Tag Archives: Consciousness

Self-Conscious

Cassini is no more. The Saturn-bound satellite was launched in 1997 when the earth was a very different place. As it’s four-year sell-by date passed, the little robot who could kept on snapping photos around the ringed giant and its moons. Remote controlled from three planets and an asteroid belt away, it was decided that the explorer had to be destroyed in Saturn’s thick atmosphere rather than contaminate one of the moons where life might someday be found. Yesterday the probe burned up on its way through Saturn’s perpetual cloud bank. This has led to many emotional tributes, even among scientists who believe Cassini was just a machine. It also shows us how little we really know about consciousness.

During the two decades that Cassini was in space, we’ve learned quite a bit about animal consciousness here on our own planet. Many are now finally becoming convinced that we share this strange quality we can’t even define with other biological entities. Well, at least the “higher” kind. And we can’t help but think that maybe our more intelligent machines possess it too. We treat them as if they’re alive and willful. That could be a case of our own consciousness projecting itself onto inanimate matter—that’s something consciousness is pretty good at too—but since we lack the ability to measure consciousness, we can’t know if it’s there or not. To hear the astronomers talk, we’re going to miss Cassini, a machine that outperformed expectations. Ironically, once we get machines off the earth they tend to do that, even without oil changes every 5000 miles.

Down here on earth we complicate consciousness with cash. Devising an elaborate economic system to demonstrate who can buy power in the White House and who can’t, we want to know who is more important than whom. It’s a simple metric. Bank accounts tell the truth, no matter what the level of consciousness—or even of sentience—that the account holder may have. And then we wonder why a nation that can send a satellite three planets away can’t even figure out that all races should be treated equally and fairly. Cassini was a collaborative effort. Different races, genders, and economic classes contributed to its remarkable voyage. Eyes around the country were moistened when its last image was projected to earth. We wisely decided to immolate our satellite before we could contaminate another world. Meanwhile on our own planet we’re barely conscious of what we continue to do.

The Rights and Privileges

Bostonia is but one of several alumni magazines that makes its way to our humble apartment. Between my wife and I we have many colleges and universities begging us for money while offering us no jobs. Despite being a denied professor I have little time for magazines. I’ve always been a book man. If I’m going to put time into something I want an ISBN to claim at the end of the day. Still, the cover of the Bostonia asks a relevant question: “Should Chimps Have Human Rights?” I have long argued, based on books I’ve read and on personal experience, that animals are conscious beings, like we are. If consciousness evolved, it has to have its roots in other animals, otherwise scientists are positing “special creation,” call it what you will. If animals share consciousness, they should share rights.

People have used animals for as long as they could figure out how to do so. It may have been a two-way street at first, since we’re pretty good at protecting critters we find valuable and who doesn’t like a free lunch? They stick around us. The earliest domesticated animal seems to have been the wolf, which we made into a dog. Other common mammals joined the mule train after that. Humans: they treat you rough, but they’ll make getting food a snap. There’s a kind of consciousness involved already, don’t you think? If they can’t figure out that we’re not going to harm them (at least not yet) then they’re smart enough to keep their distance. Not all wolves became dogs.

Primates, however, are a special case. They sort of look like us. Chimpanzees, especially, act like us. They don’t get human rights because those are reserved for others of our own species. I mean, consider those in charge of the free world! They believe in the right to acquire as much of the world’s resources as they can for themselves. They guard the use of those resources so they can live in unutterable luxury and make everyone else pay through the nose for the very necessities of keeping alive. The masses pay taxes while those who have more than enough do not. We are a domesticated species, it seems to me. Don’t get me wrong—I do believe chimps should have human rights. Other animals too. We’re all connected. But the real question I have, looking at the headlines from Washington, DC, is turned the other way around: should humans have the rights of chimps? Don’t ask me; universities won’t hire my likes when others will bring them greater glory. They’ll gladly accept my money, however. It’s their right.

Clean Sweep

The other day I was reading about cleaner wrasses. These are the fish, usually in coral reef community, that establish a place of business, and other fishes who want to be rid of parasites come onto location to be cleaned. They allow the wrasses to nip them all over to get the pests taken care of, even allowing the smaller fish to swim into their mouths to work their specialization there. Kind of a mix between a visit to the dentist and the car wash. Documentary makers have filmed the process multiple times, and, being humans, we project onto the piscine scene a kind of business template—an exchange of goods for services. Then we turn back to our own lives and forget the underwater world.

