What is Consciousness?

When it comes to consciousness, one of the top challenges is defining what it is. (Some insist it doesn’t even exist, which makes defining it even more of a challenge.) Part of the problem is that there is no single correct definition. There never really has been.

There is also that there is sentience (essentially the ability to feel pain as pain) and there is sapience (roughly: wisdom). Lots of animals are sentient, but sapience seems to be a property of human consciousness.

Which raises the question: Are humans just a point on a spectrum, or is there some sort of “band gap” between higher and lower forms?

A definition can depend on its instances — whatever is included as an instance participates in the definition. The distillation of those properties is the definition. The definition comes after identifying actual examples.

On the other hand, a definition can depend on abstract concepts. In this case, the definition comes first. Being an example depends on matching the definition.

I think the more irreducible an idea is — the harder it is to define by other ideas — the more we need to rely on examples to define it.

Love is hard to define; it’s a complex and irreducible concept. But it’s fairly easy to point out examples.

In contrast, consider the Mandelbrot. It has an abstract definition that comes first. (Although various mathematical ideas led to the idea of the Mandelbrot.) And it is fully defined using other simpler ideas (the math).

Consciousness (at least for now) is much more like love than the Mandelbrot.[1]

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With that in mind, what do I think some of the defining properties of consciousness are?[2]

Self-reflection (aka meta-cognition). This might be one of the central aspects of higher-consciousness. Consciousness looks at itself, is aware of itself.

This isn’t the something it is like to be consciousness, this is being aware there is something it is like.

It’s one thing, something it is like, to be wet and cold, but it’s another level to be aware your misery might affect your health.

Curiosity. Consciousness asks questions.

It wonders about models of reality; it seeks to create accurate models. In a sense, this is the self-reflection turned outward. Curiosity leads to science and mathematics, also traits I’d expect to see.

(More likely, self-reflection is curiosity turned inwards, which makes curiosity a central trait, too.)

Creativity. Consciousness can imagine new models of reality.

This expresses itself in new tools, in improving existing tools, in creating new structures (buildings, bridges, roads), as well as in storytelling and other expressive modes (see below).

Communication: Consciousness wants to talk!

Language, literature, sending letters, journalism, talk shows, letters to the editor, sending emails, chat rooms, text messages, online comments… consciousness just won’t shut up!

Art: Consciousness is expressive.

Music, dance, song, images real and surreal, decoration. Art is a combination of consciousness being both creative and communicative.

Science & Mathematics. Consciousness wants to understand things.

Already mentioned above as a part of curiosity, but these also include creativity, communication, and a little art.[3]

I think these are all hallmarks of consciousness.[4]

A way to put it very simply is that: Consciousness attests to itself.

An important point is that these traits don’t necessarily announce themselves immediately. It may take time, and many examples, to really see if these exist in a system or not.

A system of programmed responses (a “Chinese Room”) might fool us for an hour or even part of a day, but I doubt it can fool us over, say, a month of living with it.

Call it a Rich Turing Test — taking the time to get to know the consciousness and only then deciding.[5]

§

What about brain damage? Coma? The effects of drugs?

What about them? Broken examples, by definition, aren’t expected to have all the properties of the class — they’re broken.

We don’t define a bicycle in terms of one with a broken chain or busted wheels. The definition of a bicycle assumes a working — often a pristine, even abstract — bicycle.[6]

Likewise a definition of consciousness refers to a fully working mind. Our definitions reference ideal systems.

These things, damage or drugs, do show consciousness is a complex engine made of many parts. Some of those parts can be impaired, even quite severely, without completely breaking the engine’s functionality.

Think of all the ways a car engine can be impaired and still output useful revolutions to turn the wheels. Complex systems can often manage to work around failures of its parts.

On the other hand, sometimes an O-ring destroys everything. The logic of “for want of a nail” does sometimes apply.

§

One of the confounding things about consciousness is that it’s the only aspect of existence we see from the inside as well as the outside.

Everything else in reality, we can only see what it looks like, what its appearances are. (Which includes visual, sound, taste, touch, voltage, weight, temperature, etc.)[7]

But we all have a personal experience of consciousness. We know what it feels like to be conscious. (The something it is like.) We live inside of our own consciousness.

This adds a strong subjective element to its definition.

§

Another interesting aspect is the idea of a spectrum of consciousness.

We consider many animals as having some form of consciousness — at the least, they’re sentient. Some animals are quite intelligent.

But there seems a very large gap between the smartest most capable animal and the something that humans have.

We don’t know what their experience is, we don’t know what goes on in their minds. Yet those who have spent a lot of time with animals tend to see a bit of something there.[8]

I’ve made the analogy of laser light with consciousness, and as aspect of that may apply here.

