Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Christoph Koch, the author of “Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist”  is not only a renowned researcher in brain science but also the president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, one of the foremost institutions in brain research. What he has to tell us about consciousness, and how he believes it is produced by the brain is certainly of great interest for anyone interested in these topics.

However, the book is more that just another philosophical treatise on the issue of consciousness, as it is also a bit of an autobiography and an open window on Koch’s own consciousness.

With less than 200 pages (in the paperback edition), this book is indeed a good start for those interested in the centuries-old problem of the mind-body duality and how a physical object (the brain) creates such an ethereal thing as a mind. He describes and addresses clearly the central issue of why there is such a thing as consciousness in humans, and how it creates self-awareness, free-will (maybe) and the qualia that characterize the subjective experiences each and (almost) every human has.

In Koch’s view, consciousness is not a thing that can be either on or off. He ascribes different levels of consciousness to animals and even to less complex creatures and systems. Consciousness, he argues, is created by the fact that very complex systems have a high dimensional state space, creating a subjective experience that corresponds to each configuration of this state space. In this view, computers and other complex systems can also exhibit some degree of consciousness, although much smaller than living entities, since they are much less complex.

He goes on to describe several approaches that have aimed at elucidating the complex feedback loops existing in brains, which have to exist in order to create these complex state spaces. Modern experimental techniques can analyze the differences between awake (conscious) and asleep (unconscious) brains, and learn from these differentes what exactly does create consciousness in a brain.

Parts of the book are more autobiographical, however. He describes not only his life-long efforts to address these questions, many of them developed together with Francis Crick, who remains a reference to him, as a scientist and as a person. The final chapter is more philosophical, and addresses other questions for which we have no answer yet, and may never have, such as “Why there is something instead of nothing?” or “Did an all powerful God create the universe, 14 billions year ago, complete with the laws of physics, matter and energy, or is this God simply a creation of man?”.

All in all, excellent reading, accessible to anyone interested in the topic but still deep and scientifically exact.

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Portuguese Edition of The Digital Mind

IST Press, the publisher of Instituto Superior Técnico, just published the Portuguese edition of The Digital Mind, originally published by MIT Press.

The Portuguese edition, translated by Jorge Pereirinha Pires, follow the same organization and has been reviewed by a number of sources. The back-cover reviews are by Pedro Domingos, Srinivas Devadas, Pedro Guedes de Oliveira and Francisco Veloso.

A pre-publication was made by the Público newspaper, under the title Até que mundos digitais nos levará o efeito da Rainha Vermelha, making the first chapter of the book publicly available.

There are also some publicly available reviews and pieces about this edition, including an episode of a podcast and a review in the radio.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus, the sequel to the wildly successful hit Sapiens, by Yuval Harari, aims to chronicle the history of tomorrow and to provide us with a unique and dispassionate view of the future of humanity. In Homo Deus, Harari develops further the strongest idea in Sapiens, the idea that religions (or shared fictions) are the reason why humanity came to dominate the world.

Many things are classified by Harari as religions, from the traditional ones like Christianism, Islamism or Hinduism, to other shared fictions that we tend not to view as religions, such as countries, money, capitalism, or humanism. The ability to share fictions, such as these, created in Homo sapiens the ability to coordinate enormous numbers of individuals in order to create vast common projects: cities, empires and, ultimately, modern technology. This is the idea, proposed in Sapiens, that Harari develops further in this book.

Harari thinks that, with the development of modern technology, humans will doggedly pursue an agenda consisting of three main goals: immortality, happiness and divinity. Humanity will try to become immortal, to live in constant happiness and to be god-like in its power to control nature.

The most interesting part of the book is in middle, where Harari analyses, in depth, the progressive but effective replacement of ancient religions by the dominant modern religion, humanism. Humanism, the relatively recent idea that there is a unique spark in humans, that makes human life sacred and every individual unique. Humanism therefore believes that meaning should be sought in the individual choices, views, and feelings, of humans, replaced almost completely traditional religions (some of them with millennia), which believed that meaning was to be found in ancient scriptures or “divine” sayings.

True, many people still believe in traditional religions, but with the exception of a few extremist sects and states, these religions plays a relatively minor role in conducting the business of modern societies. Traditional religions have almost nothing to say about the key ideas that are central to modern societies, the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of the freedom of choice, ideas that led to our current view of democracies and ever-growing market-oriented economies. Being religious, in the traditional sense, is viewed as a personal choice, a choice that must exist because of the essential humanist value of freedom of choice.

Harari’s description of the humanism schism, into the three flavors of liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism (Nazism and other similar systems), is interesting and entertaining. Liberal humanism, based on the ideals of free choice, capitalism, and democracy, has been gaining the upper hand in the twentieth century, with occasional relapses, over socialism or enlightened dictatorships.

The last part of the book, where one expects Harari to give us a hint of what may come after humanism, once technology creates systems and machines that make humanist creeds obsolete, is rather disappointing. Instead of presenting us with the promises and threats of transhumanism, he clings to common clichés and rather mundane worries.

