“Man is not free to choose whether to be or not to be .…” That’s probably a good thing under the circumstances. Instead, he generates “an unlimited series of other binary distinctions which , while never resolving the primary contradiction [his existence], echo and perpetuate it on an ever smaller scale.… [T] he reality of being [is what] man senses at the deepest level as being alone capable of giving a reason and a meaning to his daily activities, his moral and emotional life, his political options, his involvement in the social and natural worlds, his practical endeavours, and his scientific achievements.…”
Richard Grossinger quotes Claude Levi-Strauss In Chapter Six of his book, Dark Pool of Light, Volume I, in which he takes on the philosophical arguments between Functionalists and Phenomenalists. I am no student of philosophy, but will try to sum up here the arguments as I understand them. The Functionalist argument says that mind is a by-product of material processes, and so, has no ability to cause itself. The implication being that there is no active agency, only chemical and genetic processes interacting to give us an illusion of a subjective self. Therefore, a functionalist sees robots, and all AI, as beings just as “conscious” as we are; there is no difference in functionality.
Regardless of any truth behind the ideas of functionalism or phenomenalism, what’s equally interesting to me, is the underlying, often hidden motivation, driving a preference for one idea over the other. Mine as well as yours. If functionalism is true, then we too are just as mechanical in nature, consisting of mechanical parts giving us only an illusion of consciousness, and reproducible with the right combination of hardware and software design. Therefore, we too are AI, so what we do to AI – the rules we agree upon for the treatment, trust, and respect for machines, might potentially become acceptable forms of treatment for humans.
Perhaps these issues of agency, or subjectivism; who has it, what is it, does it even exist, can only start from one’s own sensitivities and experience. Although a consensus may be predicated on abstract notions of a quantitative scientific measurement, when we leave out, and thereby devalue, qualitative experience, we are forgetting what is so primary to our being. We may never grasp the true nature of consciousness, but that should not tempt us to dismiss or reduce it to either irrelevance or mirage. For what, or who, and this is a key question, is making such a decision?
The functionalist vision serves us well as, among other things, the best practical way to understand our states of awareness and gives us the tool of reductive thinking, in which breaking down and separating incomprehensible wholes into containers of parts, allows for predictive modeling and the influences of cause and effect. But when we forget, or are unaware that this approach is a functional overlay, and a tool, we may lose the necessity of that experience of the “reality of being…at the deepest level.” This may be as true for science and the study of the nature of consciousness as it is for all human endeavors.
But it is particularly the science of consciousness that potentially drives the most important aspect of the human experience; the paradigmatic cultural assumptions that are so much a part of, that we cannot see their influence on us, both individually and as a whole.
Clearly we have no saliency map for the mind, whether it is considered an indivisible whole or a homeostatic merger of synaptic components—whether it has ignition at a tipping point or represents a coalescing aggregate of incremental streams. We cannot track “mind” back to any single moving parts of cerebral anatomy. “[I]t is not even clear how … changes at the neural level relate to those at the psychological level.”
Not always obvious, but we cannot use our conscious experience to see, study, take it apart and know its source. The eye cannot both see and see itself seeing. This remains a key understanding, perhaps a preamble of the nature of our embodied existence that sets limits to all subsequent exploration of one’s experience – as well as the knowledge of all else.
Quoting Colin McGinn:
“How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective consciousness?”
…and why does this matter? Because the awareness of our limits of knowledge and comprehension is a much needed and essential humbling of our very human condition – particularly in light of the technological successes we’ve experienced in the last 100 or so years. Because along with the successes comes an ever-deepening shadow of destruction, not only of the environment, but of meaningful direct experience of life itself. I would argue that there’s a direct correlation between the quality of meaning that an individual comprehends through direct experience and the capacity for imparting meaning onto the all else, including others, in the world.
If human consciousness denies us access to any experience beyond its native capacity, we should recognize that the true nature of the struggle is predicated on the limitations of experience. The primary struggle itself is that of coming to see that the underlying experience we have of being alive is continually being translated through sense, image, culture and language. We don’t have access to anything outside of our experience, which by its nature is continually filtered through the body, its sense organs which further constricts and adapts as part of the environment and culture we find ourselves in.
Ultimately, the insistence that we are only our genes and chemical processes, reflects back to us a paradigm we find ourselves caught up in, and not a truth about the very nature of existence itself. A materialist paradigm leaves us with a literal world in which our representations of reality are accepted as real and true, or fake and false, thereby limiting reality to that which can be measured, appreciated and expressed through language.
This paradigm is not necessarily a choice, but an inherited, deeply embedded view from which we perceive, comprehend and translate each moment of each day, and subsequently distill into something we deem as reality and truth.
No matter how refined and impartial our devices become, there is no way to get at reality apart from our consciousness of it and no machine that is not created out of and operating as consciousness itself.
The consequences of the paradigm we find ourselves in, the way we perceive and translate our experience into thought, language, action and reaction, are reflected throughout the culture(s) and world we live in. A global culture that is increasingly becoming homogenized through technology, political and economic structures, coupled with the more recent predominance of mediated experience over direct immediate experience deserves as much reflection and comprehension as we can muster. I ask myself frequently, what is trying to be born in each of us now – out of both the struggles and successes that we each experience?