The Hard Problem

Computing Conciousness

The mind-body problem is considered one of the most intractable in the philosophy of science. Can a physical process account for our experience? Well, what else is there? On the other hand, like organization is fundamentally different at the cellular level from the world of large organisms like you and I, it seems correct to say that consciousness is fundamentally different from matter and the flow of electrons, even if they are the source of it. Are we matter and energy in a particular form or more than that? Is the cause of consciousness of a different nature than the effect? It seems hard not to say yes.

If the answer is no then it seems premature to rule out consciousness in machines. Consider a machine that precisely mimics the flow of electrons in a human brain. Ruling out the difference in material with which each is constructed, wouldn’t you expect the same effect? Say we could create the material and conditions (pressure, temperature, etc) such that the two are now identical in all possible respects, what then?

Here it seems convenient to think about teleportation. In science fiction, your atoms are sent through space to a remote location where they are reassembled. In quantum teleportation, your quantum information appears at a remote location where a set of particles are entangled with a set of particles at your origin. The particles at the remote location then interact with a third set of particles to recreate you.

Whether reconstructed from the same atoms or with the same quantum state, is it still you? Or would your life end and another just like it begin? If it ends, then what can we say about consciousness? What was it that ended exactly? Maybe consciousness must be contiguous in an individual? But what about dreamless sleep? Will you die tonight?We all know what this means in terms of our subjective experience, don’t we? But how do we explain it in physical, objective terms?

On the other hand, consider that every five years or so we become a completely different material object. All the atoms in our bodies are replaced. We do not say our lives end every five years.

Another perspective that is reasonable to take is the position that we shouldn’t be surprised by the seeming difficulty of the hard problem, given that we don’t know what matter is.

Building on that perspective, it could be, just like Goedel showed with arithmetic, that any knowledge of it is either inconsistent or incomplete. Like those born blind from birth, there is simply no way to understand what sight is like. Does it seem absurd, then, that the same might be true for all of us: that their is a fundamental sense perception we simply don’t have.

That said, we should never give up trying to understand, even if the answer is ultimately beyond the limits of our intelligence or experience, since that is something we will never know.

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