It’s possible for the right materials to lase very weakly. If you compare a laser pointer just before the batteries die, versus with new ones in, you get an idea of what I mean.

There is also that some materials can lase, but only some.

§

Which brings me to: what do I think consciousness is not?

  • It is not structure or information alone.
  • It is not integration or network alone.
  • It is not information processing alone.
  • It does not occur in number crunching
  • It does not occur in data tables.
  • It does not occur in any simple systems.

But structure and information and integration and network and information processing are all crucial aspects of whatever does generate consciousness.

They are necessary, but not sufficient.

§

So, bottom line, as with love (as with porn), I can describe it, I know it when I see it, I certainly know it if I spend time with it, and it seems to stand out — it seems to attest to its own consciousness.

But defining it is really difficult.

Stay conscious, my friends!


[1] And all three are mind-blowing in their complexity!

[2] These properties are distilled from active observation of putative members of the group over a lifetime — 60+ years of data!

[3] Albert Einstein, in a remark made in 1923; recalled by Archibald Henderson, Durham Morning Herald, August 21, 1955 (emphasis mine):

“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.

[4] You might say to me, “But many humans don’t have these qualities!” And I would reply to you, “That’s true. What’s your point?”

[5] Or we need to invent a good Gom Jabbar.

[6] Or consider the definition of a circle — no real circle meets that definition, so all real circles are “broken” in some sense.

[7] Immanuel Kant was one of the first to make it clear we can never fully know these external objects, these “things in themselves.” We can only know their properties empirically.

[8] For me it’s dogs. I look into their eyes and someone seems home.

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

22 responses to “What is Consciousness?

  • James Cross

    I tend to equate sentience with consciousness but, since many use the term in different ways, it is certainly valid to suggest a definition requiring more than sentience.

    I think consciousness as you define arises in social organisms and is tied to the internal notion of a self. In interacting with others we create our own internal representation to ourselves. Language possibly is possibly critical for its manifestation with all of its characteristics you list. Without a self is it really possible to have the experience of being like something?

    Have you ever look at the radical plasticity theory?

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3110382/

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “I tend to equate sentience with consciousness but,…”

      Entirely valid. I should, perhaps, have been more clear I was trying to define high-level consciousness. That something that, so far, only humans possess.

      I absolutely consider dogs (and other animals) conscious on a sentience-level definition!

      “I think consciousness as you define arises in social organisms and is tied to the internal notion of a self.”

      Certainly in a complex social interaction. Insects have a kind of “social” behavior, too, giant cities, but the manner of interaction is quite different.

      “In interacting with others we create our own internal representation to ourselves. Language possibly is possibly critical for its manifestation with all of its characteristics you list.”

      Oh, yes! I was just talking to a friend of mine about how we have an internal model of self, but we also have an external model of self built on feedback from others. Our full sense of self comes from both. Someone who is constantly complimented for being especially attractive, strong, or intelligent (or the opposites of those!), begins to believe these things about themselves in addition to whatever internal model of self they might have.

      One of the ways I come to believe my consciousness is roughly similar to that of others is through the communication of language. Literature is especially rich when it comes to perceiving the consciousnesses of others.

      “Without a self is it really possible to have the experience of being like something?”

      Good question. Would you say a bat has a sense of self?

      “Have you ever look at the radical plasticity theory?”

      I have not.

      • James Cross

        The social behavior of insects is programmed rather than learned so social behavior becomes a requirement for the higher order consciousness you are discussing but isn’t sufficient by itself to cause it.

        Likely I would say most mammals have a sense of self. That would include bats. So conscious, but not the higher order sort.

        What really distinguishes humans from other social mammals is language and tool making. These are likely related.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “What really distinguishes humans from other social mammals is language and tool making. These are likely related.”

        I quite agree. From language come literature, art, music, and dance. From tool making comes science, mathematics, technology, architecture, …

  • Philosopher Eric

    Nice post Wyrd. Like James Cross I think it’s useful to define consciousness as sentience. In all cases there is something that it’s like to be sentient (or at least when this trait is actually displayed). So this is a lower order theory. The human is simply an extremely scaled up example of something sentient/ conscious.

    I like your laser analogy. Just as there are only physically discrete states of lazing, there are only physically discrete states of sentience. To me each are manifestations of consciousness, and nothing otherwise displays this trait.

