Some thoughts on consciousness

Since Weizenbaum’s `Eliza’ experiment in 1966, in which a computer was programmed in a parody of a Rogerian psychotherapist, people have been holding conversations with programs that mimic shallowly a simple counselling session. These days, the threshold for the Turing test is higher, and few people (I think, or at least hope) would be fooled by a program as simple as the early `Eliza’-type programs, but computer scientists, at least, have continued to find these programs fascinating toys.

I remember looking over a friend’s shoulder at such a conversation in the early 1980s. The computer started with “Tell me your problems.” and Mike typed back “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” (For those unfamiliar with the English culture of that era, this is a quote from “The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy”.)

The program, picking up on pieces in Mike’s sentence and using them to fill in the slots in a canned reply, produced the reassuring answer “There is no need to worry about the Universe,” an assurance which resonated in me, and has stayed with me, at various levels of recollection ever since then.

There is, indeed, no point in worrying about the Universe (and indeed some much lesser matters are quite enough to cause us very reasonable concern), but it is natural to wonder about the great questions of our existence, such as “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in life?” and “Is there a God?”.

A good starting-point for those of us who devise (software) machines is to ask “What distinguishes us from machines?”

Most, or possibly in the distant future, all, of our `reasoning’ tasks, are things which we can understand, at least loosely, in an algorithmic sense, so it is not that.

I’ll take `consciousness’ as the starting point, and by `consciousness’ I mean that we experience things. This is something different, and more fundamental, than us detecting conditions around us and changing some kind of internal state in response to the stimuli and our previous state. All that kind of thing — moods, for example — we could probably simulate in a machine; what we can’t simulate in software is the feeling of a mood. To those who hold that there is only a material world, this will be meaningless; as was said of an early behavioural psychologist `he had made up his voicebox that he had no mind’.

We can look further into the existence and nature of an `experiencer’ in each of us (and at one time I would have used that as my preferred word for `soul’, although I have changed my mind on that now) by considering whether consciousness continues after death, and whether it can exist in any way or outside its connection with the body.

In this area, there is a lot of non-scientific evidence, very little of what we can really call hard scientific evidence, and quite a few strange observations on the boundary.

As I have written in another post, science can only go so far: first just weights and lengths, now voltmeters and cloud chambers… but just as there are numbers we can never count to, there may be measurements we can never make, and for `rationalists’ to irrationally discount that which they call non-measurable is to go against the principle of not tweaking measurements to fit your theory.

Scientific thought is the best we have for its purpose, but it deals with the domain of knowledge alone; we have experience as well as knowledge, and trying to apply scientific thought to experience is sure to tail off into pseudoscience.

There are many pieces of evidence, not encodable and so not subject to scientific analysis, but not rare enough to be dismissed, that suggest to me that the connection of the essential `us’ with the body and with time and space are not as simple as some would suggest. There are so many instances of someone knowing that someone close to them has died at some significant geographical distance, and so many instances of premonition, that I would call dismissing them distinctly unscientific. Science, as we now know it, may not be able to look into them, but that does not mean we can ignore them.

Although I once would have describe the soul primarily as `that which experiences’ I’ve since realized that that is only one part of what is different between us and soulless machines: the other is that we have (or potentially have) free will.

We don’t often exercise full free will; much of the time, much of the population goes through life fairly automatically. Making real choices can be draining, although it can also be exhilerating.

There are some circumstances in which it seems the ability to make choices is almost entirely lost, a state perhaps seen most clearly in addiction.

The most pitiable state, surely, is to have consciousness but no free will; when you can suffer pain but can’t do anything that doesn’t bring short-term gratitude at any cost, such as staying off addictive substances and behaviours.

Moving on from our individual consciousnesses to their context brings us to consider the question `Is the origin of the universe something Conscious?’ — that is, `Does God exist?’

After long thought, I became convinced that our consciousness must have been created by something (someone) conscious, rather than arising from our material existence.

The next question along that line is `what is the nature of that Consciousness?’ and here we move into the realm of religious experience, which has both accumulated and been hidden by religious tradition. My religious tradition uses ineffable terms such as `ineffable’ and `unknowable’, but includes concepts such as humanity being `made in the image of God’, and statements of Jesus such as `No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father’ [John 6:46] and `Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ []

But do we have an ongoing connection with God? The whole of the religious mystic tradition says a resounding `Yes’. My own experience says `yes’; but I think that deserves a post of its own.

What, then, of the possibility of a purpose in life? This is often discussed as though it were something to discover; I believe it is also something we can build, as we live. I haven’t been doing as much as I now think I should have, to discover such a purpose; but perhaps unless I live purposefully, there will be no purpose to discover; I have to start, and then may find a purpose. Or perhaps we have purposes, but do not discover them in this life.

My last question in this post is: Where does love come into it? Strangely, tangible effects have been reported by those who experiment with the edge of what we can measure. But this, too, is too complex a subject to write about as only part of a blog post; I’ll remember it for writing about separately. But it has been written about by better writers than myself; I recommend M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled”, which got me started on many of the things I’ve been thinking and writing about lately.


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