Monday, February 24, 2014

Limits of Artificial Intelligence

Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil – author of such books as The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) – is interviewed here in a somewhat breathless interview in the Observer:
Carole Cadwalladr, “Are the Robots about to rise? Google’s New Director of Engineering thinks so…,” The Observer, 23 February 2014.
Something that looks uncomfortably like a cult has arisen around Kurzweil’s idea of “the Singularity,” which is “a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, radically changing civilization, and perhaps human nature.”

Of course, there seems little doubt that the rise of increasingly sophisticated machines such as computers and robots will revolutionise economic and social life as we go forward into the future.

Indeed, a substantial part of the industrial revolution is simply the profound changes in production by labour-saving machines.

But the economic problems that are, and will be, created by increasing automation, structural unemployment and loss of aggregate real income should be of profound concern to economists. Indeed, an interesting warning of the possible economic problems that could be caused by technology is given, not by an economist, but by the computer engineer Martin Ford in his The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (2009) (though I think some of his predictions are too dire).

But, to return to my main point, this interview with Kurzweil contains so many questionable ideas, it is difficult to know where to start.

Take the central idea:
“Ray Kurzweil … believes that … computers will gain what looks like a lot like consciousness in a little over a decade is now Google’s director of engineering.”
But if we read the whole interview and Kurzweil’s statements elsewhere, it appears that Kurzweil thinks that computers will actually attain consciousness, not just simulate it.

There is a fundamental difference between (1) merely simulating something and (2) actually having that property.

The crude behaviourist Turing test, for example, does not test for whether an entity has conscious life, but merely whether it simulates human intelligence. Thus even if future computers all start passing Turing tests, it is not going to be some shocking milestone in human history: all it will show is that software programs have become sophisticated enough to fool us into thinking machines have conscious minds as we do, even though they do not.

This point has been brilliantly made by the analytic philosopher John Searle, who, in my view, has written outstanding work on philosophy of mind (e.g., Searle 1990; Searle 2002; Searle 1992).

When I was an undergraduate, I did a course on cognitive science, and Searle’s work, such as the Chinese room argument, was rightly required reading.

John Searle convincingly argues that external behaviour of computers – no matter how sophisticated – does not provide any good evidence that computers really have conscious thought as humans do.

This is why the “computer” metaphor for the brain is potentially misleading. Brains are often compared to computers. There is no doubt that computers are based on information processing, and in some sense this is also what the brain does.

But it does not follow that the consciousness of the human mind is just information processing that can be reproduced in other synthetic materials, such as in silicon chips in digital computers. After all, DNA and its behaviour exhibit a type of information processing and storage as well, but DNA is not conscious.

As Searle points about in the video below, all the empirical evidence suggests that consciousness is a biological phenomenon in the brain causally dependent on neuronal processes and biochemical activity, but one that can be explained by physicalist science, not some discredited supernatural ideas about souls or Cartesian dualism.

The crucial term here is biological: consciousness is a biological property of complex living systems like humans and higher animals.

Exactly what causes it and how it emerges is a profoundly difficult scientific question, but it is fairly clear that consciousness is a complex emergent property of the brain, its neurons and biochemical processes.

If that is so, no matter how sophisticated any digital computer is, it remains as unconscious and unfeeling as your washing machine or pet rock. Once this is accepted, it follows that a lot of Ray Kurzweil’s more outlandish claims are ridiculous, such as, for example, that a human being could transfer his or her conscious mind into a digital computer. Perhaps you could create a believable simulation of a human mind with a digital computer, but again it is extremely unlikely that such a thing would be conscious.

I have to stress that this is not some obscurantist, religious objection to artificial intelligence (I am completely non-religious): it is grounded in good science.

As John Searle has argued, science may well be capable of creating truly conscious and self-aware artificial intelligences in the future, but it is unlikely that they will be digital computers.

An artificial intelligence will have to directly reproduce or replicate the biological processes in the brain that cause consciousness. Perhaps an “artificial” intelligence – in the sense of not being a normal human being – will need to have organic or biochemical structures in its “brain” in order for it to be fully and truly conscious.

Such entities, if they were fully conscious, would create all sorts of ethical issues. They would probably have to be imbued with moral/ethical principles as humans are, for example. Probably they would have to be granted some kind of human rights at some point, so that we could not treat them as slaves. And what actually would they do? What work would they perform?

