On Philosophy

July 26, 2006

Why We Won’t See AI Anytime Soon

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 1:10 am

When people talk about AI there are two fundamentally different kinds of programs they may mean. One type is the expert system. An expert system, as I am defining it here (the term also has a more specific meaning), is a program that is good at solving one kind of task, which probably includes learning from its mistakes and other abilities we normally associate with humans and not with computers. The other kind is the artificial consciousness, and it is artificial consciousness that I don’t think we will see soon. An artificial consciousness is aware in basically the same way we are, and thus we expect that it would be able to perform any kind of task (assuming it didn’t get bored with it).

Currently AI researchers are focused on creating expert systems. Expert systems are easier to make noticeable progress in and can be based on a long history of previous AI research. Even the AI projects that attempt to solve fairly general problems are designed as expert systems. Expert systems however are not by their nature conscious. By this I mean that consciousness is not designed as part of the system; the system is only composed of algorithms for solving the task at hand. This of course makes sense if you are trying to solve a specific problem; I am not trying to slight the efforts of the researchers who are working on these systems. For example consider attempting to create a program to pass the Turing test. I would consider such a program an expert system in conversation. Although such a system hasn’t been successfully created yet we can already see what kind of program it will be: it will analyze sentences by breaking them up into parts, comparing the sentence with past sentences, and using a database and various conversation simulation algorithms to create a human-like response.

The problem with expert systems though is that they aren’t conscious, and never will be, as I mentioned in passing above. Even putting a set of expert systems together, for example one to move, one to talk, ect, won’t create a conscious being. Consciousness does not solve any problem, and thus any system this is designed to solve problems is highly unlikely to be conscious as a side effect (although I admit it is not impossible, just extremely unlikely). Consider how such systems work: they examine one set of inputs and then produce a response, through a combination of algorithms which judge how likely a given response is likely to result in success. Consciousness however is not structured in this way. Although we do receive inputs into our consciousness (though perception) our consciousness is not a response to these inputs; consciousness is constant (well, during a normal period of being awake) and these inputs just happen to be thrown into consciousness. Additionally consciousness is not goal oriented. Although we may have goals they are not necessary for us to pick a course of action. I didn’t choose to write this post because I have a specific goal that it will accomplish, nor does it give me more pleasure than writing any other possible post.

Of course not every AI project is doing the exact same thing. One of the most promising areas of research (for creating artificial consciousness) are neural nets. Neural nets are programs that simulate the behavior of a group of connected neurons, and they can accomplish some quire impressive tasks (such as pattern recognition). Properly structured they can run constantly, just like consciousness, and when they make a choice it is not by comparing a number of choices to a goal result (at least not in a specific trial). Neural nets have their own problems however. One is that simulating a human brain using them is impossible, simply because there are too many neurons in the human mind (billions) for any modern computer to simulate them at the speed that would be required. Another problem is that we aren’t sure what structures in the brain are responsible for consciousness, and more importantly why they are responsible for consciousness. Without that information even a giant neural net is unlikely to be conscious.

For the reasons I have highlighted above I find it unlikely that artificial consciousness will be created anytime soon. When neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers have figured out exactly what consciousness is, what is necessary for consciousness, and why the human mind gives rise to it then we might begin expecting the first rudimentary conscious programs. Of course consciousness is no guarantee of intelligence, but that is a different problem.

July 25, 2006


Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:40 am

Everyone seems to want to talk about the mind, but few seem willing to come out and define what it is (notably certain externalists I know). This seems strange to me, since my mind and my consciousness are something that I live with everyday. I have thoughts, I feel sensations, there is something it is to be me. Even if I don’t know exactly how the mind works, even if I can be ignorant of the contents of my unconsciousness there is no denying that there is a mind and there is a consciousness to which I have access, since they are me. Furthermore, to make any progress in a theory about the mind we must start with some sense of what the mind is (or else why should we expect to arrive at a theory about it), specifically with definitions that don’t deny my experience of being conscious. To remedy this lack of up front definitions I have constructed those below, concerning the essential components of the mind (and hence those often the subject of philosophic inquiry) in a way that is as theory neutral as possible. I attempt to say what they are based on properties that we observe though our lived experience and on properties that are essential to how we use the words in both our everyday and philosophic discourse. For example it is a necessary part of consciousness that we be aware (or at least able to be aware) of it. Theories that define consciousness to include features that we cannot be aware of are not defining consciousness, but something else, I know not what. Definitions such as these are much like trying to define pain as something else than that which is painful. Sure we are free to also talk about the physical the causes of pain, and those processes that it correlates with, but to define something as pain which is not subjectively painful is to misunderstand what pain is and what we mean by the word.

