The Ancient Origins of Consciousness

The Ancient Origins of Consciousness, by Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt, published by MIT Press, addresses the question of the rise of consciousness in living organisms from three different viewpoints: the philosophical, the neurobiological and the neuroevolutionary domains.

From a philosophical standpoint, the question is whether consciousness, i.e., subjective experience, can even be explained by an objective scientific theory. The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, in the words of David Chalmers, may forever remain outside the realm of science, since we may never know how physical mechanisms in the brain create the subjective experience that gives rises to consciousness. The authors disagree with this pessimistic assessment by Chalmers, and argue that there is biological and evolutionary evidence that consciousness can be studied objectively. This evidence is the one they propose to present in this book.

Despite the argument that the book follows a three-pronged approach, it is most interesting when describing and analyzing the evolutionary history of the neurological mechanisms that ended up created consciousness in humans and, presumably, in other mammals. Starting at the very beginning, with the Cambrian explosion, 540 million years ago, animals may have exhibited some kind of conscious experience, the authors argue. The first vertebrates, which appeared during this period, already exhibited some distinctive anatomic telltales of conscious experiences.

Outside the vertebrates, the question is even more complex, but the authors point to evidence that some arthropods and cephalopods may also exhibit behaviors that signal consciousness (a point poignantly made in another recent book, Other Minds and Alien Intelligences).

Overall, one is left convinced that consciousness can be studied scientifically and that there is significant evidence that graded versions of it have been present for hundreds of millions of years in our distant ancestors and long-removed cousins.

Advertisements

The Evolution of Everything, or the use of Universal Acid, by Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley never disappoints but his latest book, The Evolution of Everything is probably the most impressive one. Daniel Dennett called evolution the universal acid, an idea that dissolves every existing preconception we may have about the world. Ridley uses this universal acid to show that the ideas behind evolution apply not only to living beings but to all sorts of things in the world and, particularly, to society. The universal acid is used by Ridley to deconstruct our preconceptions about history and to present his own view that centralized control does not work and that bottom-up driven evolution is the engine behind progress.

When Ridley means everything, he is not exaggerating. The chapters in this book cover, among many others, topics as different as the universe, life, moral, culture, technology, leadership, education, religion, and money. To all these topics Ridley applies the universal acid to arrive at the conclusion that (almost) all thas is planned and directed leads to bad results, and that all that evolves by the pressures of competition and natural selection provides advances and improvements in society. Bottom-up mechanisms, he argues, are what creates innovation in the world, be it in the natural world, in culture, in technology or in any other area of society. To this view, he gives explicit credit to Lucretius who, in his magnum opus The Rerum Natura from the fourth century BC, proposed essentially the same idea, and to Adam Smith’s who, in The Wealth of Nations, proposed the central role of commerce in the development of society.

Sometimes, his arguments look too farfetched like, for instance, when he argues that the state should stay out of the education business, or that the 2008 crisis was caused not by runaway private initiative but by wrong governmental policies. Nonetheless, even in these cases, the arguments are very persuasive and always entertaining. Even someone like me, who believes that there are some roles to be played by the state, ends up doubting his own convictions.

All in all, a must read.

 

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.

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?