My Head, the Universe – Is It All Good?

That last piece on the nature of consciousness provoked some interesting responses. It makes me wonder why the philosophy departments are always so small. Probably because we feel more comfortable being error-prone lunatics, like unfastening the top button on the jeans after a big meal. I wonder what that says about people who always wear sweats?

Here’s a reminder, too. I was criminally negligent in supporting the positions for those three main views of consciousness in the last piece, Am I Alive? I am working under the assumption there is a reason philosophy departments are small. Very intricate and in-depth discussions for each of those positions exist, and are easily accessible if you have an interest in the detail. Even more importantly, distilling those arguments into quick examples lets me be lazy, too.

In addition to being told definitively what consciousness actually was, I was also pointed to a fascinating project within IBM’s Cognitive Computing group. This project just received $5 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same agency that funded the creation of the Internet, and many other incredible (and dubious) things.

The award funds IBM’s proposal, “Cognitive Computing via Synaptronics and Supercomputing (C2S2)”, which will be the first step in fulfilling DARPA’s “Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE)” initiative. Another company, HRL Laboratories, which is owned by Boeing and General Motors received three times this amount. HRL Laboratories is also involved in DARPA’s Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System, and their Urban Reasoning and Geospatial Exploitation Technology (URGENT) program, which wants to revolutionize urban combat using three-dimensional object recognition.

Anyway, IBM has built a rat brain. Well, not really. They’re simulating one on a supercomputer. Neural networks were long considered the most promising path toward simulating cognitive functions with computational devices. That approach focuses upon the role of neurons in the brain. However, neurons actually account for a very small fraction of the brain’s circuitry. Most of the circuitry are synapses, which connect the neurons together. Many synapses are connected to a single neuron. In fact, IBM’s rat brain has 55 million neurons and 442 billion synapses. That’s pretty much the same as a real rat brain. In comparison, a human cortex has around 22 billion neurons and 176 trillion synapses.

The IBM rat brain is somewhat larger than a rat, though. Their rat brain requires a 32,768 processor supercomputer with 8 trillion bytes of memory. It consumes more energy than 1,000 typical households. That is one fat rat.

And alas, it will probably never be on par with a real rat. Real rat brains, like our own, operate asynchronously, with variable timing (frequencies) and ooze chemicals as well as electricity. Being biological, they are also adaptable and fault tolerant. And most importantly, memory is not so separate from the processing. Traditional computers always keep memory separate from the processor. Then again, rat brains don’t run Linux.

But the IBM folks are well aware of their limitations. This is an incubation project. Cognitive Computing differs significantly from traditional artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence identifies problems, then comes up with ways to address those problems programmatically. On the other hand, cognitive computing does the engineering first (by reverse-engineering the brain) and worries about the more programmatic problems later.

The supercomputer is used only as a simulation. The intention is to build chips and electronics with a similar structure like a brain. They then plan to ram it full of sensory input from sensors all over the world, to create a “world brain”. I tell ya, these military guys are crazy. The idea is actually to overload this brain with sensory input. Part of me is suspicious, thinking these guys are hoping to create a physical structure modeled after a brain, and then by flooding it with sensory data, it might just burst into life with some ability to perform cognitive functions on that data. Or maybe even come alive… No, they would never say that.

What they do not intend to create is an actual rat brain, or human brain. At least that’s what they are saying. But you know mad scientists, particularly when they’re working for the military. They want to create computers that can get closer to the efficiency and power of biological brains, and this is, to them, in large part a structural issue.

What is interesting, philosophically, is suppose they do create a synthetic human brain. Would any mind, or consciousness, that arose from this brain also be synthetic? Or, for that matter, what exactly does synthetic mean? If souls exist, what is mind without a soul? If mind, or consciousness, is simply an illusion, is there anything wrong with just shutting it off and dismantling it, after we turn it on? Or if consciousness is only an illusion, is there anything wrong with just “turning off” a person’s mind?

Before we can deal with any of these questions we must define, if only in very broad terms, a nature of consciousness. Consciousness is something more than illusion. It may be an aggregate of biochemical processes, or it may be something related more closely to a notion of spirit. But to say that consciousness, which we all seem to experience, is merely illusion is to side step, in the name of convenience, the very basis of our ability to reason and perform science. Consciousness must exist or there is no context in which we might ask questions, formulate answers, be curious about matters, or feel anything at all. If consciousness is illusion, what is being tricked, if not consciousness itself? Consciousness precedes itself, when examining itself.

However, to say that consciousness exists is not to say that spirit exists. It may very well be that consciousness cannot exist independently of some physical substance. It is to say, however, that consciousness currently appears to be a more abstract quality than something wholly physical. That is, though consciousness may be dependent upon the physical, consciousness itself may not physical, any more than the processes of mathematics is physical. In fact, it is metaphysical (devoid of the pedestrian connotations).

I cannot touch my consciousness, or the consciousness of another person, nor can I smell it, see it, or measure it. This is does mean that consciousness is an illusion. Consciousness must exist before I carry out any processes of science. In order for me to see, taste, smell or feel, or on higher orders, evaluate, determine and hypothesize, I must have a consciousness. Whether or not this consciousness is dependent upon the physical, I am stuck with its necessity. Even though considering the consciousness illusory may help win some arguments, the problems created by such a proposition far outweigh any gains. Consciousness does exist and it is something metaphysical. It might even remain metaphysical, even if the bridging problem between physical, biochemical processes and the manifestation of consciousness are eventually solved.

