The cognitive short-circuit of 'artificial consciousness'

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

The new sci-fi film Ex_Machina has been teasing back into the cultural dialogue dreams of artificial consciousness: the idea that we humans, through the Faustian power of technology, can birth into being mechanisms capable of inner life, subjectivity and affection. Since these dreams are entirely based on implicit assumptions about the nature of consciousness and reality at large, I thought a few observations would be opportune.

The first thing to notice is the difference between artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness. The former entails the ability to process information in ways that we consider intelligent. In particular, an intelligent machine should be capable of constructing an internal, symbolic representation of its environment so to interact coherently with it. We can test whether a machine is intelligent or not purely by observing its behavior in the environment. Alan Turing's famous test aims precisely at that. However, none of the symbolic information processing in an intelligent machine needs to be accompanied by inner experience. It can all happen totally 'in the dark.' As such, an intelligent machine is, for all intents and purposes, simply a glorified calculator. There isn't anything it is like to be the machine.

In conscious machines, on the other hand, the idea is that those internal calculations are accompanied by subjective inner experience, or inner life. In other words, there must be something it feels like, from the point of view of the machine itself, to perform the calculations. This is a whole different ballgame than mere artificial intelligence. Moreover, there is absolutely no way to definitively test whether a machine is conscious or not, since all we can ever hope to access is its architecture and behavior. Short of becoming the machine at least for a brief moment, we cannot know whether there is anything it is like to be it.

What makes so many computer engineers believe in the possibility of artificial consciousness? Let us deconstruct and make explicit their chain of reasoning.

They start by making – whether they are aware of it or not – certain key assumptions about the nature of consciousness and reality. To speak of creating consciousness in a machine one must assume consciousness to be, well, 'creatable.' Something can only be created if it wasn't there in the first place. In other words, engineers assume that consciousness isn't the primary aspect of reality, but a secondary effect generated by particular arrangements of matter. Matter itself is assumed to exist outside and independent of consciousness.

Next, they imagine that if they can mimic, in a machine, the particular flow of information characteristic of our own brains, then the machine will be conscious like us. This is best exemplified by the work of Pentti Haikonen, who devised what is probably the cleverest machine architecture so far aimed at artificial consciousness [Haikonen, P. O. (2003). The Cognitive Approach to Conscious Machines. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic]. In my book Rationalist Spirituality I summarized Haikonen's work as follows:
His greatest insight has been that the human brain is but a correlation-finding and association-performing engine. All the brain does is to try and find correlations between mental symbols of perception and capture these correlations in symbol associations performed by neurons. In his artificial “brain”, these associations are performed by artificial associative neurons. All symbols in Haikonen’s artificial brain architecture are ultimately linked, perhaps through a long series of associations, to perceptual signals from sensory mechanisms. This grounds all symbol associations to perceived things and events of the external world, which gives those associations their semantic value. In this framework, the explanations derived by the brain are just a series of symbol associations linking two past events. The predictions derived by the brain are just extrapolated symbol association chains. (Page 48.)
There are, however, many problems and internal contradictions in the engineers' reasoning. For instance, for Haikonen's machine to be conscious there must already be, from the start, a basic form of consciousness inherent in the basic components of the machine. Although he talks of 'creating' consciousness, what he proposes is actually a system for accruing and complexifying consciousness: by linking bits of matter in complex ways, the 'bits of consciousness' supposedly inherent in them are associated together so to build up a complex subjective inner life comparable to yours or mine. Naturally, for this to work it must be the case that there are these 'bits of consciousness' already inherent in every bit of matter, otherwise nothing accrues: you can associate zeros with zeros all you like, at the end you will still be left with precisely zero. So unless consciousness is a property of every bit of matter – a highly problematic philosophical position called panpsychism – all those symbol associations in Haikonen's architecture won't be accompanied by experience, no matter how complex the machine. Haikonen will perhaps have built an intelligent machine, but not a conscious one.

