We feel that our consciousness is the very essence of our existence. The quality of life of each of us is just a matter of the particular content of that consciousness.
But what is consciousness, what is its content, and how did its content arise? The first of these questions, what is consciousness, seems to be inscrutable. Some of the content seems to be hard to describe and some straightforward. And there is a lot of complex argument about all of this.
I will try to untangle the matter by assuming that there are basic elements called data, and that the content of consciousness can, after a series of steps, be ultimately described in terms of data. You might say that the concept of data is just part of the content of our consciousness, so this might be a circular argument. I will come back to that later.
Some of what I say will sound like common knowledge. And some of what I say may challenge your concepts or definitions relating to data, information, meaning, intelligence and consciousness.
The word data is the plural of the Latin word datum, i.e., a datum is one item of data. Each datum is a representation (or a symbol) of something. What does “being a representation of something” mean? If we want to refer to something, or to find a way to remember something, it is often convenient or efficient to use something simpler, such as a particular mark or a particular sound, etc., to represent it. Written or spoken words represent something, so they are data. To use data it is necessary to remember each representation and what it represents, and to be able to distinguish that from other things and their representations. The word data is used as both a plural and a singular noun.
Data can represent anything that can be sensed, thought about or imagined.
Information is a group of data whose members seem to have some relationship to each other. Often the relationship is obvious, e.g., a series of letters that spell a word. Sometimes an analysis may be needed to detect relationships in a collection of data and to show the way the members are related. The term data mining refers to the analysis of huge quantities of stored data to see what kinds of relationships or associations, that is, what kinds of information, are able to be detected.
The terms data and information are often used interchangeably.
The representations that constitute data and information can be in almost any medium and in almost any form. However, the particular medium and form need to suit the purposes for which the representation is being made. Here is an example.
The vibrating vocal cords of a person speaking produce speech sounds, which are vibrations in the form of very small compressions and rarefactions in the air. The pattern of vibrations comprises a series of data, whose members are associated with each other as a representation of the speech. So they are a form of information.
These vibrations are propagated to the surrounding area.
A nearby microphone responds to the vibrations and generates an electric current whose variations correspond to the pressure variations of the speech sounds. In other words, the microphone has detected the information. The electric current now contains the information and it is passed to a CD (compact disk) burner.
The CD burner converts the patterns of electric variations into markings under the transparent surface of a plastic disc. This has now stored (or recorded) the speech information onto the disc.
This information stored on the disc can be "read", that is, a reproduction of the speech sounds can be provided, by a CD player. In this machine a laser beam is shone onto the disc. As the disc rotates, each successive marking on the disc, that is, each stored unit of information is successively illuminated by the beam. The laser beams are reflected by the markings on the disc. A light-sensitive device converts the patterns of the reflected laser beams into a correspondingly varying electric current.
Then the electric current is fed into a loudspeaker, which converts the electrical symbols into sound vibrations in the air.
The ears of any listeners detect the vibrations and convert them into electrochemical symbols in the neurons of the listeners’ brains. The listeners’ brains interpret these symbols into the “message” conveyed by the person who spoke at the beginning of this sequence. If the listeners remember any of what they heard, then the remembered information is now stored in the networks that comprise the short-term memory of their brains.
So in this example the same piece of information has appeared in a range of different media.
And now we come to the next step: what do we mean by the word meaning?
The word meaning has several connotations. Sometimes meaning could be the equivalent of the word intending. Sometimes it can imply significance. The term the meaning of life could signify some purpose that someone might feel destined to serve. But then, the meaning of life might alternatively be a definition of the characteristics that make living organisms different from inanimate objects. So the meaning of a piece of information can sometimes be its definition, or a description, which itself is a piece of information.
As I implied earlier, the meaning of a single symbol is just the thing it represents. If I write the numeral 5 or say the word cat, you will know the meanings of these two symbols if you can recognise written numbers and speak English. If I write three symbols, the letters c, a, and t, you will recognise some relationships between them. They are all letters of the alphabet and they spell the word cat. So they comprise a piece of information, and if you can read English you will know that the meaning of this information is certain kind of animal.