I suspect virtually all the work of production – especially the difficult, unpleasant, and backbreaking work that humans hate – can one day be done by machines. But what we want for this task is unthinking, unfeeling, and unconscious machines: machines that can be treated like slaves with no ethical problems arising. For example, nobody needs to worry that the household washing machine is being mistreated or exploited, because such concepts do not, and cannot, apply to unthinking and unfeeling machines. But with a truly artificial intelligence, suddenly such ethical question would arise.

But such musings can only remain speculations, and whole issue of whether truly conscious artificial intelligence can be created is a matter for a future science that has first completely mastered what human (and higher animal) consciousness actually is.

Further Reading
Gary Marcus, “Ray Kurzweil’s Dubious New Theory of Mind,” The New Yorker, November 15, 2012

Ford, Martin. 2009. The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. Acculant Publishing.

Kurzweil, Ray. 1999. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers exceed Human Intelligence. Penguin Books, New York.

Kurzweil, Ray. 2005. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Viking, New York.

Searle, John. R. 1980. “Minds, Brains, and Programs,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3: 417–424.

Searle, John. R. 1980. “Intrinsic Intentionality,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3: 450–456.

Searle, John R. 1982. “The Chinese Room Revisited,” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5: 345–348.

Searle, John. R. 1990. “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 64: 21–37.

Searle, John R. 1992. The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass and London.

Searle, John. R. 2002. “Why I Am Not a Property Dualist,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 9.12: 57–64.


  1. I'd agree. What we need to create is the perfect slave. One that requires little maintenance, few inputs, can work 24x7 without rest, largely self-replicating and is sufficiently flexible to handle pretty much any task we throw at it.

    Then we can have the fruits of a slave economy without the moral dilemmas.

  2. You say "futurist", I say "crank".

    Anyway, its easy to beat a computer -- any computer -- in a Turing test. See:

    Also I don't understand Searle's argument that "evidence" discredits dualism (or, presumably, idealism). Obviously these philosophies hold that all evidence is already mediated through consciousness. So, evidence cannot refute the primacy of consciousness... that's like "refuting" language or a true Kantian a priori or whatever.

    When I hear professional philosophers make statements like this I sometimes wonder if they actually understand the old mind-body debates. I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that they do not understand them.

    1. "Obviously these philosophies hold that all evidence is already mediated through consciousness. So, evidence cannot refute the primacy of consciousness.."

      But Searle does not deny that consciousness exists. I am not sure I understand.

      Basically, on the idealism versus realism debate: unless you think your position is absolutely irrefutable (and you think you can prove it using apriorist arguments), then each side must acknowledge that the other side's position is at least a possibility, and then the serious arguments become empirical/inductive.

    2. He is trying to use "empirical evidence" to refute the idea that consciousness is primary and empirical material reality secondary (i.e. dualism). That just avoids the issues that it raises.

      Regarding the second point, that is closer to the actual matter at hand. The simple case here -- from a dualist perspective (remember, I'm not a dualist, but just to get the debate on the right track) -- is "material reality" is already a concept that arises out of consciousness. To say that "material reality" determines consciousness in some way seems to me (and I would have thought most philosophers) a completely backward argument.

      What materialists appear to be doing is taking a phenomenon that arises to their consciousness -- how else do they know "material reality"? -- and then claiming that it explains their consciousness. How such a muddled idea could ever be held I simply do not know.

      To give a practical example, they would say that neurons or whatever determine consciousness. But then how do we know of these neurons? Presumably through consciousness. So, we're not starting from first principles. We are taking something that appears to consciousness as being that which causes consciousness. That is like saying that a singular object sitting on a table "causes" the number one to appear as a concept in our mind. Very crude.

    3. "What materialists appear to be doing is taking a phenomenon that arises to their consciousness -- how else do they know "material reality"? -- and then claiming that it explains their consciousness. "

      Well, certainly, a realist position would start out from

      (1) the personal evidence that we have many experiences we call consciousness, and that within those experiences are things we call other people who claim that they also have these experiences.

      (2) that in the conscious world each of us experiences we appear to be viewing a set of objects and things that appear external to us.

