We get computers to mimic us, and programme them thus, and profess amazement that they act in a quasi-human way after we’ve programmed ourselves into them. And a strange kind of hypnosis often occurs, whereby a lot of AI scientists (and their more gullible followers, which is a lot of followers) feel an overwhelming need to say that this shows that the computers are somehow ‘conscious’. But at no point do the machines ‘see’ what they’re doing. And this noticing is the rock on which reductionism flounders. It flounders so completely, so humiliatingly, that rather than accept that it’s happened, otherwise very clever people such as AI researchers and philosophers of consciousness kid themselves that they’ve found an answer – an answer that when you look at it unflinchingly still boils down to a kind of programming, or a kind of disposition of 1s and 0s or electrical pulses, which as we all already really know, won’t ever ‘get’ anything. Consciousness breaks the circle of this circular thinking.
There seems to have been some kind of bait and switch. We are asked to look over there, then when we look back a trick has been played. Suppose, say, that instead of computers we got pointillist artists to convert everything into dots of paint, but coded in a way that ‘goes with’ real world events. But what does ‘goes with’ even mean here? Straight away science is getting itself in a muddle, before it even starts sciencing. The dots can’t be used to create pictures, as that’s already getting human awareness involved in the creation of the picture, and we’re trying to avoid that in order to create machine awareness that doesn’t rely on humans. So the dots must ‘go with’ real world events somehow, but without human involvement. There’s the bit that’s easy to skip over. There’s the bit where the switch happens.
Those dots – would they ever create consciousness? We know that could never happen – we can (ahem) see that. So why is it supposedly different for electronic dots in the form of 1s and 0s? Because computers, apparently. Naturally there’s a lot of AI hype that begs the question, assuming as a foundation that consciousness can be created by computation, then setting about proving it. Yeah, how’s that been going guys? Not noted for its success so far, is it? Perhaps one thing that doesn’t help is that electrical activity takes place in the brain, and in computers, so it’s assumed computers have a privileged property that can somehow give them a head start. Though looking at the brain’s over 1000 neurotransmitters, and the way it has more connections between neurons than stars in the universe, is a trifle daunting. Is it really necessary for a computer to embody this kind of complexity in order to create consciousness?
So there’s now a line of AI research going on inspired by phenomenological philosophers, with embodied concepts of consciousness. Suddenly philosophers are back on the scene, to some extent at least. But phenomenological AI research always comes up against a new brick wall, namely the problem of common sense knowledge. When even arch-eliminitavist Daniel Dennett acknowledges this as a serious problem then you know there’s trouble afoot. Once again this issue, whatever it ultimately is, bounces off the brick wall of computation, now appearing as a deep problem in respect of location in the real world we all live in.
In the end it’s the same problem – there’s no way even in principle that an outward-looking science can use that outward-directed approach in any way when it comes to interiority. All the huffing and puffing and hand waving and just-so-storying of some scientists actually indicates is how ingrained the issue is, how widespread and embedded it is through so many different cultures, and how unacceptable, freakish, threatening this weird challenge is to that whole worldview. We are all set for a long, long journey through frustration before this empty reactivity finally burns out.
Then there’s another issue intimately bound up with the problem – time. The standard approach in AI to divide the flow of time into snapshots, presumably at least partly because of the computer thing. But what it is about that difference that means that moving electronic dots can create consciousness while still ones can’t? Consciousness isn’t divided like this. Remember that those dots, whether made of paint or electricity, are all individual snapshots of reality. Why should creating a succession of them somehow go with consciousness? How could it? And again, just how exactly is the coding done for transferring those dots or electronic blips into what they apparently ‘represent’?
It’s the computer thing again – why do computers work by dividing things into snapshots? CPUs always have a clock. Why exactly is this the way computers work? Perhaps it ultimately comes from the whole sciencey thing whereby we find out important things about nature by taking readings. Get a lot of readings and you may well discover something profoundly important about the way that nature works – from the outside. This approach hasn’t exactly proved successful when it comes to consciousness though.
Here is the battleground – it’s not just that science looks outwards, it’s also the way that it runs on meter readings. They’re a powerful fuel for the whole science project. Combine particularly intense attempts to understand consciousness from the outside with a reliance on taking readings, and you get astonishingly fast sampling via computers.
In mathematics, repeatedly adding the results of an equation is represented by the symbol ∑. Meanwhile, integration is represented by ∫. The difference between summation and integration is profound. Summing with ∑ will bring the line of the curve on the graph ever closer to the axis, but only integration, ∫, will allow it to touch.
