X-Message-Number: 17975
Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2001 20:01:25 -0800
From: Dave Shipman <>
Subject: Definitions and Revolutions


As Robert Ettinger (#17969) points out, my last message was somewhat 
confused in spots, so let me clarify a bit. Ettinger writes:

    "Defining consciousness is easy, if you allow
    enough vagueness or generality"

In my message (#17964), I used the term "specifically defined", by which I 
intended to imply that the definition shouldn't be vague or general. I 
think it is possible to _describe_ consciousness, and many people have done 
so, with more or less success. (One of the best descriptions in my opinion 
is John Searle's discussion in his article "Consciousness" which is online 
By the way, I don't accept at all his faulty "Chinese Room Argument". But 
even though he is generally considered anti-AI, and I consider myself 
pro-AI, I find his writings among the most thoughtful on the subject. I 
particularly recommend Searle's "The Rediscovery of the Mind".)

The problem with definitions of consciousness in terms of qualia is that 
they beg the question, "What is a quale?". If you say, "A quale is a 
subjective experience.", then does that mean that it is sufficient to have 
a software module that observes ("experiences") patterns produced elsewhere 
in the program? "No, no, you must have a standing wave to bind space and 
time." So is it sufficient to hook the program up to a microwave oven and 
then it becomes conscious? "No, no, it must be reflexive." I'm being 
ridiculous of course, but we could go around and around like this and never 
reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Basically, I sympathize with Charles Platt (#17916) when he says:

    "If you tell me what consciousness is (not what it feels like,
    which is a self-referential exercise), then we can have a
    meaningful discussion of the possibilities for building a
    conscious device. But not until!"

A clear definition that specifies what consciousness is, and what it is 
not, sure would help.

I believe one of the primary problems with attempting to fashion a 
definitive definition of consciousness is that we are constrained by the 
contemporary physical worldview, which fundamentally cannot admit of 
qualia. Our modern physics is by its nature mathematical, and hence 
amenable to computational simulation. I believe we may need a major 
paradigm shift of the type described by Thomas Kuhn in his "The Structure 
of Scientific Revolutions". Scientific revolutions occur when the facts of 
nature can no longer be accounted for by existing scientific concepts. But 
scientific revolutions are easier said than done. The modern analogues of 
Brahe and Kepler are our neurologists and cognitive neuroscientists. They 
have a lot of hard work ahead of them. And only when they have completed 
their job can a Newton arise to enlighten us.

In the meantime, we shouldn't trivialize the challenges ahead.

	-- Dave Shipman

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