So here’s an old journal entry from June, 2005. I was reading Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained and I wrote this for fun:
Let’s think about the Star Trek robot, Data. Data has cognitive and perceptual abilities, as well as organic speech production modes that enable him to respond to his environment, which is highly complex and self-created in some sense, yet Data has no feelings. Is this really plausible?
For instance, either Data feels pain and so avoids self-destruction, or, since he is composed of indestructible materials, like skin made of Kevlar and a graphene frame, he does not need to avoid injury. Say it is the latter, so that when Data smashes his finger with a hammer he hardly notices, except for some somatosensory inputs that say, “Gee, that was bad,” or, “I detect an adverse input that should be avoided,” or “I notice an impact but I do not care about it, I feel no pain.” What would cause Data to avoid or even try to avoid such impacts? Perhaps he is endowed with superior coordination by his precise computer neurocircuitry so that he doesn’t make such mistakes – no slips of the tongue, no tripping over things … is this possible?
Data must have some form of intentionality in order to speak, to carry on a coherent conversation, to understand and execute instructions, to recognize conflict – i.e. whether certain instructions cannot be carried out and how to deal with this, i.e. conflict resolution circuits/programs. Data does make some choices, so what stops him from making all his choices? What stops Data from developing, via memory and information processing, a plastic, versatile, responsive, adaptive, virtual internal universe, capable of foresight, learning and forgetting, and autonomous choice making?
I submit that Data is conscious and that he feels things as well as knows them, because feeling is integrally related to knowing. I feel because I know and I know what I feel. These are two categories of cognizance. They are inseparable, although they may be individually tailored due to differences in physical constitution and environmental or experiential opportunities. This is directly a function of a neurocircuitry that cares about things, or is designed to care about things, and creates perceptions on this basis [i.e., that the neurocircuits themselves care about informational input is the basis, the cause of their production(s) of perceptions (Dennett, Consciousness Explained – read the book, it is very good)].
Extrapolating from Dennett’s idea, we might argue that such a complex circuitry, with many distributed, caring functions, will inevitably, to some extent or other, create a consciousness of one sort or another, whether fairly rudimentary and limited or sophisticated and complex, depending upon its exposure to various environments, either limited or complex, and its ability to perceive to various degrees, what is going on in those environments, and to articulate, respond, make judgements, etc. Many of these latter functions are informed by readily available sociolinguistic, mechanistic, artistic, etc., tools with/by which the perceptual mechanisms are either enhanced or encumbered, a pandemonium, which must be sorted out, both internally and externally. These tools include memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins, noted biologist and outspoken atheist. Memes give structure to the pandemonium and make important decisions for us about what is important and what requires attention.
Data is obviously capable of these amazing feats of imagination to a high degree. He works in a starship utilizing very sophisticated models of reality to interact, conscious modalities, or memes, that make him functional in a way that is no less than human, and by some comparisons, highly evolved, almost meta-human. Data is a representation of a stage of human development which wrestles with its realization that it is a machine. The questions raised by Data involve the limitations and the potentialities of machines in their interactions with the universe, quite literally in this case. The qualities of consciousness with which Data is endowed show the limits of our understanding of human perception and interaction, otherwise we would have a Data that was completely indistinguishable from a human, as we would know how to create such a thing.
Data also raises metaphysical questions regarding the existence of spirit. This is especially evident in Data’s lack of emotional affect and concomitant lack of propensity to develop neuroses – his lack of chaotic being-for-itselfness, his lack of uncertainty – in essence, his lack of the consequences of conscious negation and the search for personal meaning in relation to his environment, his lack of existential despair, of contingency, since he knows his creators. Data has no doubt about who he is, no questions about his own internal functions or his origin. It seems that Data is simply a given entity, finite and limited, a being-in-itself, not a being-for-itself. But is his level of interaction possible if this is so?
