[ExI] Digital Consciousness

Gordon gts_2000 at yahoo.com
Mon May 6 02:27:05 UTC 2013

Stathis Papaioannou <stathisp at gmail.com> wrote:

>> I believe that if we replaced all the neurons in the NCC with digital

>> implants, the victim of our evil experiment would become comatose. I think
>> something is happening in those parts of the brain that correlate to
>> consciousness that is not equivalent to digital processing. It's a
>> biological process, perhaps electro-chemical in nature, and although we
>> might be able to describe it digitally, and build digital implants using
>> that description as a blueprint, the implants themselves would fail as they
>> are a different sort of thing than the biological processes they describe.

> Could you clarify what exactly you think we can and can't do in
> attempts at simulating neurons in the NCC? It seems you allow that we
> could, in principle, make computerised neurons that are not involved
> in consciousness directly, but may perform a relay role passing
> information to the NCC. Is that right? 

Yes, that is right. I can cause you to experience qualia by opening your cranium and stimulating the surface of your cortex with electricity. I consider digital implants similar in principle to whatever tool I would use in such a procedure. The tool itself is certainly not conscious.  

> If not, you are claiming that to calculate the timing of the action
> potentials output by the NCC neuron involves a non-computable
> function. 

As I wrote to Ben, I believe the brain is computable. There is some level of description under which we could write a program that simulated the operations of the brain. But I don't believe the resulting digital computation would have consciousness. It is merely a computer program -- an algorithm designed to mimic the observable operations of a brain  -- not an actual brain. 

I am myself a programmer, by the way (C++). I can make computers do interesting things that appear conscious, but I don't suppose I could ever write a program that would make a computer actually conscious. That would require magic, like the magic that made Pinocchio come alive. What would the code look like? How do I write a "become conscious" function?

It really comes down to the question of substrate dependency. I believe things are happening in the NCC that might be synthesized in the laboratory, but there is a difference between synthesis and digital simulation.

[I was about to write a criticism of functionalism and multiple realizability here, but I'll have to do it later, perhaps later tonight. No time.]

> would you accept that the NCC would work properly provided only that
> the appropriate calculations could be done by some means?

It would be by means of biology/chemistry/physics, transplanted or synthesized, but I'm reluctant to call those processes "calculations". That idea is only something we want to assign to the physics of the brain. I think the brain itself is not intrinsically a calculator, and that a calculator is not intrinsically a brain. It does not follow that because I can do simple math in my head that my head is actually a digital calculator.  

As an aside, I was wondering yesterday if we might someday be able to transplant NCC tissue to repair the brains of comatose people. If Joe just died from a heart attack and Frank is in what appears to be a permanent coma, perhaps we can transplant some brain tissue from Joe to Frank without changing Frank's identity. And/or perhaps we find a way to synthesize or grow that needed tissue in the laboratory. 

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