Harari firmly believes that there are two types of intelligent systems: biological ones, which are conscious and have, possibly, some other special properties, and the artificial ones, created by technology, which are not conscious, even though they may come to outperform humans in almost every task. According to him, artificial systems may supersede humans in many jobs and activities, and possibly even replace humans as the intelligent species on Earth, but they will never have that unique spark of consciousness that we, humans, have.

This belief leads to two rather short-sighted final chapters, which are little more than a rant against the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Harari is (and justifiably so) particularly aghast with the new fad, so common these days, of believing that every single human experience should go online, to make shareable and give it meaning. The downsize is that this fad provides data to the all-powerful algorithms that are learning all there is to know about us. I agree with him that this is a worrying trend, but viewing it as the major threat of future technologies is a mistake. There are much much more important issues to deal with.

It is not that these chapters are pessimistic, even though they are. It is that, unlike in the rest of Homo Deus (and in Sapiens), in these last chapters Harari’s views seem to be locked inside a narrow and traditionalist view of intelligence, society, and, ultimately, humanity.

Other books, like SuperintelligenceWhat Technology Wants or The Digital Mind provide, in my opinion, much more interesting views on what a transhumanist society may come to be.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Historian Yuval Noah Harari‘s best seller book, Sapiens is a hard-to-put-down analysis of the reasons Homo sapiens became not only the dominant species of planet Earth, but also the only one that can control its destiny.

It is difficult to summarize a book that covers the whole of human history, and also a bit of the future. However, Harari’s main point is that the most unique characteristic of our species is not the intelligence of individual human beings, nor some unique quality (a soul, maybe) that only humans possess, much less the ability to stand erect and to create tools. Instead, it is our unique ability to believe and act on collective fictions, created and passed on, over time and space, by language, culture and behavior.

One hundred thousand years ago, humans were already as smart as they are today, were able to make tools, and lived in small groups that could be a threat to the survival of large animals. However, they did not have the ability to change the planet, an ability that only appeared recently, in evolutionary terms.

According to Harari, what makes the human species so different from other species is the ability of humans to create collective fictions that are used to coordinate the actions of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of human beings. These fictions, the result of what could be called “collective hallucinations”, have created first the agricultural revolution and then the technological revolutions that led to today’s world. It is the ability to create these collective fictions that made Homo sapiens unique, in its ability to transform and also to destroy the world.

Almost anything that is important in today’s society fits into this wide category of a collective fictions or, as he also calls them, religions. Money is, of course, a collective fiction, not valuable by itself, but only because everyone believes in it. But the concept also encompasses religions, political systems, philosophical beliefs, and even several concepts in ethics. Harari’s convincing arguments put at the same level (and calls them nothing else than collective fictions, or religions) systems as diverse as Christianism, Islamism, Capitalism, Marxism, Socialism, Nazism, Humanism, Liberalism, and Democracy. Harari argues that even ideas so commonly accepted as nations, corporations, afterlife, human rights or the sanctity of human life are nothing more than a shared belief, held by almost everyone today, but relatively recent in historical terms.

The argument is powerful, and the book very engaging, a real page turner. As a side benefit, Sapiens is also a grandiose lesson in history, from the prehistoric times to the rise and fall of modern empires, full of surprising facts and wonderful tales.

The Digital Mind: How Science is Redefining Humanity

Following the release in the US,  The Digital Mind, published by MIT Press,  is now available in Europe, at an Amazon store near you (and possibly in other bookstores). The book covers the evolution of technology, leading towards the expected emergence of digital minds.

Here is a short rundown of the book, kindly provided by yours truly, the author.

New technologies have been introduced in human lives at an ever increasing rate, since the first significant advances took place with the cognitive revolution, some 70.000 years ago. Although electronic computers are recent and have been around for only a few decades, they represent just the latest way to process information and create order out of chaos. Before computers, the job of processing information was done by living organisms, which are nothing more than complex information processing devices, created by billions of years of evolution.

Computers execute algorithms, sequences of small steps that, in the end, perform some desired computation, be it simple or complex. Algorithms are everywhere, and they became an integral part of our lives. Evolution is, in itself, a complex and long- running algorithm that created all species on Earth. The most advanced of these species, Homo sapiens, was endowed with a brain that is the most complex information processing device ever devised. Brains enable humans to process information in a way unparalleled by any other species, living or extinct, or by any machine. They provide humans with intelligence, consciousness and, some believe, even with a soul, a characteristic that makes humans different from all other animals and from any machine in existence.

But brains also enabled humans to develop science and technology to a point where it is possible to design computers with a power comparable to that of the human brain. Artificial intelligence will one day make it possible to create intelligent machines and computational biology will one day enable us to model, simulate and understand biological systems and even complete brains with unprecedented levels of detail. From these efforts, new minds will eventually emerge, minds that will emanate from the execution of programs running in powerful computers. These digital minds may one day rival our own, become our partners and replace humans in many tasks. They may usher in a technological singularity, a revolution in human society unlike any other that happened before. They may make humans obsolete and even a threatened species or they make us super-humans or demi-gods.