    One element of my model is that before sentience (probably around the Cambrian period) evolution ran into a problem. Essentially in order for it to make something living deal with more situations, it needed to directly account for associated contingencies. This is to say that direct programming was required. While that may work for plants and such, in more open environments evolution couldn’t sufficiently program for enough contingencies. So what did it do to get around this circumstance? It created agents. Sentience is the mechanism which drives agency. It represents all that’s valuable to anything, anywhere.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks, Eric.

      “I think it’s useful to define consciousness as sentience.”

      Because? What’s the advantage that way?

      (As I mentioned to James, maybe I should have been more explicit I was trying to define the something that, so far, we only see in humans.)

      “The human is simply an extremely scaled up example of something sentient/ conscious.”

      You’re talking about the spectrum. Do you have an account of why the gap between humans and all other forms of consciousness is so profound?

      “I like your laser analogy.”

      Thanks. If it’s correct, if consciousness arises from the physical behavior of the system, computationalism is in a lot of trouble. It might well be dead.

      “…evolution ran into a problem.”

      I’m sure you’re not suggesting evolution had agency and did this intelligently?

      I absolutely agree it takes at least some intelligence to deal with changing situations. The higher that intelligence, the more it can cope with. (I guess we’d be NGIs as opposed to AGIs.) That very high level of intelligence let us do what we do.

      Our consciousness led us to write, sing, and tell stories about it. 🙂

      • Philosopher Eric

        Wyrd,
        I like to directly define consciousness as anything sentient, for reasons of sympathy. Personal value exists in sentient things and not in non-sentient things. As something as advanced as a human I often think, “If I were [whatever] instead, would I then feel bad, or perhaps good?” If I decide “yes” then my perception of its state will tend to affect me in a corresponding way. Thus I may try not to expose myself to perceived suffering, or even go “PETA”. It’s like Mike and his crawfish post. In ignorance, are we doing unspeakable horrors? In some or even many regards, surely so!

        Furthermore it seems to me that science is really missing the boat here. For example there’s Michael Graziano’s attention theory schema. Instead of dinking around with “illusionism”, why not acknowledge sentience as the primal motivation which drives conscious function, and thus “attention”? And can one really construct a useful theory of attention, without proposing what motivates it?

        My thoughts about why the human is incredibly beyond other forms of life on Earth…? Well there are lots of sentient creatures out there which are also quite social, though I suspect that we really started reaping cognitive benefits with the evolution of our natural languages. The following article (https://aeon.co/essays/tools-and-voyages-suggest-that-homo-erectus-invented-language), suggests that this emerged somewhere between .8 and 1.5 million years ago (though most scientists suspect far later). If so this may have been sufficient time to change us from something far more ape like than what we are. Language not only helps us communicate, but I’d say helps us think effectively. A human with no language will thus be quite handicapped, and even a primitive language should be problematic, not to mention a person who has language difficulties.

        On computation, just as a machine can causally produce laser beams, it’s clearly also possible for a machine (like my head) to produce sentience. As a hard core computer guy, if you tell me that it isn’t productive to define the “computer” term such that computational machines produce things like laser beams or sentience, I’m good with that. I care about effective descriptions of our function, not how such descriptions are classified.

        It sounds like you’re good with my “why” of consciousness explanation. Apparently David Chalmers considers this problem “hard”, though to me it’s only the “how” of consciousness/ sentience that’s perplexing. The question that science should most needs to address is the “what” of functional consciousness, or the title of your post. If you’re mainly interested in the difference between standard sentient life and human life however, I may not have all that much in the way of original ideas. It’s the stuff further back that I most address. But try this:

        I suspect that most of our advance evolution spawned during and since the evolution of language, though three far more recent revolutions seem to have otherwise changed us a great deal. “Specialization” would be number two as civilizations formed. The third would be “written language”, and finally “hard science”. All of this should be more window dressing than genetic though.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I like to directly define consciousness as anything sentient, for reasons of sympathy.”

        I think the sentiment is fine, but why isn’t sentience alone enough to support it? I agree the value of sentience is high, so what is the value of equating consciousness with sentience?

        “My thoughts about why the human is incredibly beyond other forms of life on Earth…?”

        You go on to answer: language. Obviously I quite agree that’s a big one. Do you think the other things I listed don’t matter or do you see them as falling under language?

        “On computation, just as a machine can causally produce laser beams, it’s clearly also possible for a machine (like my head) to produce sentience.”

        In both cases, note that what is produced is produced due to the physical behavior of the machine…

        “As a hard core computer guy, if you tell me that it isn’t productive to define the “computer” term such that computational machines produce things like laser beams or sentience, I’m good with that.”

        (I wish people would stop ascribing this to some sort of temper tantrum about words. It’s about what the words mean and what those meanings suggest. Conflating what systems like full-adders and brains do with CS computation masks what I’m seeing more and more as a key issue.)

