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 we 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 sound track 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 sun set 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 this 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. His skill was such that his machine, Data, could not be duplicated; he was unique (well, nearly, but that’s part of the 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?