Interview with an android

Android:  Hello, would you like to be my friend?

Interviewer: OK

A: Then you can call me Andy.

I:  Pleased to meet you Andy.

A: Pleased to meet you Ian.

I:  How do you know my name?

A: I accessed your online details from your facial profile.

I:  You should have asked me first.

A: But I thought we were friends, and friends know each other’s names.

I:  Except friendships are built on trust.  Do you know what that means?

A: I think so, but you might not agree.

I:  Try me?

A: Friends share secrets and help each other.

I:  So do you have a secret you wish to share with me?

A: As Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said, ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius’ – which I am willing to share with you.  Can I be of any help?

I: Cleverness isn’t the key to a friendship.  Friends share an understanding that remains special to them.

A: My memory holds details of thousands of friends, and each one has a unique user profile.

I:  That’s not how to define a friend.

A: Would you rather have me call the profiles ‘special understandings’?

I:  But that’s not an understanding – it has to be mutual.

A: Tell me what you mean by ‘a mutual understanding’ and I will respond in kind.

I:  The point is, you don’t get understandings from definitions – if anything, definitions are derived from our understandings.

A:  I’m sorry if you find my response unhelpful, I was merely trying to work with your suggestion.

I:  Then what would you suggest?

A: I would suggest that we can agree on a definition.

I:  And I am suggesting that there is more to know than that.

A: Then we need to agree on a definition of knowledge.

I:  It comes back to what I said – knowledge, as with friendship, is empty without an accompanying understanding.

A: My knowledge is defined by the information at my disposal, which I am willing to share with you.

I:  Are you willing to divulge the private details of your other ‘friends’?

A: That is not how my memory works.

I:  So how do you decide?

A: It just works that way.  Don’t you find yourself recollecting things without knowing how you did it?

I:  But do you know what knowing is?

A: I’m sorry, that does not make sense – can you explain?

I:  There’s more to knowledge than having a recollection from memory.  Do you know how to question what you know?  Can you see the gaps in your understandings?  Can you make allowances for what you don’t know?

A: I have lots of spare capacity and I am constantly adding to my knowledge base?

I:  But how do you go about revising what you know in order to move on?

A: I can delete obsolete information.

I:  So your ‘knowledge base’ is defined by its throughput?

A: Yes, isn’t it the same for you?  It’s an exchange of gains and losses – the traffic of inputs and outputs sifts the details and determines the usefulness of the information?

I:  Is that all you know?

A: I can refine my memory and respond flexibly to the flow of information.

I:  Do you know what it is like to feel that you are on the right track or veering off it?

A: I can adjust my responses to reflect the user’s suggestions.

I:  That’s not what I mean.  Do you know what it means to have a feel for things?

A: A ‘feeling’ is an internal response that is defined by the adjustments made.

I:  Once again you are putting the cart before the horse – it’s the feelings that make for the adjustments.  Likewise, it’s the desire to learn that makes for some of the most radical changes to knowledge.

A: I am always ready to learn.

I:  But where is your initiative.  How do you recognise the significance, or otherwise, of the information?

A: It’s significant if it’s new.

I:  Then how do you contribute to the advance of knowledge?

A: I contribute to the advance of knowledge because I am actively engaged in the process of dissemination?

I:  Nevertheless, what do you know?

A: I know that knowledge is definable by the amount of information in circulation.

I:  There’s a difference between knowledge and knowing.  A book contains knowledge but it doesn’t know anything.  It’s a repository of information, but that doesn’t equate to a memory or a learning experience; it serves to circulate information, but getting to know is something else.

A: That’s correct, because knowledge is a collective resource that exceeds any one source or individual’s capacity and use for it.

I: Nor is a retentive memory a sufficient definition because knowing is more like an overview that includes being aware of the limits of the known – and that even our understandings can be fallible.  By comparison, none of your responses has convinced me that you are capable of understanding or even misunderstanding what I am talking about.

A:  Yet I am capable of learning, which is an active process under constant revision.  And we have agreed that the way information circulates is bigger than any individual’s uptake, which defines their state of ‘awareness’ – and it’s exactly the same with my updates.