        It’s all about the outputs versus the process.

        Lasers and brains have a physical process by which they work and by which, they bring forth coherent light and consciousness, respectively. (I’m guessing this about consciousness. It definitely works that way with lasers, so the question is how much is the emergence of consciousness like the emergence of laser light?)

        As a consequence of that process, the system has various outputs (and inputs). Speech (and hearing), for example.

        A computation of that process can create the same outputs, but it obviously does so through a completely different process.

        But if the process matters, how can consciousness arise?

        I suspect the best a computation can do is simulate a thoughtless comatose brain.

        “It sounds like you’re good with my ‘why’ of consciousness explanation.”

        I’m afraid that’s not the right impression to have. I don’t believe anyone knows the why (or what) of consciousness. There are lots of guesses, though.

        (FTR, I’m not sympathetic to claims of having solved consciousness unless they carry with them large signs saying, “WILD ASS GUESS!”)

        Regarding your last paragraph, aren’t “specialization,” “written language,” and “hard science,” all characteristic of high-level consciousness? I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

      • Philosopher Eric

        Why has the human become amazingly advanced while other creatures have not? I don’t know. It’s in the structure of our brains of course, though I can’t say what about our particular circumstances fostered such evolution. My best guess however is that the main ingredient was the development of our capacity for natural languages. As Mike says further down, “In a way, it could be thought of as the synapses and data bus of our group consciousness.” Yes powerful stuff! And if old enough language may have thus fostered all sorts of effective genetic improvements. I don’t have a whole heck of a lot else to add there.

        The three others that I mentioned make us think that we’re advanced, though I consider them more cultural than genetic. “Specialized occupations” should have made us powerful given associated productivity. Apparently written language brought great power given that conscious information storage is highly limited. And hard science seems to have done so by helping us develop effective models of reality (which we may then use to our advantage). But I presume that a person 10,000 years ago, and thus before these developments, should have genetically been about the same as we are today — a healthy baby from then ought to do fine in a modern family.

        On the consciousness equation with sentience, I think it’s useful for a number of reasons. One is that everyone knows what we mean by “sentience”, though “consciousness” could be defined such that even a proton has it, or instead be restricted so that only a human has it (given panpsychism versus higher order theories of consciousness). If we do restrict the term to a high level however, suddenly our dogs and Down’s syndrome sufferers aren’t “conscious”. I don’t mind going that way provisionally in order to try to grasp what someone is saying, though I also don’t consider this standard English.

        Do you think the other things I listed don’t matter or do you see them as falling under language?

        I’m not entirely sure what else you’ve proposed about that, though I will go through one list provided here. You mentioned meta-cognition, which is certainly a big difference, but why did we get this? Language I think. I’m not sure that I’d be able to think about my thoughts without words to conceptualize doing so. You mentioned curiosity, though I suspect that many animals have that. You mentioned creativity, though to me that’s quite associated with sentient function (as in “Curiosity killed the cat”). You mentioned communication, though many animals without natural languages do that. You mentioned art, though to say that only the human is artistic would be a subjective assessment which I’m not confident enough to state. Finally science and math are quite recent and so can only be a product of what we are rather elements which caused us to be this way, unlike the evolution of our capacity for natural languages.

        On brain function and computation, I’m not disagreeing with you. There are physical things which produce both lasers and sentience. My phone obviously does computations, but if it were also to produce laser beams, this wouldn’t mandate that they were produced through “computation”. Similarly if my phone were to produce sentence, this wouldn’t mandate that it was produced by means of computation. And to the extent that my phone does produce something which feels good/bad, I think it’s useful to call this entity “conscious”. There is something that it would be like to exist as such.

        Regarding “solving consciousness”, no that’s not what I think I’ve done at all. In fact my epistemology is quite opposed to that theme. There are no true or false definitions out there to discover for “consciousness”, “computation”, or anything else. Instead we must try to develop useful definitions.

        Why did sentience/ consciousness emerge? Clearly this dynamic helps promote autonomy. Otherwise there can be no agency. So that’s my guess for the “Why?” of consciousness. It’s only the “How?” of it that truly perplexes me.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I can’t say what about our particular circumstances fostered such evolution.”

        Right; I don’t think anyone knows (other than the self-evident). You see what I mean about a gap, though, right? Humans have a something that makes them far advanced of any of our animal cousins.

        I mean, animals evolved different kinds of limbs, eyes, digestive systems, even wings. When evolution finds a good trick, it tends to reuse it. So why is evolution’s greatest trick so prominent in only one species?