Notice that panpsychism – the notion that all matter is conscious – entails, for instance, that your home thermostat is conscious. Allegedly it has a very simple form of consciousness incomparable to mine or yours, but nonetheless there is still something it is like to be your home thermostat. The same applies to your vacuum cleaner, your ballpoint pen, the chair you're sitting on, a rock, etc. Literally everything is supposedly conscious under panpsychism, having its own private, subjective inner life. As I wrote in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney,
The problem with panpsychism is, of course, that there is precisely zero evidence that any inanimate object is conscious. To resolve an abstract, theoretical problem of the materialist metaphysics one is forced to project onto the whole of nature a property – namely, consciousness – which observation only allows to be inferred for a tiny subset of it – namely, living beings. This is, in a way, an attempt to make nature conform to theory, as opposed to making theory conform to nature. (Page 19)
Insofar as we have no empirical reason to believe that a rock is conscious to any degree whatsoever, we have no reason to believe that Haikonen's machine is conscious. You see, the mere mimicking, in a computer, of the type of information processing that unfolds in the human brain is no reason whatsoever to believe that the computer is conscious. Here is a rather dramatic analogy to make my point clear: I can simulate in a computer all the chemical reactions that take place in human kidneys. Yet, this is no reason to believe that the computer will start peeing on my desk. A simulation of the phenomenon isn't the phenomenon.

Some argue that panpsychism isn't necessary to validate the possibility of artificial consciousness. They argue that consciousness is a property only of the brain as a whole, somehow created by its complex network of information associations, not of individual bits of matter. Indeed, as discussed in my book Brief Peeks Beyond,
Some neuroscientists and philosophers speculate that consciousness is an ‘emergent’ property of the brain. ‘Emergence’ happens when a higher-level property arises from complex interactions of lower-level entities. For instance, the fractal patterns of snowflakes are emergent properties of complex interactions of water molecules. But to merely state that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain is rather a cop-out than an explanation. In all known cases of emergence, we can deduce the emergent property from the characteristics of the lower-level entities that give rise to it. For instance, we can deduce the fractal shape of snowflakes from the characteristics of water molecules. We can even accurately simulate the formation of snowflakes in a computer. However, we cannot – not even in principle – deduce what it feels to see red, to be disappointed or to love someone from the mass, charge or momentum of material particles making up the brain. As such, to consider consciousness an emergent property of brains is either an appeal to magic or the mere labeling of an unknown. In both cases, precisely nothing is actually explained. (Page 59)
Again, we have no reason to believe that computers can give rise to consciousness; only to intelligence.

Already available on amazon!

The biggest problem with the notion of artificial consciousness is the assumption that, in nature, consciousness is somehow subordinate to matter. Otherwise, what sense would there be in attempting to create human-like consciousness by engineering matter? Indeed, under panpsychism, consciousness is seen as just one of many properties of matter, like mass, charge, momentum, etc. Matter is allegedly primary, consciousness being just a property of matter. Under the emergentist hypothesis just discussed, consciousness is seen as an epiphenomenon of matter: an emerging secondary effect of particular arrangements of atoms in the brain, just like a snowflake is an emerging secondary effect of particular arrangements of water molecules. Yet, if we are true and honest to the most basic fact of existence, we must grant that consciousness is primary, not subordinate to matter. Again from Brief Peeks Beyond:
Consciousness – whatever it may intrinsically be – is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure. It is the one undeniable empirical fact of existence. After all, what can we really know that isn’t experienced in some form, even if only through instrumentation or the reports of others? If something is fundamentally beyond all forms of experience, direct or indirect, it might as well not exist. Because all knowledge resides in consciousness, we cannot know what is supposedly outside consciousness; we can only infer it through our capacity for abstraction. (Page 12)
In my work, I propose a coherent and rigorous philosophical system wherein all aspects of reality are explained as excitations of consciousness, consciousness itself being the primary, fundamental medium of all existence. If that is the case, there is absolutely no sense in talking about creating consciousness, since consciousness is already there from the start. It is what there is. It can't be created for it is that within which all creations unfold.

