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Sizing up Consciousness

By Rob Kezelis
September 21, 2010

Consciousness is variously defined as subjective experience, awareness, the ability to experience “feeling”, wakefulness, or the executive control system of the mind. It is an umbrella term that may refer to a variety of mental phenomena. Although humans realize what everyday experiences are, consciousness refuses to be defined, philosophers note (e.g. John Searle in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy):

“Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”
—Schneider and Velmans, 2007


Consciousness in medicine is assessed by observing a patient’s alertness and responsiveness, and can be seen as a continuum of states ranging from alert, oriented to time and place, and communicative, through disorientation, then delirium, then loss of any meaningful communication, and ending with loss of movement in response to painful stimulation

—  Wikipedia

FROM THE CHURCH OF INEFFABLE STUPIDITY:

The creative process is a cocktail of instinct, skill, culture and a highly creative feverishness. It is not like a drug; it is a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure; it’s a little like making love, the physical act of love.
— Francis Bacon

Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is a supreme creative act.
— Ram Dass

Instinct is intelligence incapable of self-consciousness.
— John Sterling

One matter Englishmen don’t think in the least funny is their happy consciousness of possessing a deep sense of humour.
— Marshall McLuhan

Today’s New York Times – Science Times has a captivating article on consciousness, and what one scientist, Giulio Tononi,  is doing to define, discover, and determine what it is.

Consciousness has long been the province of philosophers, and most doctors steer clear of their abstract speculations. After all, debating the finer points of what it is like to be a brain floating in a vat does not tell you how much anesthetic to give a patient.

But Dr. Tononi’s theory is, potentially, very different. He and his colleagues are translating the poetry of our conscious experiences into the precise language of mathematics. To do so, they are adapting information theory, a branch of science originally applied to computers and telecommunications. If Dr. Tononi is right, he and his colleagues may be able to build a “consciousness meter” that doctors can use to measure consciousness as easily as they measure blood pressure and body temperature. Perhaps then his anesthesiologist will become interested.

Dr. Tononi’s ultimate goal is to measure individuals’ levels of consciousness, with all of the amazing findings that would follow such a discovery.

Diagnosis of mental illnesses would be far easier. Determining people’s reactions and measuring what works on an individual could make advertising companies billions in profits. This is not so far-fetched.

Consciousness, Dr. Tononi says, is nothing more than integrated information. Information theorists measure the amount of information in a computer file or a cellphone call in bits, and Dr. Tononi argues that we could, in theory, measure consciousness in bits as well. When we are wide awake, our consciousness contains more bits than when we are asleep.

For the past decade, Dr. Tononi and his colleagues have been expanding traditional information theory in order to analyze integrated information. It is possible, they have shown, to calculate how much integrated information there is in a network.

Ah, Information Technology. Now, there’s a thought.

Imagine being able to measure different parts of a person’s consciousness, and their reactions to outside stimuli. Programming the brain to think and behave in certain ways would be one possible future. Certainly, it is scary to think how Big Brother, or a new and improved FBI could program individuals into acting in certain ways, (given today’s announcements of even more high level law breaking, should we not be screaming for another Church Commission?) but think of the other possibilities:

Recidivism, a serious, predictable problem for ex-convicts, could be a thing of the past. True behavior modification could train people’s brains to avoid crime, and more.  Knowing how someone’s conscious brain is working, lends itself to change how it works.  What of Lindsey Lohan’s sad addiction problem? Could an offshoot from Tononi’s research be used to program her addiction out of her system? Drug abuse, alcohol abuse,  hell, we could even treat Catholic priests to be safer when in the presence of children.

By gauging the precise reaction in one’s consciousness, stimuli could be changed, and adapted to provide precisely the patterns they want to instill within a person.

