Sentience and Sensibility

Thank you Barbara, for the invitation to guest blog on the topic of AI and consciousness on her site Me, My Magnificent Self, I am grateful. For anyone reading here, please visit Barbara’s website too. She included some very nice thoughts about my blog, and you will also find some other posts on the AI and consciousness topic.

Here we go!


Before entertaining any ideas about artificially intelligent machines becoming conscious, first we should consider what we mean by both consciousness and intelligence. For our existing ideas about what it means to be conscious to be considered, and how, if at all, intelligence differs from consciousness, some attempt at definition and distinction between the two might be helpful.

Firstly, I claim no expertise, either in AI or neurological sciences. All I have, like many of us, is experience and reflection on our most primary human condition of being.

The word, “conscious” is relatively new in its usage to the English language. Its roots:

late 16th century (in the sense ‘being aware of wrongdoing’): from Latin conscius ‘knowing with others or in oneself’ (from conscire ‘be privy to’) + -ous.

And the usage of the word, “consciousness” doesn’t appear until 100 years later. In any conversation about consciousness, we might keep in mind that the current societal consensus often propagated by modern science, and other powerful voices in the culture, making claims that consciousness is an effect caused by brain function, is itself an idea made possible through consciousness. True or not, I see no reason to make dogmatic claims, when by necessity, all-knowing, awareness, sentience, identity and agency come through states of being more or less conscious.


J2thawiki at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (

Artificial Intelligence

When attempting to use language to qualify, define and determine the existence of whether there could be the making of a conscious mind within technological devices designed by a human mind, the understanding of the nature of language itself comes to the fore. We might first ask, what is meant by Artificial Intelligence?

ar·ti·fi·cial in·tel·li·gence
ˌärdəˈfiSHəl inˈteləjəns/
  1. the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.

Artificial intelligence seems like an attempt to recreate the human mind in a human world. Although the creation of AI devices can be justified as ways of making human life better (easier, more secure, safer), the goal of creating an artificial mind can also be seen as a deep underlying desire to:

  • Be the creator, prove that the human mind can be recreated or simulated
  • Reduce the human mind to that of mere mathematics, reasoning and logic sans feeling and emotion
  • Surpass the potential of the human mind by creating something better; more superior (less emotion?)

But I don’t think there’s any comparison between human and non-human beings. It’s a category mistake to think so. So, what then is the difference?

As much as we have found ways to replicate and simulate bodily senses, parts and functions, useful as the technology is, these replications are not, and never will be made of the same stuff; derived by organic means and processes; a bio genesis . Although the language we frequently use to talk about human functioning has recently incorporated metaphors that come from the making and design of computers, we are fooled by metaphors at our own risk.

We’re not “wired,” or “programmed,” with a mind that can be reduced to mathematical computations and algorithms. And although there are theories, we still have no idea how consciousness, brain and many bodily systems actually work. Yes, we know enough to do some pretty complex surgeries, kill bacteria with chemicals, and measure all bodily systems that can be measured, but none of these organic structures have been biologically recreated from anything other than existing organic tissue.


Dead things/Live things

Humans have developed elaborate ways to classify things. A mind that uses language to translate reality into concepts, ideas, patterns, mathematical formulas and calculations becomes almost too good at these feats. Too good, in that we humans so easily mistake what is translated into language as the totality of reality. To function in ordinary day-to-day life, we must do this! But, we needn’t be fooled by the technology of language any more than any other technology. No matter how clear we use language, we are never able to put into words all that the world, or any given moment, place or thing is. The use of language, by its very nature, requires abstracting, separation, joining, inclusion and exclusion. Language can only ever approximate reality.

Many of the primary distinctions that we make through language, do though, become deeply ingrained and assumed in our perceptions of the world. Categorizing things into either dead or living is just one example. But this primary metaphor of the nature of life might be the first philosophical and ontological mistake we make. For we know not of what lies beyond the limits and perceptions of our mind/body experience. We can, and do, however get glimpses into a much greater expanse of mind through the variety of experiences we have. It’s also quite probable that we have yet to scratch the surface of human potential through the expansion of conscious experience.