      (2) the evidence from talking to the things that appear to be other people that there is a high degree of consistency in many aspects of what appear in experience: common sensations, ability to agree on many aspects of conscious experience (both people can describe and agree that they see objects, etc.)

      (3) we can then argue that (1) perhaps nothing else exists but this conscious world and that perception of an external world is an illusion or (2) argue that the high degree of consistency of our experience of the world and our inability to change it just by thinking or wishing it (and numerous other arguments*) can be used in an inductive argument that it is probable that there is an external world that, in some way, our experiences are causally dependent on.

      Note that the realist argument is an inductive one and has probability, not absolute certainty.

      * e.g., if we damage the thing that appears in our experience as the brain, we can severely impair our conscious experience of the world. Or, e.g., if you damage the things that appear in consciousness as the eyes you no longer see, etc.

    4. Being causally dependent on something does not mean that consciousness is causally determined by something.

      Obviously, whatever the ontological status of my eyes, if I gouge them out I will lose the ability to see. That will mean that my conscious perceptions will be limited. A blow to the head will have similar consequences for other faculties (aphasia and so forth).

      That is all fine. No one debates that (I hope). But that is not the issue here. The issue here is what this consciousness actually is. Where it comes from. Is it really JUST a property of neurons firing and so forth?

      The dualists say "no". It is something more than that. And it cannot be explained through recourse to experiences that are presented TO consciousness. An eye cannot see itself seeing; consciousness cannot comprehend itself comprehending.

      On this question, of course, materialists these days descend into mysticism. (I think there is a very strong case to be made that materialism was always a variant on mysticism, but anyway...). They say "emergent property". What does that mean? It means "I don't know". It means that they cannot actually explain how neurons etc. give rise to consciousness so they invoke a mysterious X. The try to make their consciousness comprehend itself comprehending and they find they cannot do it. So they invoke a mysterious unobservable entity called an "emergent property". That sounds like a soul to me. And if I'm right then we're back to closet dualism.

    5. They say "emergent property". What does that mean? It means "I don't know".

      I don't think "emergent property" is mystical: it has a straightforward and clear meaning to my mind that the thing that is an emergent property emerges in some complex system with many parts, but where

      (1) the emergent property does not exist in any individual part and in that sense is not reducible to any particular individual part or its behaviour.

      (2) an emergent property cannot necessarily be predicted from the isolated behavior of individual parts or again simply reduced to behaviour of parts

      E.g., it is pretty clear that natural sciences have identified many emergent properties such as superconductivity in certain materials, or the properties of antiferromagnets, ferroelectrics, liquid crystals, DNA, etc. (Anderson, P. W. 1972. “More Is Different,” Science n.s. 177.4047: 393–396).

      And in fact emergent properties are obviously to be found in many macroeconomic phenomena, e.g., an economy experiencing real output collapse that is an unintended emergent property in an economy when many people increase savings and reduce consumption.

      And even with consciousness there is so much empirical evidence that certain mental processes are causally dependent on proper functioning of certain regions, and more evidence amasses every year:

    6. Again you are conflating causal DEPENDENCE and causal DETERMINISM. I said quite clearly that consciousness is clearly, for its functions, dependent upon the brain and the other organs. But this does not explain consciousness.

      In order to show that consciousness is DETERMINED by material organs or whatever you have to explain exactly how this would work. But that cannot be done because it requires that you comprehend yourself comprehending (an impossible task... try it...).

      As an escape clause the more advanced materialists say that they cannot explain how the material organs DETERMINE consciousness because the latter is an "emergent property" of interacting systems. This use of the term "emergent property" is mystical. It refers to an X.

      Again, a concrete comparison is useful. In macroeconomics the paradox of thrift is an emergent property of the system. But I can explain it clearly and logically. With some statistics I can even show that it operates.

      But when the notion of "emergent property" is used to explain how consciousness is DETERMINED by material organs etc. we get no explanation. We are left with an X -- a mystical X.

      Actually, this X looks very similar to Descartes' notion of the animal spirits in the Pineal Gland. That makes me suspect that emergent property materialism is actually just Cartesianism with the words changed.

    7. From the Wiki article:

      "In this context the neuronal correlates of consciousness may be viewed as its causes, and consciousness may be thought of as a state-dependent property of SOME UNDEFINED complex, adaptive, and highly interconnected biological system."

