X-Message-Number: 11821
Date: Wed, 26 May 1999 01:13:17 -0700
From: Mike Perry <>
Subject: Turing machine vs.book

Bob Ettinger, #11814, raises an interesting issue, in which he compares a
Turing machine which is emulating a person over time to a book that
describes the moves of the TM. If the TM or what it is emulating is
conscious, then what would stop the book (a static record) from also being
conscious? Or conversely, if we say the book is not conscious, then how can
the machine be conscious? At least I think this is the thrust of his
argument (correct me if I am wrong). Here are some thoughts.

First, we don't have to use a Turing machine. Why not just imagine a real
person on the one hand, and a book that describes every particle interaction
on the other (a very big, thought-experiment-only type book, of course). The
person is conscious, but I don't see that that makes the book conscious. The
Turing machine, on the other hand, would be an active process, not a static
record. Something would be *happening* in time, something at least
isomorphic to what is going on in a human. So as I see it, the TM (more
properly, the "person" contained within it, living and moving after a
fashion) would have considerably more claim to consciousness than an
unchanging record.  

It appears too that Bob is imagining a situation where the TM is totally
isolated from the outside world (right?). It just sits there and scratches
away on its tape, but no outside writing or rewriting is allowed. But I
don't see why this restriction would have to apply. Thus in principle, we
could communicate with the "person" inside. The person could communicate
back to us. Could initiate communications, could express whatever feelings
(or pseudo-feelings, for the skeptics) it may have. Could act creatively,
the same as we would expect from a "real" person. (This might require some
unpredictability--which could also be arranged by a suitable rewrite of
symbols from the outside.) It might not happen in real time of course, but
instead might stretch over eons. But the principle is that interaction with
an outsider could occur. This of course is precluded in a static record. A
book only describes a particular path taken already (used as it usually is),
and does not constitute an act of taking a path. Both the TM and a real
person, in their different ways, would be taking a path not just recording
one already taken. (Another possibility, a book that describes every
*possible* path that could be taken, a much bigger book than one that only
describes one path, still would be very different from an active process
that takes a particular path.)

A general comment: I think time has a special role in consciousness. It is
clearly not interchangeable with spatial dimensions the way they are with
each other. Suppose a person is sitting in a swivel chair, and you spin them
90 degrees to the right. This means their x and y coordinates are
interchanged, with y now migrating to x and x to -y. No basic change in
consciousness. A person functioning that way is just as conscious as if they
turned back to the original position. And similarly we can move them to a
new setting or orientation in space, and they remain basically what the
were. But now try to imagine interchanging the *time* axis with one of the
spatial ones. Argh! In the first place you have to think about units. The
way advanced physicists look at it, the distance equivalent of time is found
by considering how far light would travel in the time in question. One
nanosecond equals one foot, to a good approximation (actually I think it is
about 11 3/4 inches); that is, light travels a foot in a nanosecond. So
there is one way of obtaining a distance equivalence. Now, I suppose you can
regard a person as a quantum wave function extending in both space and time.
From there you could probably carry out the interchange of coordinates, and
you'd get--what, I don't know. I doubt if it would seem like a person to us,
as we usually think of it, but maybe there would still be a perfectly
reasonable consciousness--in some other universe.

Anyway, I'm basically trying to make the case that time and its flowing has
a special importance to us as conscioius beings. Bring it to a halt and you
bring consciousness to a halt, or at best maybe, shift it to some other
universe where time still flows. Consciousness could still occur in an
artificial system, as shown by an appropriate isomorphism with a natural one
(though this might not be necessary). The isomorphism I think should be
subject to some restrictions, such as treating time in a reasonable way as
time, even if speeded up or slowed down. This I don't see as an ad hoc
choice, because again, time is of primary importance to us the living.

Mike Perry

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