March 20, 2016

“What makes us conscious?”

‘Do you think that the machine you are reading this story on, right now, has a feeling of “what it is like” to be in its state?
            What about a pet dog? Does it have a sense of what it’s like to be in its state? It may pine for attention, and appear to have a unique subjective experience, but what separates the two cases?
These are by no means simple questions. How and why particular circumstances may give rise to our experience of consciousness remain some of the most puzzling questions of our time.
Newborn babies, brain-damaged patients, complicated machines and animals may display signs of consciousness. However, the extent or nature of their experience remains a hotbed of intellectual enquiry.
Being able to quantify consciousness would go a long way toward answering some of these problems. From a clinical perspective, any theory that might serve this purpose also needs to be able to account for why certain areas of the brain appear critical to consciousness, and why the damage or removal of other regions appears to have relatively little impact.
One such theory has been gaining support in the scientific community. It’s called Integrated Information Theory (IIT), and was proposed in 2008 by Guilio (sic) Tononi, a US-based neuroscientist.
It also has one rather surprising implication: consciousness can, in principle, be found anywhere where there is the right kind of information processing going on, whether that’s in a brain or a computer.’

The above quotation is from an article by Matthew Davidson, “What makes us conscious?”  I’m curious about what kind of theory is being proposed here. The proposal has a similar ambiguity as the Turing test.
Is Tononi putting forward a stipulative definition: “let’s call a machine conscious if it has such and such characteristics”? If so, it would of course be a mistake to suppose that this constituted a discovery. Anyone is free to formulate stipulative definitions. Whether they will enjoy wide acceptance depends on their utility for the purpose for which the stipulation is to be used.
Or is he proposing an empirical theory? But then the question is: how is it to be tested? By what criteria are we to establish whether the theory holds good in a given case?
Not only does he seem not to provide a criterion, but somehow the idea of proposing some specific mark of consciousness seems misconceived. The problem, as I see it, is that the word “consciousness” has a variety of uses. There are of course the regular down-to-earth uses, as when we ask “Jack regained consciousness a little after 5 yesterday”, or “I wasn’t conscious I had to file a tax-return by April 1.” The word is also used in more abstract ways, as in discussing animal consciousness, etc. In these contexts, however, it does not refer to some specific mental phenomenon, but rather functions as an umbrella term, to refer to the applicability of words such as “sensation”, “perception”, “intention”, “awareness”, “attention”, etc. And applicability is – to put it crudely - a practical matter.
What tends to lead us astray here – putting it briefly   is our inclination to accept the dualist idea that consciousness is a specific metaphysical substance which makes such things as sensations possible.