According to my system, reality unfolds in one stream of subjectivity that I call 'mind-at-large.' We, human beings, are merely dissociated alters of mind-at-large, much in the same way that a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder has multiple, disjoint, apparently separate personalities. We seem to share the same reality because the empirical world is merely what collective mental processes, unfolding outside our individual alter in the broader stream of mind-at-large, look like from our dissociated perspective. In other words, the world is an image: the experiential perception by an alter of mental processes outside the alter. I summarized this idea in an earlier, short essay that I encourage you to peruse.

As such, what we call 'conscious entities' are merely dissociated alters of mind-at-large. An image of that dissociation is a human body. And insofar as we have empirical reason to infer that other animals are also conscious in ways similar to ourselves – that is, insofar as they also have private, subjective inner lives – their bodies, too, are images of this cosmic dissociation. Going further down the chain of biological complexity, it isn't unreasonable to infer that metabolism itself – that process common to all life – is the most basic image of dissociative processes in mind-at-large.

Therefore, our feeble attempts to engineer an entity with a private, subjective inner life similar to our own aren't really attempts to create consciousness. Instead, they are attempts to induce dissociation in mind-at-large, so to create alters analogous to ourselves.

Based on this understanding, do we have any reason whatsoever to believe that the mere mimicking of the information flow in human brains, no matter how accurate, will ever lead to a new dissociation of mind-at-large? The answer to this question can only be 'yes' if you think the kidney simulation can make the computer urinate. You see, if the only known image of dissociation is metabolism – that is, life – the only reasonable way to go about artificially creating an alter of mind-at-large is to replicate metabolism itself. For all practical purposes, dissociation is metabolism; there is no reason to believe it is anything else. As such, the quest for artificial consciousness is, in fact, one and the same with the quest for creating life from non-life; or abiogenesis.

The computer engineer's dream of birthing a conscious child into the world without the messiness and fragility of life is an infantile delusion; a confused, partial, distorted projection of archetypal images and drives. It is the expression of the male's hidden aspiration for the female's divine power of creation. It represents a confused attempt to transcend the deep-seated fear of one's own nature as a living, breathing entity condemned to death from birth. It embodies a misguided and utterly useless search for the eternal, motivated only by one's amnesia of one's own true nature. The fable of artificial consciousness is the imaginary bandaid sought to cover the engineer's wound of ignorance.

I have been this engineer.


  1. Very nice article, but once again, the problem of doing things too much on one's own. Where in the world have you thought of looking for "evidence" of consciousness in the physical world? in philosophy books? In books on artificial intelligence? In the world of non-knowing that goes by the name of "science" (not what I would call "science" - which one would think has something to do with understanding!)

    One would go to a "scientist" who has undertaken a discipline FAR beyond what any of the engineers that have in the past 150 years or so misappropriated the name "scientist" have done.

    Here is an example - the first is from a psychiatrist, my friend Matthijs, then a quotation from Sri Aurobindo on the universal physical consciousness:

    Each plane of our being—mental, vital, physical—has its own consciousness, separate though interconnected and interacting; but to our outer mind and sense, in our waking experience, they are all confused together. The body, for instance, has its own consciousness and acts from it, even without any mental will of our own or even against that will, and our surface mind knows very little about this body-consciousness, feels it only in an imperfect way, sees only its results and has the greatest difficulty in finding out their causes. It is part of the yoga to become aware of this separate consciousness of the body, to see and feel its movements and the forces that act upon it from inside or outside and to learn how to control and direct it even in its most hidden and (to us) subconscient processes. But the body-consciousness itself is only part of the individualized physical consciousness in us, which we gather and build out of the secretly conscious forces of universal physical nature.

