Thought Experiment / Consciousness & Awareness

#1

I’d like to get some feedback on a thought experiment that I’ve come up with. I’ve posted a video on the idea, and I’d like to get a more rounded perspective on this. I’ve decided to name it, ‘The Human Neuron’ - just for reference sake.

The gist of the experiment is this:

You decide to model the human brain with your classmates in your neurology class. It just so happens you have about 100 billion classmates; each one models a single neuron. Each student is given a clipboard with multiple rules that the student is to follow under different conditions and a list of their current connections to other neurons. Each student is also given a magical spool of endless thread with which to make the connections. When the person decides to send a signal, they simply grab the collection of their threads and tug (in the video, I suggested maybe a laser pointer to send signals, but it really doesn’t matter as long as there’s a feasible method of keeping track of the connections and sending a signal). At the head of the class room - the professor orchestrates the experiment. Making sure everything happens in time to a beat so that nothing gets out of sync. The professor also has a mechanism that translates the video input from a couple of cameras mounted inside a mechanical body into thread tugs (and other sensory input devices). There is also output devices that translate thread tugs into movement for the mechanical body.

The question is this: (granted that the speed of processing is slowed dramatically) would a conscious mind emerge from this assembly? And if the case is that it does, is it possible that people interacting in just normal communities, at work, and other such communal clusters also spawn some sort of distributed consciousness?

This has me really thinking about a bunch of different possibilities and questions.
Here’s a link to the video I made if you’re at all interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQvUarhu2c0

Thoughts? Ideas? Questions? I’d appreciate a good discussion on this if any of you are so inclined.
:slight_smile:

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#2

This is a slightly different take on the original Chinese Room experiment.

Searle feels that it proves that a machine can’t really think.

I feel that Serle is wrong. I am pretty sure that the cells in my head don’t understand English by themselves but here I am typing.

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#3

This is more like an inverse chinese room, or a distributed chinese room. :-).

It also reminds me of a scene in The Three-Body Problem (although that was not to simulate consciousness).

Two questions I have with this sort of thought experiment are 1) how rigid the structure needs to be, and 2) how strict the timing needs to be.

Each thought you have changes lots of connections in your brain, and each pint of beer your drink destroys thousands of neurons. So it seems this structure has a serious capacity for change. But only a slight percentage in difference between us makes a select few of us geniusses and the rest of us hardly smart enough to use the tools those geniusses invent.

And if you replace each neuron/synapse/dendrite by an electronic circuit that performs the exact same function, only a thousand times faster, would the brain still feel conscious, and would it experience the world faster or slower? Your classroom brain would perform billions times slower (if we can rule out the error correction).

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#4

I had the same thought. It feels a lot like The Chinese Room (in fact, I think I even made a reference to that in either the video or the video description).
I think Searle is wrong too. I’m convinced that a machine can be conscious. After all, aren’t we all just massive biological machines?

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#5

The rigidity - of course - should be as refined and rigid as is necessary to pose the question without any room for an onlooker to say, “Yeah, but what about …”.
As far as timing … that is a bit trickier. Either we bend the thought experiment enough to say that either the mechanical body is in a world that works at the speed that the processor is functioning, or that we put the class in a time-bubble. But outside of that enormous stretching of the stage - we could put a VR helmet on the machine body that plays out with a similar ratio of timing as our physical world to a normal brain.

What do you think about normal complex social interactions possibly causing fleeting spurts of disembodied conscious moments of whatever system they came from?

Could you even stretch this out to happenings in the universe? Gravitational interactions, bending light, shunting light, asteroids colliding … I mean really, everything that is happening is due to something else that happened. There is a vast amount of “calculation” going on out there.

I’m totally sitting on the fence on this one. It’s totally bothering me. I feel like there should be some way to test this.

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#6

I think those are too far removed from the minimum necessary structure of whatever causes consiousness. I think consciousness can be obtained by randomness, but then only after billions of iterations of structural modifications until a stable structure has been achieved. After all our brain is the result of random mutations.

You should read Peter Watts’ Blindsight. Hands down best scifi novel ever. If you like this sort of thinking, be ready to be blown off your socks.

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#7

My bad - I did not listen to the video at work, I just read your description.
You are asking about the root of consciousness and brain operation in general. I have been preaching on what I think makes this all happen for some time now. First, it is experience; you experience everything in the temporal lobe. All the senses are available and some attention mechanism sorts though them to concentrate on some subset of what is available.You probably were not thinking about your left nipple but if you do - there it is, waiting for you to notice it.
But we all sense that this is not all, there is some mixing of volition in there. Some of our sensation is of our internal mental processes. Experiments show that the experiential parts of the brain become aware of our decisions AFTER we have made them. likewise, something makes our body experience emotions and we become aware of the effects on our body after the emotion have already fired. This is all the workings of the old lizard parts of our brain - after all this evolution it is still firmly in control and running the show.

Taking the emotions first, this is the handiwork of our older lizard brain. It does not have a direct cortical presence so we only notice what it is up to by feeling the chemical messengers released as they work on the body.