The Phenomenal Field
A person’s phenomenal field, defined loosely, is everything that makes up their awareness at a given moment. This includes perception of the external world (including bodily perceptions) as well as the awareness of one’s own thoughts (which some construe as perceptions of internal states). A sensation that you are not paying attention to, however, is not part of your phenomenal field, for example even though I am sitting on a chair I am not aware of the pressure supporting me unless make the choice to think about it, and thus for the most part is not part of my phenomenal field. Also, note that I did not define the phenomenal field as what a person is aware of but as their awareness. This is an important distinction, because to assume that there is another viewpoint that somehow watches the phenomenal field is to engage in an unproductive regress, which can lead to numerous problems (as authors such as Dennett often point out).

There is some debate (actually quite a lot) as to what counts as conscious, so I will give the widest possible definition in order to be theory-neutral, as promised. Consciousness then is the collection of everything that you are currently aware of or could be aware of. Thus my example above, of the pressure holding me off the ground, could be considered a conscious experience under this definition, even though it was not part of my phenomenal field at the moment in question. The more restrictive definition of consciousness is simply the phenomenal field (and nothing else), which, as Nagel pointed out, is “what it is like” to be something. Under this view those experiences that one is not currently aware of would be considered unconscious.

The Unconscious
The unconscious then is anything that can have a direct effect on consciousness but is not itself conscious. Specifically the unconscious can cause a mental state to change into one state instead of another, however unlike a conscious thought or perception, which can have this same effect, we are not aware what this altered progression is caused by, or indeed that the progression even requires something unconscious to explain it. For example, consider the unconscious knowledge that is present in patients with blind-sight or unilateral neglect. In these cases a patient may arrive at judgments or make choices that seem guided by unconscious knowledge. However when questioned patients deny that they have such knowledge, and they think that their judgments / intuitions are guided by only the available information, and where no information is available, by random chance. The unconscious “suggestion” functions similarly, the individual suddenly has a desire to do something, but no knowledge where that desire came from, and no knowledge that there is anything unusual about having that desire (even though it seems obvious in some cases that they should). The unconscious can also cause effects such as altered perceptions / altered actions (such as misspeaking). However it is not defined by these powers, since the same effects can be caused by the non-mental (such as tinted glasses or an injured mouth). What defines the unconscious is the ability to directly influence consciousness without being part of it, any other powers it has are not essential to its nature.

I will be brief about what a thought is, since there is a disagreement as to the form/nature of individual thoughts. Thus I will define a thought as part of our phenomenal field that is not a perception of the external world (in this context external world also includes perceptions of the body). Yes, I know that some will argue that not all thoughts are conscious. First let me say that there are definitely unconscious beliefs / dispositions, but I don’t think that anyone counts these as thoughts. However you still might think that there are unconscious thoughts because it may seem that suddenly an idea “pops” into your head, and doesn’t it seem likely that there was a chain of unconscious thoughts leading up to it? I would say that since whatever was leading up to it was unconscious we have no idea exactly what it was, and to claim that they are thoughts presupposes a lot, too much in fact. If we absolutely must invoke them we should call them something else, and leave the word thought as designating those aspects of the phenomenal field that share a common character of being part of an internal conscious process of thinking, otherwise we might construct invalid theories about the structure of the unconscious by generalizing from our conscious thoughts (a fault of some of the original internalists).

Personally I think beliefs are part of the unconscious, and as part of the unconscious they cause various behaviors, govern the flow of conscious thoughts, and create thoughts that mirror the structure of the belief (a belief that X gives rise to thoughts such as “X is true”, “it is a fact that X”, ect). The belief however (much like memory, discussed below) is never part of consciousness, only the thoughts that it gives rise to. This definition is perhaps the most controversial definition I have given here, and it is possibly not as truly theory neural as it could be. This is because how we use the idea of belief seems somewhat confused. Sometimes we mean thoughts of the kind “X is true”, and at other times we seem to mean dispositions, things that govern thoughts but are not thoughts themselves. I have taken a stance on this controversy in my definition, and thus would argue that thoughts such as “X is true” are not beliefs themselves, but are the conscious products of (and evidence for) a belief.