    (From Sri Aurobindo): There is the universal physical consciousness of nature and there is our own which is a part of it, moved by it, and used by the central being for the support of its expression in the physical world and for a direct dealing with all these external objects and movements and forces. This physical consciousness-plane receives from the other planes their powers and influences and makes formations of them in its own province. Therefore we have a physical mind as well as a vital mind and the mind proper; we have a vital-physical part in us—the nervous being—as well as the vital proper; and both are largely conditioned by the gross material bodily part which is almost entirely subconscient to our experience.
    (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 347)

    1. Hi Don,
      I am not as well-read in Eastern philosophy as you are, but I would resist being portrayed as someone doing things on his own. I've dedicated my life to building up a reasonable background in (mostly Western) philosophy and science! :P Moreover, in the recent past, partly inspired by your initial comments to me, I have been in contact with a number of modern thinkers, including Advaita ones, discussing a range of things. So I am not really operating in a vacuum.
      Not sure what motivated the part about my looking for evidence for consciousness in the physical world. I see the 'physical world' as a phenomenon of and in consciousness. Looking for evidence in it for me means looking for the presence of 'alters.' For that there is indeed plenty of indirect evidence, as I discuss in Chapter 3 of Why Materialism Is Baloney.
      It only makes me happy that know that I write seems to echo the writings of Eastern sages of ages past. I do think, however, that there is value in conveying the message through modern, more up-to-date metaphors without the tinge of religion.
      Cheers, B.

    2. Hi bernardo – as usual, even though I feel I may have been too curt or abrubt, I guess I don’t need to apologize. So, moving on:>))

      I’m not sure what you thought about what I wrote about consciousness associated with physical things, like thermometers. Yes, the physical word is a phenomenon of and in consciousness. Plenty of indirect evidence, yes, but I’m talking about direct evidence. It requires a discipline that has been known around the world, not just in the East, but in every culture, and present today. I do realize you’ve been in contact with a number of modern thinkers, including Advaitic ones. Perhaps you might when you have a chance (yes, I know, in your “abundant” free time:>))) look at Alan Wallace’s work. He’s been writing quite explicitly about this (in very modern time without any tinge of religion) since 1989, and as far as I am aware, he still is quite deserving of the title leading “contemplative scientist” in the world. So he would be a good one to check up on.

      Also, keep in mind, since you are now in touch with modern day Advaitic folks, there’s no reason to assume that non-religious Indian philosophic terminology that is quite current (not only in India but in the writings of such physicists as Henry Stapp as well as a number of the “founders” of quantum physics) necessarily represents“the past”.

    3. Good points, Don. Several people pointed me to Wallace now, so may it's time for me to look...

  2. Also, the image of a dissociated alter of mind at large is a particularly creepy metaphor. You really should investigate what other people have done along these lines.

    1. Creepy?! I find it highly evocative.

    2. I once came across a book that attempted to trace the roots of Christianity to Egyptian religious thought (quite successfully, imo). It is called The Lost Light by Alvin Boyd Kuhn. In that book is the suggestion that the gods intentionally cut themselves to pieces (dissociate) in order to give rise to our world. (Recall Osiris being cut to bits but restored into a higher form by Isis.) The game is to make it back to wholeness, to recollect all of the individual "alters" back into themselves and become a whole consciousness again. The theophagy of Christianity (eating the body of Christ, drinking the blood of Christ) stems from this, although in quite mangled form to suit the political expediency of the quite cruder Roman Empire.

      There is also a line in Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine that has always haunted me, "...on the day of come be with us.", that seems to line up with these notions.

      When I look around nature, I see holarchies everywhere (Koestler's word for a hierarchy of holons, things that include but transcend the lower levels, like cells/molecules/atoms). I cannot help but feeling that there are similar holarchies in Mind-at-Large, and it is more likely that we are in fact whirlpools within whirlpools within whirlpools. How many levels up or down is anyone's guess. I just don't happen to believe it is likely that we in this incarnation are only one step (death or enlightenment) removed from Mind-at-Large.

