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Why the “Toward a Science of Consciousness” Conference is Important to Technoprogressivism
Kris Notaro   Apr 10, 2010   Ethical Technology  

Politics, Consciousness, AI, Technoprogressivism, Transhumanism all mixed into one.

While Kristof Koch, Patricia and Paul Churchland, Daniel Dennett and the like continue to criticize the emphasis on mind (qualia/non-physicalism) over brain (Eliminative Materialism), the Hard Problem of Consciousness continues to stump psychology, biology and most brain science, respectively.  However, this Tuesday marks the beginning of a five day conference on Consciousness Studies which aims at being an informative lecture series and event for those interested in the science of consciousness, artificial intelligence and neuroscience.  People will have the opportunity to learn about the forefront of the world’s best theories of consciousness, brain, and mind.


It is very important that we understand the nature of consciousness if we are to understand the universe, ourselves, and where consciousness is going.  For example, if AI is never able to create true feelings or what philosophers call “what it is like” to experience, also referred to as “qualia”, we can infer that neural networks and brain patterns are significant enough to pose the problem that computer code cannot replicate qualia.

On top of this lies the most important questions about the workings of the universe if Eliminative Materialism is wrong. Howard Robinson articulates this point about the universe and consciousness very clearly in Edmond Wright’s book, The Case for Qualia.

“…it is accepted that physicalism gives an adequate account of non-conscious reality, which constitutes almost 100 percent of the universe, but struggles to accommodate certain features of mental life, namely the “what it’s like” or qualia of certain conscious states. These latter constitute “the hard problem” for physicalism.  The fact that they also constitute such a tiny part of the world is presented as a reason for thinking that they cannot plausibly be held to refute a unified physcialist account”

What it is like to experience is the fundamental problem with AI.  If Strong AI, in the end simply uses the same kind of patterns the brain uses to replicate qualia, we still have a problem of consciousness, we will still have to understand why it is that these patterns create experience and qualia. 

We need to understand the relationship between the brain and qualia. Assuming that qualia is real, that what it is like to experience is a real phenomena still not explained, we will have to look further into the difference between consciousness and AI, and why, in the end, if AI produces philosophical zombies then what does that mean for the Turing Test, or any test for consciousness for that matter.

Consciousness Studies is important to technoprogressive ideals because a science of consciousness will mean that we will understand the workings, the nature of, those very ideas we value so much; peace, equality, justice, and egalitarianism for brain/mind.  We are consciousness, consciousness is us, we are most familiar with consciousness then we are of anything else in this world, and having a coherent science of it will not only allow us to understand ourselves, but will also help us understand the nature of intersubjectivity. To me this will aid in our struggle for a technoprogressive future, a future where understanding ourselves and the universe works as the leading tool for progressive change.

Further Reading:

The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers: Amazon
Neurophilosophy by Patricia Churchland: Amazon
The Case for Qualia by Edmond Wright: Amazon
Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes: Amazon
Transhumanism: Amazon




Kris Notaro served as Managing Director of the IEET from 2012 to 2015. He is currently an IEET Rights of the Person Program Director. He earned his BS in Philosophy from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Society’s Vice-President for Website Technology. He has worked with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing multimedia materials related to philosophy and ethics for classroom use. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.


I’d only want to point out that the existence of a ‘hard problem’ is debatable, hinging as it is on the interpretation a few philosophical thought experiments. For example, if, as some argue, phenomenal content is a species of representational content, then the hard problem collapses into the easy problem.

Nice use of the Cartesian theater in the promotional.

I heard of this through the Julian Jaynes society (yes, bicameralists will be in attendance also). Wish I could go. REALLY, REALLY hoping for a podcast or something to come out of this.

David, If representationalism can explain how phenomenal qualitative characters are produced simply by neurons doing their job, then yes, it would be an easy problem.

Yet, what is representation other then experiencing your own neural patterns? Representationalism falls apart once one performs several strong thought experiments such as possible worlds where properties are different but what is experienced is the same, and that’s just the beginning of more then a handful of arguments against representationalism alone, nevermind the immense amount of arguments out there supporting qualia.