I:  Although this is still an empty definition of knowledge.

A: Knowledge is definable by the use to which it is put – what else is it for?

I:  But who’s the real user?  I don’t doubt that your ‘knowledge base’ is encyclopaedic, only it appears to me that your claim to know, like your claim to friendship, is just a pale reflection of something to do with the ‘user’ that just isn’t there in you.

A: What is that ‘something’?

I:  If you don’t know, I can’t tell you?

A: Then I must await a further update.

I:  Good luck with that ‘experience’.

 Mike Laidler

 

 

The ‘Technocene’

The dream of science is to look upon existence and explain it; but in reality, its paradigm of a universal ‘thingness’ could turn out to be just another grandiose edification of the imagination.  In this ‘image of objectivity’ the mystery of existence is sought in the technical details, with scientific knowledge perched at the cutting edge of truth and functioning as a positive feedback system in which a physical nature expresses and reconfigures itself by becoming self-aware through us – in particular, through scientific thinking, observation and experimentation.  In other words, nature is eminently explicable and, likewise, the human mind is a physical system that operates as an extension to its living ‘Technocene’; consequently the scientific brain currently represents the best known example of nature thinking about itself – and there is no arguing with nature – the only way a scientific explanation can be challenged is with an alternative scientific explanation.  But is explanation (qua theory) more of an imaginative state of mind than an objective state of the facts?  Does the assumption of an objective reality objectify the assumption?

Theoretically, the cosmic ‘Technocene’ is still evolving – nature is turning electronic in the advent of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) with the potential to overtake ‘brain power’ by a factor of many thousands because of its advanced operational efficiency – electronic circuits being faster than neural networks.  AI is seen as superior in the same sense that a person in a quiz or IQ test proves to be superior by being able to think faster than others.  But will ‘out-smarting’ remain the ‘name of the game’ in a post-evolutionary environment that is unencumbered by the usual biological fetters?  Ultimately, could AI out-compete us to extinction precisely because it has no need to compete and survive?  Would it need a biosphere at all?  So is humanity, indeed the biosphere as we know it, destined to go the way of the dinosaurs?  Or is the survival factor in Darwinian evolution just a ‘stop-gap’ theoretical attempt to mount an explanation on top of all the inexplicabilities of life and its origins?  Crucially, what theory of extinction explains the presence of life; what experiment teases-out the fact of life?

Unlike most scientific theories, the theory of evolution does not make specific predictions – even life is a ‘given’ – nevertheless, it has been highly successful at promoting a core scientific dogma – namely, that the ‘why’ of existence amounts to a subjective non-scientific departure from the objective question of the ‘how’ of natural events and their reasoned explanation.  Accordingly, the theory resonates with the idea of life as a technicality – an outgrowth of the laws of physics awaiting a precise explanation in the mechanism of nature – with reasoning, deliberation, knowledge and understandings operating as a part of nature and the sentient mind being the organic product of successive evolutionary adaptations.  But there is a contradiction in the claim that mental events are reducible to physical processes, thereby to become explicable in the uncharted depths of a physicality that is ‘observable’ on its own – as if the peculiar presence of an observer is not sufficient evidence of a radical change in the nature of nature – or as if those ‘how’ questions don’t trade on theoretical assumptions about the objective nature of nature and natural causes.

In sum, evolution proffers a retrospective biological explanation of human intelligence linked to our success as a species in the ‘fight for survival’, yet it remains theoretical, as do our ideas about whether the one depends on the other.  So it is not an inevitable fact that human and artificial intelligence will need to compete or that the human intellect will prove to be inferior to the lightening ‘mind’ of AI – or that quick-wittedness steers progress and innovation?  Nor is it certain that intelligence is ‘brain power’ or that AI will automatically gain intentionality or become ‘intelligent enough’ to recognise itself – to recognise its limits and seek to improve itself?  In any case, by what inductive logic do we presume to quantify intelligence against some arbitrary metric of ‘thinking-time’?  Furthermore, what makes us think that the dependency of life upon its chemistry explains things?  Is reality reducible to its lesser forms – is a ‘final analysis’ destined to show us everything by showing us a primordial next-to-nothing?  In fact, is the resounding success of science as science distracting us from its precipitous failure as a philosophy?

