Why this Matters
Love this topic? Join Book Club at MassRobotics on Wed, June 21 in Boston discussing "Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist"
I. Setting the Stage
With growing interest in consciousness, there are so many ways to ask the questions: what makes us, us? And what will make them, them? Today’s newsletter is part of a series that explores the hardware aspects of human consciousness, and what components would be necessary for a conscious machine intelligence. Sign up for the newsletter here.
- Part I: The Mind of Matter, Delving into Consciousness
- Part II: The Hardware of Us, A Forest of Neurons
- Part III: The Anatomy of Machines, the Chemistry of Transistors
- Part IV: Transistor, Meet Neuron
Science Level: 8/10
II. What Makes Us Uniquely Human?
And another common question: what separates us from animals? Most of the answers lie in the questions themselves.
1. We have the need to classify and separate objects into hierarchies — with ourselves uniquely at the top, of course. In the question, we’ve de facto separated ourselves, tingeing all results with an inherent value bias.
The more accurate question is: what separates us from other animals?
2. We do this, because our neurons are designed to classify and separate information and place them in a hierarchy. Extending past thought and into human operation, we find that at every level of society we are constantly defining, labeling, judging, and placing other people and countries into a hierarchy — with ourselves at the top, of course.
3. How many other animals do you find even asking these questions? Humans have the unique ability to be self aware, to have an inner life, thoughts, and emotions separate from the outside world.
This phenomenon is often called ‘consciousness’. We all know what it is, but when asked to define it things get really vague, really quickly…
5. .. in that empty wake of uncertainty, spirituality flourishes. We simply need to know, and we’ll be very creative to fill in the knowledge gaps. Another hallmark of humanity.
6. It’s that same creativity that enables us to construct beautiful lands of fantasy that operate outside the laws of physics within our minds. From our fantasies we are sometimes able to create reality, to manifest our own destiny. That’s where technology comes in.
6. In a uniquely human experience, we can evolve with our own creations, tumbling in an endless melding of fantasy and reality.
But let’s say that, for the purposes of this article, what makes us special all begins with consciousness.
III. What’s The Mind With Matter?
The richness of conscious experience somehow emerges from the massive network of neurons that makes the human brain. Somehow, the sum of the individual parts is greater than the whole.
The concept of integrated information theory is an attempt to put a metric (Φ) to consciousness. How much more conscious is a human than a dog? A dog than a bee? A worm, a plant? Even a rock? Could a rock, plant, worm, or a bee even be conscious? And to what extent?
Humans and other mammals like dogs, monkeys, and rats have brains with thinking systems (a neocortex) and feeling systems (the amygdala and limbic system). An insect, like a bee for example, could have a few million neurons in its brain, which is far fewer than the billions in the human brain. Therefore, is it less conscious?
Some worms, on the other hand, have neurons throughout their body. In fact, our own stomach is lined with ~500 million neurons and is basically a gigantic, inside-out worm-brain that processes food. Does that make our stomachs conscious?
Plants grow towards the sun and sexually reproduce, some species can only do so with the help of bees. You can argue that bees might then be the brains of plants, the minds of the matter.
And then, at the most basic level, you have rocks — generally ordered collections of atoms like carbon and silicon. Some rocks are structured in beautiful crystals that symbolize everlasting love, other arrangements are so dense and hot that they make the molten core of the earth. Other arrangements look more like mud.
If humans evolved from the basic elements of the earth, then is each conscious element part of the brain of nature? Is consciousness then not uniquely human, but simply the mind of matter?
IV. Alone In A Crowd, Or At One With The Universe?
The integrated information theory posits that maximal potential for consciousness exists as an optimization between conflicting variables of ‘separateness’ and ‘integration’. The extreme of one negates the other; a yin and yang relationship.
To better understand the theory, take it to the extremes. Imagine a large ballroom full of people, except nobody is aware of anybody else. No one is speaking or even making eye contact. They even move through each other like ghosts. I don’t know about you, but this would be living hell for me.
This is total separateness. No new information can be shared or even experienced. Any consciousness that might have existed at the beginning of the party, would slowly fade away as our minds, starved for information, would start looping on repeat and then eventually stop working all together.
Now, over to the integration extreme, imagine that every person is communicating with every other person simultaneously through some sort of magical, rapid-transmission BrainLink tech. In this case, there is also no new information, and consciousness grinds to a halt.
I can’t tell you what Becky said because you already know what Becky said. In fact, you know everything that Becky is thinking and feeling, because at this point of maximal integration — you are Becky, and Becky is you. The individual ceases to exist and instead becomes one large, massive unit.
So the theory goes, that yes, you can measure potential for consciousness, if you can map the network. If the network is sufficiently integrated and disintegrated (what a conundrum) then consciousness can emerge.
V. Big Questions from Technologists: Nature or Augmentation?
The same way that from a network of neurons emerges the mind of a person with a unique personality, from a network of people emerges a society with a unique culture.
From our growing, global network of societies, will something new and larger naturally emerge? Or will we augment ourselves? Changing the nature of what it means to be human, and therefore changing the nature of the emergent society?
If what emerges, could even be called that.
VI. On the Reading List
The Spiritual, Reductionist Consciousness of Christof Koch. Consciousness is a thriving industry. It’s not just the meditation retreats and ayahuasca shamans. Or the conferences with a heady mix of philosophers, quantum physicists, and Buddhist monks. Consciousness is a buzzing business in neuroscience labs and brain institutes.
Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness? How does matter make mind? More specifically, how does a physical object generate subjective experiences like those you are immersed in as you read this sentence? How does stuff become conscious? This is called the mind-body problem, or, by philosopher David Chalmers, the “hard problem.”
Do Bees Have Feelings? If you’ve never watched bees carefully, you’re missing out. Looking up close as they gently curl and uncoil their tapered mouths toward food, you sense that they’re not just eating, but enjoying.
Gut Feelings–the “Second Brain” in Our Gastrointestinal Systems. A primal connection exists between our brain and our gut. We often talk about a “gut feeling” when we meet someone for the first time. This mind-gut connection is not just metaphorical. Our brain and gut are connected by an extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones that constantly provide feedback…