And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1. The Hard Problem! It defined the field. Meanwhile, the field of artificial intelligence — which focuses on recreating the abilities of the human brain, rather than on what it feels like to be one — has advanced stupendously. But how come all that was accompanied by an agonising flash of pain? And what is pain, anyway? Questions like these, which straddle the border between science and philosophy, make some experts openly angry. On the other hand, in recent years, a handful of neuroscientists have come to believe that it may finally be about to be solved — but only if we are willing to accept the profoundly unsettling conclusion that computers or the internet might soon become conscious, too.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Stoppard also clarified a potential misinterpretation of the title. God created souls, and put them into people. B y the time Chalmers delivered his speech in Tucson, science had been vigorously attempting to ignore the problem of consciousness for a long time. On the other hand, this most certain and familiar of phenomena obeys none of the usual rules of science. This religious and rather hand-wavy position, known as Cartesian dualism, remained the governing assumption into the 18th century and the early days of modern brain study.
But it was always bound to grow unacceptable to an increasingly secular scientific establishment that took physicalism — the position that only physical things exist — as its most basic principle. And yet, even as neuroscience gathered pace in the 20th century, no convincing alternative explanation was forthcoming. So little by little, the topic became taboo.
Few people doubted that the brain and mind were very closely linked: if you question this, try stabbing your brain repeatedly with a kitchen knife, and see what happens to your consciousness. But how they were linked — or if they were somehow exactly the same thing — seemed a mystery best left to philosophers in their armchairs. Nothing worth reading has been written on it. It was only in that Francis Crick , the joint discoverer of the double helix, used his position of eminence to break ranks. Neuroscience was far enough along by now, he declared in a slightly tetchy paper co-written with Christof Koch, that consciousness could no longer be ignored.
Stick to more mainstream science! A s a child, Chalmers was short-sighted in one eye, and he vividly recalls the day he was first fitted with glasses to rectify the problem. Of course, you could tell a simple mechanical story about what was going on in the lens of his glasses, his eyeball, his retina, and his brain. Chalmers, now 48, recently cut his hair in a concession to academic respectability, and he wears less denim, but his ideas remain as heavy-metal as ever.
This person physically resembles you in every respect, and behaves identically to you; he or she holds conversations, eats and sleeps, looks happy or anxious precisely as you do. But the point is that, in principle, it feels as if they could. Evolution might have produced creatures that were atom-for-atom the same as humans, capable of everything humans can do, except with no spark of awareness inside. So consciousness must, somehow, be something extra — an additional ingredient in nature.
But to accept this as a scientific principle would mean rewriting the laws of physics. Everything we know about the universe tells us that reality consists only of physical things: atoms and their component particles, busily colliding and combining. Nonetheless, just occasionally, science has dropped tantalising hints that this spooky extra ingredient might be real. Weiskrantz showed him patterns of striped lines, positioned so that they fell on his area of blindness, then asked him to say whether the stripes were vertical or horizontal. Naturally, DB protested that he could see no stripes at all.
Apparently, his brain was perceiving the stripes without his mind being conscious of them. One interpretation is that DB was a semi-zombie, with a brain like any other brain, but partially lacking the magical add-on of consciousness. Chalmers knows how wildly improbable his ideas can seem, and takes this in his stride: at philosophy conferences, he is fond of clambering on stage to sing The Zombie Blues, a lament about the miseries of having no consciousness.
McGinn, to be fair, has made a career from such hatchet jobs. But strong feelings only slightly more politely expressed are commonplace. Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with — making the whole debate kickstarted by Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness.
This is the point at which the debate tends to collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking: neither camp can quite believe what the other is saying. Chalmers has speculated, largely in jest, that Dennett himself might be a zombie. But everybody now accepts that goldness and silveriness are really just differences in atoms. However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce.
Eventually, neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. After all, our brains evolved to help us solve down-to-earth problems of survival and reproduction; there is no particular reason to assume they should be capable of cracking every big philosophical puzzle we happen to throw at them.
O r maybe it is: in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age.
So they cannot have any feelings at all, no hopes or joys or fears or pains—or motives, ambitions, or purposes. They cannot have the faintest sense of pride or shame, or of failure, achievement, or discontent, because they simply can't care about what they do, or even know they exist. It seems to me that we use such statements to excuse ourselves for our failures to understand ourselves. However, here I will take an opposite view.
