Book Review: Other Minds(2/2)
A Fictional Conversation
— The Fictional Conversation Starts Here —
“Can we see things?”
“Yes, we see things with our eyes.”
“Do you think computers can see things as we do?”
“Well… with image recognition, they can recognize things, but I don’t know if you can say that they see as we humans do.”
“What makes the difference?”
“In computer vision, what computers actually see are the combination of numbers from 0 to 1, but for us, we see the actual objects.”
“But our eyes don’t see depth, our retinal only reflects a two-dimensional image. If you believe we do live in a three-dimensional world, do you still think we still see things?
“Let me give you another example. In the book Other Minds, Professor Peter Godfrey-Smith shared a study (p85). A woman, only known as “DF”, had brain damage and lost all the ability to “experience shapes and layout of objects in her visual field”. However, “she could still act quite effectively toward the objects in space around her”. ”
“Do you believe maybe computers can see things as we do now? Maybe it’s just we are OOP (Object-oriented programming) and they are FP (Functional programming).”
“… no, but when we see, we actually know that we are seeing it.”
“So it’s because we are conscious?”
“Yes, it’s because we are conscious.”
“Can we still see when we aren’t conscious of it?”
“I have another example for you to consider. On page 88, Professor Peter Godfrey-Smith shared a study done by neuroscientist Stainslas Dahaene. In the study, sequences of words were shown to a person. However, they flashed by so quickly that the person wasn’t even aware of oneself saw it. Nonetheless, an incongruous phrase like “very happy war” and a reasonable phrase like “not happy war” triggered the brain differently. Seems like consciousness is not required to see and to know the difference.”
— The Functional Conversation Stops Here —
I hope the above functional conversation sparkled your interest to dig further about what makes computers and us different.
The all-time strongest argument about computers vs. humans is that we feel. Computers don’t feel. But what’s the word feel? and what enabled us able to feel? I think it will be helpful to clarify some words here: feel, consciousness, and subjective experience.
Compare the two phrases. Can you feel that I am touching you? vs. What does it feel like to be an adult? The word feel means something different in the two cases.
In the first case, “feel” seems more like a neurological reflex. We believe everyone, and all animals have similar feelings and can react similarly. However, the second “feel” is something that’s different for everyone and takes pages to answer. We can never imagine us asking the computer: what does it feel like to be a computer? We believe it can never answer this question because it doesn’t feel.
For the sake of clarify, let’s call this type of feel — subjective experience and the first type — sensation. Coming back to our original questions, what we were really asking was what is a subjective experience? and what enabled us to have a subjective experience?
Subjective Experience and Consciousness
what is a subjective experience? Does consciousness equal to subjective experience? Does a subject experience requires one to be conscious? If not, what does it mean to have a subjective experience?
I believed this is the most interesting discussion of the book. The author discussed the “global workspace” theory, first proposed by neurobiologist Bernard Baars in the late 1980s (p92). He highlighted the development of the theory and explained how it plays a role in explaining the subjective experience.
The first version of this theory treats consciousness and subjective experience the same thing. The argument is that in order to have a subjective experience, there’s a global workspace in our brain where we integrate all the information that we get from different sources of senses. This integration of all senses IS our subjective experience.
This might seem reasonable and intuitive at first. However, if we think back to our childhood traumas, it actually happened quite often that we were impacted or shaped by something that we weren’t even aware of at the time. Can you argue that childhood traumas were not subjective experience because we weren’t conscious about it when it happened? I would not say this.
I gave an intuitive example (I hope) while the author provided more scientific evidence. French neurobiologists Stanislas Dehaene and Lionel Naccache argued that conscious thought only happens when we encountered something new; when our habits break down. (p151) That being said, consciousness is only part of the subjective experience. This is the second-generation version of the workspace theory.
I think people who have read the book Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman should have a good understanding of this. Daniel Kahneman argued that we have system-1 and system-2 thinking in the brain, one requires consciousness and the other is subconscious. The entire book is to give extensive evidence on how the things we do are greatly impacted by our subconscious.
Coming back to the book Other Minds, the author also argued that subjective experience is border than consciousness. He argued all animals have subjective experiences to some extent. Having a subjective experience “involves being a living system with a point of view on the world around it”(p79). In the book, he gave an example of how fish avoid pain to demonstrate. However, he stated that it was rare for animals to be aware of what they are experiencing.
In order to have conscious, our brain needs to have a receiver to receive our own thoughts. Our conscious thoughts are our inner speeches. The voices of ourselves talking to ourselves. Our brain needs to be able to hear our own voice and be able to distinguish that this is my thoughts, not somebody else is talking to me.
What more interesting is that the author ties in the role of time. We need to perceive time the way we do now (in sequential orders) so that we mentally know, this is the message my present self wants to send to my future self.
The author contrasted this ability of us (thinking and hearing ourselves) to cuttlefish. Cuttlefish often change colors with the shape of their bodies. Sometimes for obvious reasons, for example, to express emotions, to send a signal to others. However, sometimes for no obvious reasons, when no visible things are around; when they are alone in the dark cold sea.
The author suspected that there could be two explanations. One could be due to light-sensitive cells. The other, which the author leans toward, could be color changes are “an inadvertent expression of the animal’s inner processes.” It means that something is going on but the cuttlefish do not have the receiver in the brain to receive, to interpret, and to use these signals. Many of these signals are just meaningless.
So we have some rough ideas. Subjective experience is not just consciousness but it is how we interact with the world based on our previous experience whether we are aware of it or not. And consciousness requires one to have inner speeches and able to hear ourselves.
Where does this lead us to? Can computers have consciousness or subjective experience?
Obviously, nobody could answer that. Maybe we will never know until it actually happens. However, I want to leave you with this piece of history, the history of how complex life emerged.
Life started with single-celled organisms that can only sense and react. In the book, the author gave an example of E.coli cell. (p16) That cell only had two movements in life. It moves and it turns. When it moves, it only moves in a straight line. The cell is able to sense and store 2 types of things, what’s happening now and what just happened a few moments ago. It functions like a while loop, while now is better than before, go straight, otherwise turn.
Gradually, cells started to be able to sense light. It developed: vision. In the book, the author gave the example of single-celled eukaryotes. (p17) Though the ability to “see” was poor, the ability to sense it allows the cells to have more capacity for information. They start to respond to incoming light.
Biologists also found that the earliest form of life not only attract to food. (p17) They also attract non-eatable things. Once they started to notice the presence and activities of other cells around then, coordination starts to be possible. By now, the earliest form of life starts to be able to sense, act, and coordinate.
A significant turning point was when the evolution started to produce multi-cell organisms. Now, sensing and signaling don’t just happen from one cell to other cells, but within a single cell. It is this cell-to-cell signaling mark the start of neurons and our nervous systems.
I must admit, my articles didn’t come close to catch the breadth and the depth that the author provided in the book. I also do not eliminate the possibility that I misunderstood some information. In that case, I apologize and I kindly ask for your forgiveness. I sincerely hope you go and read the book yourself. Any discussion is welcome!
Here is the first part of the book review. Apologize that it took me forever to finish the second part.
- Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. First edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. Print.