Consciousness and our intuitions

by Marcus Loane


It is NOT obvious that a new born baby is conscious or that a slug is not.

There are many intuitions connected with the idea of consciousness. When examined, these intuitions are baseless. They cannot be defended by argument. They are feelings and nothing more. Intuitions are not necessarily correct. They may have been useful for survival in our ancestors but that does not guarantee that they are true.

We have other intuitions too. We have intuitions about physics. For example most of us can guess where a ball will go when it is thrown, without understanding the equations that describe its motion. We also have intuitions about how liquids behave. These sort of intuitions are rules of thumb which work most of the time but they can be wrong. The fact that a siphon works, that liquid can rise up through a tube of its own accord seems like magic even after the physics is explained. Our intuition about siphons is very powerful but it is wrong. We also have a strong intuition that something as large and heavy as an aeroplane should not be able to fly. Even when all the physics of flight is explained the intuition is still there and just needs to be ignored. It goes against intuition that time can run at different rates in different places yet this has been confirmed by experiment. Another intuition that is extremely strong is that there exists an inner person, a Subject, inside a human body, viewing the world and in control of the body. We feel ourselves to be receivers of information from around us, which we process in some non-physical realm and then by magic pull the strings that operate the body. How does an ethereal inner you lead to the physical changes that are required to fire off nerves connecting to muscles to carry out actions? Are the laws of physics being routinely broken inside people's skulls?

We also think we can recognise consciousness when we see it but how? How do we recognise non-human consciousness? How do we recognise consciousness in a person completely paralysed and unable to communicate as a result of motor neurone disease? Is an ambulatory conversational sleep walker conscious?

We also have intuitions that consciousness is associated with movement. This is closely related to the notion of animism which imagines that something otherworldly animates the physical body. These are all very powerful illusions but if we are interested in real explanations we cannot assume the truth of them. Part of our explanation could perhaps explain why the illusions are there. That part of the explanation is likely to be an elaboration on the principle that the illusions helped our ancestors survive. Either that or they are side effects with no utility at all.

If you do not subscribe to superstitions then the most reasonable assumption is that consciousness emerges from information processing. We have no reason to believe it requires neurones, a carbon based substrate, a specific size of brain/network or a particular processing speed.

Carbon or neurone prejudice

The carbon atom does not have magic consciousness properties within it. There is nothing except prejudice that would suggest that organic molecules or neurones are necessary for consciousness. Why could a silicon based consciousness not be created or evolved? Operations have been done to replace nerves with synthetic equivalents and have been successful. If parts of the nervous system can be replaced with inorganic material and preserve function then why not all of it?

Size prejudice

Consciousness should not require a brain sized object. If a complete wiring diagram of a brain were available, in principle it could be reconstructed as a huge network the size of Africa. Every neurone could be extended to space it out like a spider's web. A technological fix would be needed to preserve signal strengths over long distances. Why not extend the project to cover the earth's surface rather like the internet network? Remember we could replace the organic components with more robust electronic equivalents. There is no principle, only prejudice that says a huge network cannot be conscious. Think bigger - imagine we place the functional equivalent of one neurone on every planet in our galaxy. The units communicate with each other by radio signals. We would have a galaxy spanning conscious entity. None of our intuitions would help us when considering if it were conscious or not. If our globe spanning computer networks ever became conscious we probably would not be able to tell. The best we could do would be to infer consciousness from any similarity in structure to our own information processing systems (human brains). We could always say "it is as if the network is now conscious". I have heard that telephone companies complain that their networks have become so complex that they take on a life of their own. There is emergent behaviour. That is typical of most complex systems (technological, biological or otherwise). As complexity increases, new properties emerge. If an entity behaves as if it is conscious, as if it has intentions, should that change our attitudes towards it? Does it become a moral question? Can we leave out the "as if" ?

How about going in the opposite direction? There is a limit to how much we can miniaturise machinery but perhaps a conscious entity could be much smaller than a human brain. It is hard to conceive of something the size of a flea with consciousness but again that is just our unfounded prejudice.

Speed prejudice

Our brains are information processing networks. If the processing speed were slowed down, there is no reason to assume that consciousness would cease. Experiments with retarded individuals show that their brains really do run slower when performing even the simplest tasks - we still regard them as conscious. In general the processing speed is suited to our environment - we need to be able to react to changes at certain speeds. When video of plant growth is speeded up, the plants appear as if they are consciously reacting to environmental changes. For example they turn towards the sun and jostle each other to get better light. They are reacting at a speed that is suitable to their environment. They do not have a neural information processing network but they do have a chemical information processing network which allows them to react in this way. It is as if plants are conscious of certain slow environmental changes and can react accordingly. Could plants have a type of consciousness? Not the full blown richness of human consciousness but a tiny faint glimmer of sentience? Most will laugh and say of course they don't but on what argument is that based? Is it the speed prejudice or the "need for neurones" prejudice?

If we are not the pinnacle of consciousness then we can imagine entities that operate thousands of times faster than us. Our imagined entities could be evolved alien life forms or deliberately designed entities. They may look at us and conclude we are not conscious the same way we might regard a slug, simply because of the disparity in information processing speeds.

What I think at this point in time

Life is hard to define. There isn't a hard boundary between living and non-living material. Viruses and prions lie in the uncertain zone. They have some of the properties of life but not all of them. Life is a set of processes which is enabled by a lot of working parts. I think consciousness will be found to be similar. There is no hard boundary between what is conscious and what is not. Some entities will have more of the properties of consciousness than others. There will be borderline cases (a chimp? a dog? an octopus? a fetus? a baby?). Consciousness is also likely to be a set of processes, but enabled by information processing systems. Mysticism should be no more required to explain consciousness than vitalism is required to explain life.

Some people cannot see how our rich inner experiences come from mechanistic interactions of matter. The apparent "gap" is best understood by looking at other epiphenomena. Take water, for example. It is just a collection of molecules each made from two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Those mundane facts lead to the properties of water - wetness, ability to be poured, ability to produce reflections and quench thirst. There is no intuitive connection between the molecular explanation and the larger scale properties. It may be the same with consciousness. There is no reason that an explanation of consciousness in terms of neural activation patterns should feel intuitively right. So much of science has conflicted with our intuitions, but time and time again science and the intellect has won over raw intuition. Even though our intellect tells us that the earth is spinning and hurtling through space, we still feel that it is not moving. We just have to accept the presence of the intuition but recognise it as false. We can often use the intellect to explain just why we have the false intuitions that we do.

We do not declare that water must have a water essence/force to give it its very wateriness because we feel that the wateriness is left out of the molecular explanation. We used to make the same mistake with living organisms and assert there must be a life force/essence but that notion was shown to be false. It is time to do the same with consciousness and eradicate the mysticism from any explanations.

Marcus Loane