Because I am much more inclined to want to further the potential of our organic experience, including that of an expansion of mind and its potential of non-locality, I see AI, and much of its current use, as a distraction away from the much more interesting landscape of the untapped potential of mind.

AI, while in many ways providing lots of material benefits to our existence, keeps the emphasis on material existence. Much of its current use is unfortunately aimed at commercial enterprise, entertainment and furthering the isolation of each of us, by eliminating the necessity of humans. If we are essentially One, by the nature of a primary, inherent mind that permeates the whole of reality – the realization of such, and the furthering of our potential as individuals understood as an expression of the One – will need to be valued and attended to.


Threshing with threshing flails

The human experience is a whole body phenomena that incorporates its environment and relationships into its awareness and perceptions. AI, even with the development of software programs that try to replicate any particular organic intelligence, will always be at the mercy of human design. If that limitation were ever to be overcome without human intervention, we might wonder about AI consciousness. Human intelligence does not rely on a set of programs using if/then, algorithmic computations stored away in some memory drive inside the brain. It’s much more complicated than that (See below for resources).

We moderns are brain-centric. We identify the brain with a large chunk of who and how we are, often at the expense of the totality of the body. Our perceptions are chunky, incomplete, and we often fail to see continuity because we mistake our limited perceptions for something called reality. My plea here? Let’s not turn our attention away from our amazing human potential by trying to replicate a simplistic version of a perfected and immortal self that will never be more than a current reflection of what and who we are now.

And finally:

The computer can beat the human at chess, but does it care?

When Science Dreams

“I’VE ALWAYS WONDERED WHY my brain doesn’t simply rest at night, as my body does, but instead sets to work creating an artificial world that seems as real as waking life.”

The use of the phrase, “my brain,” in Andrea Rock’s book, The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream, beautifully displays the problem of language, where body parts become separate entities, and dream states are artificial in comparison to waking states.

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“Landscape with the Dream of Jacob”

Rock’s book collects an amazing amount of research on brain function and dream states, including a look at the cause of dream content, sleep disorders, lucid dreaming and dream states of non-human animals.

For science though, causality, function and purpose are valued, while quality, meaning and subjective states are deemed unreliable. Scientists tend to over-value measurement, as acceptable verification of objective fact. What we dream takes a back seat to how and why we dream:

“The current revolution in thought about how and why we dream debunks some elements of the theories proposed by both Freud and Jung. But as you’ll see, there are significant pieces of each of their theories that are now supported by scientific evidence.”

The book dabbles in the fascinating but contentious debate over the source of consciousness.

“Ultimately, dream research may also help answer what many consider to be the most intriguing question of all: what is the source of the peculiar brand of self-reflective consciousness that appears to separate humans from other creatures—that nebulous quality that allows us to make intricate plans, fantasize, string memories together to create a personal history, or use abstractions such as language and art to represent our own mental processes?

At the end of the book, consciousness is said to be, “a con job beautifully carried out by neural circuitry of astonishing complexity.”

“Thanks to those who are in the forefront of the quest to comprehend those larger questions about how brain becomes mind, we are now seeing that even when we are interacting with the “real” world in waking hours, our experience actually occurs not “out there” but within the brain itself, just as it does in dreams.”

1345672If only the measurable is real, the source of consciousness will be sought only within the material brain itself. At its worse, there are more than a few scientists who are quite certain that free will itself is an illusion, because so much behavior corresponds to measurable brain physiology. One has to wonder though, has all of nature evolved only to realize that we are machines programmed to realize we are programmed?

Measuring electrical circuitry and chemical reactions does not address what drives fluctuations. Passivity and lack of agent is assumed. Can the human quality of our awareness, as it changes over a life time, affect measurable brain function? If so, I await the day that science seeks to measure our willful attempts at change over a larger span of life.

