Yale’s David Gelernter, the well-known computer scientist, has written an article in Technology Review on the problems that bedevil AI research. He has some interesting things to say — not only about AI, but also about consciousness itself — and it’s well worth your while to read it.
One important point Gelernter makes is that a widely held view among many AI researchers and philosophers of mind — that consciousness arises in our brains solely in virtue of the computation performed, and that therefore any system running the right sort of software ought to be conscious — is pure speculation, and not a safe bet at all. This assumption underlies, for example, Nick Bostrum’s “simulation” argument, which we looked at in an earlier post, and which was just mentioned in the New York Times. But such a view overlooks the fact that there is one thing in the whole world, and one thing only, that we know to be capable of becoming conscious — namely the human brain — and the fact is that we don’t even have the right language yet to express what consciousness even is, let alone to make definite statements about how our brains create it. While it may indeed be the case that our brains generate consciousness solely in virtue of the computations they perform, the physical, biological brain may yet turn out to be a necessary substrate for consciousness. It’s simply too soon to say.
Gelernter also touches on an aspect of consciousness that is often overlooked in philosophical and scientific discussions: that it is not a binary, “on-off” phenomenon, but varies along a continuous gradient. This is common knowledge in esoteric systems of inner development, but gets short shrift indeed in Western academia, and it is refreshing to see him bring it up. The article also stresses the central role that attention plays in moderating our levels of consciousness, and even touches on — and this is a first, as far as I know, in mainstream discussion — the cohesion of the ‘I’ that results from the gathering of the attention in more conscious states. This is, in particular, absolutely and explicitly central to the practical system of inner work brought to the West by Gurdjieff, and I wonder if Dr. Gelernter has some connection with this teaching. It is a topic I’ve been meaning to return to in these pages.
Finally, the article takes up the nature of emotions, and here, I think, goes a bit astray. But that’s a matter for another post.
Anyway, go and have a look. You can read the article here.