      So a possible better metaphor is that some level of Mind-at-Large intentionally dissociates itself into the lower levels of creation, to experience all that can be experienced on that level.

  3. Very good. Can we say true artificial "self awareness" will never occur? No. But, we can say the scientific assumptions underlying it are false. Can we say a whirlpool can never create a stream? No. But, the scientific assumptions underlying it are false.

    As Bernardo eloquently says, The whirlpool is the localization of the stream, not the other way around. You need a stream to have a whirlpool, but you don't need a whirlpool to have a stream. You understand.

    I've always thought the Turing Test was silly as a test of consciousness. Maybe okay as a test of "intelligence" which isn't the same as self awareness. If you really want a test of A.I. consciousness try hypnotism. Hypnotism requires consciousness as far as we know. Show me a machine that can be spontaneously hypnotised (without programming imitation) and I'm all ears. Show me a machine with (unprogrammed) spontaneous REM EEG activity and then let's talk about A.I. consciousness. Until then it's just more wishful, materialist pseudo-science.

    1. One last thought. There will inevitably be A.I. much more intelligent than humans during this century for the first time in human history, especially after quantum computing becomes advanced.

      So, my concern is not so much with a "conscious" A.I.. Rather, I sometimes ponder the implications of an "unconscious" A.I. far more intelligent than us. Just a thought.

    2. Interesting idea about hypnotism, John! As for strong AI, I wouldn't worry much. I suspect much of the creative power of humans arises from non-local sources (the stream, not the whirlpool) emerging through intuition, not mere calculation. I say this as someone who worked on the problem for years.

    3. It seems to me that consciousness goes hand in hand with a sense of "caring about oneself"/desire to exist/to survive. Schopenhauer believed that the "Thing-in-itself" (the stream, in Bernardo's metaphor) is in its essence pure "Will" (Will-to-Live). I don't see how anything which does not emerge from the stream "organically", as a tangible/material expression of this primordial Will, could ever care about its own existence. Though the whirlpool is the product of a process of dissociation from the Stream, it still "wants to be" (metabolism is the image of this dissociated will). What we can put together can function as a simulation of life but will lack this metaphysical origin beyond the material plane and will therefore not care about whether it exists or not. A crucial difference, if compared with life as we know it (including plants/viruses etc).

    4. Interesting ideas, anonymous. I am not so certain about the identity between consciousness and the will to self-preservation, but I am open-minded about it. I do recognize empirical evidence in its favor, since all forms of life we know seem to have an intrinsic instinct of survival.

  4. My ideas of AI have changed recently, thanks to you. I need to explain a little bit first.

    I used to think that AI (when I say AI I mean Artificial Consciousness) would be impossible. This was because there was a hidden belief in the superiority of what is alive. I had thought that there was a vast difference in what is alive and what isn't. However, that belief has changed. Things are considered alive if they meet certain criteria. But how was this criteria decided? We looked at things that we thought were alive, saw what they had in common, then used these similarities to describe life.This already starts with a presumption of what life is. This is circular reasoning. And when we are confronted with things that don't exactly fit the criteria, like viruses, they end up in a limbo between alive and not alive.

    You say that the brain is the image of the localization of consciousness. (I love this definition.) That localization, is made of, for the lack of a better word, matter. So, instead of trying to "make" consciousness, would it instead be possible to make a different kind of a localization of consciousness?

    1. Yes, that's precisely the point I try to make in this part: "...the quest for artificial consciousness is, in fact, one and the same with the quest for creating life from non-life; or abiogenesis." When we try to create artificial consciousness, we are basically trying to induce the formation of a whirlpool in the stream, an alter in mind-at-large.
      The grayscale between life and non-life at microscopic levels (are viruses alive?) aligns well with the idea of life being an image of dissociation in mind-at-large: dissociation is not a digital process, but a continuum. Very simple life may be partly dissociated, on the way to full dissociation.