I already put up a description of the basic mechanism of consciousness in a prior post and don’t see a need to retype the whole thing so here is a link to it:


and

Likewise for attention and intelligence:

And memory:


and

And lastly - time. The perception of the passing of and the internal processing of:

So - it is a big distributed system with a lot of moving parts. I am trying to avoid bringing up every post I ever made to avoid the wrath of Matt, but know that there are a bunch of parts I skipped in all this. Trying to make general statements about how it all works is likely to only adresss some small part and come up short because you are missing some the contribution of some other part.

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#8

Heh, you’re fine. I’m enamored with the topic if consciousness and qualia. I’d be more than happy to read through your thoughts on the matter.

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#9

lol - super weird … dude, I literally just finished reading Blindsight not two days ago. Brilliant book. I was extremely pleased with the time I spent with it. I’m only hoping the sequel has as much to offer. :slight_smile:
The first sci-fi book I’ve really enjoyed after reading Banks’ Culture novels.

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#10

There’s a similar idea called CHINA BRAIN. Consider 1 billion people with each having a radio phone. And everyone one could talk to other with their phone. is there any possibility that a consciousness emerge from these interaction. The simple answer is yes. Why not. The brain works in a similar manner.

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#11

Echopraxia is also very good. I found it slightly easier to read, but not as mindblowing as Blindsight.

The Rifters trilogy though is very dark. Be aware of that before you start. Peter Watts is a trained marine biologist, so you can imagine how close he witnesses the systematic destruction of nature first-hand. Fast forward that half a century through the dark mind of an angry, pessimistic writer and you get a sad, scary, desolate and even sick result. F****d-up on many levels.

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#12

I wondered the same thing about a year ago.

I asked quora what they thought about it:

https://www.quora.com/Is-consciousness-merely-the-communication-within-a-system-Are-our-conversations-the-thoughts-of-the-consciousness-of-the-civilization?ch=10&share=58fd761a&srid=R5bx

It has become my most followed question. Perhaps an answer on there will help.

I believe all information in every structure has a subjective consciousness, though our conscious awareness is so strong and localized because we have many feedback loops of information forming layers of self referential informational structures that form memory and ego.

The universe is conscious and is made of awareness. That’s what physical interaction is- awareness that something had changed.

This answer goes into more depth on that:

https://www.quora.com/How-can-consciousness-exist-in-a-universe-governed-by-determinism/answer/Jordan-Miller-19

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#13

As an aside comment, this reminded me of the Trisolaris “computer” that was created in the Three Body Problem (an outstanding SciFi book).

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#14

I’m a pretty hard-lined “atheist” … but the more I think about consciousness and drowned myself in theory, the more I’m inclined to lean toward the idea that a mind-like substrate is the fundamental building blocks of reality.
Now - before anybody jumps to any conclusions - I’ve wrestled with this a lot.
But it seems to me that if A is a necessary building block for B; then B is - by definition - incapable of properly being a fundamental piece in the construction of A. So if you were to try to decide whether X has emerged from Y or whether Y has emerged from X - the logical method of going about trying to find out would be to see if you could build X with Y or Y with X.
There are a few problems that seem to answer with the idea that a sort of subjective mind-like substrate might be the primary (or at least predecessory) element on which everything else we are aware of is built.
But … I’m not sold on it - I’m actually really troubled by it - but that’s what “seems” to be the result of what I’ve distilled down out of everything I’ve come across so far.

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#15

That’s 2 mentions of this book so far. I may just have to pick it up.

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#16

Back in the day I used to play a game with my nerd buddies, C-Robots.


This affected me greatly and shaped my thoughts on how to parse what was going on in the command and control system of living critters. With the sensors and motor units available you had to build a machine that could find an enemy unit, engage & destroy it, and not run into walls and kill yourself.
Once you get used to thinking like that it frames how you see these same problems being solved in meat machines.

Take an earthworm. It can smell, move and turn. The olfactory system can detect smell gradients to vary the turning to center the smell of food in a generally forward direction. It has a gut like I do and the gut can signal that what it ate was good or bad. This gets fed back to the olfactory unit to remember what is a good or bad smell and to go to or away in the future. This basic system has been strongly preserved in higher order critters and is actually how humans are affected if they vomit on bad food. You will not be interested in eating that food again for a long time. If you pay attention you will find that the Olfactory system still plays a surprisingly large role in how our primate brains function.

Add in vision and the memory system gets way more important. Mapping gets to be a big thing. Locations where food, water, and shelter might be found are a huge deal. Processing vision into space that can feed into the memory of locations has such a high impact on survival that there would be enormous evolutionary pressure on the development and refinement of specialized hardware to turn egocentric sensing into allocentric locations.

Likewise, feature detectors for things like ripeness using color and judging distance using stereo will offer huge advantages in survival so these will be an essential part of the scene evaluation hardware.

What does it feel like to have all of that high-level parsing collected together, graded for relevance, and tucked into your memory? This network of processing though the agency of the cortex? I call this “your experience” or the contents of consciousness. The current activation pattern of your cortex is what is in your consciousness.