      There's your mysterious X. Right there. In the article you linked to.

      As I said... mysticism. And if you think it through properly you'll realise that the mysterious X will always be there because they're chasing a ghost. They literally think that slicing up (other peoples') brains will allow them to comprehend themselves comprehending. You may as well slice up (other peoples') eyeballs to try to see yourself seeing.

    8. Well, I accept your basic charge here: OK, neuroscience has not yet given us a proper explanation of what consciousness is in material terms.

      We have no definitive explanation *as yet* about how consciousness is created in the brain, but the basic inductive argument that it is likely to be an emergent natural property is a reasonable hypothesis on the basis of an inductive argument by analogy.

      We live in a world in which we see many emergent properties in complex natural systems (you appear to concede this).

      The conscious mind by analogy with these would appear to be another type of emergent property.

      I am afraid the defense of dualism/idealism (even as an intellectual exercise) here sounds to me like "god of the gaps" arguments as used by theists: because current science does not explain something properly in materialist terms, then it should be regarded as supernatural.

      But look at how many times people posited these supernatural theories: vitalism, creationism, Paley's argument from design as used to justify belief in a supernatural creator, etc. etc.

      All of them collapsed as science did indeed eventually find the materialist explanations.

      As to "comprehend yourself comprehending" being "an impossible task" I don't really understand what this means.

      Any person can perform all sorts of experiments that directly alter his/her consciousness.

      Just look at mind altering drugs: if the mind is completely independent of the body, then why does ingesting a substance into the mere experience of having a body lead literally to astonishing changes in consciousness, perception and sensation?

    9. "Just look at mind altering drugs: if the mind is completely independent of the body, then why does ingesting a substance into the mere experience of having a body lead literally to astonishing changes in consciousness, perception and sensation?"

      I should point out that this is an argument against dualism, not idealism -- just to be clear.

    10. And I'll just add: the idealist position can also be accused -- more reasonably - of being mystical.

      For the claim that only minds exist and no external world exists just leaves us with perplexing questions:

      (1) what causes conscious minds

      (2) what is idealist consciousness?

      (3) where do these minds come from?

      After all, we have the experience of being young children and directly experiencing our our minds develop and become much more sophisticated and self aware and the perception of moving and changing through time. Again, where do minds come from?

      The idealist has no proper answers to these questions, either.

      But the materialist can answer them.

      And just look at how Berkeley needed a theistic god to get around all sorts of problems, such as the consistency of human conscious experience and need for a sound argument for believing other minds even exist.

    11. (1) The argument by supposition: Well, now we're at the heart of it. It's a question of belief here. You believe that science will eventually show exactly how consciousness arises -- i.e. it will provide an explanation. But couldn't I make this argument for basically anything at all? Couldn't I argue, for example, that Intelligent Design is true and we will eventually reveal this when new discoveries are made? What the materialist argument is really based on -- and Berkeley showed this so readily -- is belief. It is a system of belief pure and simple. And until it stops being that -- which I don't think it will because the problems are insurmountable -- but until it stops being that, it is what it is.

      (2) Mind altering drugs: This does not damage the dualist argument. The brain is just an organ, like the skin. When I put my hand on a cold surface my consciousness is altered. If I took LSD an analogous process is taking place, just at a different level. Dualists do not hold that material reality cannot alter consciousness -- indeed it does little anything else -- they just argue that you cannot fully explain consciousness with recourse to material reality because it is logically prior (i.e. since consciousness is the entity doing the explaining it cannot fully explain itself -- it's a bit like the old Russell paradox of the set that contains all sets but doesn't contain itself as a set).

      (3) This isn't really about science not being able to currently explain something. It's about a logical paradox. How can an entity fully describe itself? If you think about this in depth it raises all sorts of problems. For example, if I found the Laws of my consciousness -- i.e. exactly what "determines" my thoughts and behavior -- would I not then be able to alter my thinking or behavior? If not, then why not? And if so, then it is clear that I cannot find material determinates (laws) for my consciousness.

      (4) Idealism does not suppose that the external world doesn't exist. It supposes that there is nothing tangible called "matter". That is all.

      (5) Berkeley's theistic arguments were not needed to defend Idealism. They were completely separate. They were deployed to defend against Humean-style skepticism. You can take the Idealist arguments, be an atheist and thus be a skeptic. No problem.