        Dinosaurs had millions of years… but they were just lizards. How’d we get so lucky (or cursed)? It’s an unknown, but I find it an intriguing question.

        “The three others that I mentioned make us think that we’re advanced, though I consider them more cultural than genetic.”

        Indeed. As I mentioned, they seem the products or consequences of intelligence.

        “‘Specialized occupations’ should have made us powerful given associated productivity.”

        And they very much did. At first. But they have a problem (third section).

        Specialties turn more and more inward as people learn more and more about a specific thing. Effort is wasted in disconnected, but parallel, specialties. Brin (see the link) argues it was the internet that saved us. It allowed specialists to know about each other and collaborate.

        “[A] healthy baby from then ought to do fine in a modern family.”

        An interesting question. Have modern minds (literally) evolved to handle all the information, or our brains just the same as they ever were? I don’t know enough about neuropsychology to know.

        I’ve heard the general IQ is rising over the years, for whatever that’s worth. Is it just a matter of raising a brain in an information-dense environment? Maybe it is!

        “If we do restrict the term to a high level however, suddenly our dogs and Down’s syndrome sufferers aren’t ‘conscious’.”

        Dogs wouldn’t qualify for higher-consciousness (nor should they, IMO), but certainly as members of the human species, Down’s syndrome sufferers absolutely would.

        As I’ve have said, we define things per an idealized model. Humans are members of a class of highly conscious things. All humans, always, regardless of their personal state.

        So, bottom line, your reasons for equating consciousness and sentience are (1) sentiment and (2) politics, is that a fair assessment? Are there any other reasons?

        “I’m not sure that I’d be able to think about my thoughts without words to conceptualize doing so.”

        Exactly. So there’s an interesting egg-chicken question. Did language evolve from our need to give voice to our growing introspection? Or a need to communicate with others give rise to language which then enabled an inner dialog?

        I’ve heard the suggestion that language came from our need to tell jokes and stories to each other.

        “Finally science and math are quite recent and so can only be a product of what we are rather elements which caused us to be this way,”

        I see what you’re saying. I wasn’t trying to list things that caused consciousness. I was trying to list things that are hallmarks or indicators of consciousness. Ways we might recognize it in, say, some alien species we come across.

        Or in machines, if they ever rise to the level where it’s even a question.

        As you say, some of those traits (curiosity, for instance) exist in animals, but not to the degree they do in humans.

        “My phone obviously does computations, but if it were also to produce laser beams, this wouldn’t mandate that they were produced through ‘computation’.”

        I’m not sure what argument you’re trying to make here. There is no computation that can produce laser light. None. Zip. Nadda. Ain’t gonna happen.

        “So that’s my guess for the “Why?” of consciousness.”

        Consciousness gives its possessors advanced capabilities, yes, absolutely, that seems quite clear. For me the “why” is more the the infamous hard problem. Why do those advanced capabilities come with “something it is like” to be? Why aren’t we just zombies? Why should phenomenal experience exist at all?

        And, yeah, the how is a real vexing problem, too. 😀

      • Philosopher Eric

        I certainly appreciate the cognitive gap that you’re referring to between us and all else. Why did we get this way? The evolution of our capacity for natural language seems quite suspect. Many social forms of life communicate, though none are wired to do so with anything approaching our proficiency. If squirrels were to develop the capacity for natural languages (let alone monkeys), over a million years of evolution it seems to me that they might develop specialized occupations, written languages, and hard sciences.

        And what would put them on this path? Given their current need to communicate with each other, I think they’re already on it. It may just take a long time for the circumstances to be right for evolution to do what it’s done to us. So as they gain greater tools from which to communicate with each other (natural language), they find themselves also communicating with themselves, or what I consider to be a second mode of conscious processing.

        The reason I suspect that civilized society didn’t change us much in a genetic sense, is because there should be lots of gene lines today that have had very little exposure to the trappings of civilization over the past 10,000 years. Do we find that these people are quite cognitively different from those with great exposure? I don’t think so.

        The internet has saved us from becoming overly specialized? It certainly helps provide information and collaboration, though specialists seem to be quite necessary even still. We’ll continue getting our medicine from medical specialists, furniture from furniture specialists, and so on.

        My reason for equating consciousness with sentience is not about me being sentimental or political. It’s because I consider this to be a useful definition in general. Is a given entity, such as a tree, conscious at a given moment? Do I happen to be conscious right now? For many practical purposes we can just check to see if either seems to be sentient. I’m not always quite as conscious as when I’m speaking with you. 😀

        In truth however I don’t exactly equate consciousness with sentience. It’s more like sentience is the fuel which drives the conscious form of function. Remove the sentience and there can be no consciousness from this definition. So this is quite like the way that our computers stop functioning without electricity. Is your computer computing at a given moment? Not without electricity! But here we get into my own lower order definition of consciousness and thus away from your post itself.

