Wednesday, May 04, 2005


Towards Distinguishing Levels of Consciousness

In reply to Goldberg’s post on “Towards Conscious Machinery”, I will discuss herein what we might want to term conscious and, more importantly, which states of consciousness might be worth distinguishing.

Goldberg agrees to the general conjecture that we need a body and an interactive system that is able to manipulate and perceive the own body, as well as perceive manipulations by other entities in the environment. Goldberg does not agree to the need for symbolic-like representations or other further structuring capabilities for consciousness experience.

I believe that we may need to distinguish the type of consciousness we are referring to, in order to be able to further discuss, which mechanisms are mandatory for conscious experience.

For the lowest level of machine consciousness, the one we might be willing to attribute to our dog-and possibly most other mammals and potentially even birds (see e.g. a short article in Nature, 430, 414-414 (22 Jul 2004) on the social capabilities of birds), language capabilities are certainly not necessary. But it needs to be asked, which levels of consciousness are these animals able to reach and what is the fundamental difference between such probable lower-level consciousness experiences and our more expressible experiences of consciousness?

O’Regan and Noë provide a potential answer in their article A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2001, 24(5), 939-1011.
For them, feelings arise out of the sensory-motor contingencies that everybody experiences in everyday life. That is, the continuous anticipation of what may come next and the continuous experience of what did actually come next (that is, how the world changed – partially induced by our own actions) results in the experience of feelings and low-level consciousness for that matter. Clearly, such feelings then are reflected upon in dreams (including dreams in mammals and potentially birds) so that this feeling may be sufficient to be termed consciousness in the Searlean sense of "those states of sentience or awareness that typically begins when we wake up from a dreamless sleep", as Goldberg cited.

However, higher states of consciousness require more abstract processing capabilities in my opinion. As also pointed out in the above mentioned article on bird intelligence, it is probably not sufficient to be conscious and reflective without a significant social component such as the capability of distinguishing other individuals – effectively improving the interaction and overcoming an (iterated) prisoner’s dilemma by remembering and distinguishing the different interactions with others. To do so, more abstract symbolic like processing is mandatory tagging other individuals with behavioral properties. The distinction then may lead to the more concrete perception and internal representation of oneself being yet another (certainly with the very special property of selfness) individual.

Language capabilities are yet another stage in this process that enable us to gain even more abstract representations and allows us to reflect upon ourselves and our environment on much higher levels of abstraction in time (predictive) and space (object and modular oriented). Hereby, it is important that language is yet another level of abstraction – grammar emerges out of the coevolution of social language, our environment, and our brain capabilities as Deacon points out.

Nice post. I'm not sure that we disagree on fundamentals. I think the difference here is that you're being descriptive, reviewing some of the science, and I'm being prescriptive, trying to understand the minimal conditions for consciousness. As I argued for seven conditions for the emergence of recombinative innovation, I'd like to know the smallest X, such that achieving X results in the emergence of consciousness. In this minimalist designer view, speech is an add on, not an essential element.
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