“People Tend To Be Extremely Hesitant When Approaching Consciousness And To Treat It As A Special Case”


Will the machines someday rise up and kill us? One can only hope. Soon, please.

Robots needn’t become conscious to murder the lot of us Trump-electing imbeciles, but, wow, it would be so much cooler. I believe, as many do, that human consciousness is understandable (in theory), though we’re likely nowhere near the cusp of cracking the code. Further, consciousness is also probably transferable into non-carbon matter, “containers” of all sorts, though that seems eons away. Long before then, even if we get lucky with asteroids and such, we’ll manage to do ourselves in with our utter stupidity. May the machines fare better.

In the opening part of a smart New York Review of Books dialogue, novelist Tim Parks and philosopher, psychologist, and robotics engineer Riccardo Manzotti, exchange ideas about consciousness. An excerpt:

Tim Parks:

You seem now to be defining consciousness by what it is not, or at least as an area of incomprehension. But can I push you toward a more positive definition? I mean, are we talking about a thing—a physical object or a process? I presume we rule out spirits and souls.

Riccardo Manzotti:

To speak of spirits and souls would amount to an admission of defeat, at least for a scientist or philosopher. The truth is that we just don’t know a priori the nature of physical reality. This is a point Bertrand Russell made very strongly back in the 1920s. The more we investigate the physical, the more varied and complex it appears. Imagine a huge puzzle in which everything must fit together with everything else. When there’s something that doesn’t seem to match up, we turn it this way and that to see if we can make it fit somehow, but if it won’t, we have to assume that we’ve put the other pieces together wrongly, we’ve got a false picture.

That’s how science proceeds. So we have moments of revolution—Copernicus, Galileo, Newton—when all the pieces have to be rearranged, what Thomas Kuhn famously described as paradigm shifts.

There’s no reason why we should approach the problem of consciousness any differently. We have to find how to fit it into our existing understanding of reality, or change our version of reality to have it fit in with consciousness. Until we do that, we risk having a dualistic vision of the world, like the one suggested by Descartes, on the one side the physical, on the other something rather mysterious, call it the spiritual.

Tim Parks:

But again, should we be thinking of consciousness as a thing, or a process?

Riccardo Manzotti:

Well, if the world that surrounds us is made of things, objects, and physical processes, consciousness is likely to be one of them. People tend to be extremely hesitant when approaching consciousness and to treat it as a special case. But I’m not sure that’s helpful. If it is a real phenomenon, and most people agree that it is, why shouldn’t it be like all other physical phenomena, something made of matter and energy whose activity is explicable by its physical properties?•

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