The Descartes Thing

Thinking zombieBy reading my blog you will find that I’m quite enthusiastic by Michael Graziano’s theory of consciousness[1]. Just recently I came across this other book on consciousness[2] (also from 2013) by Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi that I’ve been now eagerly reading as well. It has given me more insight on what is known of consciousness… or awareness… or sentience…

And here lies a problem: There are several terms in the English language that seem to be used almost interchangeably for this thing that René Descartes reached for in 1637[3]. This is partially due to negligence, but I believe, most often due to people having focus on different things, where the Descartes thing is only a somewhat relevant side track.

We have, at least, consciousness, intelligence, awareness, soul, and sentience. Edelman and Tononi appear to be interested in sleep (and perhaps anaesthesia) and hence they seem to focus on consciousness. The SETI institute is searching the extraterrestrial universe for intelligence. Intelligence is also the thing about artificial intelligence (AI). Graziano has put consciousness in the title of his book, and finds it as a higher level of awareness. Often I have heard non-sentient being lacking soul, especially when talking about AI. What I see that Descartes really was describing, was sentience.

I believe, I have to go a bit back on my words on my former writing, (Artificial) Intelligence is not Possible Without Sensors and Manipulators. As in AI people tend to talk about “the ghost in the machine” it is easy to assume that artificial intelligence is the same as artificial sentience (AS). And in many cases it is. As people study sentience and technology, there is the big question that is even often stated explicitly: “at what point is a machine sentient?” However, AI is not the same as AS. We can have highly intelligent machines without sentience. Essentially my iPad is intelligent, when it measures the amount of light in the environment, and adjusts its screen brightness accordingly. This feature is, after a fashion, aware of the lighting conditions and makes an intelligent action based on the awareness, but it is not conscious or sentient.

The first definition of intelligence in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is: “The faculty of understanding; intellect. Also as a count noun: a mental manifestation of this faculty, a capacity to understand.”[4]

The Wikipedia article on intelligence[5] begins by admitting that the word has more than one definition, and as the Descartes thing, people often talk about different things from each other, when they are talking about intelligence. The eventual definition they give is “the ability to perceive information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context”. The page also lists several other formalisations of defining intelligence. Many of them stray into considering the consequences of the understanding, which easily appeals to a person with a mindset in any degree towards engineering. This means people, who wonder about the internal working of sentient beings.

In many cases, especially in computer sciences, I would formulate the definition of intelligence as the ability to act for a chosen benefit by internal motivation according to apparent requirements of the situation. As a water drop gains weight as it grows in size in a cloud, the requirements make it fall down as rain. Such a physical behaviour is not intelligent, as the motivation comes externally from gravitation, and there is no choice. Otherwise the search for extraterrestrial intelligence would be moot as intelligent behaviour would not be distinguishable from any other (naturally occurring) activity. Essentially my defined intelligence here is quite technical, not really requiring consciousness or sentience, although they are highly beneficial supporting qualities. Also note the phrasing “chosen benefit”, as intelligence doesn’t straightforwardly mean choosing always the best possible action, but people can choose to misbehave against their own real interests too.

Searching for intelligence is a similar ambition as searching for liquid water. Liquid water shows potential for life. Intelligence shows potential for sentience. Although interesting just as their own selves, they are even more fascinating as indicators of something even bigger.

Awareness is the discrimination of available information. As I am writing this blog, I am aware of the cursor moving in the editing area and forming words as I type. Normally I am actually not so much aware of my fingers hitting the keys, as I am an experienced touch typer. I am constantly receiving masses of sensory input, which is registered by my brain, but I am not consciously aware of it.[2] Being aware of something is more or less equivalent to concentrating on something.

The Wikipedia page on awareness[6] is less than concise. They initially define that “awareness is the ability to directly know and perceive, to feel, or to be of events. More broadly, it is the state or quality of being conscious of something.” This definition contains both the wide experience of everything one gets sensory or cognitive input of, as well as the set of sensory and cognitive input that one concentrates of and is conscious of. I personally prefer the latter definition, partially because it’s how Graziano uses the word in his book. The OED isn’t very helpful with their rather cyclic definition: “The quality or state of being aware, consciousness; (also) the condition of being aware (of something or that something is).”[4] Neither do the definitions of “awaredom” and “aware” add much, except the idea of being “on guard”.

As Graziano explained, animals have evolved to be aware of threats around them, as well as food sources. It is more efficient for a being not to just move around aimlessly and hope to encounter nutrition, but to be aware of a food source and attain it. As for threats, it’s a benefit to be aware, whether or not a predator is aware of you. And Graziano concludes with sentience arising from a being being aware of what it is aware of itself. This is probably a requirement of being social. To interpret the facial expression of another person, we try to relate how we would be feeling, if we had such an expression – there we need to be aware of our own state of mind.

Consciousness has a much used opposite term unconsciousness, which means (dreamless) sleep, coma, or equivalent state. Typical of such states is that people do not have memory of the periods of being in that state. It is also typical that the brain reacts differently to input stimulus.