Coming back to my statement that a definition can be a meaning, one definition of life is that living organisms have distinctive characteristics: a metabolism, regeneration, a life cycle and interaction with their environment. And what is the meaning of that piece of information, you may ask.
In plainer English it means that living organisms:
- take in food and energy and process it
-- in order to grow from infant to adult and stay alive,
-- and to produce eggs or babies from within their bodies to bring about the next generation,
- and they also interact with their environment
-- to get the food, etc, that they need,
-- and to try to keep safe from natural hazards and predators.
And at last here is an understandable meaning: that life means the capability to perform this collection of processes.
These examples show that for any piece of information to be “meaningful”, we have to know something about what it refers to. Sometimes we might not know enough to understand exactly what is meant. Then we need more information, until we come to whatever is actually being referred to. So the meaning of any piece of information is just whatever it represents, even when it represents another piece of information.
To one person a collection of data may have no meaning but to another person it is meaningful. Also, different people may put different meanings to a particular piece of information. This happens because different people know different sorts of things. Or in other words, the information that each already has is different.
This concept of meaning, applying to a single datum and to larger pieces of information, is so simple that it might seem to be either wrong or trivial, but I think it is neither.
Intelligence is the act or capability of processing information. To be specific, intelligence relates to one or more of the processes of producing information, and of detecting, recording, recalling, reasoning, analysing, calculating, imagining and deciding about it.
Processing of information can occur in both living organisms, and in inanimate objects such as computers, burglar alarms and mousetraps. Intelligence can be “built in” (i.e., provided during the assembly of the physical structure) and it can be “learnt”, as an addition to the already available information, and consequently to the intelligence. This applies to both organisms and appropriately designed devices. With organisms, we sometimes refer to built-in intelligence as instinct.
A mousetrap has only built-in intelligence. It “detects” the mouse when the mouse’s nibbling or its weight moves a particular part of the trap in some particular way. This single bit of information is “processed” by the release of a spring that sends a thick wire crashing down onto the mouse. A trap like this has a minimal amount of intelligence.
All intelligent devices and all organisms operate using systems built out of units of mechanical, electrical, magnetic or chemical intelligence.
Every organism, from its beginning to its death, is the product of the processing of the information of its DNA, in conjunction with the information of the rest of its body and of the relevant parts of its environment. This processing occurs at every level of complexity up to and beyond its entire body. All this processing comprises the intelligence of the organism. So intelligence is just a representation of the operation of the laws of nature. And this applies to all processes, both organic and inorganic, throughout the universe.
The result of any physical process is some kind of physical change. The result of any processing of information is some kind of change of information, and this change is the representation of the relevant material change.
So intelligence could be thought of as referring not only to the handling of information, but also to the representation of the operation of the laws of nature. And, putting this the other way round, all natural processes are manifestations of intelligence.
Some people will insist that acts of intelligence can occur only in brains. But if you can accept that brains, whose processes are produced by natural forces, are intelligent, why would you not accept also that computers, and dishwashers and mousetraps, and a rushing river that picks up sand and pebbles and deposits them downstream, and the eruption of a volcano, and the melting of a block of ice, and all other natural processes are intelligent?
And now we have reached consciousness.
Consciousness is described as awareness, or feeling, or experiencing or subjectivity. And as I said at the beginning, it seems to be the essence of our being. It may also be the totality of our being
Consciousness may be:
* merely being aware;
* being aware of something;
* being aware of existing as an entity;
* being aware of processes;
* being aware of abstract ideas;
* or feeling emotion.
This means that, even including emotion, consciousness is being aware of some form of information.
All these things comprise the content of consciousness.
There is another way of classifying consciousness. The everyday kind is when we are awake and everything is “normal”.
