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Consciousness: Mind And Machine

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By Eldon Taylor

A popular idea now-a-days is the notion of the ghost in the machine. From scientific articles to entertainment, this reference is to the idea of consciousness. Once again, the study of consciousness is occupying the minds of science and science fiction.

Just after the turn of the century, science basically abandoned the study of consciousness per se’ on the grounds that it was too ambiguous and non-quantifiable. However, the development of artificial intelligence, so-called thinking computers, interactive virtual reality environments and non-local action, or action at a distance, has placed the study of consciousness in the fore front of many minds.

What is consciousness? This issue is devoted to some of the intrigue involved in efforts to create “thinking machines” modeled after man, minus of course, his limitations.

EARLY TALK

Language is often thought to be the tool of consciousness and evidence for the kind of consciousness that makes man different from monkeys. Indeed, language has often been referred to as the “jewel of cognition.” Some scientists have argued that Neanderthal man possessed advanced talking ability. This assertion is largely based upon a neck bone found in 1988 (SN: 4/24/93, p.262). Other scientists argue for a more recent origin to speech. Recent in this sense is between 50 and 100 thousand years ago. By contrast, early origin theorists date the beginning of language at over 2 million years ago.

The evolution and history of language has a bearing on certain philosophical issues where consciousness is concerned. For example, take any date for the first appearance of language. Let’s for fun just assume some hairy bi-pedal creature that has never spoken. Is this creature conscious? Conscious in the sense of man? Now one day the creature utters some meaningful form of speech. Not a grunt or guttural sound like all animals, but some form, beginning, of speech. Is the animal now conscious?

What is the difference between the consciousness of animals and man? What is intended by distinguishing between the two conscious forms as different and why? If a primate species shows the ability to learn, remember and associate learnings, some insist this is evidence for reason. Most flatly refuse to recognize it as such. Is it possible that by recognizing the field of consciousness as one worthy and ripe for study, that mans’ consciousness will lose its unique elevated status? What precisely is it that one means by consciousness anyway?

Certainly reason preceded language. It would be rather odd if it were the other way around. Still, that’s an interesting thought.

Some seem to reason only with the tools of their language. In other words, their reason is limited by the rules and definitions of their language. Plus, there is some argument in favor of certain language structure as having greater or lesser faculties for developing logical thinking. Literal languages, for example, such as German, tend to encourage the development of logical thinkers. However intriguing all this may be, it still stands to reason that reason preceded the conceptualization and development of speech. As such, one is hard pressed to limit the consciousness of a species on the basis of sound patterns called speech.

Oh, and it gets still tougher. For there are sound patterns that resemble speech uttered by so-called non-conscious animals such as whales and dolphins. So, what is consciousness?

Is consciousness a matter of wakefulness? No, it can’t be just that for one can be a conscious being and still be asleep. Is consciousness memory? Well, according to the experiments of Cleve Baxter, plants exhibit memory. Where science abandoned the study of consciousness years ago, the problems inherent to describing consciousness have proliferated during the absence. The advent of animal studies, plant studies and synthetic or artificial intelligence have greatly complicated the matters of consciousness. Or perhaps, in the alternative, simplified them.

LANGUAGE AND THE BRAIN

For most people, parts of the left brain handle the affairs of language. Brain hemispheric studies including the now popular Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans show that the right ear sends acoustic information to the left hemisphere. Well, according to Marc Hauser of Harvard University and Karin Andersson of Radcliff College in Cambridge, rhesus monkeys “display a similar cerebral setup, with the left half of the brain often taking responsibility for vocalizations intended to signal aggression” (SN: 5/21/94, p333). If this is true, does this mean that the anatomical evidence for language processing is evidence for consciousness in the sense that we normally think of mankind’s consciousness. If not, what are the differences?

CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE BRAIN

For many, mind equals brain. Mind is a more general terms that refers to the processes handled by brain. Therefore, mind is often an interchangeable term with consciousness. Is mind equal to brain? The chief area of enquiry offering evidence one way or another to this question is a discipline often held in poor regard. Still, literally thousands of laboratory experiments in scientific parapsychology demonstrate that there are many aspects of mind that can not be reduced to anatomical or material brain.

For example, data clearly supports the “reality” of telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis. This seems obvious to this commentator, but then the biographies of some of the world’s most respected people provide a richer picture than that found in science. However, the point is simple. Whether it is from the genius of Einstein or the laboratory of a modern parapsychologist, mind is not equal to brain! What does this mean with respect to consciousness?

A wonderful Star Trek adventure that I can remember had the Enterprise actually forming its own consciousness and then creating a new life form. Somehow, as Mr. Data explained, the activity of the starship’s computers and records began to take on a “more than the sum of the parts” activity, form its own neural network and so forth. Will machines ever become conscious?

