Adam Ash

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Deep Thoughts: Consciousness

The World in My Mind, My Mind in the World
Key Mechanisms of Consciousness in People, Animals And Machines by Igor Aleksander
Review by Keith Harris

The World in my Mind is not presented as a philosophical book, but rather a book about the practical issues around consciousness. As the author explains, this book is about "breaking consciousness down into simpler elements to make the concept more accessible" (p. 4).

A noted researcher in the area of artificial intelligence, Aleksander's solid engineering background is evident in the straight-forward flow of this book. The author begins by directly asserting his belief that conscious machines are not only theoretically possible but will in fact be created, and will be capable of passing any test devised to refute their consciousness. This position sets the stage for the book's approach: the author's task is that of reverse-engineering consciousness (primarily but not only human consciousness).

Aleksander proposes five axioms regarding consciousness.
We are conscious of being a single entity existing in a non-self, "out-there" reality, and that we have internalized (or "depicted") this external reality;
We have a sense of continuing as a single self-entity across time (despite brief respites such as sleep and longer breaks such as a coma);
Our consciousness selectively attends to specific features of the self and non-self realities;
A primary function, perhaps the major function, of our sense of self is to decide what to do next; and
Emotions appear to be inseparable from the consciousness of our self-sense.

These axioms would not be at all unfamiliar to psychologists, of course; and each axiom leads to its own fundamental questions, which Aleksander addresses and answers. For example, how is it that when we wake in the morning our consciousness of self, which was left off when we fell asleep, resumes where it left off the night before? How are emotions generated, and what purpose do they serve? What cognitive mechanisms are involved when we distinguish self-identify from non-self?

Aleksander's position on all these questions is unquestionably materialistic. That is, he takes it as given that consciousness is the result of brain function, the product solely of the firing of neurons: "They work so fast and there are so many of them that they are credibly responsible for whatever it is that makes up our consciousness" (p. 164). Yet he also considers Chalmers ' more non-reductionist point of view carefully, finding points of distant agreement, or at least tolerance. Indeed, one of the most reader-friendly aspects of Aleksander's approach in this book is that he willingly weighs many sides of several conceptualizations of consciousness, pointing out their strengths and limitations and noting where they are consistent with his own model.

It is in tackling the so-called hard problem of consciousness (how it is that consciousness arises from neurology) that Aleksander waxes the most philosophic – in fact he begins that chapter with a warning to this effect. In this chapter he posits the following: "[P]ersonal sensation implies some brain activity and this brain activity implies the personal sensation. This, in mathematics is not a correlation it is an identity" (p. 149). By extension Aleksander is taking the position that consciousness, or at least the sensations and cognitive activities that give define it, are not only related but are identical, one and the same. This would appear to be the definitive position of the materialist/reductionist school. It would also seem to make consciousness difficult to clearly differentiate from an illusion, and as Susan Blackmore says in her review of the book, "Aleksander rejects this idea but gets into a fearful muddle in the process."

After taking the reader on an interesting journey through the positions and arguments of Chalmers, Wittgenstein and others (as they bear on Aleksander's positions), the reader may be left wondering where they have arrived at the end. The concluding paragraph of the book, however, recaps Aleksander's motivations: to give credence to the position that consciousness is not mystical or mysterious, that it can be understood in mathematical, logical and engineering terms, and that machines are therefore surely capable of achieving it.

(Keith Harris , Ph.D., is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.)


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