Thursday, September 10, 2009

Consciousness and Life

To understand my view of consciousness, you first should know what Biological Naturalism is, as this is the closest view to mine that I've found. I used to think I was a materialist, but materialists deny the existence of a non reducible property of consciousness. Meanwhile, there is dualism. I haven't been a dualist since I was a kid. Dualism is hard to justify when one does not believe in the supernatural.

Biological Naturalism states that consciousness is a biological property, like digestion or photosynthesis. But unlike those properties, it is ontologically irreducible.
Solidity can be ontologically reduced to molecular behavior and consciousness cannot be reduced to neuronal behavior. To put the point more precisely, in the case of solidity the fact that we can give a complete causal explanation of solidity in terms of micro physical processes leads us to say that solidity is nothing but a certain sort of microphysical phenomenon. Causal reduction leads to ontological reduction. But in the case of consciousness we are unwilling to make the ontological reduction. Consciousness is entirely caused by neuronal behavior, but all the same we are unwilling to say that consciousness is nothing but neuronal behavior. (Searle 2004, Biological Naturalism)
So to understand where I begin to differ with Searle, consider the question "What else is an ontologically irreducible biological* property?"

... pause for effect ...

If you answered "life" then maybe you already know where I'm going with this (If you're totally lost I recommend reading some of Searle's work). Bells rang in my head when I made this connection, and I'm sure I haven't been the first. Not only do life and consciousness share this rare quality of being ontologically irreducible, and being physical properties (as opposed to epiphenomenal phenomena, like a rainbow or a sunset), but they alone also share something else that is very important: replicators.

Life is a medium of physical replicators (in the case of life on earth, genes). Replicators, in the sense I use the word, undergo copying, selection and variation. Consciousness is, and I think should be defined as, a medium for memetic replicators. A meme, in my definition, is anything that is imitated. Memes, like genes, undergo selection, variation and copying.

This theory puts a lot of the puzzle pieces into place and answers the following questions. When did consciousness first emerge? Are animals conscious? Can computers become conscious?

The first two can be answered together. As soon as animals develop the higher brain functions necessary for imitation, they contain a rudimentary form of consciousness. When a bird hears a song from it's same species it may imitate the song, copying the meme. It may miss hear, or simply make a mistake, introducing variation, and through selection, only some songs will persist over time. This rudimentary consciousness is like looking on the ancient earth at replicators first evolving. It took billions of years for life to develop into a state with so few mutations as we have today. At the start, mutations were most likely frequent and extreme, as they are with many memes. But as some genes developed to produce proteins that repair DNA, some memes produce ways of maintaining themselves as well (language, writing, and eventually electronic storage, for example).

Currently computers and machines are used to copy memes, but the variation and selection is still almost exclusively done in the brain. You could think of these memes stored in a computer as an equivalent to viruses. Viruses are not widely considered alive, despite having genes and undergoing selection. Similarly, media can contain memes, but the variation and selection is not yet done by computers. I disagree with Susan Blackmore's prediction of "temes" as a new replicator, because I do not believe memes need be in a biological brain. What she calls temes I call memes that exist entirely in computers.

When computers start to not only copy, but select and vary memes, whether intelligently or not, they will on a certain level become conscious. This scares a lot of people, and perhaps it should. Memes existing entirely in computers would have protection from mutations in the way that they do not have in the human brain. It is like we are witnessing the transition of simple replicators to single celled organisms, in that the level of self sustainability will dramatically increase. Why should we be scared? Because we don't see any self sustaining replicators outside of cells anymore. The success of the cell eliminated all the competition.


Andrew said...

If you say that consciousness isn't really a "thing" then how can it considered in terms of being reduced or not? I am so lost on this whole consciousness thing. I feel like other people are kind of viewing their consciousness differently from how I view theirs...and mine.

Michael said...

I'm not saying it's a "thing" like a cat or a tree. I'm saying it's a property like digestion or solidity.

Andrew said...

OK, I can almost see that but digestion involves actual physical liquids and solidity is a state of atoms being closely compacted...these are things we can observe. Consciousness is not so easy.

My personal definition of consciousness has always been something like...something similar to self-awareness. Perhaps synonymous with self-awareness...and that can exist due to our brain's different sections working together giving that effect to us.

John said...

I tend to view both life and the persistence of memes as essentially the same thing. Successful iterations of either are self-reinforcing patterns. I see life as a sort of physical property in the way that you describe consciousness, but then all physical properties are also descriptions of pattern so that's not particularly surprising.

In the simplest terms, I see life (and consequently consciousness) as a sort of "software" process that is an effect of the "hardware"... although that may be simplified enough as to not really be saying anything without going further.

I'll plan on expounding on this sort of thing later when I'm not at work.