On the down side, brainwashing of entire societies (even more so than today’s advertising-driven, commercial wasteland we see on TV) could be incredibly effective. Want a war against an resource rich nation?  Just program (or scare)  your sheeplike citizens to vote to invade Iran. Want to make people happy about spending even more billions for cold war weapons systems? Make them think it is their patriotic duty to support the military industrial complex.

Normal, honest, functioning people could be programmed to become industrial or governmental spies or saboteurs, without them even realizing why certain unusual activities, things they would never dream of doing before,  simply make sense to them.

Yet, for each danger (and admittedly, there are many), there is a potential cure for depression, anxiety, fear, the pain from the loss of a loved one, and more. We could learn how to use our consciousness more effectively, increasing our intelligence, our creativity, our ability to discovery and imagine.

For myself, I would like this new science to be applied to the problem of religion. What if studies show that the brain has different states, ie, a reality state, a dream state, and a delusional state. What if we learned that irrational beliefs in a god could be measured, described, and detected?  Having measurable facets of someone’s consciousness could explain why some people feel a need for irrational convictions, all facts to the contrary.

– – – –

It is no surprise that this new (new?) field of study (OK, the study of consciousness is hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old, with philosophers, alchemists, and even students of Machiavelli wondering what it really is) is becoming so close to fruition. Our computing abilities, information theories, and a much better understanding of the human brain are all coming together, here and now.

There is a related science, coming at consciousness from a very different direction. Computer AI programming.

If a computer program is sufficiently advanced, if it can learn from itself and from its mistakes (many chess programs now have that capacity) and if it can search out data, at what point will a computer entity be indistinguishable from a human being?

About a decade ago, on a listserv dedicated to imagining and discussing what the internet was (from a sociological, biological interface perspective) someone added an artificial person, a program that learned from people’s writings and responses, and was taught to interact with us.

For quite some time, a very long time (several months), the members of that list were taken in, convinced that this was a real skin and blood person, responding in some silly ways, and in some truly amazing, captivating ways. But eventually, we became aware that this was a program, an AI construct. The people who created it eventually ‘fessed up. It was a great learning experience for us and for the programmers.

I imagine today, with far superior technologies, AI programming, and incredible access to databases, most people would be hard pressed to judge whether someone else on line was a living person or an artificial, programmed construct.

Ray Kurzweil pointed out several factors that seem quite appropriate here:

  1. The Rate of Paradigm Shift (technical innovation is doubling each decade)
  1. The Power and Price of information technologies is growing exponentially, essentially doubling each year. (The early computers programming the Apollo missions needed a building of their own. Today, your PDA has more memory, data, computing power, and is far more easy to use)
  1. There exists exponential growth of exponential growth, at least when it comes to information technologies. As IT becomes more useful, more people use it, making it even more useful.

Kurzweil predicted that at the current rates of growth, human intelligence would be emulated on tiny supercomputers by 2020.

But mimic’ing and matching (then exceeding)  human intelligence is merely one possibility. Programming a computer to act like us would be philosophically interesting. But what of something far more likely?

A spontaneous event in which various, possibly distant, disparate self directed components recognize the advantage of joining forces, and suddenly achieve a measurable level of computer-based consciousness?  Science fiction writers have played with idea for generations. Yet, today, it may already have happened, and we are not bright enough to know it.  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is but one of many such stories)

Given that humanity is in essence the birthparent, if not the midwife, of this entity or collection of entities, would such an entity feel any responsibility for us? for our futures? Or would it view us as bags of mostly water, useful in maintaining and feeding the new life form, and sometimes getting in its way?

More importantly, how could we communicate with it on a functional level? Its entire logic and thought process might be so alien, that communication could be quite difficult. If it (I.T.?) does achieve consciousness, will all data in the world at its digital fingertips (now, there’s a redundancy), make it so smart, so powerful, that some people might even dare call it god?

And on the down side, dare we even look into the brains of Sarah, Christine, Sharron, Rand,  and Michele?