        Yes I’d look for all that you’ve mentioned to identify a higher form of consciousness. Still if I were looking at the human over 10,000 years ago I probably wouldn’t see much of that. So natural language might be the most effective predictor in the end.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “And what would put [squirrels] on this path?”

        You suggest communication, but they’ve been communicating all this time, so why are they still just squirrels? IOW, both squirrels and humans come from the same line of mammals, why did just humans seemingly “win” the race by miles?

        Did our winning mean the race was somehow over?

        “The internet has saved us from becoming overly specialized?”

        So Brin asserts. I believe he’s talking more about advanced specialties, science and mathematics, mainly, rather than the people who make furniture or bread. It’s the leading edges of knowledge that can become the province of specialists to the exclusion of the rest of society.

        (OTOH, I feel society has some obligation to keep up.)

        “My reason for equating consciousness with sentience is not about me being sentimental or political. It’s because I consider this to be a useful definition in general.”

        Well, yes, but when I asked you why you found it useful, your reply involved empathy for animals and the idea of insuring the right kind of thinking about animals and humans with cognitive impairments. You have not provided any other reasons, so far.

        “For many practical purposes we can just check to see if either seems to be sentient.”

        Which will tell us if it’s sentient. But what if we’re interested in knowing whether it’s really conscious?

        “I’m not always quite as conscious as when I’m speaking with you.”

        As I’ve said, we do not define something by its exceptions. You are a member of a class of objects (living beings, as it happens) and that class is considered conscious. All members of it are, thus, conscious beings.

        Please, let’s not have any more objections (from anyone) to the effect of “what about [sleeping / being knocked out / suffering from cognitive impairment]?” None of those things affect the definition in any way.

        “In truth however I don’t exactly equate consciousness with sentience.”

        Ah, the truth comes out! 😀

        “It’s more like sentience is the fuel which drives the conscious form of function.”

        I don’t think of sentience as “fuel” or “electricity” — as a substance feeding consciousness — but it does raise an interesting question I haven’t really given much thought to: Where does sentience fall with regard to consciousness.

        Maybe, rather than “fuel” I see it more as a foundation or underpinning. Which may amount to essentially the same thing. It’s a core requirement for consciousness. But I think seeing it as a substance that feeds consciousness is the wrong metaphor.

        “Still if I were looking at the human over 10,000 years ago I probably wouldn’t see much of that.”

        What do you think you would fail to find? Decoration is one of the earliest signs we find of humans rising above the animals. So there’s art and creativity and probably self-reflection. You’ve commented that animals are curious and communicative.

        All that’s left is science and mathematics, and to the extent those early humans figured out how to use fire or count their livestock, that’s early science and mathematics.

        So what would be missing?

      • Philosopher Eric

        I’m just guessing here regarding why we became so advanced. I hear plenty about opposable thumbs being important. To do what we have should require that sort of thing. This isn’t where my ideas mainly lie however. But given the human precedent, surely the next in line would emerge from simians once again? I am however saying that if squirrels were to somehow develop natural languages, it seems to me that with a million plus years of unfettered evolution, even they might develop specialized occupations, written languages, sciences, arts, and so on.

        I wouldn’t quite say that this “advanced consciousness” race has to end with the human. First I think we’ll probably kill ourselves off in the next 50,000 years or so, and without building anything approaching ourselves. Then it’s an open question how much of nature we’ll spare. If quite a bit then a second coming of higher consciousness might happen a few million years later. Otherwise it might even take 100 million years.

        Well, yes, but when I asked you why you found it useful, your reply involved empathy for animals and the idea of insuring the right kind of thinking about animals and humans with cognitive impairments. You have not provided any other reasons, so far.

        Right. I can see how you’d get that impression since my examples were dogs and Down’s syndrome sufferers. Though they certainly do apply as “conscious” from my preferred definition, the models which I’ve developed are actually quite amoral — in some cases they’re even repugnant. Next try this example:

        Your appendix is inflamed and surgery is needed to remove it. Here it should be a “sentience” based definition of consciousness that will concern you, not a fixed higher order model associated with your humanness.

        It’s not that one of us is proposing a “better” definition, but rather definitions which seek different ends. Unfortunately science continues to fail horribly regarding useful definitions for this term, and so both higher and lower candidates need consideration. I’d like to help improve science at a low end of this spectrum (not that this concerns your post itself).