    12. (1) When you say "belief", I think you're conflating

      (a) unreasonable and unjustified blind and absolute faith without evidence with

      (b) belief arising from inductive arguments that is held to be merely probable and not absolutely certain.

      Furthermore, if you were to you say:

      (1) I believe in an idealist theory of mind.

      What is the epistemological status of this statement?

      Is it (b) above? if so, you are in the same position as I am: we both assert as probably true some synthetic a posteriori statement, which we both accept is only probable true and potentially fallible.

      (2) But "substance dualism" does and did make the claim that mind and matter are entirely separate entities: in fact, its claim that there could be no causal relation between the two was precisely its chief weakness.

      (4) Idealism does not suppose that the external world doesn't exist. It supposes that there is nothing tangible called "matter".

      I find this very confusing: if you are an agnostic on the existence of an "external world", it follows logically that you should be an agnostic on the existence of an external world of matter too.

      (5) But on an atheistic idealism, we are still left with the same perplexing questions:

      (a) why do we have a conscious existence with a high degree of external consistency and what looks like external constraints facing us?

      (b) what is idealist consciousness?

      (c) where do minds come from?

      (d) in fact, how can you justify the view that other minds even exist?

    13. (1) The Idealist argument is that it is logically consistent where materialism and dualism are not. It is a deductive argument, not inductive.

      (2) That's not how I understand it. Then brain damage would never occur. That would be a bizarre theory to have been held by one of the founders of modern medicine. I have never seen any evidence that this is a real dualist position.

      (4) I don't get you. For Berkeley there is an external world. It is the world of the senses. He just denies that there is anything "underlying" it. For materialists and dualists the external world exists and it is something called matter -- i.e. there is something "underlying" our sensations. For Berkeley there is an external world but it is just sensations.


      (a) This is the crux of the issue. The end result of atheistic dualism/idealism is no belief in the constancy of the external world. This is Humean skepticism. But you can also find it in Descartes "malign demon" argument.

      (b) It is what we experience. It is the series of thoughts, sensations, ideas that I experience. It is also the entity -- the 'I' or the 'ego' -- that gives these thoughts some coherence and so forth.

      (c) Berkeley would say God. Hume would shrug his shoulders and say that is not a valid philosophical question.

      (d) For Berkeley you could do so by analogy. You see very close and immediate similarities between other people and yourself and so you infer that they probably possess similar capabilities as you. A radical Humean, on the other hand, would say that we cannot know.

      (6) You still haven't answered my question: if I could fully explain my consciousness -- and thus my behavior and thoughts -- with recourse to material laws does this mean that I could never escape from these laws? Does this mean I would in such a situation have no ability to reflectively change my behavior and thus that I have no free will? And if you are not willing to concede this then isn't it true that the materialist argument doesn't work because we can never fully explain consciousness?

    14. Well, just take (5)

      (a) "The end result of atheistic dualism/idealism is no belief in the constancy of the external world."

      That simply isn't true. The whole basis of modern science is the discovery of what we call laws: empirically regularities of experience.

      (b) but this is just a mystical "brute fact" that does not explain what it is. You make the charge that materialist is mystical, but you face the same difficulty.

      (c) since I assume you reject Berkeley's theism, then the idealist position is also like (b): it is all some inscrutable mystery.

      (d) Well, according to my reading of Alan Musgrave's Common Sense, Science and Scepticism (1993), in fact Berkeley needed a theistic god to ultimately justify the existence of other minds.

      But I assume you reject that, and the result is, as you say, that idealism means you cannot even really justify the existence of other minds.

      "You still haven't answered my question: if I could fully explain my consciousness -- and thus my behavior and thoughts -- with recourse to material laws does this mean that I could never escape from these laws?"

      But a materialist explanation of consciousness would simply not entail that the same theory could absolutely predict all and every human behaviors in the future.

      A world of degrees of uncertainty in the future is consistent with materialism and some physicalist theory of mind, as far as I can see.

      So I see no serious objection to the physicalism here.

    15. "(1) The Idealist argument is that it is logically consistent where materialism and dualism are not. It is a deductive argument, not inductive."

      At this point I would have to read the argument, since I think the charge that materialism is not logically consistent is not true.

