From Consciousness to Synthetic Consciousness: From One Unknown to Another Unknown with David Chalmers

What is consciousness? In this podcast David Chalmers starts addressing this question by saying that “being conscious is when there is something it is like to be that being”. This argument was initially presented by an American philosopher Thomas Nagel in an influential paper “what is it like to be a bat”. This paper was first published in the Philosophical Review in 1974.

David Chalmers is an Australian philosopher and a cognitive scientist specializing in the area of philosophy of mind. He is professor of philosophy and a director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University. He is also professor of philosophy at New York University. In 2013, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In this podcast Chalmers discusses the nature of human consciousness, its place in nature, artificial intelligence, and the concept of singularity.

In his paper “Consciousness and its Place in Nature” Chalmers describes some aspects of consciousness as easy problems and then discusses the hard problem of consciousness. In this podcast Chalmers explains in detail this approach of describing the challenge of understanding consciousness. Chalmers discusses the easy problems of consciousness and the hard problem of consciousness. An intriguing question is would we ever be able to solve the hard problem of consciousness? Some consider it an unsolvable problem and they give two main reasons for this: (1) inability of our brain to process the complicated information that would lead to an understanding of consciousness, and (2) as we all are conscious and do not have the ability to observe consciousness from outside, we cannot solve this problem. Chalmers shares his views on these points.

Another question is does consciousness have boundaries? One view is that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter that exists at different levels, and is perhaps connected at different levels. At each subsequent level, it becomes collective, and more complex, consciousness for that level. For instance, perhaps sub-atomic particles are conscious, then perhaps atoms and molecules are conscious, and then we experience consciousness at human level. If we continue extrapolating, it can be said that consciousness exits at the universal level as well. This leads to another question: does the universe create consciousness that we experience, or the universe is just a physical and mechanical entity, and it is something in this universe, perhaps us, the human beings that create, and then experience, consciousness?

Chalmers also discusses the relevance, and irrelevance, of artificial intelligence to the phenomenon of consciousness. If we assume that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon – a property of system is said to be emergent if it is in some sense more than the “sum” of the properties of the system’s parts – then as the processing power of computers is increasing, can it be said that one day consciousness may emerge in machines. One fundamental question is “what happens when machines become more intelligent than humans”. Chalmers says, “One view is that this event will be followed by an explosion to ever-greater levels of intelligences as each generation of machines creates more intelligent machines in turn. This intelligence explosion is now often known as the “singularity””. In this podcast we discuss these questions in detail.

But is consciousness necessary; can a universe exist without consciousness? If we manage to make a machine, that can store and process information the way we store and process information, and if this machine can replicate our emotional behaviour as well, but it is not conscious, then a collection of such machines can live and function in a universe that does not have consciousness. Is it necessary to have consciousness in such a simulated world? A number of fascinating questions that arise at this point are:

  • Will such machines live in a world that does not need consciousness? A world that can exist and function without consciousness.
  • Will the machines of future be just super intelligent or will such machines have machines-consciousness?
  • Is it possible that the consciousness that we experience is not real and it is just an illusion and is it possible that we are living in a simulation?
  • Is it possible that in a universe where “they” have achieved singularity, perhaps “we” are artificially intelligent machines, living in a simulation, in a matrix?

Chalmers suggests in his presentations that there is more to consciousness than just physical processes in the brain and that neuroscience alone is not enough to understand consciousness. So how should research on consciousness be conducted? Using neuroscience scientists are trying to map human brain, and are trying to find neural correlate for all brain activities and for all experiences; will this research one day lead to the discovery of neural correlate of consciousness and will this / these neural correlate(s) of consciousness inform us where does consciousness originate and how does it functions? Chalmers touches upon these points in this podcast. Chalmers continues and addresses the questions that what type of research is required to get to a theory of consciousness – a theory that can explain relationships between objective data and relevant subjective experiences? Is there a need for a new framework and perhaps a different scientific and philosophical model to understand consciousness? Finally, I finish this podcast by asking David Chalmers what are major developments and breakthroughs that he envisages in his area of research in the near future.