Instead, we have many sub-capabilities, for which the answers are different: e. To see how many things human minds do, consider this fragment of everyday thinking. Joan is part way across the street on the way to deliver her finished report. While thinking about what to say at the meeting, she hears a sound and turns her head —and sees a quickly oncoming car. Uncertain whether to cross or retreat, but uneasy about arriving late, Joan decides to sprint across the road.
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She later remembers her injured knee and reflects upon her impulsive decision. Then what would my friends have thought of me?
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It might seem natural to ask, "How conscious was Joan of what she did? Reaction: Joan reacted quickly to that sound. Identification: She recognized it as being a sound. Characterization: She classified it as the sound of a car. Attention: She noticed certain things rather than others.
Indecision: She wondered whether to cross or retreat. Imagining: She envisioned some possible future conditions. Selection: She selected a way to choose among options. Decision: She chose one of several alternative actions. Planning: She constructed a multi-step action-plan. Reconsideration: Later she reconsidered this choice. Recollection: She retrieved descriptions of prior events. Representation: She interconnected a set of descriptions.
Embodiment: She tried to describe her body's condition. Emotion: She changed major parts of her mental state. Expression: She constructed several verbal descriptions. Narration: She heard them as dialogs in her mind. Apprehension: She was uneasy about arriving late.
Reasoning: She made various kinds of inferences. Many of these activities involved mental processes that used descriptions of some of her other mental processes. Self-Reflection: She reflected on her recent thoughts. Moral Reflection: She evaluated what she has done. Self-Awareness: She characterized her mental condition. Self-Imaging: She made and used models of herself. Sense of Identity: She regarded herself as an entity. This section outlines a model of mind that shows how a system could reflect to at least some extent on what it was recently thinking about.
My associate Push Singh and I are at present developing a prototype of a system like this. I should note that this model is consistent with some of the early views of Sigmund Freud, who saw the mind as a system for resolving or for ignoring conflicts between our instinctive and acquired ideas. Similarly, we also could ask about what might cause a person to initiate such a set of activities.
It is important to emphasize that each of those sets of activities can be extremely complex, and also are likely to differ significantly between different individuals.
This is yet one more reason why no one should expect to be able to find a simple description of what we call consciousness. Over the past few centuries, our scientists have discovered far more about atoms and oceans and planets and stars than about the mechanics of feelings and thoughts. Why did that strategy work less well for the science of psychology? It seems to me that one reason for this was an almost universal belief that such functions as emotions and feelings must be essentially non-mechanical— and that, therefore, they could not be explained in terms of physical processes.
In other words, it seems to me, that our psychologists and philosophers should not have tried so hard to use the methods that worked so well for those physical sciences. In fact, today we know that every human brain contains several hundred different, specialized kinds of machinery—each of which must have evolved different processes that helped our ancestors to solve the various problems that they faced in thousands of different ancient environments.
So tens of thousands of different genes must be involved with how people think. This suggests that modern psychologists should consider taking an opposite view, and reject the urge to base their ideas on discovering small sets of simple laws. Whenever some aspect of mind seems hard to explain such as affection, fear, or pain , we could attempt, instead, to replace it by a more complex set of interconnected processes.
Then each mystery will begin to disappear, because of having been replaced by a several new kinds of problems. So now let us try to apply this idea to the question of how human learning works. It is easy enough to imagine machines with many levels of processes; indeed, many computer programs today are made of multiple layers of sub-programs.
However, we still do not have good hypotheses about how our higher levels of brain-machinery come to do all the wonderful things that they do. Most theories of human development assume that we begin by learning low-level reactions, and must wait for each stage to consolidate before we can learn to think more abstractly:.
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We begin by somehow learning to recognize particular sensory situations. Then we correlate our reactions with whether they lead to failure and success. Then, in subsequent stages of development, we learn increasingly abstract ways to represent the objects and their relationships in the situations that we perceive. However, this raises serious questions like these:.
How do we represent them? What determines how we react to them? How do we make those correlations? To answer such questions, it seems to me, we will need many new ideas about how to design such machinery. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses, and partly of themselves produce representations, partly rouse our powers of understanding into activity, to compare, to connect, or to separate these—and so to convert the raw material of our sensations into a knowledge of objects?
For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a combination of that which we receive through impressions, and [additional knowledge] altogether independent of experience … which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself, sensory impressions giving merely the occasion. For although, as Kant remarked, sensations give us occasions to learn, this cannot be what makes us able to learn: in other words, it does not seem to explain how a person first could learn to learn. This is why, it seems to me, our human brains first had to evolve the kinds of complex architectures that our neuroscientists see.