Home > Uncategorized > If consciousness cannot be explained by algorithms, then, by default, would you have to rely on a supernatural explanation?

If consciousness cannot be explained by algorithms, then, by default, would you have to rely on a supernatural explanation?

Answer by Lev Lafayette:


The following is copy-paste, but dammit, I wrote it in the first place and it's (exhaustively) on-topic.

tl;dr. The foundation of consciousness is having shared symbolic values. Whilst consciousness cannot be reduced to physical phenomena, this doesn't mean it doesn't arise from physical phenomena in a social setting (supervenience).


Mary, the Swampy Philosophical Zombie, Is In Your Chinese Room! Problems With Reductionist Theories of Consciousness

(I intend to use this title for a journal article on the subject)

1.0 What Is Consciousness?
"Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon. Nothing worth reading has been written about it."
Stuart Sutherland in the 1989 International Dictionary of Psychology

1.1 Consciousness is variously defined along with sentience (from the  Latin “to feel”) and sapience (Latin “to know”, or “to be wise”).  "Consciousness" derives from Latin conscientia which primarily means  moral conscience (knowledge-with, shared knowledge). Descartes was the  first to use it in the sense of the individual ego, but which was  expanded by Locke to include moral responsibility. Consciousness is  typically described in terms of phenomenological subjectivity;  awareness, a sense of self, which is also applied in contemporary  medicine as a continuum (from being fully alert and cognisant to being  disorientated, to delerious, to being unconscious and unresponsive). The  historical definition suggested social co-knowledge (con- "together" +  scire "to know") suggesting moral reasoning (conscientia, conscience)  and language. This original use is still applied in law with the concept  of legal responsibility with consciousness.

1.2 Consciousness is distinguished by Ned Block between “phenomenal  consciousness” (P-consciousness) of pure experience, sounds, emotions  etc., and “access consciouness” (A-awareness) of introspection, memory  etc. The exploration of consciouness as experience and memory is in the  philosophical school and psychology of phenomenology. There is also a  theoretical distinction between the "easy problem of consciousness",  such as functional responses, perceptual discrimination etc, and the the  "hard problems of consciousness" (qualia, such as colours, tastes). The  hard problem is answering why physical processing gives rise to an  inner life at all (Chalmers, 1995).

1.3 The philosophical concept of consciousness has been criticised  from sources as varied as Marx, Nietzsche and Foucault. Marx considered  that social relations preceeded consciousness (“It is not the  consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social  existence that determines their consciousness.”), whereas Nietzsche  reversed the conception of free will and moral action ("they give you  free will only to later blame yourself"). Some philosophers,  elimintavist physical monists, deny the extistence of consciousness at  all.

1.4 There is a strong tie between consciousness and language (in its  broadest sense). Medical and legal opinion both agree that assessments  of consciousness must include the capacity to engage in communication. A  concept of 'self' that is beyond the instinctual is only formulated  through language and culture with the handful of 'feral children' (e.g.,  the Genie experience) serving as evidence. Descartes also argued that  the lack of language in animals indicated a lack of lack of access to  res cogitans, the realm of thought (although many animals have since  been shown to engage in fairly sophisticated communication).
"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.", Ludwig  Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), Section 5.6

2.0 Models of Consciousness

2.1 There are two broad models of consciousness as they relate to the  mind-body problem (and related subjects such as materialism and  idealism). Monism argues that the mind and the body are the same;  dualism argues that they are separate. Within monism is there is  essentially two types; idealistic monism and physicalist monism; they  have a perhaps surprisingly degree of similarity.

2.2 The former, particularly common in some branches of religion,  consider that all is consciousness. A particularly strong example is  that of Bishop George Berkeley, who argued for "empirical idealism", who  argued (effectively) that the universe, and all that is experienced, is  a figment of God's imagination. This is very similar to the Hindu  notion of Brahman ("non-dual pure consciousness, indivisible,  incorporeal, infinite, and all-pervading"), but distinct from the  Buddhist dharmic samara/nirvana dichotomy.

