WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS? 03-SEP-2002
As a kid, I was the ANTITHESIS of a PRODIGY. I was a dumb kid that wanted to be smarter. When I was 6 years old it occurred to me that if only I understood how brains work, I could perhaps be a bit more intelligent.
In college, I studied Electrical Engineering in the hope that from resistors, capacitors, vacuum tubes and motors, it might be possible to build a mechanical insect.
As a junior, I apprenticed myself to the emminent neurophysiologist Dr. WARREN S. McCULLOCH.
WARREN WAS GREAT. He was warm. He was loving. He knew as much as anyone
did about the brain. His paper with Walter Pitts had introduced a simple
model of a neuron, then proved that automata constructed from these neurons
and supplied with a paper tape could simulate a Universal Turing Machine.
Neurophysiologists were skeptical. The McCulloch-Pitts neuron required
both excitation and inhibition, and the neurophysiologists of the time
had not detected inhibition. McCulloch and Pitts insisted it must be there,
as they had shown it necessary to construct a Universal Turing Machine.*
I learned a lot about the brain in Warren's lab. From his student, Jerry Lettvin, I learned that the eye turns off during a saccade. Helmholtz had pointed out we couldn't read otherwise. From Edwin Land, I learned that the eye can see a rainbow of colors when shown just two different frequencies of red.
In 1969, I became an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Tenure gave me the freedom to do something strange. With Lenore's blessing, I took a week off to go to a BLISSFULLY QUIET Berkeley Hotel to try to understand/retrospect on WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS.
And what did I learn? In a word, I determined that consciousness is like
a FLASHLIGHT that one can direct and focus on whatever one finds interesting.
And when one does so, IDEAS BUBBLE UP. From where I do not know, but bubble
up they do.*
I have since learned something else that is quite surprising about consciousness: that what we are conscious of is not something that we can close our eyes and draw or describe in any detail. Rather, we can describe what we are conscious of only roughly. On the positive side, we can focus on any facet of it that we so choose -- any facet that we desire to know more about. We have the potential to focus on and be conscious (recursively) of any part that we are asked to look at or into.
To get us thinking on the same plane, I'll state a pretty good DEFINITION from Collins English Dictionary:
Good as it is, this definition misses a lot. It makes no allowance for the possibility that nonhuman minds may be conscious. It gives no tools for deciding if a robot is conscious. It gives no sense of how or why consciousness arises.
My approach to this problem, besides introspection, besides reading all I can about the neurophysiology and psychology of the brain and the philosophy of consciousness, is to think through the computer science of the problem -- to try and clarify what I don't understand through the making of models, definitions, through reasoning and by coming to grips with the paradoxes.
Is the human a MECHANISM or a CONSCIOUS ENTITY?
As Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) pointed out:
From the mechanistic point of view, there is nothing immoral about causing pain... yet it is clearly immoral to cause a conscious entity to suffer. So the mechanistic view is missing something!
1. We don't know from where ideas bubble up -- though we happily take credit for those that do.
2. We have little say about what data structures the brain uses. These
decisions are made unconsiously.
3. Breathing is interesting because it can be either conscious or unconscious.
4. Look at the world, close your eyes, and try to visualize that world. Your mind's eye has a hard time doing it.
5. You can see the world quite well in your dreams. How come your conscious mind can't do this for itself?
6. Try to describe your mother's face to someone. You'll have a hard time doing this. It's not just a matter of language. You can't draw her either. Yet you have no trouble recognizing your mother when you see her! You can pick her out from among thousands of people passing through immigration. You can do so even though you haven't the words, the drawing ability, or the memory to describe her so that someone else who has never seen her can pick her out.
Our brain does much unconsciously. What is the difference between what it does of which we are conscious and that of which we are unconscious?
7. We are UNconscious of how we ride a bicycle. Do you know how we make a left turn on a bike?
8. We are UNconscious how our eye turns off and on during a run, in time with our footsteps.
9. When you put off doing something important, it starts to gnaw at you.
What is the "it" that gnaws at you? What is the "you"
that is being gnawed at?
What is needed is:
I would prefer to see an argument for consciousness -- at least for consciousness in Darwinian evolved organisms -- that goes somewhat like the following argument for deciding which organisms do or do not feel PAIN:
The argument goes like this: Pain is useful.
1. Break a leg, and pain will cause one to favor that leg, thus preventing further damage. If an entity uncoerced continues to use its damaged leg (to the extent it can physically do so) without regard to the damage, then I would suggest that it feels no pain in that leg.
2. Break a leg, and pain usefully causes one to avoid a repetition of whatever experience led to the breakage. If the entity repeats the experience without learning from it, then I suggest that it feels correspondingly little pain in that leg.. because pain does it little good.
If an electrical shock has no effect on the actions of an entity, then
I venture that the shock does not cause the entity any pain.
Consider defining consciousness as follows:
* Rodolfo Llinas "I of the vortex: From Neurons to Self"
* Antonio Damasio "The FEELING of WHAT HAPPENS: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness" Harcourt Brace & Co, 1999
* Daniel Wegner "The Illusion of Conscious Will" MIT Press, 2002
* Scientific American Special Edition: The Hidden Mind,