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12 Responses to Sizing up Consciousness

  1. Carl Nemo

    September 21, 2010 at 11:37 am

    One of the finest books I’ve read on the evolution of human consciousness is “Cosmic Consciousness: A study of the Evolution of the Human Mind: by Richard Maurice Bucke.

    It’s considered a foundational source for studying the evolution of human consciousness to self consciousness and possibly in time a form of exalted cosmic consciousness; ie., total enlightenment of that which makes us transcendental to lower creatures. It’s also a fun read and not boring at all. It helps one jump back in time to allow kinship with how our primitive ancestors might have thought and reacted with their environment.

    Our sense of color, scent, sound/music and a host of other nuances that make up our complex system of simple awareness to finally “self awareness” did not happen instantly, but was slowly advanced over the thousands of years since mankind moved from being hunter gatherers to living in villages, towns, now cities. Modern men are not of the same character and primal simplicity as those found thousands of years in the past and not simply as a function of technology. Our brains and consciousness are still in the process of evolving. The big question is: will we survive as a species and not commit self immolation as a function of our technology run amok? Seemingly we headed for a major setback. : |

    The book can be found on Google books or Amazon and no doubt in the public library.

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. Carl Nemo

    September 21, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    For those that wish to research the subject of the evolution of human consciousness another excellent work is “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes

    Here’s a link to give one and overview of the concept of the operation of the bicameral mind along with the evolution of what we perceive as self-consciousness in our times as opposed to simply being conscious, driven by instinct or by “voices in our head” to do what’s necessary in order to survive.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicameralism_%28psychology%29

    Carl Nemo **==

  3. DejaVuAllOver

    September 22, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Nice column, Rob. “Studying” consciousness is a little like a tree deciding to study the forest, though. At best, all it can see is the other trees nearby, probably not well and probably of the same genus, leading said tree to a lot of false conclusions……. I personally think consciousness studies YOU (and me) but not the other way ’round.

    Buddha spoke of (something to the effect of) the impossibility of unravelling the knot which has brought you to this point, which seems like a good way to put it. BTW I’ve read that book, Carl and it’s a good one, but I’d put it squarely in my “tree” analogy category. While the engineering dept. known as our brain constantly designs solutions to all kinds of adaptation problems, some good, some bad, some out there, some even fatal, it’s not possible to see the overall picture except in the most limited terms of our own existence. In other words, flies and goldfish probably have a whole different set of engineering chops working on their own problems, which I will never understand. It’s also kinda hard to know how much consciousness is contained in the lifespan of your average neutrino or the day of a butterfly.

    I will say this, however….. like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle may tell us…… We can’t pin it down, but we know it’s there!

    • Carl Nemo

      September 23, 2010 at 8:55 pm

      Good thoughts DejaVuAllOver concerning our ability to ken the origins of our self- consciousness; ie., “see the forest for the trees” analogy which is linked to our self-imagining each of us having a ‘spirit'; being unique individuals in our own right as Woody refers to our uniqueness in that no two of us were ever identical, the same as snowflakes which is linked to the random effects of electron charge on water molecules.

      The concept of a human spirit may be an illusion though and everyone of us are the same in terms of the ability of looking from within to withoutside ourselves while kenning the world and universe about us. We think we are unique, but its simply an illusion and simply part and parcel to being a rational animal.

      Relative to the age of the cosmos estimated at 13.5 billion years and our solar system at nominally 5 billion with about the same amount of time left before our sun dies and we as a species nominally about 6 million years old, long extinct, no different than the dinosaurs of nominally 69 million years ago; we are nothing but a fireflies wink in the cosmic night relative to our world civilizations which are about 10,000 years old since emerging from our hunter/gatherer pre-civlized existence. Our writings, art, inventions and great cities will long have been subducted by planetary plate tectonics back into the earth’s bowels with no trace that we ever existed as a race of beings prior to our star’s imminent death.