      I assume it comes from Berkeley's "Three Dialogues".

    16. (a) It's actually never been clear to me how this differs from theism. The Enlightenment philosophers didn't think of God as some guy with a beard in the sky. Spinoza, for example, thought that natural laws -- i.e. regularities -- were manifestations of a deep organising coherence to the universe. To most philosophers at the time that was synonymous with a God -- i.e. there was some design to the universe and so forth. Also remember that Spinoza was basically a materialist/monist. I think that these debates have been muddled today and people no longer appreciate what actual atheism entails. You read actual atheism in, say, Hume or Sartre; but certainly not in Russell. He doesn't know the meaning of the word.

      (b) No, it's not mystical. I can perfectly well describe many features of my ego/I. Kant spent a lot of time doing this. So did Fichte and Freud. It's pretty describable, unlike the mystical indescribable principles at the heart of modern materialism.

      (c) Again, I think the meaning of atheism/theism have been pretty mangled today. I'm on Berkeley's side. Not Hume's. You probably are too because you believe in some degree of constancy in the world. But you are reticent to equate this with what just about every philosopher since the 16th century would have called God which for them was just a guarantee that (i) the universe was not inherently malevolent and trying to trick them and (ii) that somewhere "out there" was a consciousness of the workings of the universe -- this latter point is assumed all the time in science; for example, the notion of infinite in mathematics and the debate around potential and actual infinity (for a true atheist there would be no such thing as the notion of infinity at all because we have real experience of it and never can). People are embarrassed to call this what it is but if you read the old philosophers its quite clear what it is. This embarrassment probably due to certain cultural changes and some myths propagated about the relationship between science and faith in the Middle Ages. I mean you can say that there is purpose and constancy to the universe and call these "natural laws" and Spinoza, who fully agrees with your monist/materialist principles, would call them manifestation of God. I see little difference apart from changing the words. The words appear to mean the exact same thing. It's tragic that this point has become so obscured today. You can't even have a real discussion about these things anymore.

      (d) Berkeley did not need a God to assume the existence of other minds. I suppose that you might be able to make the case that if what Berkeley -- and every other philosopher of the time -- called God was equated with some constancy and purpose to the universe then yes he needed it. But all philosophers did. Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal and so on.

      (e) But don't you see? If that is true then you cannot use physical laws to fully explain consciousness. If you concede to this point then you can never provide me with a full explanation of my thoughts or behavior based on what is going on inside my brain. That means that my thoughts and behavior -- i.e. my consciousness -- has a degree of independence from my brain and my body. That is dualism.

      (The recognition of Uncertainty proper -- surrounding the Copenhagen School of physics for example -- is why many in the higher echelons of physics are abandoning materialism, by the way. They see clearly what such a principle entails. The only materialists left are people in cruder sciences that still believe in Newton's old clockwork universe myth...).

    17. Since I enjoy a good debate in philosophy and you've defended your view strongly and raised various issues that deserve a proper answer, I will write up a post -- maybe a few posts -- outlining why I do not find Berkeley's idealism convincing.

      But for now:

      ON (a) and (c):

      My atheism is not bound by what early modern philosophers said about atheism. I am not bound by their definitions of it, or their pantheism or theism.

      Atheism means -- for me -- that I see no convincing evidence that a personal, omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent god of classical Judeo-Christian theism or any other monotheistic religion exists.

      (e) No, I do not agree. If you can explain consciousness materially, it does not mean you need to predict very future behavior of very individual human being at all.

      Just look at certain non ergodic physical processes: science certainly explains them but does not claim to predict every future state of the system with certainty or even objective probability.

    18. (a)/(c) But again your criteria are off. Apply the same criteria to, say, the number '1' or the notion of infinite or the 'infinitesmal' in differential calculus. Do you see any evidence for these? Of course not... there is none!

      They are not propositions that are proved inductively. What the early modern philosophers refer to as God has the same ontological status. It is not an entity that exists in the world of experience -- it is more like an a priori.

      Likewise the assumption about your "natural laws" is not an empirical assertion. We saw this clearly when you said that you believed in such laws for consciousness because... well, because you believe. This is not an empirical statement.

      (e) Science does not explain non-ergodic physical processes. That is what uncertainty means. Ask a meteorologist if he can predict the weather two years from now and he will say "no". Ask him why and he will admit that his conceptual apparatus is not up to the task of explaining it.