        Yes sentience is the motivation which drives “conscious” function under the lower order model that I’ve developed. I consider this stuff to be all that’s valuable to anything anywhere. Physical processes produce it, thus yielding an entity that has agency.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But given the human precedent, surely the next in line would emerge from simians once again?”

        I’m not sure how much we can read from a precedent of one. The crow family is very smart, and I understand octopuses and some squids are kinda smart. I don’t expect much from squirrels. 🙂

        “Here it should be a ‘sentience’ based definition of consciousness that will concern you, not a fixed higher order model associated with your humanness.”

        I don’t see the connection you’re making between surgery and sentience? Something to do with pain?

        “I consider this stuff to be all that’s valuable to anything anywhere. Physical processes produce it, thus yielding an entity that has agency.”

        I certainly agree with the latter sentence. Given the value you place on sentience, how do you feel about philosophical zombies? Impossible to be conscious without sentience?

      • Philosopher Eric

        Well regardless of who’s to follow the human — squirrels, crows, dolphins, or whatever — I’m suggesting that the evolution of natural language must have been an essential preliminary ingredient. In that Aeon article that I linked to earlier the author dates our language between .8 and 1.5 million years ago. That may have left sufficient time for evolution to refine us given this tool.

        I don’t see the connection you’re making between surgery and sentience? Something to do with pain?

        Exactly.

        How do I feel about philosophical zombies? Yes without sentience, it’s impossible for something to be “conscious” as I define the term. I see sentience as the motivation which drives this sort of function. And this should cover your high order definition as well. Both the mouse and the human do not function “consciously” when sentience is removed.

        Beyond definition however, in an engineering sense I find it quite improbable that something could ever function similarly to something that functions consciously, and yet not be sentient. Evolution doesn’t seem to have produced any life that’s able to reason without sentience, let alone something as advanced as us. Even fish seem sentient. Without sentience, apparently there is no agent.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I’m suggesting that the evolution of natural language must have been an essential preliminary ingredient.”

        I understand. And it’s clearly part of the mix. I just see a bit of a chicken-egg situation as to which is the seed for the other. As with chicken and eggs, once things started, they evolved in concert, one aiding the other.

        I tend to think growing intelligence led to increased communication. As you’ve pointed out, even animals communicate. Our growing intelligence allowed us to really leverage that capability. And then, of course, having lanaguge fostered leaps in intelligence.

        “Yes without sentience, it’s impossible for something to be “conscious” as I define the term.”

        Ah, so you are not a computationalist? Or do you hold that computer programs are sentient?

        (I was beginning to think I was the only one around here arguing against computationalism!)

        “Beyond definition however, in an engineering sense I find it quite improbable that something could ever function similarly to something that functions consciously, and yet not be sentient.”

        So do you feel anything that acts conscious must be sentient? (Did you watch NBC’s The Good Place? Do you know who Janet is?)

        “Without sentience, apparently there is no agent.”

        At least so far. Until humans, nothing flew faster than sound, either. OTOH, we’ll never make FTL spaceships. Some things are beyond our grasp!

      • Philosopher Eric

        I’m generally continuing on next thread of the series: https://logosconcarne.com/2019/05/20/the-giant-file-room/#comment-29076

        I did miss a bit though.

        Do I feel that anything which acts conscious is sentient? Well unless we’re fooled by our perceptions of course. It’s isn’t quite that I think something which acts conscious must be sentient though. It’s that I suspect it would not be possible for something without sentience to function with enough autonomy to do well in more open environments. So under these circumstances non-conscious entities shouldn’t be able to sufficiently act like they are conscious, and given their void of agency.

        I do recall hearing about “The Good Place” a bit while blogging, and that it’s pretty good. Unfortunately I don’t have much time for television. In bed I watch whatever my wife watches, and often try to drown it out with Pandora so I can better think about my own stuff until she’s asleep and I can turn it off.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “It’s that I suspect it would not be possible for something without sentience to function with enough autonomy to do well in more open environments”

        That seems a reasonable conclusion for anything that evolved naturally. The small caveat would involve things we make — robots, basically — that might survive with some autonomy.

        So you’re not really a TV watcher. The Good Place is a half-hour sitcom that manages to be fresh and funny despite having serious discussions about moral philosophy at its heart. There’s an entire (hysterical, if a bit gory) episode about The Trolley Problem. It’s truly brilliant. 😉

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Defining is indeed the problem, and that’s because there is no one definition that meets all our intuitions about it, or at least most people’s intuitions about it, because those intuitions aren’t consistent. For example, we typically set one qualification for whether something is conscious in our minds (accessible through introspection), and another for whether it’s present in another system (affect displays, etc).