The purpose of sleep is not yet fully understood. It is interesting that while you may vividly remember your dream as you awake, this memory fades very quickly, unless you attentively recall it immediately. Who knows, how actually conscious we really are during sleep and anaesthesia, but perhaps we just forget all about it as we come to? One assurance here is that in surgery our heart rate remains stabile, regardless of the operation’s severity, so whatever we are conscious of, is not what is happening to our body or around us.

Consciousness has been interestingly derived very far away from another word: “conscience”. Conscience is the moral integrity of a person. A bad conscience is the regretting of having committed a bad thing. Clear conscience is the comfort of knowing that one has not done anything bad, regardless of how others may think. It can be argued, that a person should only have a good or bad conscience over things they have done while conscious – in a mental state where they have been able to make judgement. Albeit, animals can be conscious without having a conscience.

The OED’s first definition of “consciousness” is: “Internal knowledge or conviction; the state or fact of being mentally conscious or aware of something. “[4], which is rather contradictionary with the second definition: “The faculty or capacity from which awareness of thought, feeling, and volition and of the external world arises; the exercise of this. In Psychol. also: spec. the aspect of the mind made up of operations which are known to the subject.” In the first definition, consciousness is the state of being aware. In the second definition, awareness comes from being conscious. There are two more, quite different definitions of the word in the dictionary.

The Wikipedia page on consciousness[7] is also diverse and massive. They state that “despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is.” This feels hard to believe, depending on the definition of “philosopher” here. As mentioned, many scientists use the word for different purpose, depending on what their main subject is. This might be a case, where a linguistic term falls short of corresponding to something real by positivistic sense. In Finnish, there is the word “tietoisuus”, which is the translation of “sentience”, “consciousness” and “awareness”. Although languages, English included, has been formed through the need of the people and the perception of the world by the people, it may be that “consciousness”, like the Finnish “tietoisuus” has a more complex structure to cover that is possible by a single word, and as we learn better, we need to stop using that word and replace it with a set of better ones.

Sentience is, as Graziano observes Descartes stating: Self-awareness of an awareness. “I think, therefore I am”, or more rigorously: the thought exists that thinks it exists. Sentience is the intelligent, conscious self-awareness. Sentience is connected in humans typically with a highly vivid conscious experience, which is difficult to explain materialistically. If the brain is just a electrochemical network, how can it give rise to my experience of being? Edelman and Tononi write in their book that Schopenhauer has named this problem as “the world knot”, and David Chalmers calls it “the hard problem” of consciousness[8].

The OED shortly defines sentience as: “The condition or quality of being sentient, consciousness, susceptibility to sensation”[4], which isn’t saying much.

Wikipedia defines sentience as “the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively”[9], where the last word “subjectively” bears a lot of weight. My iPad in the earlier example has the capacity to perceive the lighting level, if not feel or experience it, but not subjectively. The subject in this case is the programmer of the system, who has designed how the system should react on the experience. Intelligent systems are increasingly complex as technology evolves, and an interesting question has for long been: at what point does a complex intelligent system become sentient, if at all?

The Turing test[10] is specifically a test for artificial intelligence. The question in the test is, whether a machine can fool a referee person to believe that it is a person instead of a machine. There have been cases, where the referee has though a person to actually be a machine. Intelligent behaviour is an indication of sentience, but a machine doesn’t have to be either sentient or conscious, in effort to appear as such. This leads us back to the title of this blog, to solipsism[11] where one self is considered as the only actual sentient mind, which is a difficult philosophy to disprove, and the most typical counterargument is the unfalsifiability.

Soul is a more spiritual and philosophical concept. Typically it includes consciousness and sentience. When tacking the world knot, Descartes deduced that the pineal gland in the brain is “the seat of the soul”[12], where the material body and brain are connected to the immaterial soul that drives and motivates them. This setup of mind and body is called dualism and it is quite attractive to think that there is the physical reality from which we get information though our senses and then there is the immaterial reality where our conscious soul resides. Although Descartes talked much about soul, I would still say that the Descartes Thing is the sentience. Soul is more ambiguous thing, and sentience is only a part of it.

I fear my definitions are not paramount either. Especially, sentience could be considered rather as capable of sensations, than being self-aware, as I am doing here. This writing has been an attempt to stop and think of the terminology, as well as the boxes we lock ourselves into, when using the terminology. Language is not an exact tool, especially if it is not your primary tool, as I would assume it to be for poets and prosaists (who might disagree). We have to always try to understand the concepts behind the words and do our bests in expressing our concepts as clearly as possible. This is a point that I perceive psychologist Robert Epstein was making, as I wrote how “Everything Looks Like a Nail“.

[1] Graziano, Michael SA. Consciousness and the social brain. Oxford University Press, 2013.

[2] Edelman, Gerald M., and Giulio Tononi. Consciousness: How matter becomes imagination. Penguin UK, 2013.

[3] Wikipedia. Cogito ergo sum. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[5] Wikipedia. Intelligence. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[6] Wikipedia. Awareness. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[7] Wikipedia. Consciousness. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[8] Wikipedia. Hard problem of consciousness. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[9] Wikipedia. Sentience. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[10] Wikipedia, Turing test. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[11] Wikipedia. Solipsism. referred to in November 12th, 2016.

[12] Wikipedia. René Descartes. referred to in November 12th, 2016.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.