      The reason these systems cannot be properly explained, the reason that our conceptual apparatuses are not up to the task is because there is something else operating that material explanations cannot account for. This "something" is usually called "chance" but in Keynesian terms it can be called "uncertainty". It is something that falls outside of a probability distribution and cannot be calculated. Because it cannot be calculated it cannot be explained.

      Ditto for consciousness. There is always going to be an X -- call it "emergence" or whatever -- that will not be capable of being explained. And that is the dualist or idealist position: because we cannot fully explain consciousness from material principles and because our understanding of material principles is mediated through our consciousness then we must admit that consciousness must have an independent existence from the material world (or, more radically, that consciousness is all that there is...).

    19. "(e) Science does not explain non-ergodic physical processes. That is what uncertainty means. Ask a meteorologist if he can predict the weather two years from now and he will say "no""

      Well, you are conflating:

      (1) what causes weather in a physical sense (rain, winds, hot and cold fronts) that is certainly explained by natural science, with

      (2) the future specific states of the weather system
      There is no reason why a materialist explanation of weather must do (2), any more than my perfectly good materialist explanation of what causes a symphony must predict perfectly every future note that occurs in every symphony I listen to.

    20. I think you're avoiding the issue. You ask what "causes" weather. Well, hot fronts and so forth lead to other things -- i.e. they cause them. But then a good materialist has to explain what "causes" hot fronts. And then they have to ask what causes these causes and so on.

      Unless you can establish an entire causal chain you have not engaged in a full explanation. Instead there will always be an X that you cannot explain. If you cannot account for the X then you have not succeeded in a full materialist explanation. Rather you have to admit that at a certain point your materialist exposition can "go no further" and then you have to leave this question open.

      This is precisely why materialism has been falling to pieces in modern physics since the 1930s.

    21. "Well, hot fronts and so forth lead to other things -- i.e. they cause them. But then a good materialist has to explain what "causes" hot fronts. And then they have to ask what causes these causes and so on.

      Unless you can establish an entire causal chain you have not engaged in a full explanation."

      But that is not true: it commits the fallacy of strong reductionism. Modern materialist realists are simply not committed to strong reductionism.

      First, a macro phenomenon itself is likely to have its own special discipline that is semi-independent of lower-level disciples and itself provides a good scientific explanation without having to go to lower and lower levels.

      Secondly, even in explaining what a process is causally dependent on, you will reach a lower level of explanation beyond which it is not necessary to go.

      E.g., in explaining the workings of a car engine you simply do not need to go to the level of quantum mechanics, nor (probably) even to atomic physics.

    22. Yeah, I'm aware of this. It seems like a cop out to me. You seem to be admitting that your materialist principles cannot fully explain many aspects of the universe -- consciousness being one -- and then you nevertheless claim that these materialist principles encompass everything that exists. I don't think that makes any sense.

      Either your materialism explains everything -- or can potentially explain everything -- or else you cannot make the claim that they are all that exist because, self-evidently, they are not.

    23. My first thoughts on the master argument:

  3. Do external patterns of human behavior provide evidence that humans are conscious? Do my internal mind processes provide good evidence that I am, in fact, truly conscious? Searle's thought experiment might as well mean that the edge between consciousness and its simulation is indefinitely thin.

    Anyway, leaving philosophy aside, either qualia is a result of a mostly classical interaction of brain matter, and then it could definitely be simulated by Turing complete machines, or there are more complicated processes that involve something exotic - Penrose's Orch OR, for example - then it can't. Either could turn to be true (though Orch OR is pretty heterodox now), and it will be a solid scientific result. But don't you think that it's a bit presumptuous of you to to declare results at the time when leading neiroscientists are still at the stage of studying pin-sized slices of brain matter?

    Perhaps there is no point of seeking the origin of qualia at all. Buddhist epistemology concluded that our experiences are non-unique, so there is no 'self' at all. I agree with them. Our shells might as well be devoid of ghosts.

    1. "But don't you think that it's a bit presumptuous of you to to declare results at the time when leading neiroscientists are still at the stage of studying pin-sized slices of brain matter?"

