Lee,

There are some things that can be known by examination of an object, and there are other things that can only be known by being the object. When the object is a human brain, this latter class of things is consciousness. (When the object is something else, this latter class of thing is... well, how would I know?) I think that the distinction between these two types of knowledge is surprising, and I would never have noticed it had I not been conscious myself. I also think that there is a sense in which this special first person knowledge can be called fundamental, because by definition it cannot be derived from any other fact about the universe.

The response of those who think that consciousness is nothing special to the above is that it is not surprising that there is a difference between a description of an object and the object itself, and that what I have called "knowledge" in reference to conscious experiences is not really knowledge, but part of the package that comes with being a thing. I can't really argue against this; as I said, it is just a different way of looking at the same facts.

Much has been written about particular formulations of the mind/body problem (or, if you prefer, "problem"). For example, Douglas Hofstadter's commentary on Thomas Nagel's famous essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (which I looked up at your suggestion) makes the point that the logic of the titular question itself is muddled: if Nagel were a bat, he would not be Nagel, and he would therefore not be Nagel asking the question. If Nagel were actually asking what it would be like for him to stay Nagel and experience being a bat, perhaps by having his brain stimulated in a batty way, then that is (a) a different question, and (b) in theory possible, and not the intractable problem originally advertised. This is fair enough, so I shall try to avoid talking about qualia in the way Nagel does. However, I can't get rid of the idea that there is something special and fundamental about first person experience.

--Stathis Papaioannou


Stathis writes

> > > I did not
> > > mean that there is no explanation possible for consciousness.
> > > It is likely that in the course of time the neuronal
> > > mechanisms behind the phenomenon will be worked out and it
> > > will be possible to build intelligent, conscious machines.
> > > Imagine that advanced aliens have already achieved this
> > > through surreptitious study of humans over a number of
> > > decades. Their models of human brain function are so good
> > > that by running an emulation of one or more humans and their
> > > environment they can predict their behaviour better than the
> > > humans can themselves.

Well put.

An interesting point to add is that since human behavior
is almost surely not compressible, the *only* way that they
can learn what a human is going to do is to, in effect, run
one (the mocked up one in their lab). As you say, they run
an *emulation*.

But this could mean that they had *no* special insight into
consciousness,  because by adjusting the teleporter, Scotty
can "find out" things too just by making a physical copy of
the Captain, and, for example, finding out what he'd say
about giving the engineers a raise.

But you have described Martian science very well. Here is
what I think that they are capable of that *is* important:
they could tell (or announce) with very high accuracy
whether a species was conscious, and to what extent, in
its natural environment, and do all this just from the
creature's DNA (and perhaps a little info on the inter-
uterine environment).

Here is an analogy: in a cold hut in the Scottish highlands
in 1440, two bright, but shivering, people are debating the
nature of warmth. Says one: "Brrr. Some day the scientists
will be so advanced that the can objectively measure hotness,
and you and I will more closely agree."  And he turned out
to be right, as we know now.

> > > Now, I think you will agree (although
> > > Jonathan Colvin may not) that despite this excellent
> > > understanding of the processes giving rise to human conscious
> > > experience, the aliens may still have absolutely no idea what
> > > the experience is actually like.

Yes, but what does that mean?  What does it mean for, say,
you to know what it's like when I play 1. e4 in a game of
chess?  I can tell you that it's probably nothing at all
like when *you* play 1. e4.  But it's strickly a function of
how similar our chess careers have been, whether we both
have the same opinion of the Alapin counter to the Sicilian,
and so forth.  So in effect, it really comes down to how
much you are already me when you play 1. e4.

Somebody here said it much better than I: they said that
you have to almost be someone to in order to know what
it's like to be them.

Jonathan then says

> > No, I'd agree that they have no idea what the experience is like. But this > > is no more remarkable than the fact that allthough we may have an excellent > > understanding of photons, we can not travel at the speed of light, or that > > although we may have an excellent understanding of trees, yet we can not
> > photosynthesize. Neither of these "problems" seem particularly hard.

I totally agree.

> We are thus at an impasse, agreeing on all the facts but differing in our
> appraisal of the facts.

Maybe. But since you (Stathis) write so well, could you summarize
what your adversaries seem to be saying and what you say? I'm less
sure (than you) that no progress can be made.

thanks,
Lee


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