For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the fourth post in a series of five where I will share my notes, definitions, summaries, and commentary from class lectures and discussions. These posts are living documents that I may edit, adapt, and develop as I gain more insights and information throughout the semester.
Class Summary and Personal Commentary
What’s it like to be a bat? by Thomas Nagel
From Mind Loading to Mind Cloning by Martine Rothblatt
This week we had a guest lecture by Mark Olsen on consciousness. Defining consciousness itself can be difficult even without trying to determine if another agent is conscious. Loosely defined, consciousness is the state of being aware of one’s surroundings. However, I’d take it one step further to say it’s an awareness of not only one’s surroundings, but also to know what it’s like to be something. If that’s confusing, good, it’s supposed to be. To understand what it is like to be something is a subjective experience, or qualia.
However, the question posed by the instructor is not what is consciousness? But rather, how can you tell if another entity is conscious or not? Is the entity a philosophical zombie or conscious being?
The question isn’t as straight forward as you may think. Can you know with certainty that I am conscious? I know I’m conscious, or at least I think I know. Thomas Nagel calls this “the subjective character of experience.” I have a subjective experience that is unique to me and it consists of internal and external factors of my existence, but how can you know that? Can you know objectively my subjective experience?
Some of the things that make us human are the ability to tell stories, dream, imagine the future, fantasize, ponder the infinite, and philosophize. However, it is also possible to create a computational robot programmed by a human to describe or mimic these subjective experiences without having actually had the subjective experience. An entity, such as robust AI, could be programmed to use subjective language to give the allusion of consciousness without having a subjective experience. Could I be any different? Could I be a biological robot that experiences nothing? I am pretty certain I’m not, as I do experience the qualia of subjective experience, but how can I know that about another agent?
For example, I could take a trip to Italy and describe in detail the experience to a friend. The friend might be able to describe it to another friend or describe the experience back to me with impeccable detail, but still not have the subjective experience of going to Italy. The friend could even tell me they went on a trip to Italy without ever having been to Italy. It’s not a perfect analogy, but you can see the point.
Martin Bothblatt, author and entrepreneur, comments on nature of consciousness in relation to mind cloning, “Let’s start with the term mind cloning. It means copying the essence of a person’s consciousness. We need the wiggle room of ‘essence’ for two reasons. First, there is no such thing as a perfect copy of anything. At least at the subatomic level, things change too quickly to permit any kind of perfect copy. […] The second reason we need the wiggle room of essence is that consciousness is not an objective quality…Consciousness is subjective, or personal, to its processor. This means there is only one of each consciousness, by definition of it being a subjective quantity. However, a person who had all of another’s mannerisms, personality traits, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and values would surely be the essence of the other’s consciousness. The mind clone would know they were the same as, but also different from, the original—in much the same way we realize that we are the same as, but different from, the person we were ten years ago.”
This puts into perspective how a subjective consciousness is also a changing consciousness, and therefore we must ask, is the self an allusion?
Due to the nature of a subjective consciousness there seems to be no evident way of objectively knowing if another agent is conscious or not. Perhaps, the only way to determine if an entity is conscious is to create consciousness, and in the process of creation, the mysteries of consciousness will unfold.
Key Terms Defined
Qualia: individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. Essentially, what is it like to experience a particular state of experience?
Philosophical Zombie: a hypothetical being that from the outside is indistinguishable from a normal human being but lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience.
Mind Cloning: is the hypothetical process of scanning the mental state of a particular brain substrate and copying it to a computer. The computer could then run a simulation model of the brain's information processing, such that it responds in essentially the same way as the original brain and experiences having a conscious mind.