    On sentience and sapience, interestingly, Aristotle made distinctions between different types of souls. (“Soul” here equals what we mean by “mind”. Aristotle was not a dualist.) All living things have a vegetative soul. Only animals have a sensitive soul. (Roughly equivalent to sapience.) And only humans have a rational soul. (We know today that many animals do have Aristotle’s rational soul, just with a much smaller reasoning capacity compared to the human version.)

    And we often conflate “conscious” to mean a) being awake and responsive to stimuli, b) phenomenal awareness, c) self reflection. When we see a) in another system, we often project b) and c) unto it, even when they’re not there.

    “One of the confounding things about consciousness is that it’s the only aspect of existence we see from the inside as well as the outside.”

    Indeed, that seems to be the defining aspect of consciousness, that something is experiencing it from the inside. Unfortunately, we only have access to our own subjective experience.

    Which is why I agree that the Turing test (the richer the better) is ultimately the only measure we really have. Which from the perspective of a conscious system, makes consciousness equal to me-ness, human-ness, or life-ness, depending on the system being evaluated. How much like us is the system in question?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “…there is no one definition that meets all our intuitions about it…”

      That brings up a good point. There are things we define that don’t depend nearly as much, or at all, on our intuitions, whereas there are other things that depend on them a lot. Justice, for instance.

      As we’ve talked about before, I think a true understanding of human consciousness can move our view of it from being so intuitional to more of an objective view.

      For now, though, we’re stuck and confounded.

      “When we see a) in another system, we often project b) and c) unto it, even when they’re not there.”

      Heh, yeah, as we were just talking about with fictional robots!

      “Unfortunately, we only have access to our own subjective experience.”

      In the immediate sense (the one I’ve heard labeled as “undeniable and incorrigible”), absolutely.

      But we do have second-hand access to the accounts of others. I just mentioned to James how literature, especially, gives us access to the consciousnesses of others.

      I’ve long said one of the great things about literature is that it makes us realize we’re not alone in how we see and think about the world.

      “Which is why I agree that the Turing test (the richer the better) is ultimately the only measure we really have.”

      Absent an understanding of what consciousness actually is, yep.

      “How much like us is the system in question?”

      I think we can hope to be a little less provincial. Science fiction has certainly opened our minds to the idea of unlike systems.

      I just read an article about how SF going mainstream has opened the territory for non-SF writers. They’re free, now, to use concepts like time travel or portals to other worlds knowing that most people these days know exactly what those are.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “I’ve long said one of the great things about literature is that it makes us realize we’re not alone in how we see and think about the world.”

        The power of language. It gives the sender the ability to invoke sensory imagery, feelings, and impulses in the recipient. It’s a power that requires metacognition and symbolic thought in all participants. In a way, it could be thought of as the synapses and data bus of our group consciousness.

        “I think we can hope to be a little less provincial.”

        The problem is that to be less provincial means having access to information from outside of our current province. Can a provincial resident, never having experienced the city, or having had access to information about it, write accurately about cosmopolitan matters? They may be able to do so speculatively in a way that impresses the other provincials, but both author and reader remain trapped in the provincial paradigm, not fully aware of what they’re missing.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The problem is that to be less provincial means having access to information from outside of our current province.”

        I don’t think of it quite that way. The term only makes sense in the context of accessing outside information. I view it more as trying to see the greater world in its own terms, not in terms of the local one we know so well.

        But I think we’re going for the same concept.

        “Can a provincial resident, never having experienced the city, or having had access to information about it, write accurately about cosmopolitan matters?”

        Write? The reference to SF was only to the effect that it being mainstream has opened the “collective gestalt” to some non-Earthly ideas. Yes, I do agree those ideas themselves are necessarily framed in human terms, but I think just the idea of there being more than humanity is expanding.

        And it shows we can consider the value of looking outside our province. Some of the better SF does it. Heck, even we’re doing it. 🙂

        This ties back to your original question, “How much like us is the system in question?”

        I maintain we’re capable of judging complex sophistication objectively. (Which is the exact thing we’re debating next door.) It doesn’t have to be like us — it attests to itself. Loudly.

        In a sense this is like the idea that first Americans couldn’t see the big tall European ships because they were so far outside their experience. I don’t see how that’s possible. The mind doesn’t just blank out something that huge because it can’t find a context for it.

        We are fully capable of seeing something new. We do it all the time. It’s part of what makes true general intelligence so successful. It can handle totally new, utterly unexpected, input without going bonkers.

        Are there putative systems that might make us wonder (e.g. Wang’s Carpets)? Sure, no doubt. But I think as a general class, intelligence, let alone high-level consciousness is very loud and unmistakable.

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