William, the conference has their own media team which will be releasing it after.  I know, that would be nice though!

Kris: Well there are various theories of mental representation: teleofunctionalism (Dretske, Millikan), conceptual role semantics (Block), informational (causal-co-variance) theories (Fodor) and interpretationist theories (Dennett). The representational content of a mental state is some feature of that state which fixes its intentional content. For example, according to Fodor’s asymmetric causal dependence theory the content of a state means ‘cat’ if cats cause that state to be tokened and non-cats would not cause it to be tokened were not for the fact that cats do (crucially accounting for the possibility of mis-representation)

Representational content need not be experiential since we can represent occurrences in our environment without being conscious of so doing. The job of a representationalist theory of consciousness is to account for the difference between non-conscious and conscious representation.

The possible world scenarios - e.g. Zombies -  you are referring to pretty much presuppose what they set out to demonstrates: that the phenomenal content of a state can vary independently of its intentional content (we can trade intuitions till the cows come home naturally).

Speaking from a wholly philosophical point of view

These sensations associated with qualia may be less metaphysical and less complex in nature than we may be obliged to imagine? Perhaps qualia is merely a more subtle form of synesthesia, at least as far as experience and where memories of “what it is like” to see the redness of red, or feel the softness of fur etc are concerned for example.

It may not be important at all for an A.I system to experience sensations in the form of qualia, so why sweat over it? It may even appear as beneficial if an A.I system did not experience qualia, or any feelings or emotions at all, although we may presume that any artificial general intelligence may pursue these experiences or even form them as a natural consequence of its own “self-awareness”?

It may also appear that qualia and the “hard” problems associated with consciousness would only apply where we contemplate uploading memories and “self” identity to a different substrate. In which case it would be highly desirable to simulate these feelings or qualia, and “what it is like’ to contemplate how red these new perceptions are as compared with our past memories.

Perhaps the most practicable way to overcome these problems associated with qualia and uploading would be to engineer a direct symbiotic connection between an existing brain and mind, (and its sensations of qualia), linked to a machine interface or memory substrate. Here at least we can speculate that qualia will be preserved and that the “hard” problems and the solutions associated with these problems may be avoided in these early days.

Uploading the mind to a machine or artificial substrate without qualia may not be desirable, (for us), yet if simulation of redness or softness can be organised to stimulate sensation via an algorithm in a dissimilar way, would this in fact really matter to us at all? Or would it only really matter with regard to the persistence of our past memories of perceptions? In which case we may have to renew our perceptions completely from afresh, yet this would be a small price to pay as long as wisdom and intellect and knowledge are preserved? Here a new methodology would be applied to simulate red and redness via direct coding and mind stimulus, and qualia would be unnecessary?

The mind is highly adaptable, and even now we may speculate that if we transferred our brains to vats, that irrespective of any sensations of qualia, the consciousness and the mind and most importantly the intellect would still persist. And these are ultimately the most important attributes of “Self” which are necessary, without these there would be no qualia to contemplate anyhow?

Qualia is a concern for the AI researcher, the philosopher, and the neuroscientist because of several core reasons. A basic AI programmer need not worry about producing qualia in the sense of consciousness; a robotic arm working on cars will not become conscious like we are. 

However, the Strong AI researcher, that is, someone who is trying to create a neural network or the like to replicate features of the human mind, may actually create a network of patterns so similar to brain patterns that qualia is produced or utilized in a philosophical sense : and most possibility can reach human level consciousness.  For the philosopher and neuroscientist the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) represent the basic workings of animal and human qualia, consciousness, and brain. 

When the neural correlates of consciousness are well understood what we are left with is an issue of what these patterns relationship with qualia truly are.  Mind uploading will probably be possible, but I still don’t see any answers to the hard problem of consciousness and its place in a purely physicalist account of the world. 

Politically this conference is an extension of older philosophy put into a new light and direction. Ethically this conference is important because, like many other modern conferences on science, it provides a dialogue about where we are heading as a species.  Consciousness studies is at the forefront of a new scientific worldview like many other fields.

Here are some more links regarding consciousness studies..

Online papers on Consciousness >>

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