Every object in the human world owes its existence to consciousness. Whether someone has defined, assembled and maintained something can be determined straight away, but at the same moment, what also makes an impact on the senses is the nature of that mind which conceived it.
This ability of one mind to recognise the character of another solely on the evidence of lifeless works is unique, as far as we know, to humanity. We see a house and in a moment imagine the mind of its designer, its builder, and even its occupants. Like the “uncanny valley” which troubles the animators who can never make a moving face too realistic without it becoming disturbing, re-creating this synthesis is the obstacle when trying to build consciousness into machinery. A computer absorbs a mass of data far in excess of what the human mind can handle but is pathetically unable to extract any kind of meaningful conclusion from it.
It is not just a matter of experience, as even babies can form conclusions about their surroundings. The problem is not just that the visual information is seen as two dimensional rather than three – in fact the data is seen as one dimensional, and only making inferences which have to be programmed in by a human; after this spacial aspect is deduced come the succesively higher and broader hurdles of depth, mass, and meaning. Even with teraflops of processing power, machines fail to synthesise – that is, create higher levels of order from lower ones, deriving meaning from numerous points of data, each of which is meaningless on its own – to the precise degree that they lack consiousness.
Programming can rehearse an impressive series of one-trick ponies which perform, hopefully, in the correct order and sequence, but once a poony slips up, the rest collapse in a heap. It turns out to be impossible to discuss intelligence and the ability to synthesise reality without also discussing consciousness; actually, the more we program, the more complex our logic is, the more we realise what consciousness is not. Recently IBM’s Eric Brown and his team tried to train their Watson computer to play Jeopardy and beat human competitors – with great success – perhaps also proving, in a reversal of the Turing test, that a normal human mind cannot be channeled into a single goal to the exclusion of all others without appearing, to all intents and purposes, to be a computer!
One difficulty was that Watson had no ability to recognise the subtleties of language – the layers of meaning that are never explicitly defined. To get around this, Brown and his team programmed in the entire Urban Dictionary, containing every imaginable colloquialism, much of it unprintable. What happened next was that Watson, like some electrical Phineas Gage, reduced every conversation to shocking rudeness! It lacked the ability to synthesise another level behind light waves and sound waves: emotional meaning. Consciousness would have been the solution, but in software team couldn’t undo the fix. Whatever the nature of their database, it never took into account replaceable cassettes of style, and the ability to switch between them as the human mind does, so the only alternative was to wipe the entire memory!
Since conciousness is at the root of every object in our human world, and its interpretation, it is the most important faculty in society. Even deprived of sight and sound, the mind still makes an indelible impact unique to its character. Helen Keller created a phenomenal world of ideas which inspires people decades after her passing. Perhaps the removal of coarse objectivity paradoxically enabled a deeper level of understanding. By sign language into a hand grasping hers a young Keller once asked her teacher: “what is love?” Her teacher signed back: “without love, you would not want to get up in the morning.”
As a small boy, Stevie Wonder’s brothers used to flip a coin onto the table; he could identify the coin by its sound. It was later said that he was the only musician in the world who could seamlessly combine a $25,000 synthesiser with a two dollar mouth organ. There are also blind artists, who somehow have a sense of the colours they are using, and as everyone knows, Beethoven was, eventually, a deaf musician.
Besides air, water is the most important physical object for our survival. But not just any water will do. If pure, it can maintain our survival for days, even without food, but if tainted it can lead to death. In the same way, consciousness is the most important aspect of our society, but not all consciousness is equal. We can teach the mechanics of design and assembly but without knowing the nature of the pupil’s consciousness, we have no way of knowing whether they will go on to create ploughs or a flamethrowers.
So, whether benevolent or malign it is the nature of consiousness which is the arbiter of society’s progress. Whether greedy, benevolent, lazy, industrious, spiritual, ambitious or creative, the shape of society soon follows. Even with all the science, technical knowledge and schools imaginable, without some moulding school of consciousness, conducive to its healthy evolution, society is permanently at risk of destruction.