How will we create these digital minds? How will they change our daily lives? Will we recognize them as equals or will they forever be our slaves? Will we ever be able to simulate truly human-like minds in computers? Will humans transcend the frontiers of biology and become immortal? Will humans remain, forever, the only known intelligence in the universe?

 

In memoriam of Raymond Smullyan: An unfortunate dualist

Mind-body Dualists believe there are two different realms that define us. One is the physical realm, well studied and understood by the laws of physics, while the other one is the non-physical realm, where our selves exist. Our essence, our soul, if you want, exists in this non-physical realm, and it interacts and controls our physical body through some as yet unexplained mechanism. Most religions are based on a dualist theory, including Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

On the other side of the discussion are Monists, who do not believe in the existence of dual realities.  The term monism is used to designate the position that everything is either mental (idealism) or that everything is physical (materialism).

Raymond Smullyan, deceased two days ago (February 10th, 2017),

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had a clear view on dualism, which he makes clear in this history, published in his book This book needs no title.

An Unfortunate Dualist

Once upon a time there was a dualist. He believed that mind and matter are separate substances. Just how they interacted he did not pretend to know-this was one of the “mysteries” of life. But he was sure they were quite separate substances. This dualist, unfortunately, led an unbearably painful life-not because of his philosophical beliefs, but for quite different reasons. And he had excellent empirical evidence that no respite was in sight for the rest of his life. He longed for nothing more than to die. But he was deterred from suicide by such reasons as: (1) he did not want to hurt other people by his death; (2) he was afraid suicide might be morally wrong; (3) he was afraid there might be an afterlife, and he did not want to risk the possibility of eternal punishment. So our poor dualist was quite desperate.

Then came the discovery of the miracle drug! Its effect on the taker was to annihilate the soul or mind entirely but to leave the body functioning exactly as before. Absolutely no observable change came over the taker; the body continued to act just as if it still had a soul. Not the closest friend or observer could possibly know that the taker had taken the drug, unless the taker informed him. Do you believe that such a drug is impossible in principle? Assuming you believe it possible, would you take it? Would you regard it as immoral? Is it tantamount to suicide? Is there anything in Scriptures forbidding the use of such a drug? Surely, the body of the taker can still fulfill all its responsibilities on earth. Another question: Suppose your spouse took such a drug, and you knew it. You would know that she (or he) no longer had a soul but acted just as if she did have one. Would you love your mate any less?

To return to the story, our dualist was, of course, delighted! Now he could annihilate himself (his soul, that is) in a way not subject to any of the foregoing objections. And so, for the first time in years, he went to bed with a light heart, saying: “Tomorrow morning I will go down to the drugstore and get the drug. My days of suffering are over at last!” With these thoughts, he fell peacefully asleep.

Now at this point a curious thing happened. A friend of the dualist who knew about this drug, and who knew of the sufferings of the dualist, decided to put him out of his misery. So in the middle of the night, while the dualist was fast asleep, the friend quietly stole into the house and injected the drug into his veins. The next morning the body of the dualist awoke-without any soul indeed-and the first thing it did was to go to the drugstore to get the drug. He took it home and, before taking it, said, “Now I shall be released.” So he took it and then waited the time interval in which it was supposed to work. At the end of the interval he angrily exclaimed: “Damn it, this stuff hasn’t helped at all! I still obviously have a soul and am suffering as much as ever!”

Doesn’t all this suggest that perhaps there might be something just a little wrong with dualism?

Raymond M. Smullyan

Human rights, animal rights, and robot rights.

An interesting article, in the New York Times, discusses the question of the rights of animals and robots.

The article describes the demise of Harambe, a gorilla from the Cincinnati Zoo, killed when a young boy fell in the moat that was part of the habitat that Harambe shared with two other gorillas. When they felt the boy was in danger, the zookeepers shot the gorilla, in an effort to save the life of the boy.

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Angry protesters complained that shooting the gorilla was a violation of his rights. Discussing the rights of gorillas is particularly eerie because gorillas are so close to us. They are among our  nearest cousins, having separated from humans a mere  7 million years ago.

Today, these musings have another worrying side. We view ourselves as owners and sometimes protectors of the lower animals. Soon, however, robots may view ourselves in the same way we view gorillas, or other animals. Should robots be allowed to kill humans, if and when they endanger other humans or other animals? What are the moral questions at stake here? When is it legitimate to kill a human or, for that matter, an animal? And what about the rights of robots? It is ok to terminate them, as long as they are not sentient?

The key question is: how inhuman is it to kill an animal or to terminate a robot? Does it depend on the level of sentience the animal or the robot has? Most people believe lower animals are not conscious, but the jury is still out on that question. Are bats conscious? Do they experience some sort of consciousness when they fly in the dark, sensing the environment with ultrasounds? Can we ever get to know that is feels like to be a bat?

Thomas Nagel article ““What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, discusses exactly this subjective aspect of consciousness, concluding that we can never fully understand what consciousness is, from the subjective point of view of the entity living the experience. Other philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett disagree, and believe that consciousness can, and will be, understood, since it is nothing more than an emerging phenomenon, a result of the operation of complex systems.

Illustration by Nishant Choksi, for the New York Times.