Image credit: Robbie N. Cada, courtesy FishBase, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Still, I have to wonder about what’s going on here in the realm of consciousness. We do not yet know what consciousness is, but we all recognize it in ourselves. We know we’re alive and conscious—except when we’re dreaming when we don’t seem to realize what’s going on in our brains isn’t really happening. Most of the time, however, we set our goals, have our intentions, and go about our business accordingly. What is the motive force that drives a fish to the cleaner wrasse’s studio? Isn’t there a level of consciousness involved to know that this fish’s house is where you need to be for this kind of treatment? Don’t the larger, predator fish know that if they eat the wrasse in their mouth they’ll have to find a new service provider? Are they aware of this or are they, as some scientists like to tell us, simply biological machines following their programming?

I’m not a scientist, but I see consciousness all around me. I watch the interactions of land animals—I generally don’t take trips under the sea, no matter what Sebastian says—and they are anything but simple. The birds on the wire and in the chokecherry trees have complex interactions. All you have to do is watch a single individual for a few minutes. They make decisions—the sky is a vast, open template with no obstacles, surely they have to decide why they want to go this direction and not that! And bowerbirds build nests as elaborate as Victorian mansions. Not that there are bowerbirds at my bus stop, or even in New Jersey. There are limits to how far even nature will go. As I stand here, waiting for my bus, I can’t help but think how like a cleaner wrasse I am. And I’m sure they must be conscious of what they’re doing since life’s all about the exchanges of goods and services.

No Explanation

How do you explain that? Everything, I mean. The need to understand “life, the universe, and everything” is as old as our species, and perhaps even older than that. Up until modernity when the limits of physical explanations were reached, gods filled the gaps. Can Science Explain Religion: The Cognitive Science Debate, by James W. Jones, is not an easy book. It demands mental rigor on the part of the reader. It is also a very important book. Mainly addressing the religion debunkers—those who famously declare religion to be pointless and perhaps even evil—the book asks logically, step by step, whether their assertions are rational. Since Jones is, as I once was, a professor of religion, the reader will be forgiven for second-guessing him. Jones makes a very strong case not for the truth of religion, but for its rationality, not its believability.

Beginning with the basics, Jones considers explaining explaining. In other words, can religion be explained scientifically, and if it can what does that logically prove? You need to follow him pretty closely here, but it is worth the journey. Science, as a human enterprise, has its limits. Jones doesn’t disparage science—far from it—just its misuse. The mad passion for a single explanation for everything has led to reductionist thinking. It’s not uncommon for the debunkers to claim everything is physical. Nothing exists that science can’t explain. Jones demonstrates the logical flaws in this approach. Not apologetically, but rationally. Physicalism, like its ancestor logical positivism, runs into serious problems when it comes to explaining much of life. Especially consciousness.

Consciousness remains one of the great mysteries of existence. Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from. Jones isn’t appealing to the “God of the gaps” here, but he is simply taking his own experience as a clinical psychophysiologist and bringing it into the conversation. Mind is not easily explained as a byproduct of matter. The term that has been used in recent years is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Jones doesn’t declare science can’t explain this, but rather that when science addresses the question clearly and logically a plurality emerges. One single answer may not be enough to cover it all. I’ve posted many times on this blog about the misuse of Occam’s Razor. Jones here provides a sustained, and rational discussion of questions that have never been answered adequately. Religion doesn’t challenge science, but together they may have more explanatory power than either has separately. Any book that can establish that qualifies as very important.

Death Challenged

Long before the Walking Dead, and even before Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, people took the undead seriously. Now, I know ratings are important (they attract advertisers and their money, after all), but when the fear is reality the stakes are upped a bit. Two readers sent me a Guardian story this past week of Yorkshire villagers mutilating the dead. In the Middle Ages, that is—it’s perfectly safe to die in Yorkshire now. The story by Maev Kennedy describes how archaeologists have been studying deliberately defiled corpses, well, actually the bones from those corpses to be precise, to solve a centuries-old mystery. Their conclusion? Medieval folk really did fear the dead coming back from the grave.

Now, Easter’s just around the corner and resurrection’s on a lot of minds. Outside the context of the Bible, however, resurrection of the dead is one of the most ancient and persistent of human fears. Nobody’s quite sure why. Dreams and visions of the recently departed are extremely common. Belief in ghosts is ancient and fairly universal. The destruction of the bodies of people already dead is not. We treat our gathered ones with respect. To me it seems to come down to the puzzle of consciousness. Call it a soul if you like, but I have a feeling things would be getting rather crowded in here if too many distinct entities claimed this body as home. Mind, soul, spirit, psyche, consciousness. We don’t know what it is because it can’t be studied empirically. We know that something like it exists and opinions of what happens to it after death vary. The body, we can all agree, has a more prosaic end.