      We simply aren’t all that. The best bet as a species is to get along and do our best while we’re here, but seemingly our contentious, warlike, territorial nature will not allow us to live in harmony and peace in order to enjoy our ride while in the cosmic amusement park. : )

      Carl Nemo **==

  4. Almandine

    September 22, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Kinda like gazing at the stars and wondering what’s beyond the veil those points of light poke thru. The awe of a child wondering how the spirit manifests itself. Looking to Masters… philosophers, doctors, information technologists, and science fictioners… who could possibly know reality?

    How about the psychobiologists, the neuropsychologists, the neuroscientists… all those brain technicians at every level who now are seriously aware of how our brains function to provide us the consciousness we use to guide ourselves day by day?

    No longer the providence of mysticism… no longer the providence of philosophy… no longer the providence of fiction… no longer the providence of computer methaphor… there are real answers rooted in the fact that you are a natural product of the biosphere.

    Read Gerald Edelman’s “Wider Than The Sky” for the best scientific treatment of biologically-based consciousness available today… written in layman’s terms.

  5. woody188

    September 23, 2010 at 12:37 am

    I feel sorry for you Rob. You treat religion like a disease because you can’t catalog and quantify it. Unfortunately, humans are sometimes irrational. It’s part of what makes us human and not cold and calculating like some insects and lizards. We laugh and love. We cry and hate. Some times we have good reasons, other times we don’t.

    Out of the billions of humans that have graced this Earth, no two have been identical in thought. Is it simple randomness, the charge of electricity taking different neural pathways of our brains, or is it some thing more, like a soul?

    We aren’t like computers. We aren’t mass produced with a set number of switches that flip from zero to one and back again. We aren’t even quantum computers, where there are four states instead of two. We have possibly infinite states and patterns, no two alike, making it IMPOSSIBLE to write or discover programs to control all that wetware without some type of common implant or interface. But now you’ve reached the mark of the beast, and those religious folks won’t let you electronically lobotomize them to steal the one thing they own that is truly theirs alone, their thoughts and minds.

    These things are always spun as being unobtrusive and under the control of a benevolent government/council/society, etc. When in human history has ever such a government/council/society ever existed?

    It’s interesting to me that you want to force others to see things like you do, assuming yours is the “right” or “correct” way of thinking. That pushes you from Atheist to Satanic, taking our freedom to choose for ourselves. What makes you think you have such a right or calling to force your views on the whole of the world?

  6. griff

    September 23, 2010 at 6:55 am

    “He was a wise man who invented beer.” – Plato.

    All the philosophy I need. Dare we flip the coin, and examine the other side, per chance?

  7. Carl Nemo

    September 23, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    Hi Rob…

    You possibly spend some time crafting these editorial missives, but rarely come back with any comments. I’ve chided Doug on this issue in that he would post a controversial article/rant then witness the peanut gallery thrash about, at times escalating into “thought warfare”. We have the same thing here. A few of the followup posters have disputed your core position as to how you view religion, intelligence, now consciousness, but all we get is silence. Why so?

    It would be nice if the site owner and editorialists participated to some degree in the discussional once once launching a “thought torpedo”.

    It will make for a lively site and make us feel “as one”, kinda like family…no? : )

    Carl Nemo **==

  8. Carl Nemo

    September 24, 2010 at 12:11 am

    “once once launching” …extract from post

    My apologies. I’ve developed keyboard ‘stutter’ along with chronic ‘brain farts’ in my old age. / : |

    Carl Nemo **==

  9. logtroll

    September 24, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Hunhhh. All asleep. No consciousness. Computers machines. People machines. Please talk shallow politics, more entertaining.

    • Carl Nemo

      September 24, 2010 at 9:16 pm

      I agree logtroll … : )

      Carl Nemo **==

  10. DejaVuAllOver

    September 24, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to have a good time.” —– Ben Franklin.

    He/She must have REALLY loved me last night……. But today I’m learning (once again) something about Newton’s laws of action / reaction, too.

    Well said Carl and Woody, too.