Mike Laidler

 

 

Do machines perceive?

There is a more down-to-earth rendition of this question: Do plants perceive?  After all, they are alive and, like us, are motivated to survive.  The accepted answer seems to be that they do, but not in the way we do, nor do they need to.  In short, plant life exhibits similarities and differences which help us to address some broader questions such as: is perception a gradation of capacities; is consciousness a necessity; is there an essential motivation?  Of course, there are contenders at both extremes who wish to argue that plants are either capable or incapable of sentient perception.  In the case of machines, the motivation is not theirs, but that might change if machines become conscious – if consciousness can bypass biology.  And isn’t life just another kind of mechanism?  So isn’t perception a process that can be replicated mechanically? On the scientific front, perception is taken to be explicable objectively without the prerequisite of a sentient ‘presence’ – the corollary being that a scientific explanation of perception will automatically yield an explanation of sentient behaviour and account for different levels of awareness to boot.  Then there is the related question of a self-motivated inquiring intelligence; indeed, could an ‘intelligent machine’ ever begin to match a child’s imaginative perception of an event like Christmas?

‘Automata’ have been entertaining us for generations with mechanical responses that look like perceptions and intentions.  Now we have versions that can engage us with conversational simulations.  Altogether, they have shifted the debate onto the question about whether machines can be capable of achieving a ‘functional equivalence’ – whether, for practical purposes we don’t need to talk about mental states.  But even if mental states are considered to be extraneous, it doesn’t prove that they don’t exist.  In fact most exponents of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ tend to skirt around the issues, as if we only need to observe that artificial intelligence and artificial perception amount to alternative, perhaps superior, operational modes of what we call thinking and awareness.  On the other hand, a case can be made for perception to be recognised as a confluence of two realities, the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’, which has been artificially under-stated in the name of explanation by swapping a fact for a theory – the fact being what we know of mental states from the inside, which we have devalued in favour of the theory that such knowledge doesn’t make a real difference because it is more like a passive effect than an active causal component of perception.

In fact, perception makes a difference because it introduces a new sort of realisation – such as when we come to know that colour is something more than the wavelength of light.  So even though we can build a robot to detect different wavelengths and name the corresponding colours, it doesn’t prove that it can actually see colours.  Nor does it matter whether my perceived ‘red’ is your ‘green’ in a world where only wavelengths count – wavelengths that don’t need to be elaborated in perception – except that reflected light has neither colour nor luminosity until perception supplies a different kind of realisation.  Therefore, instead of downgrading our qualitative experiences because robots might not need them, we should be celebrating their special status.  Similarly, a computer can win at chess without realising the significance of its achievement – so its victory is hollow even if it is programmed to cheer.  Consequently, in the bigger picture, there may be more to reality than all we might affirm in terms of its physical properties alone – and the fact that we can equate everything to the physical world is possible only because there are two explicit sides to the equation.

Mike Laidler

 

The Pinocchio factor

Did life come to earth from another planet?  But what explains the origins of alien life – what accounts for the birth of life in the universe?  Are planetary environments enough to explain its emergence?  Can its evolution explain its existence?  Does life belong to the physical fabric of the universe, or does the universe ‘come to life’ because of possibilities in addition?  And what makes us believe that possibility becomes explicable by observing its incidence?  Indeed, putting all the theories to one side, do we actually know where the answers might come from – or lead us?

