Friday, November 24, 2006

Beam me up Scotty - or maybe not

Some speculations about consciousness from Paul Broks, published in the latest New Scientist:

Mind-body, spirit-substance are false dichotomies.
The ghost in the machine will eventually be exorcised.
Mind transposition - the uploading, downloading, and extension
of the human mind, via AI directly connected to the brain- will lead, in the future, to a transformed concept of what consciousness/selfhood is.
The brain will be 'reverse engineered' by future cognitive science.
Its subtle cognitive architecture will be precisely modelled through high res neuroimaging. Eventually hardware and software will be available for the implementation of human intelligence in a non-biological substrate.
"Consciousness" will go the way of phlogiston, the theoretical substance that scientists once used to explain fire.
The idea that there is a 'hard problem' of consciousness [explaining how
neurons can give rise to a subject] will be considered a red herring.
"but as our post-millenial neuroscientists marvelled at the sparkling, dare I say spectral, patterns cascading from their high-resolution brain scanners, they were nagged by a mischievous question: who is running the show? How does the the brain, with its diverse and distributed functions, come to arrive at a unified sense of identity? 'Soul' doesn't figure in the lexicon of neuroscience, but what about the soul's secular cousin, 'self'? Could we speak of a person's brain without speaking of the person? Was the self merely the sum of its cerebral parts? The Illusion of the ghost in the machine was compelling - the natural intuition that somewhere in the brain there lurks an observing 'I', an experiencer of experiences, thinking of thoughts and controller of actions."

"Belief in an inner essence, or central core, of personhood, was called 'ego theory'. The alternative, 'bundle theory', made more neurological sense but offended our deepest intuitions. Too bad, I thought. We should learn to face facts. The philosopher Derek Parfit put it starkly: we are not what we believe ourselves to be. Actions and experiences are interconnected but ownerless. A human life consists of enmeshed mental states rolling like tumbleweed down the days and years, but with no one (no thing) at the centre."

Parfit's famous thought experiment: Imagine your body is teleported by
a process that destroys it, converts it to information, sends the information, then reconstructs it perfectly at a destination. All the contents of your mind arrive intact. You go about your life as if nothing has happened.
If you are comfortable with this scenario then you should be comfortable with bundle theory - the observing "I" is no more than patterns of energy and information, which can be disrupted and reconstituted without destroying the self - because there is no self to destroy.
An ego theorist would believe that the reconstituted body is not 'you' but a replica. 'You' have been destroyed during teleportation. This is a problem
that could have been explored in more depth in by Iain M Banks, in his SF novel 'Ilium', in which people 'fax' themselves around. Good read though.

"Incidentally" writes Broks, "we see here an inversion of conventional thinking. Those who believe in an essence, or soul, suddenly become materialists, dreading the loss if the 'original' body. But those of us who don't hold such beliefs are prepared to countenance a life after bodily death."

"These words that you are now reading, whose are they? Yours or mine? The point of writing is to take charge of the voice in someone else's head. This is what I am doing. My words have taken possession of the language circuits of your brain. I have become, if only transiently, your inner voice. Doesn't that mean, in a certain sense, that I have become you (or you me)?"

With inevitable future AI brain-extension/mind-interconnectivity (netmind), knowledge and experience will be shared directly by increasingly collective minds. The sense of separate selves will eventually disappear. The sense of self will disperse... perhaps infinitely.

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