      Well, in this age of MRI machines and non invasive brain scanning, I think neuroscience has proceeded far further than mere "studying pin-sized slices of brain matter".

    2. Detailed models of how neurons connect and interact in real brain matter are currently done by making very thin and small slices and studying their structure. Only very small structures could currently be simulated. Other methods currently don't allow to study brains on the level of interacting neurons.

  4. An interesting piece, only I am doubting the argument that human/animal consciousness can only emerge from a biological, i.e. organic structure. However, is there some reason why it's impossible for a highly sophisticated digital computer to gain the same emergence of consciousness; other than repeating "we have no evidence for a non-organic consciousness"? No, we don't have and unless we have a fully developed theory on how consciousness emerge from matter, and which excludes digital computers from such emergence; we should abstain for making such statements as digital computers will never acquire consciousness.

    1. Well, (1) I think there is a great deal of evidence the consciousness is a neural-biological phenomenon.

      (2) Searle's Chinese room argument is certainly relevant here. I am not sure if you are aware of it.

    2. Ad 1. No doubt that that consciousness is a neural-biological phenomenon. However is this the only possible way how consciousness can emerge? I am not so sure that we can rule out non-biological consciousness at this point.

      That's not to say that we will ultimately succeed in producing artificial consciousness, or even "singularity" (which I believe is just as bogus as austrian economics).

      Ad 2. I have heard of the Chinese room argument, but I can't see its relevance directly. I will look at it when time permits.

  5. Of more relevance to this blog is Martin Ford contention in "Lights in the Tunnel" which you have listed in your bibliography here, that total automation will lead perforce to some kind of guaranteed income. I'd like to see LK's thoughts on the so called "lump of labor fallacy" as it pertains to these matters.

    1. The "guaranteed income" is a very good idea and Martin Ford has very interesting insights.

    2. Guaranteed income can never work in human society. It falls foul of the human need for reciprocation, and our demonstrable ability to resent others.

      Those paying the required 50% tax rate will simply eliminate it politically.

      Many of those receiving it will descend into to drink, drugs and despair - as we already see amongst the retired.

      People need something to do as well as something to spend. It is an elite view that people can keep themselves occupied. Many if not most cannot.

    3. The 'lump of labour' fallacy has an opposite - the 'brain surgeon' fallacy.

      This is the idea that you can turn anybody into a brain surgeon simply by throwing more training and education at them.

      It is required by those that take the view that we can never run out of new jobs as technology advances.

      As ever the actual situation is somewhere between these extreme views.

  6. You guys might find this paper interesting. Bruno Marchal presents an eight step logical argument demonstrating that, if you believe the mind is some form of digital computer (Turing machine), than you should not believe in the existence of primitive matter.

    Only necessary to read part I to get the gist of the argument ... part II is much more complex and is just a deeper dive into the subject.

    1. Yes, but the assumption that the brain is merely an information processing machine and that's all to it and consciousness can be explained by information processing alone is precisely what's highly questionable.

      Of course, Searle's view is also that the human brain is a type of biological machine -- and we all evolved from inorganic chemicals -- but there's a fundamental difference between biological processes and electronic devices.

  7. I don't see any reason at all why there would be a fundamental difference between a biological process and an electronic one. Any computation that can be carried out by biological "wetware" can in principle also be carried out in electronic "hardware".

    Of course, that doesn't mean we have any idea what programs/calculations we should run to produce a conscious mind. We are some kind of computing machine, but we don't know which (of an infinite possibility) machine we are.

    To reach Marchal's conclusions, you only have to believe that there is some "substitution level" in your brain where your consciousness survives even if the biological parts at that level were replaced by their digital electronic equivalent. We do not know what that substitution level is, so some brave soul would have to make a bet that the doctor got it right. Maybe it's individual neurons, maybe higher than that, maybe lower (all the way down to the quantum level) .... we do not know what the substitution level is, but the computational hypothesis asserts that it exists.

    That assertion, I think, is actually compatible with Searle, and leads to the strange conclusion (if you accept Marchal's proof) that the physical universe does not exist.

  8. Find it ironic/amusing that I had to "prove I'm not a robot" in order to make my last post ....

  9. There's quite a good series of posts on The Rational Pessimist about Technological advances and how it is hollowing out middle class jobs.

    Here's the last one:

    Click the links at the top to go backwards to the first.