2.3 Physicalist monism argues that there is no distinct mental states  from physical brain and nervous-system states. Eliminativism, for  example, argues that like astrology and alchemy eventually eliminated  false folkloric notions from the sciences of astronomy and chemistry, so  to will the mental states of everyday discourse (e.g., intent, belief,  desire, love, pain) will be shown to be false, as will the study of  psychology. The proposition is argued by philosophers such as Wilfrid  Sellars, Richard Rorty, Paul and Patricia Churchland and Daniel Dennett.  Some eliminativists, such as Frank Jackson, claim that consciousness  does not exist except as an epiphenomenon of brain function; others,  such as Georges Rey, claim that the concept will eventually be  eliminated as neuroscience progresses.

2.4 A related form of physical monism is reductive materialism, also  known "Type Physicalism", argues that that mental events can be grouped  into types, and can then be correlated with types of physical events in  the brain. Its origins are with the psychologist Edwin Boring (The  Physical Dimensions of Consciousness, 1933) and further developed by  Ullin Place, Herbert Feigl, and Jack Smart. One conflict that arises in  type physicalism is the possibility of the type-token distinction. If  type physicalism is true, then mental state M1 would be identical to  brain state B1. However token-physicalism, such as argued by Hilary  Putnam and Jerry Fodor, argues for "multiple realisability"; the same  mental state can be produced from many different physical brain states.  Experiments with colour recognistion seem to support multiple  realisability.

3.0 Chinese Rooms, Mary The Scientist, Swamp-men and Philosophical Zombies

3.1 Reductive monism, whether physical or ideal, can be challenged by  four related thought experiments; the Chinese Room by John Searle  (1980), Frank Jackson (1982), Swampman (1987) by Donald Davidson, and  Philosophical Zombies by David Chalmers (1996). All three are examples  of arguments that emphasise not just the importance of subjectivity and  qualia, but also introduce issues relating to understanding, meaning,  and language.

3.2 The Chinese Room article is specifically presented as an argument  against artificial consciousness, however it is particularly important  as a challenge to physicalist monism which, like the AI advocates of  computationalism, argue that the mind is a information processing system  operating on symbols (c.f., Alan Turing Test). "The Chinese Room" takes  Chinese characters as input and, by following the instructions of a  computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents  as output. Whilst it (being the system, or the individual processing the  data) can carry on a conversation, at no point does it understand the  characters. As Searle (1999) argues: "The program enables the person in  the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does  not understand a word of Chinese". 

3.3 One strong response to the Chinese Room argument concedes the  example, but challenges it with a robot that has extended sensory system  and therefore attaches semantic correlations from sensory input to  symbols. The "Robot Reply" has been endorsed at different points by  Margaret Boden, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hans Moravec et al. For  Searle, this is just additional input, and whilst it may strengthen the  rule-based system, still doesn't provide understanding. Tim Crane  eventually ties this criticism with social interaction, something which  Searle neglected to make sufficiently explicit – and therefore was prone  to accusations that he was begging the question; "… if Searle had not  just memorized the rules and the data, but also started acting in the  world of Chinese people, then it is plausible that he would before too  long come to realize what these symbols mean" (The Mechanical Mind,  1996)

3.4 Frank Jackson's "Mary's Room" is a thought experiment that is  aimed against physicalism in particular. Mary is a scientist of the  neurophysiology of vision, but who has done all their work in a  black-and-white environment. She knows all about the physical properties  of colour, wavelengths, the effects on the retina and brain etc., but  has never experienced color. Once she experiences color, does she learn  anything new? If she does, then not all knowledge is physical knowledge;  Mary has learned about qualia; subjective, qualitative properties of  experiences. Arguably, Mary has gained an acquantaince to facts or  abilities that she already had.

3.5 In the Swampman argument Donald Davidson explores the mind of a  replicant: "Suppose Davidson goes hiking in the swamp and is struck and  killed by a lightning bolt. At the same time, nearby in the swamp  another lightning bolt spontaneously rearranges a bunch of molecules  such that, entirely by coincidence, they take on exactly the same form  that Davidson's body had at the moment of his untimely death." Swampman  would make noises that his friends and family would interpret as  language, but, according to teleological theories (and Davidson's own  theory of content) Swampman has no ideas about philosophy, no  perceptions of his surroundings and no beliefs or desires about anything  at all; Swampman has no intentional states.

