In a new book Waking, Dreaming, Being Evan Thompson explores the many states of consciousness from the perspective of neuroscience and Eastern philosophy. Evan Thompson is the son of William Irwin Thompson, the author of At the Edge of History and founder of the Lindisfarne Association. Evan Thompson himself is also the author Mind in Life, a highly readable book on the evolutionary development of neural systems and brains. In his new book Thompson’s approach of blending science and philosophy leads to interesting speculations about whether consciousness still exists even in deep, non-dreaming sleep when physical evidence suggests it should not. Where he does not go is to speculate that consciousness might exist independently of the brain or that it might continue in some form after death.
Thompson squarely comes down on the side of those who believe that consciousness is the product of physical processes. That does not mean, however, consciousness can be reproduced in non-biological systems.
Rick Searle has a post up on Life: Inevitable or Accident? at his website Utopia or Dystopia. In it he discusses the somewhat contrasting ideas of Jeremy England and Henry Gee. I touched a little on Jeremy England in a post a few months ago.
England’s idea seems to be that the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes life inevitable. He has been quoted as saying that “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.” Really? Could we shine a light on rock and get life? Let’s me a little more generous with England’s comment. Perhaps it was taken out of context or was a bit of hyperbole. I happen to think the Second Law of Thermodynamics does have a lot to do with life and so have a great many others. The real trick is showing how injecting energy into a a group of atoms can create self-sustaining metabolism and reproduction. It may be with the right types of atoms at the right temperature, given time, life is inevitable, but showing exactly how is the difficult part. A group of scientists at Cambridge University have recently made real progress in this regard.
Gee’s ideas have more to do with the evolution of complexity. Rick Searle in his post writes: “His objective is to do away, once and for all, with what he feels is a common misconception that evolution is leading towards complexity and progress and that the highest peak of this complexity and progress is us- human beings.” I happen to think that evolution is leading towards complexity and that it might even have been leading towards something somewhat like us. My idea does not come from any belief in the supernatural but rather from how I think Nature plays the lottery.
The Edge question for 2015 is “What do you think about machines that think?”
The first two responses I read were from Sean Carroll and Nick Bostrom. I have been a long time followier of Sean Carroll blog’s Preposterous Universe and have also recently read Bostrom’s book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.
Carroll took the opportunity to revisit yet again his long running atheist argument that we can explain everything with physical law by erasing the distinction between us and machines. His response entitled “We Are All Machines That Think” really misses the point of the question, I think.
Bostrom, on the other hand, in his response “A Difficult Topic” immediately begins discussing intelligence which may or may not be the same as thinking. I had planned to write a separate post on Bostrom’s book but will touch on my issues with that book here.
Not surprising, most open-ended questions with imprecise definitions of terms generate answers using different definitions. The terms in this question with imprecise definitions are “machines” and “thinking”. I will be curious to see if other responders even care to define the terms as they provide their answers. I will explore my thoughts on those terms and what they mean to the answer of the Edge question.