Fourier analysis represents a particularly promethean attempt by humankind to get from ∑ to ∫. And it must be said it’s incredibly useful maths in terms of technology. The crucial feature here of this powerful mathematical tool is that undulating sine waves can approach square (on/off) waves by adding them in the right way in terms of frequency and amplitude. The easiest way to see it, is to see it:
This process in itself can be seen as ∑ making a claim upon ∫. But to become true square waves they still need to be integrated, not summed. The jump from ∑ to ∫ is still there. ∫ triumphs after all, even when we’re making square waves – we can’t do it just with ∑ . The difference between discrete summing and perfectly smooth integration isn’t just total, it’s key. In integration is infinity, yet paradoxically there in the integral also is the everyday analogue world, our continuously flowing human world of crackly vinyl and emotion and feeling, of qualia and meaning, of feeling tone, mood and the sense of the aesthetic. The situation isn’t symmetrical. Precisely because ∑ can never reach the infinity of ∫ , sine waves created by Fourier addition will always have a hint of the square wave about them – it might be very fine-grained, but it’ll never be totally absent. No matter how many snapshots you take, they will always be snapshots, and making a flickbook out of them will never result in the inherent smoothness of experience.
We can never make the final leap from ∑ to ∫ however, as you can add forever without end and still be finite, so digitally constructed sine waves will always have this hint of the square wave. And infinite sidebands means a certain lack of presence, a not-quite-there-ness.
(As an aside, a curious feature of Fourier transformation is that square waves have infinite sidebands. When a sine wave is modulated, spectral components are created in the sidebands. Perhaps this can be thought of analogously as how when we remove our day-to-day consciousness from consciousness in general, we start to see what we call ‘psychic’ phenomena. Without the presence of the ‘carrier signal’ of our usual egoic consciousness, these curiously appropriately named components are not pin-down-able in the way that concepts usually are in everyday consciousness. They’re there and they’re not – they speak of truth then they lie, they are ambiguous. Ideas of the trickster are found in the numinous, the liminal aspects of so many different cultures.
We can never make the final leap from ∑ to ∫ however, as you can add forever without end and still be finite, so digitally (i.e. square wave) constructed sine waves will always have this hint of the square wave. And infinite sidebands means a certain lack of presence, a not-quite-there-ness.
And curiously, if you listen to a square wave tone, there’s something hollow about its sound. It can be filtered and phased, treated so it paradoxically gains a certain fullness, and that’s a very satisfying sound indeed to hear, but the reason it’s satisfying depends on one level on the contrast between the fullness of the filtered sounds and the hollowness of the square wave. )
There are Buddhist methods of meditation that can bring you to the point where you are aware of an incredibly fast blinking on and off of reality. But if you consist solely of that reality, how can you be aware of the alternating on and off? What is it that is noticing it?
We certainly aren’t digital beings, but we discovered something in our minds, something connected with how we make our way in this world, perhaps connected with the fact that we have digits in the sense of fingers, that finds the whole on/off thing profoundly useful. But only in the slinky integral∫are we found, not in the jagged ∑. Digits/fingers are for grasping, making, holding, playing, working on the world. But discrete summation in our minds turns us into ghosts, makes our consciousness a deus ex machina. And constant sampling is a form of anxiety, never far from OCD.
Somehow as the ∑ whirls ever faster until it reaches and becomes the infinite (but only in our conceptual minds), time stops and the ∑ is now ∫. A circle has no gradations, and as it whirls there are no snapshots in time – we cannot see it spinning. But in our timebound human world the time-free ∫somehow now includes ∑ – we have brought the infinite sidebands of the square wave into our minds, in a major way, through scientific sampling, and we have become not entirely present, as with a sine wave with hints of the square wave of sampling in it. The Fall is sometimes viewed as something that happened when humans brought time into the world. The Fall was (and is) when our human ∫ became mixed with ∑ and we started to count out (and keep counting out) each petty second…
The same issue seems to keep reappearing in different guises – there is the sum of discrete intervals but also the smooth integration of (the area under) the curve. Light is a wave and a particle – there it is again. The foundational barrier getting in the way of a Quixotic quest that can’t even delineate a definition of consciousness in the first place.
In Christianity – we’re separate from God, so ∑. In Vedanta, we are ultimately God, so ∫. But we are beyond ∑ and even ∫ , because all dichotomies melt when faced with the ultimate truth.
Somehow consciousness is right in there at the heart of any reality we can ever know, and for that very reason all our attempts to get inside it from without can never cross the flaming sword barring our way back to the garden of Eden.
So watch them. Watch them as they dutifully go about tackling this problem in a way that will never work. Watch them as they assess from the outside and ponder on their inside how they can make any headway with their outward-based assessments. Then watch as they lie to themselves and others, saying they’ve got a breakthrough theory of consciousness, this time for real. Note how each new theory is hyped, touted as a genuine breakthrough this time for sure, before it recedes into the past, fading out along with all the other ‘breakthroughs’. Watch as all the appeals to theory, complexity, brain activity, computers inexorably begin to bend out of shape as they approach the unmeasurable mirror of mind. Railtracks of science disappear into the radiant void of consciousness. We try to see where the tracks lead, but they vanish into the light.
To say that meter readings of any sort will – or even could – somehow provide anything in any way subjective is an article of faith that would make a creationist blush. But it’s peculiarly hard to get a lot of people to see this. The numb hypnosis of measuring and its dulling of our sight, its attendant deadening of our true human essence… we live asleep, we are lulled to sleep, a sleep so often tinged with nightmare. But there is no meaning in a meter reading…