Can a computer be conscious? There are some problems with this question.
First, we don’t understand consciousness. We know it correlates with activity in a part of the brain, that we lose it when sleeping, regain it when waking, and can even lose it while awake (going on autopilot), but don’t know why it would ever arise in the first place. To even ask how the material could give rise to the mental is a confusing one, and some go so far as to claim the very question itself is incoherent.
What’s more, the question may be unanswerable until we learn what causes consciousness. To answer whether something can exhibit some property, it helps to know the causes of this property. So the question about a computer being conscious can be rephrased as:
We don’t know what causes consciousness, but want to know if a particular thing can satisfy these unknown causes.
That seems unanswerable. Regardless, speculating on this question can teach us some things.
First, that we’d wonder if a computer can be conscious reveals an assumption that consciousness does not require a (fleshy) brain, that it’s an activity that happens to occur there, but could easily occur elsewhere.
Second, why would we even think to ask if a computer can have consciousness? I rarely see similar questions about rocks or trees (and certainly, not asked with the same passion), so why computers?
Perhaps the answer lies in why I think others are conscious. It’s true I can only experience my consciousness, yet I believe others are conscious because they look and act similarly to me, so I assume they are inwardly similar as well (including having an inwardness to begin with).
Very well, but what do I have in common with a computer? It has no legs, no face, it doesn’t talk, and it’s cold metal instead of warm flesh. Shouldn’t I more easily identify with a dog or a mannequin? Yet, I identify with a computer to the point of allowing it the potential for consciousness. Why?
Could it be because of attachment to my mind? A computer seems to think. It does things that I can do mentally (and better than me), like calculate, search and play chess. Since the mind is often valued (in the West) as who we “really” are, it could be that I ignore all the ways a computer differs and focus on the thing it may share with me, a thing which I happen to identify as my essence: A mind.
Yet, what is this mind? My brain is structured differently than a computer — it uses neural networks, while the computer uses logic gates. The brain relies on more pattern matching, weighted inputs and associative maps, while the computer is more reliant on binary operations (and can contain multiple computational models). Yet, I ascribe a commonality that transcends this. Have I postulated a new entity? Is the concept of mind/thought/computation a chimera? Is this just a label for an interesting series of interactions, and I’m now making the mistake of giving it an ontological status?
Now since consciousness is near and dear to me, it’s easy to conflate those two concepts and assume that consciousness must arise as the result of thought (which itself may not exist in the disembodied way I imagine).
But there are plenty of reasons to doubt this. First, there are people with diminished mental functioning (to the point that they can’t think as many do) who are conscious. Second, many complex processes — like driving, doing dishes and multi-tasking — are done unconsciously. Think of a time you arrived at home, with absolutely no memory of how you got there . A great deal of our functioning is unconscious. Third, we program computers to do many things that seem to require thought, yet do not program them with consciousness (as if we could!). A robot could be programmed to walk, talk, run, react, even scream in pain when damaged in the same way it can be programmed to add a list of numbers. Indeed, a Philosophical Zombie is not the least bit contradictory.
- Could a computer be conscious?
- What causes consciousness?
- What is thought?
- What is computation?