That’s what makes fear of the undead so fascinating. They are only bodies. Bodies without souls. Rather like leaders of the Republican Party. We fear them because when we look into their unblinking eyes we see no vestige of human warmth or sympathy. Those who walk among us and who don’t care about those of us not yet undead remain a perennial fear. In the case of the Yorkshire corpses these were people already buried. Putting them back in their graves seemed kind of pointless when they would only climb out again. We don’t know what it was like on the ground in the Middle Ages. History, however, has an ironic way of repeating itself. We’re entering a new age when I suspect we’ll want to make sure the remains of some remain well and truly gone once they’ve finally given up the ghost.

Fear of the Artificial

As someone who dedicated four years—particularly long winter nights—to the cause of high school robotics, I found myself knowing quite a bit before I walked into the room. Now let me post a disclaimer here: I’m no techie. I’ve studied the humanities throughout my education and although I’ve been able to engineer a bookshelf or two, and even the occasional project with moving parts, the technical eludes me. I claim absolutely no expertise in it. So where was I going that robotics came to mind? A lecture on Artificial Intelligence. AI. You see, I’ve been a bit concerned about it for some time because I’ve seen what robots can do. A friend recently showed me some episodes of Battle Bots on YouTube (the relative who started this blog for me was doing quite well in the competition last season), and from my own experience watching hours of FIRST robotics competitions, I know enough to be afraid.

What could possibly go wrong? (DARPA photo)

What could possibly go wrong? (DARPA photo)

The lecturer assured us that we had nothing—or next to nothing—to fear. Artificial Intelligence, he assured us, is a misnomer. Machines have no will. No mind. There’s nothing they want. They do as they’re told. You write a program and feed it to your bot and your mechanical friend can do only what it’s told to do. This sounds uncomfortably like slavery to me and although I know I’m projecting, I have to wonder if robots think the same way about it too. No, the lecturer assured us, they do only the tasks assigned. They don’t think at all. Then he said something that made me shiver. That wasn’t his intent. He said something like, “We don’t even know what consciousness is, so how can we replicate it?” That was meant to be reassuring.

I took this idea and flipped it over in my head. Rotated it. Ran it through my own programming. If we don’t know what consciousness is, how can we be sure we haven’t accidentally created it? Herein lies the heart of fear. Scientists have been trying for decades to define, to explain empirically, what consciousness is. We simply don’t know. We all recognize it when we see it in other humans. We’re finally starting to recognize it in animals (long overdue). How do we know that it isn’t a function of complexity? And when does something become complex enough to qualify? I don’t know about you, but videos of swarm robots send me hiding under the bed. Not that it will do me much good. They’ll know where I’m hiding. Maybe I could use some intelligence right now. Even something artificial might help to stop me from shivering.

Intelligent Life

arewesmartPerhaps the most pervasive trait of religion is its ability to construct worldviews. Even when the religion is eventually abandoned, the worldview remains. Most scientists would deny that religion lies behind their perspectives, but in the case of human exceptionalism it remains the most logical cause. I always eagerly await new books by Frans de Waal. Ever since I read his book on empathy and apes, I couldn’t wait for the next one. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, although the title is a mouthful, does not disappoint. As I’ve noted before about his works, de Waal is perhaps the most sensible person writing in science today. He considers the evidence and takes his own biases into account. In a competitive world where science money is often doled out to those who can exclude others, de Waal is willing to leave the door open when the evidence demands it.

What is really ironic is that evolution has become the line in the sand between biblical literalists and science. As de Waal points out, the idea that people are different from the animals from which they evolved—in some qualitative way—is an idea based on religion. Many scientists still hold to it in a way that can only be described as, well, religious. This is very strange when evolution works by gradual changes over long periods of time. When did humans gain whatever trait that separates them from “the animals”? When I was a child it was tool use. When that was disproved, it became language. When that was disproved it became consciousness. The latter is the safest since nobody really knows what it is. As de Waal amply demonstrates the Behaviorist school was clearly wrong about animals (including humans). What no Behaviorist wants to admit is that the idea that we alone are conscious comes from the cultural interpretation of the Bible.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is, like many of de Waal’s books, full of wonderful observations of the ways animals actually behave. They solve problems. They learn from experience. They anticipate the future. In some cases they have been shown to outperform humans on cognitive tasks. And yet we still insist that people are somehow different. Better. Interestingly this is one area where religions and science tend to agree. People are just more important than animals. I wonder if one of the underlying reasons—not addressed by de Waal—is that we have come to depend on a lifestyle that unfairly exploits animals. After all, we eat them, use them for work, and even experiment on them. If we admit that they are intelligent we would need to, yes, rethink all of this. Given what’s happening in the world today, it is perhaps time to admit what we don’t really know.