Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, November 23, 2007

Your Brain is a Machine - Get Used to It

There are many whose penchant it is to romanticize the human condition. It somehow makes them feel better about their lives to do so. One of the outgrowths of this habit of spiritualizing material things is the expressed certainty that machines can never become conscious. After all, they think, if machines can ever be made to experience consciousness, then it is very likely that we are no more than machines: There is no soul, no heaven, no spirit, no existence after death. For many people, this possibility is not to be countenanced.

However, more and more researchers are concluding that even our experience of conscious will is an illusion arising from our neurological programming. In a new book authored by Harvard professor Daniel Wegner titled The Illusion of Conscious Will, professor Wegner argues that:
“When you drive to work, you don’t feel there are hundreds of little gears in a machine in your head that make you do this. You think, ‘I’m going to get up and go to work,’ ” Wegner said in an interview

“We think the intentions cause the actions, and we get the feeling we have willed what we do. It could be the intentions and actions are being caused by the machinery of the brain.”
I have written previously about the startling finding that our actions in fact come before our conscious intentions, that our minds are inventing reasons for actions over which we have no conscious control. If, as writes Dr. Wegner, our brains are trying to convince us that we are choosing actions that are merely the result of our neurological machinery, then it is only a matter of time before machines become conscious. According to some, that time may even have already arrived.

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Bob Mottram said...

It often irritates me when people use the term "illusion" in the context of consciousness, since all of our thoughts could be described as illusions.

If I imagine a teapot, this does not mean that there is a real teapot inside my head. The imagined teapot is nevertheless a real manifestation generated as patterns of activity inside my brain. In this sense even as a brain-based simulation the teapot has some reality to it and can be used as part of other mental operations.

Probably what people mean when they're describing consciousness as an illusion is that it's a meta-phenomena arising from the actions of a lower level physical system. Meta phenomena are still "real" though. If they were not then there would be no software industry, since software is fundamentally metaphysical.

Roko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roko said...

Well, meta-phenomena aren't real, they're just good approximations to what is real. What is real? Physical systems governed by the equations of quantum field theory are real. But you can't reason about them because they are far too complicated, so you have to reason about the approximations - like waves in water or consciousness.

People get confused: they think that a really good approximation is more fundamental than the system it approximates, and they start talking about the "human soul" and wondering where they will go after they have died. You may as well ask where the waves in a bowl of water go when the water evaporates! The waves are approximations to describe what the molecules of H2O do in a certain regime - which we call liquid water.

Consciousness is an approximation to describe what the atoms in your brain do, more specifically to describe which electrical signals will get sent to your muscles, and hence what you will say and do. A system of atoms which is well described by the "consciousness" approximation also happens to pass on it's genes quite effectively, which explains why we exist. Consciousness in not, in my opinion, an illusion. It is part of a useful system to approximate how certain atoms will move, and I won't abandon it until somebody comes up with a better one.

As for the title? Of course your brain is a "machine" - where "machine" means "physical system with inputs and outputs".

Anyway, interesting Post there ;-)

Bob Mottram said...

The trouble with this kind of definition of what is "real" is that it also excludes most of what we can observe. So for example if the only type of reality is atoms in motion then all living things are "an illusion". Although ultimately living things are built from atoms they're best described at levels abstracted sometimes several levels above this. If particular patterns of atoms in motion do not qualify as "real" then even the process of evolution itself is "illusory".

Perhaps the easiest example of metaphysics is software. Software is ultimately built on a physical substrate, but it does not strictly depend upon that substrate (I can write the same software to a CD or a hard drive, which are physically very different types of system). Does it really make sense to say that "software is an illusion", especially when much of our modern economy is built upon it?

Spaceman Spiff said...

"It somehow makes them feel better about their lives to do so."

Comments like this are unnecessary. There are plenty of other reasons people think there is more to the mind than the physical. You disagree and for good reasons. But comments like this are unfair and detract from your point.