The Consciousness of Humans and Machines

Philosopher and neuroethics expert Thomas Metzinger on the limitations of consciousness in natural and artificial beings

- talks | June 21, 2024

What are the limitations of our consciousness? Do we need to seek consciousness in machines? Should robots suffer just like humans do?

Where is the intersection between neuroscience and philosophy?

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The most general position on this question is that the philosophy of mind does not study a person’s mental state, consciousness, and intellect but examines the concepts we use to describe mental states or conscious experiences. In this case, it can be said that first-order sciences like neuroscience or psychology describe the specific state of objects in the world. As a second-order discipline, philosophy examines other sciences and describes their objects. However, the situation is not that simple. For instance, if a neuroscientist wants to say something about consciousness, they will first ask what needs to be explained to understand it.

Consciousness is not exclusively a neuroscientific concept. There are centuries of research behind it within philosophy, much less within neuroscience. So, the right question is: What serves as the explanandum, what needs to be explained? The answer could be that they are not explaining consciousness; they only deal with sensory perception or attention.

Another theoretical approach to this problem within philosophy is to ask what counts as an explanation. Neuroscientists might have some ideas about what consciousness is and, at some point, might claim that they have explained it. In such a case, the philosopher’s task would be to ask what is meant by “explanation.” This helps to understand whether they have an explanation, are just claiming to have one, or possibly whether the explanation of consciousness can exist. Thus, philosophy can be seen as a science of concepts, a theoretical science.

Given all this, it is important to understand that the current situation is complex. The boundary between empirical and theoretical questions can no longer be precisely determined.

How did philosophy begin to take an interest in the study of consciousness?

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Consciousness is a relatively recent concept, dating back to the 1650s. Renowned philosopher Katie Wilkes, who taught at St. Hilda’s College, noted that 90% of the world’s languages do not have a word for “consciousness.” Studying this concept seems questionable in this context, but there are reasons.

The modern understanding of consciousness began with Descartes, who, in 1650, shattered all previous notions of human perception with his concept of cognitive consciousness. Descartes’ famous idea is that the body is extended in space, made up of parts, and thus can be divided. The mind has no spatial attachment and cannot be divided. This notion laid the foundation for the mind-body problem. Conscious experience is one aspect of the modern understanding of the mind-body problem.

It is crucial to question the importance of such studies. One must understand that this is just a small tradition in Western philosophy where consciousness has become a significant issue. For example, people from South America or China might not consider this question. So, of course, this problem is relative. But again, there is a significant difference between being awake and under anesthesia.

What is the connection between the classical definition of consciousness and the concept of the ego tunnel?

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As I mentioned at the beginning of my book, there are several straightforward problems related to the problem of consciousness. For example, “the one world problem” is why we feel we live in one world and one situation. This seems normal to people, but the brain must have some reason to perceive the world this way. In classical philosophy, this was called the problem of the unity of consciousness. Now, we are interested in how global integration in the brain happens.

Another problem is “the now problem.” Perhaps not everyone notices, but the content of our consciousness is neither in the future nor in the past, but always in the present. Even if you have a plan for what you will do tomorrow, in your head, there is a conscious mental situation of “now.” Even if you recall something that happened to you at age six, you still have a conscious memory of “now.” Thus, any conscious experience is always in the present. We need to understand what this means.

The third problem is “the reality problem.” Why does everything around us look so real? Why is it, not just my consciousness but reality? For example, many people think they are opening their eyes and seeing coloured objects. Of course, we all know from school physics lessons that there are no coloured objects in the world. Every time you experience the sensation of red or green, you are experiencing just a model constructed by your brain, a model of a tree or an apple in your hand. All these qualities (redness, saltiness, coldness) are the walls of the ego tunnel. This is not the case for reason or knowledge, but conscious experience (colours, sounds, feelings) is defined in our heads. Our knowledge is not, social interactions are not, and culture is not, but our subjective experience is defined in our heads.

It is a very interesting problem — why does someone have this specific experience (why is this your thought, and not just a thought; why is this your experience, and not just an experience; who is the “I” experiencing this)? The most difficult question is whether it is possible to naturalize first-person experience. Can we achieve a simplified scientific understanding of this environment and these internal networks? There is not only a model of reality with colours and sounds but also someone experiencing it.

How much does the ego tunnel simplify our perception of reality?

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Objective reality is much more complex than we see and perceive it. Reality is not only much richer than we consciously experience, but it is also completely different. The human nervous system is the product of millions of years of evolution. Its goal was not to show reality as it is but to help us survive and copy our genes most efficiently. For example, many animals do not have colour vision. Humans have colour vision probably because it helped our ancestors, monkeys in West Africa, distinguish ripe fruits from unripe ones.

Modern research shows that conscious experience involves a significant amount of self-deception. For example, if you look at your children, you will automatically perceive them as smarter and more beautiful than other children. This is not your opinion or judgment — you see them that way. We often do not even realize how biased and subjective our perception is. It constructs the world we live in. And fortunately, it looks so real.

What would reality be like if a person could perceive it in all its complexity? It would mean having sensory organs for cosmic radiation, ultrasound — everything. We would need very strong cognitive abilities just to process all this information. I believe that the strength of conscious experience lies in reducing the complexity of reality; it is a powerful filter of the external world that we simply need. Otherwise, your brain would need to process all this information. Perhaps such things are physically impossible for a being with a physical body.

What does it mean for a machine to have consciousness?

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Firstly, from an ethical standpoint, I am categorically against creating artificial consciousness in machines. The ego tunnel has brought a lot of suffering into our biological world, and I firmly believe that conscious experience involves much more suffering than happiness. We should not multiply this in machines: artificial intelligence is one thing, and artificial consciousness is another.

The question is rather different: is artificial consciousness possible? It may be impossible because only beings with a biological body and metabolism can experience conscious experience. But if it is possible, what will it be good for? Why did consciousness arise? Why would machines need to experience conscious experience?

The research community studying consciousness is addressing these questions. Perhaps consciousness is just a side effect with no consequences. However, some factors work faster with consciousness than without it (for example, the learning process). Learning from your mistakes is always faster and more effective when conscious. Consciousness is a high level of intellectual flexibility, the ability to quickly change your behavior, not be a machine.

It is a common philosophical misconception to think that the distinction between artificial and natural is exhaustive and exclusive. For example, recently, we increasingly encountered artificial neural networks. They operate on the principle of biological information processing on artificial “hardware”: computers are artificial, but the way they learn or see is biological. On the other hand, humans have started using whole animals as “hardware” for work: computer chips are implanted in rats or cockroaches. So, they have a small artificial thing in their brain, but the whole body is biological. This can be considered the beginning of historical changes: soon, we will see cyborgs — people with many artificial parts or genetically engineered biological “hardware.” Soon, children can use the internet or tablets before they learn to read and write. Perhaps the distinction between artificial and natural minds and senses will completely disappear for these children. This is a very dangerous situation.

Professor Emeritus of theoretical philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz
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