Resources

Chalmers, David (2010). The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis Journal of Consciousness Studies, , 17, 7-65

Chalmers, D. (1995). The Puzzle of Conscious Experience Scientific American, 273 (6), 80-86 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1295-80

Nagel, Thomas (1974). What is it Like to Be a Bat Philosophical Review DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107341050.014

By |March 14th, 2015|Podcasts|

Is Philosophy Dead? On the Bittersweet Relationship Between Science and Philosophy

Is philosophy dead? Well over the past few years a number of scientists and researchers have said that we don’t need philosophy, philosophy should not be taught, it is waste of time and some have suggested that philosophy is dead. This is obviously a question that should be discussed at Bridging the Gaps. Tim Maudlin, professor of philosophy at New York University, says that the scientists, particularly physicists, who suggest that philosophy is dead, simply don’t know what is done now-a-days in philosophy of physics.

An important point that Maudlin makes is that if there are philosophers who intend to write about physics and have no expertise in physics, perhaps this is not a good idea. In his view one of the main reasons that negative remarks are bing made about philosophy is that philosophers are writing about topics without having expertise in these areas. Maudlin says that if you want to know about the nature of matter, and nature of space and time, and if you want to understand large-scale structure of cosmos, you need input from science.

Maudlin says that tendency in the last forty years has been that philosophers become more and more competent in the particular sciences that they intend to comment on. He notes, “particularly in physics we get people whose training is in physic”. A number of researchers with undergraduate degrees in physics, and some even with doctorates in physics, feel that foundational issues in physics are not appreciated and supported in physics departments. They drift over into philosophy department so that they could easily pursue very foundational and conceptual questions.

Maudlin highlights that scientific theories are often not entirely clear in their standard presentations about what they are saying about the physical world. He acknowledges that it seems strange that a physicist might not quite understand what his / her theory says about the physical world, but the fact is that you can do a lot of physics by just doing mathematics, you learn to calculate, you learn to generate numbers and you use those numbers of make predictions. You can do all that but when asked very basic question about what the physical picture of the world is that is being presented by this theory, the physicist have nothing to say about it. These are sort of things that philosophers are most interested in.

An interesting point is that critical thinking is considered to be at the core of scientific method of investigation. Scientists and researchers have always emphasized the importance of critical thinking. Can it be said that critical thinking is an important element of philosophical thinking as well? And if this is correct then one can say that science and philosophy complement each other, and should strengthen our efforts to extend the boundary of knowledge and understanding. Maudlin shares his views on this.

After discussing the bittersweet relationship between philosophy and science, we touch upon a number of other topics that Tim Maudlin’s research focuses on, these are:

  • Nature of Time: is time real, or is it just an illusion? Is time directional?
  • Nature of Spacetime
  • Quantum Physics and Entangled Particles
  • Observer Effect and Wave Collapse Function
  • Structure of the Universe at the Plank Scale
  • The title of one of your books is the Metaphysic within Physics, is there metaphysics within physics?
  • Can philosophy assist and guide us to understand these difficult to understand concepts?

Maudlin has written about the structure of the universe and that why does it appear fine-tuned for life. His view is that the Big Bang state itself arose out of some previous conditions and it is possible that the whole universe is just a small part of everything there is, and that we live in a kind of bubble universe, a small region of something much larger. He says that it is possible that there are many other bubbles, which means, there are other universes, all very different from one another. In that it is possible that few of these universes got fine-tuned to support life. At this point we discuss an analogy that Maudlin has used in his publications that if we give millions of monkeys typewriters, there is high probability that some of these monkey will produce good poetry. Maudlin explains why he uses this metaphor in his publications.

I finish our discussion by asking Tim Maudlin what are major developments and breakthroughs that he envisages in the field of his research in next fifty to sixty years.

Resources

  • Maudlin T. (2011). “Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity”, Wiley-Blackwell, 3rd Edition.
  • Maudlin T. (2006). “Truth and Paradox”, OUP Oxford, New Ed edition.
  • Maudlin T. (2009). “The Metaphysics Within Physics”, OUP Oxford.
  • Maudlin T. (2012). “Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time”, Princeton University Press.
  • Maudlin T. (2014). “New Foundations of Physical Geometry: The theory and Linear Structures”, OUP Oxford.
By |January 3rd, 2015|Podcasts|