Thursday, July 24, 2008

Consciousness - what does it mean?

I got an interesting question from theo regarding the Blue Brain post:

"What, do you think, does it mean to become [artificially] conscious at the level of a human brain?"

I thought about this and have some thoughts. To become conscious means 3 things -

1) Being able to acknowledge your own existence
2) Being able to have a change of opinion
3) Being able to have an irrational bias

What do you think it means?


KristenMary said...

I also think it means to have emotions that help you form instinctive judgements.

Jim said...

I think all animals with brains use their brains to model their environment, and use those models to predict which behaviors will allow them to survive and thrive. For primitive animals, that's all their models do. The models result in instinctive, reflexive behavior, and is probably experienced as something like our emotions.

We conscious mammals (and I think humans are not the only ones) also use our brains to model ourselves, and others, and use those models to predict how our actions will affect our emotions and the emotions of others. But even better, we use our internal models of ourselves to predict how our behavior will affect our internal models.

Theo said...

Some very good thoughts to begin with! A couple of comments...

Your #1 is related to self-awareness (or self-consciousness), one of the most important ways in which a being (or other cognitive system) might be said to be conscious... The ability not only of being aware of things, but being aware of being aware of things! (If and when you decide to read up a bit more on theories of consciousness, you'll come across this "internal focus" quite often... the so-called "Higher Order" theories.)

Note that even "self-awareness" needs to be defined and analysed a bit further. For example, would you say that a baby or small child is self-aware? If not, does that mean she is not conscious?

As for your #2 and #3, I'd group them under another important sense in which consciousness has traditionally been defined, namely wakefulness. Is someone who is asleep (or in a coma) conscious? Surely not, but you can see that the boundaries get quite blurry quite quickly!

Also, having an opinion, bias etc. as you suggest, is indicative of fairly high-level thought... do you therefore think that animals aren't conscious? I'm sure my Springer Spaniels will disagree (when they're not asleep)!

There are some other potential definitions or aspects of consciousness as well, but these two above are more than enough for us to discuss for now. Let me know your thoughts!

As a final teaser, let me leave you with the so-called "Hard Problem" of consciousness... it's pretty clear to most of us that one needs a living, physical body with a brain to be conscious. In other words, the mind appears to be a property of the brain. How, exactly, does something as interesting as our own consciousness arise from the physical properties and processes of the brain? Let's see if you're a dualist or materialist!