3.6 A variant on Swampman is Philosophical Zombies by David Chalmers  (although it dates back to Robert Kirk, 1974). It is a being that is  physically indistinguishable from a normal human being, even down to  neurological effects, however it lacks conscious experience and qualia;  "all is silent and dark within" (Iris Murdoch). The strength of the  philosophical zombie argument is that (a) we recognise that people have  periods without consciousness and (b) that human behaviour to occur  automatically (e.g., sleepwalking). Elaborating these to the extreme,  philosophical zombies are logically conceivable (even if practically  improbable).

3.7 According to the physicalists, everything – including  consciousness – is reducible to pure physicality. If physicalism is  true, then conscious experience must exist in such all such possible  worlds that contain the same physical facts as our world (P). However it  is possible to conceive of a possible world (Q) where there is no  consciousness (where p-zombies exist), but the physical facts are the  same. Therefore, physicalism is false. This is known as modus tollens in  predicate logic. If P then Q; not Q, therefore not P.

4.0 Never Mind, It Doesn't Matter; Escaping Monist Reductionism and Avoiding Substance Dualism

4.1 In contrast with monist approaches (whether physicalist or  idealist), there are a variety of dualist approaches, which argues that  the mind and the brain are ontologically separate categories. There are  three basic types; substance dualism, property dualism, and predicate  dualism.

4.2 Substance dualism is the argument that the mind and brain are  different substances. Originating with Descartes (and famously resulting  in "Cartesian dualism" of res cogitans versus res extensa) it argues  that the mental universe is not extensible into space, and the material  cannot think. It is considered compatible with most theological  perspectives that distinguish in substance between the body and the  mental "soul". Whilst extremely influential in the history of the  mind-body problem, substance dualism is not considered a popular theory  due to numerous problems that show that the brain and mind at least have  high levels of correlation (e.g., the mental effects of brain damage is  indisputable e.g., Phineas Gage).

4.3 Property dualism argues that whilst there is but one type of  substance (physical or ideal), but two types of properties that result;  physical and mental; non-physical, mental properties (such as beliefs,  desires and emotions) correlate in some physical substances (the brain),  but are not reducible to these. Examples include emergentism or  supervenience, with advocates ranging as far as John Stuart Mill and  Jaegwon Kim. In this model mental states emerge or depend on brain  states, but cannot be reduced to brain states as they have different  properties. Emergence and supervenience is notably popular among  biological scientists (e.g. Philip Kitcher, Elliot Sober, Alexander  Rosenberg). Property dualist can be further split into epiphenomenalism  and interactionism. In the former, physical states can give rise to  mental states, but not the reverse. Interactionism, claims that mental  states can produce material effects (and vice-versa).

4.5 Predicate dualism, advocated by Donald Davidson and Jerry Fodor,  argue that while there is only one ontological category of substances  and properties of substances, the predicates that we use to describe  mental events cannot be reduced physical predicates of natural  languages. Another description of predicate dualism, used by Donald  Davidson, is "anomalous monism" (Mental Events, 1970). The theory states  that (a) mental events are identical with physical events, (b) the  mental events are anomalous, and are not regulated by strict physical  laws. Davidson also developed the notion of supervenience to answer  critics that noted that this wasn't really a form of physicalism.

4.6 A final argument against reductive physicalism is that its  pragmatically impossible. Physicalism can only provides statements of  facticity; quantity and spatio-temporal location. It cannot provide any  information on moral norms or aesthetic expressions. Although physical  facts, moral norms, and aesthetic expressions all depend, or emerge,  from empirical foundations, any one approach cannot provide answer to  the others; they are pragmatically incommensurable; David Dennet's  Consciousness Explained, 1991, is particularly noteworthy for this  category error. It is as risible to argue that morals and aesthetics are  reducible to facts as it is to suggest that aesthetics or facts are  reducible to moral norms etc.

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