SIMULATED CREATURES EVOLVE AND LEARN

This was the headline in a recent Science News publication: Simulated Creatures Evolve and Learn. The article by Richard Lipkin went on to cite the work of Karl Sims of Thinking Machines in Cambridge, Mass., who “devised a simulated evolutionary system in which virtual creatures compete for resources in a three-dimensional arena…The creatures, resembling toy-block robots, enter one-on-one contests in which they vie for control of a desired object—an extra cube. Winners—deemed more fit—reproduce, while losers bear no offspring. Sims endows the virtual environment with physical parameters, such as gravity and friction, and restricts behaviors to plausible physical actions” (SN: 7/23/94, p63). Sims believes that it may be easier to evolve virtual entities with intelligent behavior than to create them from scratch. Artificial intelligence researchers have long sought to develop the so-called thinking machine. Unlike Sims, most begin by attempting to model the computer after the patterns of man. For some, this is the neural model of the brain while for others it is the deductive/inductive model of reason. Perhaps Sims’ method is more man-like than the other two. Mankind is thought to have evolved. Does this help us understand consciousness? Oh, and what about the collective of consciousness? Will machines soon be contributing to this field of consciousness? Will a machine ever dream?

DREAMS, INTUITION AND CONSCIOUSNESS

The “Genius Hypothesis” advanced by Ervin Laszlo and reported in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol.8, No.2, pp257-267, 1994), asserts that the minds “of unusually creative people are in spontaneous, direct, though usually not conscious, interaction with other minds in the creative process itself.” Laszlo’s paper sheds light on the “archetypal experience” described by Carl Jung while using history, physics, psychology, artistic production and cultural development to clearly suggest the strong possibility (in this commentators opinion, the only real possibility) that not only do minds communicate, but they do so at a distance as well!

Is the collective, or the shared consciousness experience, an independent consciousness? Is it possible that unique (individual) conscious entities participate as transceivers, sending and receiving, and that the total of consciousness is this collective? Does the collective have a plan, a will, does it dream? Or is it just a repository? Does it have a neural network or some analogous something that we might refer to as a non-spatial field? I mean, its not organic or silicone is it?

CONSCIOUS OF CONSCIOUSNESS

Perhaps consciousness is something that has to do with being conscious of consciousness. I mean, are monkeys truly conscious of being conscious? Could they even entertain the idea of consciousness without an object? Or consciousness as a character in someone else’s dream? Does a monkey ask itself if it really exists?

Is that a fair direction to take our questions regarding consciousness? After all, are we not likely to be forced to admit the notion of “devolution” if we do? Are there not all together too many homo sapien sapiens on the planet that don’t give the proverbial “hoot” about who they are or where they came from. How many of these people ask the question, “Do I really exist?” Will silicone ask the question, “Who am I?” If the Japanese have their way, the answer is—probably! A “Darwin Machine” is being created by researchers at ATR laboratories in Kyoto, Japan. The artificial brain which uses an evolving neural network is due to be completed by 2001. Hugo de Garis, an ATR scientist, says the purpose is to produce a silicone brain with more than 1 billion artificial neurons.

Science News says the machine “will come in the form of a neural network and will exist within a massively parallel computer. To create such a complex system, the researchers will have the network build itself. ‘Cellular automata,’ each one a distinct computer program, will actually forge their own linkages.”

This approach, called “evolutionary engineering,” provides for the growth of the silicone brain via connections. “The neural net grows when cellular automata send ‘growth signals’ to each other, then connect via synapses.”

(And you thought genetic engineering was something to wonder about).

CONSCIOUSNESS WITHOUT A DEFINITION

Defining consciousness turns out to be a process somewhat a-kin to searching for the core of an onion. As we enter the new year, and perhaps entertain thoughts of the upcoming turn of the century, revisiting consciousness is more than a philosophical exercise or a scientific enquiry. It is a duty, even a moral imperative, to re-evaluate the nature of consciousness for this inherently devises the strategy by which mankind treats itself and all life. For me, and I suspect for many others, many changes are seen as necessary for the human race to actualize the highest of its potentials. As in history, most certainly some of these changes will be brought about by difficult times. I am reminded of something Martin Luther King said, “I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be.” King went on to point out that it was precisely the inter-related fabric of life that each of us was interdependent upon.

Perhaps, it is the inter-related nature of all life, consciousness itself, that we are interdependent upon. Perhaps, just perhaps, mankind will only know his highest most noble self when he offers the deepest of respect for all life. Perhaps the invigorated enthusiasm searching for a firm hold on this stuff called consciousness will eventually give rise to the respect I speak of.

Thank you and BE WELL & HAPPY!

Eldon Taylor is director of Progressive Awareness Research and the author of over 200 books and tapes (http://www.innertalk.com).
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