that is needed for this human experience to be replicated is to add some self-recognition function to any intelligent system. In doing so, it’s ability to self-reference will make it equivalent to human consciousness:

“We can start with any less intelligent system and add to it a mechanism that can monitor and detect an apparent grouping of intelligent behavior. That mechanism can notice that the overall system seems to have autonomy in the same way that the simpler sub-system can recognize a particular face. At some level of complexity, and ability to self-reference, the system will inevitably claim that ‘I am,’ and also, hopefully, that ‘you are too.’ There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to happen.”

In Riach’s thinking then, adding the ability to self-reference will make an intelligent machine conscious, as consciousness is defined as the capacity for self-reference. I see three problems here.

  1. Consciousness in humans is far from defined solely as self-awareness.
  2. Building a self-awareness module onto a machine does not inevitably lead to the machine becoming self-aware in anything like the human or non-human sense.
  3. He defines consciousness in a way that suits his needs, but later refuses any attempt at defining consciousness and states since it doesn’t exist it can’t be defined.

We’ll deal with the last point and it’s rather glaring inconsistency or contradiction first. Mr. Riach is responding to one of the comments on his post where a reader is asking a completely reasonable question: how are you defining consciousness? Riach’s response does not appear to take this question seriously:

“Exactly. Folks keep trying to define consciousness and keep failing because it doesn’t exist.

All I will posit is that consciousness, which I’m not going to define because it’s not possible to define something that clearly does not exist, is based upon a subjective experience.

My argument is that there is no subjective experience. It’s an axiomatic mistake to even consider consciousness if it’s based on separation.”

Alastair MacRobert on unsplash. A fantasy is something that doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean there is no possible definition of fantasy. The argument that consciousness can’t be defined because nothing that doesn’t exist can be defined is faulty.

Does he really believe we can’t define something that doesn’t exist? Do dragons exist? Do elephants floating on clouds exist? He might say that consciousness is a fantasy, a figment of our imagination, but he cannot refuse definitions because he doesn’t think it exists. A reasonable discussion about consciousness requires such definitions particularly where there are disagreements. To avoid the question of definition is a rather obvious cop-out.

But he did actually define it in his post: self-awareness. It’s contradictory to offer a definition and then say no definition is possible. Even more contradictory is his comment that there is no subjective experience. In his post he said:

I can say that I am seeing the computer screen and there does seem to be what is commonly called an experience.

If he is seeing himself seeing the computer screen and most people call that an experience, how can he then deny that there is no such thing as subjective experience?

My first objection was that his definition of consciousness is limited to self-awareness. That is a component of consciousness but far from the only one. A more complete understanding of consciousness would have to deal with a wide range of specifically human activities and attributes including imagination, creativity, aesthetics, mathematics, passion and even love.

The second objection is to Riach’s statement that emergence of consciousness (in his very limited definition) in machines is inevitable. Even in the very limited sense he offers, that is of genuine self-awareness, it does not seem inevitable at all that a machine will suddenly wake up and say, “My gosh, here I am. I wasn’t here a moment ago, but now I am. It’s quite wonderful to be awake.” Of course, they will say that if programmed to say it, but no amount of programming will inevitably lead to human-level consciousness.

Image: Maximalfocus on unsplash. Will there come the day when the machine will wake up and say: “Hey, I’m awake. I wasn’t a moment ago, but now I am. Wow. I think, therefore I am.”?

The more reasonable objection to consciousness is an appeal to exclusive evolutionism, but Riach does not go there. [I refer to “exclusive evolutionism] as the idea that evolutionary processes are able to fully explain life and all its complexities and origin.] Consciousness, it has been argued, fails the test of Darwinian evolution as the complete explanation for life because as evolutionary evangelist Richard Dawkins has famously said:

“Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest waste. If a wild animal habitually performs some useless activity, natural selection will favor rival individuals who instead devote time to surviving and reproducing.”

Why would evolution result in conscious beings when David Chalmers’ zombies more fit the strict economy of pure evolution?. Consciousness is hardly necessary for fitness for survival. Its existence in breadth and depth of recorded experience is far from the parsimoniousness required of pure Darwinism. In fact, the mind-wandering professor, deep in thought and far from the world of appearances, is less likely to survive than a zombie while wandering our busy city streets. The zombie is finely tuned for survival––not so the professor. Do we really need Euclidian geometry or the Hubble Space Telescope to avoid the danger of the panther in the trees?

While some would argue that consciousness is required by evolution, it seems far from apparent that that is true. I raise the issue because one commentator on Duncan Riach’s post apparently has lost his atheistic beliefs because of the lack of parsimoniousness demonstrated in the wealth of neurons in our brains- — far beyond those needed for survival on the African plains. While the overabundance of neurons may convince some of the failure of exclusive Darwinism to explain all features of life, it seems more reasonable to me to conclude the non-essential (but gratifying) existence of consciousness provides a fairly strong argument against exclusive Darwinism.