The mind then is simply the unconscious plus the conscious, nothing more and nothing less. At this point one common question some people have is “what about memory?” Memories themselves are unconscious, but they can trigger a conscious “re-living” of an event. But can’t we think about our memories? No, what we can think about are their contents. You can’t think of the memory of your eighteenth birthday, you can only remember the events of that birthday (this is why people can’t simply perform an exhaustive survey of the contents of their memory, and why memories can be lost / suppressed, we simply don’t have that kind of access to it).

How you classify the relation of other things to the mind depends on exactly what kind of theory you are working with. However if you think, as I do, that the mind is dependant on the physical contents of our brains then it is perhaps best to label much of the activity and structures there as unconscious (even though they are physical, paradoxically), because they can have a direct effect on consciousness, but they themselves are not part of consciousness (although you can think of neurons in general, a specific neuron will never be part of your consciousness in the way a specific perception can be). Additionally some things that you may have thought were part of the mind actually aren’t. For example a reflex is not part of the mind. Even though it can be the cause of an action it is not itself directly a cause of any conscious state (although the cause of the reflex and its results may be part of the phenomenal field). This is true even if the reflex consists of a learned pathway in the brain, and even if you have the possibility to suppress the reflex.

July 24, 2006

On Dreaming

Filed under: Idealism — Peter @ 12:49 am

Many philosophers (for example Descartes) have wondered how we can know that what we think of as our waking existence is not a dream. This is slightly different from the possibility of being a brain in a vat or being deceived by an evil demon, since dreams are products of our own minds. Believing that one is living in a dream is roughly the same as solipsism (at least some kinds of solipsism), and the other possibilities mentioned require something to exist outside of the thinker.

A simpler question to ask is “should we act as though life were a dream?” A little game theory reveals that we shouldn’t. We start be considering the four possibilities and their outcomes. If our lives are a dream and we act as though we are living in a dream everything is fine. Likewise if our lives are a dream and we act as though they aren’t a dream everything is fine as well. Of course if our lives aren’t a dream, and we act as though they were the outcome is disastrous. Finally if our lives aren’t a dream and we act as through they aren’t then everything is fine. We ask ourselves then how we should act given that we don’t know if we are in a dream or not. Well given that one course of action can lead to disaster and the other can’t we should pick the sure thing, and thus should act as though life isn’t a dream.

This doesn’t answer the fundamental question however, I admit. A traditional way to answer that question of how we can know that we aren’t in a dream is to rely on some capacity (such as pain, clear thought, … whatever) that is available to us when we are awake but not when we are asleep. Although we might believe that we are awake when we are asleep we never have that missing capacity, and thus having that capacity is sure evidence that we are awake. Let us say then that our waking capacities are {A, B, C} and that our capacities while asleep are {A, B}. The missing C then is our irrefutable evidence that we are awake.

What this answer misses however is the possibility that our whole lives (that we remember at least) are the product of some dreaming state that is unlike the normal dreams that we have at night because it does provide us with C. There is also the possibility that if we ever became fully awake there would be some additional capacity, D, which we don’t have now that would serve as evidence of the state of being “really” awake. Although the traditional response does rule out the possibility that our lives are not an ordinary dream it does not exclude the possibility of “super-dreams” such as this.

I argue that we can be sure we aren’t living in a super dream because of our limitations. I don’t mean our physical capabilities, but our mental capabilities, specifically those mental tasks that we can’t but that other people can. For example consider proving an obscure theorem in topology. I probably can’t do it, even after hours of effort, even if a great deal depends on me being able to prove it. However if I open up a topology textbook I can probably find a proof of the theorem and be able to understand that proof. If my life is a dream where did that proof come from? Clearly it wasn’t part of my conscious mind. Likewise the idea that somehow I unconsciously knew the proof all along seems unlikely, since I didn’t have any “proof intuitions” helping me out.