Conditions of “semi-consciousness” occur when someone is “not quite asleep” but not dreaming. Dreaming is a kind of consciousness at a time when we are asleep and not aware of our surroundings. Some people can have “controlled dreaming” when they are sufficiently awake to direct what they are dreaming. People in deep meditation claim to reach “higher levels” of consciousness. Certain experiences that are usually regarded to be abnormal (such as hearing voices that other, “normally functioning”, people cannot hear), and states caused by “mind-altering” – or should that be “brain-altering” – drugs and activities, are other aspects of consciousness. All of these together comprise what we consider to be our personal identity.
Consciousness is often thought of as being the same as the mind. But the term unconscious mind suggests that consciousness and mind are not identical and that mind may have wider connotations, involving both consciousness and unconscious intelligence.
The unconscious mind is part of the operation of the brain in conjunction with other organs. And consciousness is intimately related to the brain’s information and intelligence.
The intelligence of the unconscious mind can perform tasks without our feeling or experiencing them. A lot of these are the “housekeeping” functions of regulating the operations of the body. The unconscious mind also directs the very complex muscular processes of the activities that we can do, without having to think about how we are doing them, such as walking, writing, touch typing, and playing sport. These activities involve the coordination of muscles in many parts of the body with the inputs from the eyes, ears and other sensory organs. At the same time the conscious mind is occupied with the less complex objectives of these actives, such as where we are going, what are we writing or typing, or where to hit the tennis ball.
At any one time we are conscious of only a small amount of all the things that we are able to become conscious of. None of us is immediately aware of everything in our memory. But we recall (i.e., become aware of) specific parts of memory, either intentionally or spontaneously.
All the contents of human consciousness seem to be dependent on the corresponding conditions of the brain. So, since our brains are the builders of all the content of our consciousness, then consciousness, whatever it is and however it occurs, must be just an observer, even though we usually feel that it is the active agent. The processing, that is, the intelligence, takes place in the brain. Since the content of consciousness is a series of representations, it is information.
The processes by which information and intelligence occur in the brain can be demonstrated, and explained, in physical terms. But there is neither evidence nor any suggested physical process of how consciousness could be produced. The information and the processing in the brain are digital, but consciousness has the flavour of being analogue. That is, brains represent everything as arrangements of connections between brain cells, but what we see and feel, etc., in our consciousness as a result of these connections resembles what we think the world is actually like.
Also, we can measure the information content and the processing capability of computers. We can also measure them in brains, although much less precisely because of practical difficulties. But while we can recognise degrees and intensity of consciousness, for example of pain or of anger, there is no objective way of measuring it.
We are unable to experience other people’s consciousness, and we can only infer that other people actually have consciousness. This inference is made by recognising peoples’ actions and facial expressions, etc. And people say “I feel happy, angry, astonished”, etc., and “my leg hurts”. And since we are so similar to everyone else, and we are conscious of being conscious, we would need good reason to assume that humans generally were not conscious. However, with other humans we can only assume that what they actually experience is similar to what we experience.
Some dogs act as if they recognise that people are sad or angry, etc., so we may infer that dogs are conscious. And we extend that to other species. But, given that not all human information and intelligence leads to consciousness, what criteria would allow us to conclude whether, for example, cockroaches, fungi, plants or bacteria, are conscious. It would be hard to know which things they were conscious of and which things they did unconsciously.
And what about computers? To be able to experience pain, sight and other sensory feelings, computers would first need to get information from appropriate sensory organs. Computers can have video cameras and microphones, etc., but that is not enough for consciousness. Some other functionality would be needed. But until we knew how consciousness could arise out of any physical arrangement we would be unable to predict whether an inanimate device could actually experience anything.
Many people would say that consciousness makes us do, or enables us to do, what would be unlikely or impossible without it. They quote pain that keeps us safe. They quote the other senses that we enjoy and that make life richer. They quote ambition, empathy, love and other emotions. And they quote insight, imagination and inventiveness.
