Tag Archives: Consciousness

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.

The Neighborhood

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Let me send out a warm welcome to the neighborhood, I think. Not that I officially represent Earth—or anything for that matter. I’m just friendly, I guess. Now that astronomers have strong evidence that the nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, likely has a planet, it’s not premature to head over with a casserole. It’s not every day that a new solar system is discovered. We don’t know for sure that the planet’s there, but chances are pretty good. In reading about this discovery I learned that the orthodoxy has changed since I took astronomy in college. It seems now standard wisdom teaches that most stars likely have a least one planet. I can’t even count the stars—I usually start to trail off after I get to about ten—so I can’t imagine the number of potential planets out there. And where there are planets, there are gods.

Let me rephrase that. If there are billions and billions of planets it is very likely that there’s life out there. I know I’m racing ahead of the evidence here, but let me have my fun. If there’s life, there’s a chance, a glimmer of a chance at least, that given enough life we’ll find consciousness. I’ve always thought it was a touch arrogant on our part to assume we were the only ones out here. Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so, ahem, astronomically high we seem to be afraid to admit the possibility. We don’t really want to be alone in this cold, vast, universe after dark. Enter the gods. Conscious beings—even arrogant ones—have no trouble supposing that there is an even greater presence out there. I suspect this isn’t an earth-bound bias. I should hope that conscious life looks toward the stars with wonder, and even after they discover that there’s no lid on their planet they might still ponder what else might be out there.

Let’s suppose there are other creatures out there with other gods. When the meeting takes place we’ll need to have that discussion. You know the one I mean. We’ll need to ask whose deity is really real. Is it yours or is it ours? Hopefully we’ll enter into this with an open mind. I suspect it will depend on who’s in the White House, and all the other big houses, at the time. There are certainly those who claim their own almighty brooks no rivals. If it turns out that we can’t agree, I hope it doesn’t come to blows. There will always be other planets to explore, and maybe even new orthodoxies to accept. It’s an infinite universe, after all.

Mars Bars

It brings tears to my eyes. A little guy millions of miles from home. The only spark of acknowledged intelligence on the entire planet. It’s his birthday and he’s singing “Happy Birthday” to himself. It’s downright depressing. The guy, however, is the Mars rover Curiosity. It is a machine. The headline, however, jerks an emotional response from all but the coldest of individuals: “Lonely Curiosity rover sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself on Mars.” It’s that word “lonely.” It gets me every time. Then I stop to think about machine consciousness again. Empirical orthodoxy tells us that consciousness—which is probably just an illusion anyway—is restricted to people. Animals, we’re told, are “machines” acting out their “programing” and not really feeling anything. So robots we build and send to empty planets have no emotions, don’t feel lonely, and are not programed for sadness. Even your dog can’t be sad.

Amazing how short-sighted such advanced minds can be.

We don’t understand consciousness. We’re pretty wowed by our own technology, however, so that building robots can be brought down to the level of middle-school children. We build them, but we don’t understand them. And we may be losing part of ourselves in the process. An undergraduate I know who works in a summer camp to earn some money tells me a couple of disturbing things. Her middle-school-aged charges are having trouble with fine motor skills. They have trouble building basic balsa-wood airplanes. Some of them can’t figure out how paperclips work. One said she couldn’t write unless she had access to a computer. This camp worker’s supervisor suggested that this is typical of the “touchscreen generation.” They’re raised without the small motor skills that we’ve come to take for granted. Paperclips, it seems to me, are pretty intuitive.

Some 34 million miles away, Curiosity sits on Mars. An exile from Earth or an explorer like Henry Hudson? Or just a machine?

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Machines don’t always do what you tell them to. I attended enough high school robotics sessions to know that. Yet at the local 4-H fair the robots have a tent next to the goats, the dogs, and the chickens. We’ve come to love our devices. We give them names. They seem to have personalities. Some would claim that this blog is the mere result of programing (“consciousness”) just as surely as Curiosity’s programmed singing to itself out in the void. I’m not for turning back the clock, but it does seem to me that having more time to think about what we do might benefit us all. This constant rush to move ahead is exhausting and confusing. And now I’m sitting her wondering how to get this belated birthday card delivered all the way to Mars.