How this works is not understood, though from the deaths of babies denied conscious interactions, the struggles of those who grow up in neglect or when raised by dogs, we know that only consciousness can nurture consciousness. Just as every cell comes from a cell, and only life can create life, try though science might, there is no substitute for mind; this is why the mechanised, materialist society is falling to pieces after only 150 years.
Clearly religion was man’s earliest known school for moulding consciousness. The mental target always combined humanity and divinity, a fantasic device appealing to the yearning spirit and infuriating the ardent materialist. But science too, is a spiritual quest – driven by mental energy to make discoveries to further entice or convince other minds, and it nurtures hope of further insights and faith in future conquests. Since these are all atttributes of consciousness, science may find that after a certain point, the laws governing consciousness might be the only way forward.
Consciousness both undertakes the investigation and forms the mysterious depths from which gems of discovery are to be retrieved. Like the meditator who plumbs his own self, the scientist is subject to the laws of the mind, and both must be willing to traverse its awesome depths, which, as far as we know, may be without end.
“What is at the end is like what is at the beginning. What is at the bottom is like what is at the top.”
Footnote – the idea that machines will one day embody consciousness has its supporters and if they turn out to be right, I’d be delighted. Who wouldn’t want a machine which can think and reason, and yet be devoted to your welfare?
I know a little about programming, having started out using Basic, COBOL and WatFiv at about age 14. That was 41 years ago and I’m still learning. This image shows about half of one library of routines I wrote to support some processes in a travel system – each page is A4, and this particular library is about 15,000 lines, being one of 30 or so of comparable size within that one overall program, and that one program being one of five variations for different departments.
The trick is to predict anything that can happen, and have a way of dealing with it, while telling the user what’s going to happen next, and a graphic idea of how long it’s likely to take and when it’s done. It’s helpful to keep screen layouts the same even when data changes so the eye has less work to do, and to keep control key combinations close together so a person in a hurry can complete actions with one hand, if they’re checking paperwork with the other.
When I look at studies of the DNA, I’m staggered that anything could be so elegant and yet complex. I would say it’s far beyond the human mind, certainly the human mind of the 21st century. After more than half a century of study we barely know what 5% of it acually does. A very good book to explain the systems view of DNA is Robert A Shapiro’s Evolution: A View from the 21st Century.
The fact that leading “thinkers” even now call 99% of it junk, and would have it thrown away if they could, shows how lucky we are that for the most part it’s evaded the clumsy hammer of human engineering. Where DNA has been tampered with in food, to get some local or commercial benefit, the results are what you’d expect – destructive to the system as a whole.
A closer look below shows the level of thought that needs to go into the code just for a mundane office application. I’ve put nearly 30 years work into this particular application. All this preparation is fine when your only input is a keyboard and when you already know everything that could happen, but suppose you’re programming a computer which must live in the real world of sight and sound and interactions, and it encounters something it has never seen before, on which its existence might depend?
Women have this in a greater capacity than men, and it is a feature closer to genius and the nature of consciousness itself than the mundane logic which anybody can be taught. Women sense things for which there is no logical evidence; rather than dismiss these sensations they accept them as equally valid. In fact all human minds have this quality to some degree, like a warming fire of which much is stamped out by early childhood, and it works most strongly on those we are already emotionally close to.
Animals communicate in this way often as part of a hive mind, and scientist Rupert Sheldrake conducted a series of experiments showing how animals and to a lesser degree, humans, use this faculty in everyday life. Communcating mind to mind without facts or the ordinary senses as intermediary shows that consciousness is a shared phenomena, and nearly everyone will have experienced some aspect of this because it’s a part of life.
We are machines, albeit extremely complicated ones. But the machines we build are only built using logic. So they can’t emulate this sixth sense, intuition, third eye or Psi phenomena, which is why I believe man-made machines can never emulate consciousness, which partakes of a different element of the universe itself. But if they do make one, I will be the first in line!