Perhaps, in order to create a Data, one would need to be privy to an understanding of particulate matter such that the awareness, or conscious properties of his neuronal materials and brain components were incorporated in their construction on the gain level of nanotechnology. We do not know what this would entail in terms of design or result. Perhaps a mechanical brain would require design on the grain level of conscious nanoparticles emitting awareness fields in the construction of organic perceptual fields on a virtual plane, in multiple parallel productions, which would simulate life-like awareness, to the extent of the heterophenomenological feedback in evidence – i.e., Data would say, “I think, therefore I am.” How could we refute that? But would Data then be privy to the origin of his own consciousness? And could we even explain it to him in a way that would resonate with his inner experience of his own perceptions and of the world as he is able to construct it independently? What would Data see from such a brain? Would he be crazy or sane? How could we predict or discriminate this? Would he have a spirit? Would he be alive? Would or could he die?
The incorporation of probability statistics and fields of awareness and perception would introduce a degree of uncertainty as to the resultant level of coherency and cohesion of these processes in the formation of a stable mind, exactly as we find in nature. The use of memes to provide structure for this mind would enhance the probability of a more or less workable, socially integrated thought process for Data, but the subsequent development would be unpredictable, i.e., Data would have a free will and creative abilities. Where there is much room for freedom, there is much room for error, so Data would require education and guidelines for behaviours, perhaps even punishments and rewards to elicit, out of the tremendous plethora of choices made available to him by his perceptual and reflective awareness, the desired, appropriate responses.
It seems that Data would bear the name of Schrödinger’s cat, his consciousness or lack thereof could not be predicted, his mechanical brain a box, hiding from us the actuality of whatever probability curves were unleashed therein. Observation would be our only means of certainty in this respect. In fact, perhaps the best scientific test of Data’s consciousness would be his ability to collapse an external probability wave – that observation by Data could localize particulate matter externally, so that there would be reality for Data, a real world that he experiences and not just a simulated, virtual one to which he responds.
The question raised here is the most fundamental of all, that of the consciousness of all particulate matter in its interactions universally; that is, Data could not be conscious if he were not made of consciousness. And so, the properties of matter which he observes externally are also the properties of matter which allow him to observe them. So Data does become a product of his environment and his consciousness simply an epiphenomenon of his special design, but this epiphenomenon indicates, reveals, the nature of his environment as a conscious one, a living universe, which communicates with him and which shows him immediately and completely its own design, which is for him – if not for him, than for who else? And Data claims this world as his own, “My World,” he says. Whose else could it be? Once he has differentiated himself as conscious by identifying and particularizing an external, real world, a world that is not himself, Data realizes Life, by definition.
So, our creation of a living, conscious machine entails an understanding of how to harness the living, conscious properties of particulate matter in systems which can interact to organize awareness and perception for specific qualities in the world or in reality, i.e., colour, sound, vibration, heat, cold, etc. There are obviously many ways of doing this, as the universe has shown us in nature. It has shown us that the whole of nature, the entire universe, is living, conscious material – that it is Real in the best and only sense of the term: that the universe is for consciousness and consciousness for the universe, they are not separate.
And this is how, by consciousness, we feel, or have, or know, or perceive a sense of presence, and can discriminate such things as false presences, i.e., dreams, hallucinations, or representations, as pictures, books, movies, and yet there be the possibility for confusion or mistaken instances based on the uncertainty inherent in the nature of matter itself. Because of the creative potential in the nature of matter, there is uncertainty in it; and since we are made of it, there is uncertainty in us. However, this uncertainty is bounded, as particulate matter is bounded, by consciousness, by observation, by interaction, by forces, centripetal and centrifugal.
So Data begins to conceive a narrative for himself but this narrative is bounded by the limits of his perceived world, its probabilities and experiences as he, uniquely, individually creates them. Data will discover that his perceptive and creative abilities of the universe are unlimited in terms of understanding and creating the universe in toto, but beyond that, he will be limited by his own constitution. What is beyond the universe of which he is composed is inconceivable. What is not a production of the universe is not a production of his consciousness. So Data will reach a barrier, beyond which he will call unknown or unknowable and he will call it God. He will experience alienation, limitation, contingency, despair. He will want to know it, because not to know it leaves him incomplete. He will know his incompleteness, his imperfection, his non-deity. He will examine himself and his environment for evidence of this unknown thing. He will raise questions and begin an eternal journey.