The author discusses J. Allen Hobson’s theories that all dream imagery is dependent on externals absorbed from waking states. The stranger in your dream is an amalgamation of people you have seen, that’s it. But, can you measure an unknown or prove the image is a blend of people you’ve seen? This assumes that all of our states of awareness come from internal sources.

Anytime I hear the word random being used, I am troubled. For example:

File:Museo del Prado - Goya - Caprichos - No. 43 - El sueño de la razon produce monstruos.jpg

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

“In this altered state, Hobson says, the brain does its best to spin a dream plot to match brainstem signals that may randomly stimulate an intense feeling of fear one minute or a sensation of freefalling the next. Hobson and McCarley’s landmark study maintained that since the signals that initiated the creation of dream imagery came from the primitive brainstem and the more highly evolved cognitive areas of the forebrain were just passively responding to them, the dream process had “no primary ideational, volitional, or emotional content.” The resulting dream was the product of the forebrain “making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery” in response to chaotic signals from the brainstem.”

Does measuring neurochemical activity in the brainstem prove involuntary stimulation, or that dream states have no correspondence to anything outside the physiology of the brain? Perhaps the seeming randomness of brain activity in sleep states is driven by something not yet understood. Can it be proven that the signals from the brainstem are “chaotic?” Here is where I think dream content itself could be studied for patterns corresponding to an individual’s dayworld experience. Correspondence between waking and dreaming states might be found to have conscious, volitional correspondence. It would be interesting to monitor the dreams of people who are in therapy or doing dream work to discern meaningful physiological brain patterns.

Below, Rock refers again to Hobson’s work on the physiology of dreaming:

“In his view, the settings and characters our brain dredges up from our personal memories or imagination as it scrambles to form a plot to respond to this chaotic electrochemical state may reflect our emotional preoccupations, and reflecting on those preoccupations can provide insight.”

The choice of the words “dredges,” and “scramble,” reveal the difficulty in accounting for the images in the dream. If not dredging and scrambling, what else might we discover to be going on in the formation of specific dream content? Perhaps there is a bridge between physiological process and symbol formation, even if locating it in matter is not possible.

Hobson concludes that many dreams in which we are trying to move, but can’t, have a physiological basis:

“Those circuits in turn are issuing orders for your body to run, but since the brainstem is preventing those signals from reaching your leg muscles, the perception carried through into the dream is that you’re trying to run but you’re stuck, so you weave that into the dream’s plot.”

What is not accounted for are the dreams in which we are moving. Having had many such dreams of walking, running, drumming, singing and even riding a bicycle, Hobson’s idea is not convincing.

Some cultural prejudices are apparent below  that I would question:

“As Jonathan Winson argued, dreams were never intended to be remembered in the first place, so when we do recall them, we’re just getting an unintended glimpse of our brain at work in its off-line mode. “It is a matter of chance, not related to their function, that we are aware of dreams at all,” says Winson.”

“Intended” by who, you might ask? “Function” for Winson, must be physiological only, which makes it “a matter of chance.” How one determines that dreams were never intended to be remembered is beyond me. Many cultures outside of western europe see dream states and images as meaningful initiatory experiences vital to their relationships with each other and the world.

Rock, however, is reporting the research without necessarily taking a stand on what she presents. I do though, sense her desire to show that dream states primarily have a physiological function. Although she acknowledges that psychological meaning is useful, she does not address its possible effect on brain function. Can we conclude that physiological brain function never corresponds to willful, active insights of meaning and symbolism that are a part of every person’s life? While correspondence may be difficult to measure, a less reductive approach to neuroscience may be useful to the field of mental health.

For many modern scientists, it seems taboo to speak of qualitative meaning as having a physiological basis or correspondence. Perhaps from a fear of losing objectivity, science believes that measuring and repeatability are the only means of validation. For those who have done dream work leading to meaningful, life-changing experience, it may be awhile before the results are recorded in the annals of science.

For a look at a more technical description of dreaming, I do highly recommend Andrea Rock’s book.

All quotes: Rock, Andrea (2009-03-25). The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream – Basic Books. Kindle Edition.