This admission should not, in any way, fly in the face of science. Many abstract, not altogether tangible things exist that are, for some reason, wholly accepted by science. One of these things is mathematics. Another is the laws of physics themselves. Scientists have no problem accepting that some abstract laws exist that somehow determine the behaviour of everything physical. The question here is, what holds these laws? Why is there an electromagnetically negative charge and a positive charge, and only those two? What determines the probabilities associated with quantum mechanics? In science’s inference of multiple universes, where even the laws of physics can be utterly different in different universes, how are those laws of physics imprinted into that particular nature of reality? Perhaps consciousness is something abstractly structural like this. But it is abstract, similarly, beyond any given physical system. But again, that is not to say that it is not dependent upon a given physical system.

And now to the meat of things, the reason for this piece, which continues after the last one that left us questioning whether consciousness even exists, as most of us assume it must. For if we are questioning the epistemology of consciousness itself, where does that leave us when we consider other people, or other beings, or things, besides ourself? If we question the very possibility of consciousness, what possible hope is there for any sense of ethics or morality – of right or wrong?

First, I want to distinguish between ethics and morality. Here, ethics will mean something we can think about and discuss to reach conclusions. Morality will mean something that we learn through tradition, or are told. This being said, morality will be left out of the discussion altogether. This is done in the interest of expediency, since morality does not lend itself well to any reasonable discussion. Its basis sits in absolute notions that are generally entrenched and immobile. I leave it for people to shout about on the back porch between beer drinking and farts, until they reach their conclusions through a wrestling match, or a bloody club.

If a scientist or philosopher is of the ilk to question the existence of actual consciousness, it is altogether likely they are also of the ilk to question the existence of a basis for any ethics, let alone good or evil.

When you consider consciousness an illusion it is very difficult to reasonably consider ethics. Ethics seems intrinsically oriented toward life, and becomes more relevant the higher you go up on the complexity of life scale. If there is no consciousness, any notion of a higher order of life scale is arbitrary at best. Would you consider applying ethics to the way a physical cluster operates as individual components? How can mechanical operations be ethical or unethical if no consciousness guides them? Without consciousness, things function as they do. Ethics is replaced by gross domination through a preponderance of purpose, or just simply strength.

However, since we can more sanely say that consciousness is something more than illusion, we can also find a place for ethics. Perhaps not for good and evil, but ethics, most certainly. Here the question becomes, is there such a thing as right and wrong, or good and bad, that exists, similar to consciousness, or the laws of physics, in its own true abstraction? Stay with me scientists…

The question of ethics is a very old one; ancient even. Right now we are looking at these questions of ethics and consciousness, framed by a backdrop of new technologies, during a period increasingly dominated by scientific thinking. It is important to keep in mind that rational thinking is timeless, though not all rational positions remain rational over time. The questions of ethics are richly discussed in texts throughout many centuries, distinct from religion. My one selection here, for your consideration is this:

Let’s say that a dog exists. It’s a good dog, but occasionally bad, as dogs are. There is plenty of food for the dog, and the dog will not harm its environment. It will not overly reproduce. In fact, let’s assume there are no ill effects whatsoever from this dog existing, and there never will be. The question is, is it better that the dog lives or dies?

You would be an unusual person indeed if you claim the dog ought to die, when there are no bad effects from it living. If you just hate dogs, substitute a cat, or a monkey, or better yet, yourself. Particularly when you substitute yourself, even saying that it makes no difference whether you live or die rings a little untrue. Most people would agree that, all things being equal, it is better the dog, or you, should live, rather than die. But what makes it better? This is certainly not something purely mechanical.

Interestingly, you can take this even further back, to address concerns about the origin of the universe. Why does the universe exist? Why did it come into being? Well, is it better that the universe came into being, than if it did not? This is the exact line of reasoning early philosophers used to posit the existence of an ethical universe. Personally, I have a hard time accepting that the universe sprang into being because it was supposed to, along with all its physical laws. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about a natural state of ethics, alongside our conscious determination and use of the natural laws of nature.

It will be interesting, if we manage to create a synthetic, or even “real” consciousness – will that consciousness have a similar sense of the inherently ethical? Will it know that being alive is better than being dead? Will it know that promoting non-truths is bad? Or does it require emotion for such determinations? Does consciousness itself require emotion?

But I think the important thing for us to realize is that science and rational thinking does not require us to throw out any value we place upon life, nor to give up on what we know to be ethical choices. Science is still entrenched in its long war against the domination of religious thought. Unfortunately, it runs the risk of creating a narrow dominion of thought all its own, in the process. If we are to have truly open minds, our thoughts and perspectives must be willing to travel beyond their comfortable and familiar contexts, if only just to take a quick peek.

For all the dogma and doctrine out there, the important thing is that we are all alive, participating in, and affected by what each of us embrace, promote, or even just participate within. Life has intrinsic value that is greater than any equation or any religion. Life’s value is greater than any system of government, economy or social tradition.

It is a quality of life that it must grow. Consciousness must grow. However, reductionism and normalization should only be considered a fertilizer for the soil, and not the cage. Otherwise, we run the risk of scientific oppression that would make religious oppression pale in comparison.