Cogito Ergo Sum

In my first post I mentioned René Descartes and his seminal statement, Cogito ergo sum.” I think, therefore I am. Because this statement and the ideas that spring from it lie at the heart of my philosophy and interests, it is a fitting topic for my second post. I also mentioned beginnings; these beginning posts explore such core topics as form my core and inform my mind.

And mind is the topic at hand. “I think, therefore I am,” concerns one of the most central, most personal, most mysterious, most fantastic aspects of our existence. It concerns something each of us shares every waking moment, but which remains–thus far–completely unknown.

That every moment mystery is that we think and experience. Each of us has a voice inside their head; an «I» that is us. It’s the driver of the car that says, “I’m hungry,” or “I’m going to the library.”

It’s the soundtrack running in your head right now as you read this. It’s the basis of your thoughts and experience.

We have no idea what it actually is.

If you ‘see red’ it can mean you’re angry or it can mean you’re quite calmly looking at a sunset or a stop sign. The double meaning comes into play later, but for now focus on the experience of looking at something red.

When you look at something red, what you experience inside your head is different from what you experience if you look at green or blue or popcorn or pizza or anything else. You have a unique experience when you look at something red.

We have no idea what’s going on there.

We don’t know why the pile of cells inside your skull — that body organ we call the brain — becomes a mind that can think and experience. We all share these phenomena in a very direct, personal way, yet the how of it escapes us.

There are two basic schools of thought. One is that a mind springs into being once you connect enough cells. Mind is therefore an emergent property of complexity. Build a complex enough computer, and it will have a mind just like ours. The other school of thought varies considerably on the how, but denies the idea that mind is just computation.

Put simply, is it possible to ever build the Star Trek TV show’s character, Data?

As any fan can tell you, Data was a machine built by a brilliant (if somewhat wacky) scientist. That scientist’s skill was such that his machine, Data, could not be duplicated; he was unique (well, nearly, but that’s part of the, um, lore we’ll ignore for now).

The important point is that Data thought and experienced.

He was, in fact, judged sentient. The machine was made person. Pinocchio didn’t become a boy; he was defined to be a boy.

On the TV show, the magic happened in Data’s “positronic” brain, a term coined directly from, and in honor of, Isaac Asimov‘s Robot series. As with warp drive and transporters, one simply accepts that it works.

But does it?

That’s a question we will eventually answer. We will someday build a machine as complex as a human brain. That’s just an engineering problem, and humans have proved to be quite good at solving engineering problems.

The question is, what happens when we finally turn on the switch?

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “Cogito Ergo Sum

  • wakemenow

    I get to thinking whatever humans do manage to come up with in terms of A.I., it won’t prove to be the same as us, certainly not the first go-round anyway. And yeah, it’s a mystery what’ll happen when that switch is flipped.

    But you know what, Wyrd? I must be some type of modern Luddite, because it just seems to me so unwise that we humans are zooming into the future at this speed and without much to guide our ambitions, tinkering with all matter of things simply for the sake of doing so. And maybe this period of hasty advancement is necessary for the game-changing lessons we’ve gleaned in such a short amount of time. But can or should we keep at it at this break-neck speed with so little thought given as to why?

    We assume that technological advancements equate with human life advancement, but that’s not always the case, is it? With A.I., it sets up a comparison between us and the machines, which you and I may agree in believing human minds to be greater than any machine and cannot be replicated in-full through technological means, but not everyone wishes to believe that. And the effects of the comparison alone tend to be alienating and dehumanizing, because so many people place so much esteem in machines and all that is scientific to where they degrade humans up against that idealized standard. It’s a weird thing, but I hear folks talk like that already and figure more such talk is to come.

    People are intrigued by the possibility of perfection. And that looks like dangerous territory when it comes to human beings, because we aren’t perfect and never will naturally be so. But plenty of people don’t like other people, either specific races or groups or the whole lot of us, and some of them use money to influence where research is focused. So long as the scientific realm is being directed in large part by available funding and marketability considerations, it’s going to be about money and not so much about what most humans really value. I see this all as a recipe from stuff getting out of hand in a hurry, perhaps going so far as to prove irreversible. Ya never know. But either way, it seem most of us average people out here ultimately don’t get to have much of say in the matter.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Throughout the history of science and technology there has been a concern about headlong, heedless progress, and I think the concern is usually justified. It’s usually also beside the point, since headlong, heedless progress seems a species trait. We monkeys find Pandora’s Box utterly irresistible. What happens when I bang these particular rocks together? Ah, ha! I just invented the atom bomb!