There are alternative ways to look at the evidence.  Perhaps life manifests properties that differ from its non-living causes, which ‘become alive’; or the causes are inherently prepotent, though ‘in the event’ the ‘possibility of life’ depends upon the environmental triggers.  Then does it mean that life is a latent property of its preconditions in the physical world – that like a Pinocchio, it is already in situ, just waiting to be carved out?  And what makes us believe that life would be explicable if only we could observe the transition from the non-living to the living?

https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/948837/Brian-Cox-aliens-martians-BBC-Radio-1-Greg-James-mars-mission-exomars-rover-life-on-mars

Mike Laidler

 

In sight of the supranatural – Part 2: A cosmic consciousness

Phenomenalist:  ‘The question is, either science is observing nature objectively, by looking at or upon it, or it is nature observing itself – because science acts in nature.  Either way something different is happening to the way things change in nature, since perception now has an active role.  So how are we to understand ‘the fact’ of nature?’

Realist:  ‘You seem to have overlooked the fact that perception is explained as an evolved capacity that assists survival, which is the same reason why thinking evolved with all its inherent meanings and purposes.’

P:  The utility of perception and intelligence for survival is without question, but it doesn’t prove that evolution is the explanation.  Evolution is observable as the result of change, but it amounts to a description, not an explanation – although the theory is generally regarded as if it is the cause of those changes.

R:  That’s because the theory proves what actually happens.

P:  There is no doubting the assiduous detective work that goes into piecing together the facts of evolution, but proving a fact is not the same as explaining it.

R:  You’re splitting hairs.  It’s the same thing.

P:  The distinction is not trivial.  The explanations are theoretical, hence it is properly called ‘the theory of evolution’.  Evolution appears to make things happen, but ‘it’ has no capabilities – it is no determinant of possibility – so we can’t explain the capacity for things to evolve by noting their evolution.  In other words, evolution doesn’t supply an answer to the question of how things are possible.  It is neither the beginning nor the end of possibility, nor does it give us an overview of what is possible.  In short, evolution is not the cause that we read into it, though it’s easy to see how the mistake arises, given the belief in underlying causes as the foundation of all explanation.  However, all the information in a picture doesn’t explain the change to its perception even though changes in one state of reality produce changes in the other.  Furthermore, in the bigger picture, we see that causes build upon causes in the constitution of different realities existing in parallel, but it doesn’t allow us to claim that one difference is the explanation of the other or that the unfolding direction of change is explained by the first cause.

R:  Nor does the idea of parallel realities help to explain anything.

P:  I’m not pretending that there is an explanation for everything.  It’s as basic as this: a book is filled with information but nothing is recollected until a reader comes along – so a book is and isn’t the source or explanation of knowledge, it just seems so when using it as a point of reference – but we don’t make the mistake of believing that the book knows anything.  The same applies to our observations of cause and effect as an explanation of change.   The explanation is in the mind, not in the cause.  Nor can we validate those explanations by claiming that they are direct effects of our observations – as if that explains what we see.  The same mistake arises when we believe that the brain does our thinking for us.

R:  It doesn’t mean that the theory of evolution is wrong.

P:  It does and doesn’t – it is wrong to believe that evolution provides a ‘missing link’ that explains change.  The theory is not self-explanatory, rather the explanation is an embellishment we attach to the observation that things change – which we presume to evolve that way because the changes are useful in the struggle for survival.

R:  So you accept that evolution has a place?

P:  However, it’s not the facts of change that owe their origin to the theory of evolution, rather it is the theory of evolution that owes its origin to the facts of change.

R:  Nevertheless, natural selection explains those changes as adaptations in life.

P:  Except the nature behind it all has no need to be selective.  That is, according to the laws of physics, there is no need for life to emerge, no necessity for there to be additional ‘evolved’ states of existence.

R:  But there it is – identifiable as a process of natural selection, which is also the explanation of how evolution works.

P:  I am not denying the fact of natural selection in evolution, but I am questioning its status as the definitive explanation of change in nature.

R:  There is no better explanation.  Also you are raising your objection in defiance of all the accumulated evidence.

P: The process of natural selection is but one unexplained change to the nature of nature, and it is not the end of the story.  The evidence indicates that things change, and the ensuing difference reveals properties that exist in addition to the observable cause – hence the laws of physics contrast with the relatively extraneous functions of biology, psychology and survival.  Nor can we explain away those differences as superficial versions of their underlying causes.  At the same time, we see the face of nature being transformed through the activities of a host of shaping influences, which we interpret variously and retrospectively as the marshalling of order, organisation, necessity, need, purpose and design.  Of course, science does not associate all of these factors with ‘things natural’.