The only conclusion that is consistent with the evidence is that there is something outside our minds, something that is able to create things such as proofs and the other mental accomplishments that we ourselves are not able to do. Yes it is true that we might be deceived in a dream into believing that we had seen a proof when we had not, but if we have the actual proof in front of us there is no denying it exists, and thus no reason to believe that we are in a “super-dream”. Of course this doesn’t rule out the possibility that our entire experience is an illusion, but it does rule out certain kinds of solipsism, which is an important first step.

July 23, 2006

Community Ethics and Punishment

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:21 am

Last time I discussed how accepting “community ethics” implies we should think about self-sacrifice / altruism, and today I will see how these principles handle the idea of punishment. For those of you just tuning in the basic principle of community ethics is that it is ethical to act in the best interests of the community, and it is unethical to act against the best interests of the community. Additionally it is unethical to remove someone from the community against their will, which prevents ethics from mandating that we treat some people badly in order to benefit the rest of the community, because this would be equivalent to removing those people from the community.

Punishment is another tricky subject for ethical theories. It is easy for an ethical theory to condemn some acts as wrong, but it is less easy to see how ethics mandates we treat people who commit such acts. After all punishment can be seen as an ethically wrong act itself if it is preformed on individuals who didn’t commit a crime. What justifies treating people who have done wrong differently, and why should we punish people who have done different wrongs differently?

In my eyes most modern forms of punishment, namely imprisonment and execution, are equivalent to removing someone from the community. Since this violates the second principle, that people shouldn’t be removed from the community against their will, then you may feel that “community ethics” prevents individuals from being punished. If this were true it would be necessary to discard “community ethics” and start over.

Consider first the case of habitual criminals or people who commit major offenses. Concerning both these kinds of people I would argue that they have already chosen to cut themselves off from the community. Earlier I defined the community as people who interact with each other, up to several degrees of separation. Clearly even these types of criminals interact with their victims, so let me define more sharply the definition of a community. The more concrete definition of a community is that it is made up of people who interact in a mutually beneficial fashion or to accomplish common goals. Clearly then the habitual criminal or the person who commits major offences (usually violent crimes) is demonstrating that they have no desire to be part of a community, as defined in this way. Thus if they are not part of the community, by choice, then it is perfectly acceptable to punish them by imprisonment, ect, because the protection given by “community ethics” to members of the community no longer applies to them.

No everyone who commits crimes however is necessarily demonstrating that they lack a desire to participate in the community, at least in general. There is still a need to punish such criminals however, because an absence of punishment would encourage crime by implicitly condoning it. Thus a system of punishments for crimes is good for the community, but, as dictated by the second principle, such punishments can’t involve cutting the criminal off from the community, and thus only punishments such as fines and community service are acceptable. Of course someone who tries to avoid these punishments is indicating that they don’t want to be part of the community, and can thus be imprisoned.

The topic of crime brings me to considerations of private property. Theft for example is only a crime if you believe in private property, and I am sure that there are some people who will confuse “community ethics” with communism. “Community ethics”, however, is not the same thing as communism because the ownership of private property, and as a consequence capitalism, is actually good for the community, since it encourages people to work their hardest. Thus capitalism for the most part would be considered morally good. I say for the most part because there are two aspects of capitalism that the system of “community ethics” must judge as immoral. One is the possibility of extreme poverty (or death / being forced into a life of crime due to lack of money), which is the same as cutting people off from the community against their will. Even though “community ethics” encourages capitalism it also demands, at the same time, that there be protections in place against people falling into extreme poverty and being trapped there. The possibility of extreme wealth also poses a problem for the community, since those lifted up to such heights are also effectively removed from the community; they no longer desire the same goals as the majority of people, nor even need other people to live, and thus they may feel free to act unethically, against the best interests of the community.

With these remarks however I may be venturing too far away from ethics, into political philosophy. Although it may be true that much of political philosophy can be seen as a consequence of one system of ethics or another, it is only peripherally related to the topic at hand, and so I will leave off here for today before I start making judgments about what system of government ethics demands. Hopefully coming soon will be a formalization of the various principles I have been discussing, so stay tuned.

July 22, 2006

Good Advice

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 7:09 pm

I found some good advice for philosophers. I think it also highlights the difference between philosophy and religious belief.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.