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machine brains

Jim Balter jqb at sandpiper.net
Tue Feb 9 23:00:41 EST 1999

William Thomas wrote:
> I agree with Michael, however in my original message I was just laying out
> some rhetorical questions to point out that brains, organisms, and quasi
> organisms all function quite comfortably without any need for consciousness.
> The thing I really wanted to stress was not to get hung up on what is or is
> not conscious when thinking about designing a brain because:
> A.   The soul, or consciousness, if real, is separate from the brain. This

It is not common to equate "soul" with "consciousness"; it fact,
given their very different dictionary definitions, I would say it
is an outright error.  Certainly it will lead you to be misunderstood
and to misunderstand others when these words are used.

> is obvious, because there is no structural difference between our brains and
> the brains of major primates that would account for the function of a soul.

Since there are radical differences in behavior, there surely is
a significant difference in brain structure.  And in fact there are
major gross physiological differences, let alone functional differences
at levels for which we simply have no model at this point.

> Now, if the soul crowd was interested in dishing out consciousness and souls
> to all the primates, it would be a different story, however I don't think
> they are ready to do that.

Some dualists ("the soul crowd") are quite willing to "dish out"
consciousness to all primates, and some aren't.  Ditto for
non-dualists.  This really has little to do with whether people
believe in souls or other fantasies, but rather with what people
mean by "consciousness" and what their criteria are for ascribing
consciousness.  The general error is to assume that there is some
Plato- or God- given meaning to the word "consciousness", and thus
there is fact of the matter as to whether something is conscious or
not.  But there are only the meanings we each have, which are
vague and conflicting.  It is only after criteria have been agreed upon
as to where and when an attribute applies, that there can be a fact of
matter as to what does or does not possess the attribute.  This is
a fundamental feature of language and meaning that is misunderstood
or not even contemplated by most people, and is the source
of endless pointless debate.  It does, however, provide philosophers
with tenure and paychecks.

> B.   The more likely reality is that the soul is an illusion created by the
> brain. In this case it could be assumed that if you design a clever enough
> machine brain, the brain would fool itself into thinking it had
> consciousness. In this event we would be hard pressed to argue, seeing as we
> can not agree what, if anything, consciousness is.

Many people are virtually certain that they know what consciousness
is, even though they may not be able to articulate the criteria,
or justify their criteria, or reach agreement with others.
They would be not at all hard pressed to argue with a machine
that was made of metal, or had a computer inside, or had a head like a
or only communicated through a teletype, or didn't contain microtubules,
or satified some other irrational prejudice that has nothing to do with
the sort of attentive awareness that gave rise to the word.
And they would probably feel vindicated if they managed to convince
the machine that it in fact was not conscious, so that it would stop
believing that it was.  Of course, they would either not notice this
contradiction or would describe the change in strictly behavioral terms,
failing to recognize or acknowledge that this is a purely ad hoc move
that can be applied just as well to a human being.

<J Q B>

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