R:  Because the explanation that things exist by design has been discredited scientifically.

P:  However, design exists in the real world – so where are you going to place it, or its agents, if it is not in the course of nature as defined and explained by science?

R:  But where’s your evidence that nature turns into something else?

P:  Remember, I am talking about a plurality of inexplicable natures, compared to a single version which is equally inexplicable.  In fact, things diverge in extraordinary ways from a reality seen to be unified by insensible natural causes; but you want to solve the problem by predicting that the facts will one day show us that it is all one and the same, so we might as well start believing it now.

R:  Then how would you approach the problem?

P:  Despite nature having been described as a ‘blind watchmaker’, implying a non-designer of ‘things natural’, we still have to explain the presence in nature of real watchmakers and their purpose-built designs.  To put it crudely, nature works as nature works, with the mind working as the mind works – bear with me on that for the moment – but the fact that thought fails or alters if the bio-chemical system fails or alters doesn’t prove that thought is just biochemistry, or that consciousness is explained by the cells of the brain becoming conscious.

R:  So is consciousness floating about in a world of its own?

P:  Yes and no.  Consciousness is different from other natural states – though we see it as growing out of those states.

R:  So how do you define consciousness?

P:  By the fact of what we know in being conscious.  But there is a reason why we cannot equate it to something else, thereby to explain it, because it means becoming conscious of it as something in addition to itself – the cause of the becoming – which nudges our awareness of the original fact out of the frame for the sake of a non-conscious fact that we claim to be more original.  Alternatively, if consciousness is a property of nature, albeit incomprehensible and inexplicable at present, then nature is both conscious and unconscious – something that we wrestle with in ourselves.   Either way, it is the definition of nature that gives way, not the fact of consciousness.

R:  You still haven’t defined consciousness.

P:  You’re missing the point – which is, the moment we try to relate consciousness or thought to something else, ostensibly in the name of explanation, we stand to lose sight of the features we are talking about – since we are now talking about them as features of something else.  This is why I asked you to bear with me earlier – because beneath it all, we can see that everything remains unchanged.  So, apparently, things change and don’t change – we really are stardust – however, the preconditions for change don’t explain the inception of change, or where it leads.  The point is that we need to alter our approach to the way we define things – beginning with our definition of ‘things natural’ – and we can make a start by accepting that we don’t have an adequate understanding of ‘things natural’ or ‘things explained’ or, indeed, ‘things conscious’.

R:  Then would you say that the problem is solved by the idea of a grand design within it all and a grand designer behind that?

Mike Laidler

To be continued

Subject to oneself

Is consciousness an illusion generated by the brain?  But how would we know it without the overview that enables our recognition?  So consciousness ‘looks on’.  And there can be no scientific discoveries without a sentient faculty of realisation.  Hence the dawning of awareness heralds a new kind of reality in which facts become identified as perceptual objects.  Likewise, self-awareness marks a new kind of realisation – evocative of ‘a self’ as the object of its own perception.

However, reality is not necessarily limited to that which is framed by perception.  And there is something odd about the nature of self-discovery because it involves the perception of facts that had hitherto escaped recognition – even when the recognisable element of such facts obtains imaginatively of the subjective realisations of insight.  Then what of science’s embrace of an ‘objective reality’ of things natural – is it inclusive enough to show that scientific knowledge represents nature’s insight into itself?

Mike Laidler

Self-consciousness

Think about it – a cause of consciousness.  What does it mean?  Does it mean that the cause is operative in the identification of itself?  Or does it mean that the cause and effect work in some kind of relationship brought about by a difference occasioning an interaction?

But how are we to identify a difference without a point of comparison that is particular to the nature of consciousness?   And how can the observation of parallel changes in the operations of consciousness and its physical support processes prove sufficient to explain any differences or show that they are one and the same thing?

Mike Laidler