The cortex all works together with this weird filter/route/remember process that is distributed through the whole of the structure. Lashley was onto something with his mass action proposal. While there are distinct island of function that is more a function of connectivity rather than differences in functional structure. The same basic cortical algorithm is at work in all parts of the cortex.

Having a built-in system to identify shapes of your own kind and to be afraid of things that can harm you is highly desirable. It just makes sense to also put in the ability to recognize social and sexual cues. These things are so important to the survival of the gene line like that you can’t leave this up to trial and error learning so this is memory is hardwired into our amygdala. You don’t have to learn this stuff - you just know it. This important feature was baked into the lizard brain and is highly conserved. Since this is a subcortical structure we do not experience it in our consciousness but instead - emotionally.

We still have the older lizard brain; being spoon-feed by our fancy cortex, making decisions that are turned into actions - also by our fancy cortex. It has been researched and documented that you experience your decisions AFTER they are made. It seem mysterious because the lizard brain has no representation in the cortex so we have no consciousness of its actions. We have a sense of the actions being initiated in the forebrain. We can evaluate these nacient actions in the cortex and feed the initial evaluations back to the lizard brain for a go/nogo on these plans. But the cortex does not initiate actions; the lizard is the driver of our actions.

Awareness - the steam of sensation reaching our temporal lobe - is not mystical. It is the stuff that evolution has deemed is sufficient to perceive and select useful actions. It just makes sense that we perceive our motion selection system as part of our internal feedback loops. The brain is full of these at all stages of the motor system.

The whole speaking and the mental tricks that language brings with it are a happy accident. Evolution works like that. Sports of design that offer enhanced survival are strongly preserved. I would not be shocked or surprised if speech arises in some other branch of the animal kingdom over the long haul.

Supportng paper:

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Is there a Best Way to understand data?
#17

I’ve come to the conclusion that if you could technically define what consciousness is and how it works then you would simultaneously technically define what everything in the universe is and how it works because if you try to encode it in language, you can only define consciousness in terms of its contents. If you try to explain it, you must explain its causes.

That is to say, if we knew everything about conscious awareness, we’d have to know everything about everything because everything exists within conscious awareness. Nothing has ever been observed outside it.

When the effects of things outside consciousness have been observed, the effects proclaim that the thing itself did not exist outside of conscious awareness: that, while the thing disappeared, it’s effect carried on as probabilities without discrete histories.

That is to say, nothing can change except at the receding edge of the moment you attend to it. Perhaps the universe is made of awareness or consciousness, as you have suggested. I think the best word to use is Attention. Everything seems to be molded and shaped by the flow of attention. Indeed, made up of the flow of attention because in the end, the shape, the pattern is all there is; the substrate of the pattern is always other patterns.

Consciousness is, in that way, a discretizing phenomenon by its very nature. The universe is only discrete where we’ve laid it out flat, it’s only quantized because we’re looking. Everywhere else, it’s continuous and unitary.

And being unitary, it can have no parts, no causation, no description. In order to see things, you must see them from a particular point of view. When the view is particular, the things are too.

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#18

I’m sorry but there seems to be some logical flaws at work here.

I think that any argument that requires perception for the universe to exist is erroneous.

The universe was just fine before someone was around to perceive it.

Perhaps not from your personal point of view but I doubt that the universe cares if you do or do not perceive it. I know that I certainly don’t care if you do or do not perceive me.

Likewise, limitations in our quantizing or perception place no reciprocal limitations on the universe. Need I add that your perception of the relation of parts and whole is similarly a personal problem?

An alligator chasing prey over a car abandoned in the swamp does not have to understand cars to both perceive it and navigate over it.

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#19

I think you’re missing the point. We’re not talking about the perception of any particular mind. We’re talking about mind, itself. We’re talking about perception, as such; that perception itself is a requirement for being in the first place. Indeed, perception is synonymous with being itself.

All I can know for certain is that “direct experience is.” I don’t know what that means, but in that way it’s primal; it is being. The contents of my direct experience can be thought of as caused and causing each other. But the direct experience is in some unknown way, primary.

Think of it another way. We’re recognizing the very real and logical conundrum that my head is in the world, and the world is in my head. I think to take a hard-nosed stance that the theoretical world is more real than the direct experience of it is too one-sided because it expresses an unhealthy material reductionist ideology.

The universe doesn’t care if my experience continues, you’re right about that. But that doesn’t mean that somehow in some way, the whole universe is primarily “mind.”

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#20

I think I see your problem. Your PERCEPTION of the world is in your head. You do not CAUSE the world, you perceive it. Some sensations, internal and external, are collected together, sorted/filtered by relevance and register in your temporal lobe. This is encoded into episodic memories in the EC/HC complex and to a much lesser extent, by the cortex itself as the sensations filter through.

You are also registering these same sensations in the older brain structures but this is not available to consciousness. These lower brain structures also recieve the results of the cortical processing.

These lower brain structure sensations are used to select actions which then also become available to consciousness.

I don’t view this a pernicious reductionism but a simple narrative of a straightforward process.

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