But all of these impulses come from the brain and can be stimulated and suppressed by interfering with the processes of the brain. Examples of such interference are drugs, such as alcohol, hallucinogens, and anaesthetics, and also magnetic and electric stimulation and suppression. The unconscious brain already seems to have everything needed for all the urges that we attribute to consciousness.
Sometimes it is claimed that consciousness is necessary for there to be meaning, so could a presumably unconscious computer derive meaning from a piece of information? I think it could.
People tell computers what to do by writing programs (that is, information) using “high level” computer languages. A high level language is one that has some similarity with human language. The actual operations of computers are conducted by programs in low level “machine” languages, suited to the technologies of the computers. And there are other programs that translate between the high and the low.
So if there is an instruction telling a computer to perform a particular task under particular conditions at a particular time, the computer would be able to derive the meaning of the instruction and perform the task that the programmer meant it to do. And the range of tasks that computers can perform is very wide. Of course to derive meaning, a computer – as with a person – needs to already have the appropriate information. That is why, when you connect a new type of attachment to a computer, you need also to put the relevant information into the computer in the form a computer program so that the computer will “know the meaning” of what the new application is telling it to do.
Many people would say that meaning is much more than that. For humans, meaning often does seem to be a lot more, because we have much bigger brains and a wider range of inputs. But is that a difference of degree or of kind? I think this is only a difference of degree. But I am not saying that the computer feels that it understands the meaning of the instruction.
I would say that, while I have described meaning (and data, information, and intelligence) as all being aspects of material processes, consciousness feels very different from just a material process. For example, we don’t like to accept that our feelings of amazement and awe, when we suddenly come upon a magnificent scene, are nothing more than a rearrangement of the connections between neurons in our brains.
But many people do think that consciousness is produced by the brain, and they refer to various tests to support this view. Activity within specific areas of the brain can be detected in conjunction with associated kinds of consciousness. Also, there are particular areas in the brain that become active when someone is performing a particular task and thinking about what they are doing, but these areas are not active when the person is performing the same task without thinking about it. And many tests have demonstrated that such things as making decisions, and recognising inputs from the senses, occur in the brain before the person becomes conscious of them.
But while all this information that is contained in the brain can be explained by the patterns of connections between neurons, there is as yet no way of explaining the nature of consciousness in terms of neural patterns. There is as yet no way of explaining how any material system could produce consciousness.
Well, that was the chain of development from data to consciousness, but I think that there are still three issues:
* is consciousness necessary before we could have had the initial concept of data, which would mean that all this has not been a well-founded structure but just a circular argument?
* is my argument unduly biased towards materialism?
* and is consciousness a material process?
Since everything that is in our consciousness depends on the information contained in our brains, the concept of data (and of consciousness, etc.) does not depend on consciousness but on the information already in the brain. And this information is derived from the various inputs that human brains have collectively gathered and processed over the ages. So the sequence from data to consciousness is not self-referencing.
And not only is consciousness an outcome of this representative chain starting with data, it is also an outcome of the more tangible chain starting with actual phenomena in the outside world. Material phenomena created our brains and our sensory organs. Material phenomena stimulate our sensory organs, which send information to our brains and this is then sometimes experienced as consciousness.
As for the second issue, the point of view of this talk has indeed been mainly materialistic, and it could make us feel that we are just machines. But I think it is logical and based on the available evidence.
But I also made clear that there is as yet neither evidence nor any viable suggested physical process of how consciousness could be produced. And consciousness feels so unlike the tangible realities of the material world. So I think the idea that consciousness is non-material is still a possibility. However, I have no idea of what such a non-material entity would be like or how it might produce consciousness.
So what I have just outlined in this talk is probably the closest we can get with present-day science to account for what I have called the essence of our existence.
And yet, I wonder whether the unconscious mind is also a part of our being, perhaps the greater part.
Presentation to The Melbourne Philosophy Forum, February 7, 2016