      I grew up with the nuclear doomsday. Now we add climate change, genetic modification, water purity, deadly natural viruses, deadly human-made bio-organisms, many limited resources we will use up, space junk in orbit, extinction asteroids, nano-machine “gray goo” and the fucking interweb. (And just maybe killer robots.) We’re way beyond, “What happens when I push this button?” Way, way beyond.

      What happened with the Canadian National Science Foundation is reprehensible. But it just rides the wave of anti-intellectual and anti-science thought that seems to be cresting now. I see dark days ahead if we don’t change direction.

      To be honest, I’ve kind of given up. Humankind is too stupid to save, too stupid overall to be worth saving. I’m glad I don’t have kids who will grow up in this world, and I’m glad even I won’t be around much longer to see what happens. I’m not kidding about dark days. Our unprecedented growth rates along many axes are not physically sustainable. The bill has to come due, and that bill is monstrous (in both senses: it’s huge and it’s deadly).

      One science fiction author I know postulated that there were no space-faring hierarchical intelligent races. They always killed themselves off. Given the only available sample (us), he seems right on target. Or rather we do.

  • wakemenow

    I fear you’re right. And perhaps I should just accept it and let go of these feelings of wanting to hit the brakes as hard as I can. Maybe there’s nothing that can be done other than to watch events unfold and live out our lives in accordance with our own beliefs and attitudes in spite of what others may have in mind. It’s just so difficult to accept being pulled and pushed to places we shouldn’t all have to go, especially when the current setup is financially exploiting us and aiming to cage us in ridiculous ways that run counter to our natures and spirits.

    Hrmm. But I understand that you are correct here. I just don’t know what to do with that understanding.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I suppose it depends, in part, on how much stake you have in things. I have, at best, maybe 30+ years of sand left in my hourglass, no children, no strong connections. There are ever fewer reasons for me to care. There need to be Good People to fight the Bad People, but I’m out of gas… I’ll leave the battle to others and, yeah, pretty much just enjoy what I can enjoy. (And blog about the shit that pisses me off! 😀 )

      Truly letting go of things you can’t change, or have decided don’t matter, is very freeing, but you need to balance it with giving a shit and being passionate about stuff. You can obviously go too far. The right balance depends so much on who you are and where you are in life. Terminal patients really strip life down to the essentials; that’s a lot easier when you’re counting time down in weeks or days. The power of letting go, the peace they get, is really something to see. (The beatific sense people can get from surrendering to religious faith can be similar in nature.)

      But you can’t spend your whole life around contemplating your navel. We need those burgers and bridges and banks. And people protesting burgers and bridges and banks. Society seeks its own level; one just has to find some way to live with it and maybe contribute to it somehow. [It feels like I’m writing pretentious gibberish here… probably should have started writing at 4:20.]

  • athenaminerva7

    Heavy stuff here. (1030 is far too late to get in a debate but I guess you have already seen such movies as transcendence and chappie and I’d be interested in your take on them)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’ve seen Transcendence (and many, many other books and films about AI), but not Chappie (yet). I tend towards the idea that experiential consciousness isn’t possible for machines and never will be. For all we know about how the brain works (and there are still major mysteries there), we have no idea how consciousness works, so — at best — we’re a long ways away for building one.

      I could be wrong, but until I’m proven wrong, I choose to believe machines will never experience consciousness.

      • athenaminerva7

        They probably will at some point but whether I will be around to see it is other question entirely.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, we’re definitely not close, that’s for sure. What makes you think the probably will at some point? Do you think — as many do — that the brain is just a machine and that mind is just something brain machines do? FWIW, I’m a dualist with spiritual leanings, so I think mind is much more than the functioning of some machine — but I’m in no position to say what that might be.

      • athenaminerva7

        I think purely from a stats point of view that it will happen. As to when I have no idea.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m not sure which stats you mean?

      • athenaminerva7

        The stats themselves don’t exist I meant that were working towards it so because it’s a possibility it will happen.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, absolutely a possibility!

        Just keep in mind science doesn’t always manage to grasp what it seeks. Some things have turned out to be impossible.

        Gödel, Cantor, Heisenberg, and Turing, were all scientist’s whose work proved that certain goals were impossible, even in principle. There are a lot of other examples that falsify the idea that, “if you keep trying, you will succeed.”

        Sometimes you don’t!

  • Strong Computationalism | Logos con carne

    […] In the nearly nine years of this blog I’ve written many posts about human consciousness in the context of computers. Human consciousness was a key topic from the beginning. So was the idea of conscious computers. […]

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