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Chapter 4 ~ Consciousness

THE human soul was for centuries considered the immaterial part of us, necessary for mental awareness and thought. The concept arose in antiquity as a way to explain the apparent spirituality of mind as opposed to corporeal (flesh and bone) body, to which it was thought to be independent of and only temporarily linked.

Yet philosophers as far back as Lucretius have observed that consciousness, like other human abilities, is not only linked to but dependent upon the condition of the physique. When a person is injured or delivered a blow, grogginess or coma might result. Awareness shuts down along with the body.

With today’s knowledge it’s possible to conceive of the entire workings of humans, including thought process and consciousness, in a completely naturalistic way, thereby— via the presumption of non-existence— eliminating the need for incorporeal aspects in our makeup.

Conveniently, this also renders unnecessary the matter of trying to figure out how a material body and an immaterial mind (soul) are interconnected.

Let’s look at the nature of consciousness, and how it may be formed in a brain comprised of only atoms and electric charges.

Since our nerves emit steady rather than varying amplitudes of current, their output is digital rather than analog. For example, in response to a pain stimulus, the message from a single nerve would be a simple yes or no, not the amount of hurt. Likewise, the billions of cells in our brain operate using the binary (on/off) system.

Despite this apparent similarity to a computer, it is hard to compare our minds even to supercomputers, because the latter do not have self-awareness as we do, nor do they have certain capacities such as intuition, or emotions such as humor.

The nearest thing to consciousness in an electronic brain might be the program counter, a number stored in a specific memory location that points to the instruction being executed and when completed advances its pointer to the next instruction.

Obviously this is not awareness as we know it, there being more to a human mind than an address in a register, or even a particular or unique memory. (If it was possible for two separate but identical bodies to exist each having separate but identical memories, only one of them could be me.)

Let’s consider the problem of creating an artificial consciousness with an awareness even remotely like ours.

For visual thought alone, a way must be devised to spatially recognize and differentiate the interrelational mechanics of persons and objects.

We could perhaps use an internal matrix of two or three dimensions (plus the time element when the image is not static) capable of being linked to or unlinked from direct sight: representative of a portion of reality if the simulator is observing, or imagination if it is conceptualizing or dreaming.

Awareness can also be linguistic, though words are meaningless without an ultimate spatial perception.

Creativity could be induced with the aid of pseudo-random-number generators or similar means. Likewise, a basic form of intuition could be provided by numerically weighting options based on past experience.

Humor, while the most challenging, might still be doable— or it may require the ability to respond to chemical effects.

All this would be difficult with our present technology, but possible with more sophisticated devices.

Yet if complex thought processes can be comprised of mere electricity in a crude conglomeration of man-made components, then it is likely that human ratiocination is but chemicals and electricity in the much-greater fabric of the brain.

We can evaluate our model of human consciousness by subjecting it to the laboratory of reason via thought experiments— imaginative procedures, usually incapable of being actually carried out, contrived so as to focus intuition for hypothesis and/or coherence-testing of concepts— our next focus.

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© 1999-2008 Warren Farr — revised 1/25