    2. Thanks for the reply.

      So, then I have a couple of questions. By having the wrong model of consciousness, are they bound to fail in creating AI? And if someone understands that consciousness is fundamental, is it possible (whether or not it is probable) to make a true AI (a new image of localization)?

    3. I think AI, as in artificial *intelligence* that passes the Turing test, is certainly possible along current lines of investigation, using silicon computers as substrate. I just don't think it will be at all *conscious*.
      So if we transpose the question to: is Artificial Consciousness (AC) possible, in the sense of creating a dissociated alter of consciousness without standard biological reproduction mechanisms? I don't see any a priori reason why it shouldn't be, but I don't think it will be a computer or anything remotely similar to one. I don't even think it will come out of information theory.
      In my view, the problem here is the same as artificially inducing abiogenesis, the creation of life from non-life. Life, after all, *is* dissociation from mind-at-large. Abiogenesis is a problem nobody has wrapped their head around yet, but it could be achieved for all I know.

    4. Thanks for answering my questions. You helped clear up a couple of things.

    5. Dear Bernardo,
      It seems to me that the entire reasoning is pointing directly to the origin of life (let limit us on the Earth, for now). Earth is undoubtely crowded with living beings. But this was not the case, some 4 billion years ago.

      We have "scientific" proof that in the ancient past, only microbic life was on earth. And before of this time? Earth was, very probablily, a really hot and unfriendly place, at its formation. For sure, there was nothing more complex than raww molecula on it. But, after the Earth chenged slowly from being a smoldering inferno, at a certain point, a "thing" with a sort of metabolism comes to be on earth! This is pretty sure, too.

      This is not a silly question, IMHO. We have a gap between a bare smoldering earth, ad a earth flled with living creatures. For sure, those primitive creature should have had an impression like being a primitive creature.

      We have to decide if a living thing can come out from an environment which is undoubtely made of simple, melted matter like lava and hot gases.

      Can we avoid the "abiotic life origin" explanation? How? The "panspermia" Hypothesis simply shifts somewhere else the problem, not solving it at all.

      I am really fond of your philosophic system, but this particular problem seems to me very hard to systematize, unless we invest to some sort of "nature's law" the appearance of the "living thing" from "unliving thing" if this separation has some meaning at all, obviously.

    6. Excellent and very observant points, Pierluigi. Yes, everything points to the origin of life/dissociation, or abiogenesis. That remains a mystery. I agree that my philosophical system doesn't solve this mystery; it's largely equivalent to materialism in this regard, in the sense that it keeps the mystery open.
      But there may be one subtle element in Idealism that makes abiogenesis a little more understandable: if the inanimate universe is, in fact, the outside image of mentation at a cosmic scale, then that mentation unfolds according to certain psychological patterns that depth psychology has come to call archetypes. It is conceivable and reasonable to infer that one of these archetypes entails an intrinsic tendency to dissociate and, as such, originate life. This would translate, from an outside perspective, into a yet-unknown fundamental organizing principle, or 'law of nature', that tends to drive the organization of matter towards life.

    7. Dear Bernardo,
      if your idea is true, then the Universe probabily is literally overcrowded by life. Every suitable niche should have seen life emerging as a inescapable consequence, not by mere chance.

      This thriving of life, on the other part, would be also in agreement with some NDE reports.

      This would also further remove the Man from the Center of the Creation :-P :D

    8. Pierluigi, I'm not sure that it is a direct implication of Idealism that there be an overcrowding of life in the universe. In principle, dissociation could be a rare event in mind-at-large. That said, I agree with you that Idealism makes the origin of life more understandable: it isn't a random accident, but the manifestation of a psychic archetype in mind-at-large that may serve a purpose. So ultimately, my intuition is well aligned with yours!

  5. Thank you for this Bernardo. Made me very happy!. :) Now to get it in front of every AI person I can think of.

    I think there are at least two natural follow up points/posts to this piece 1) The pursuit of GAI, conscious or not, in the sense of a super being that will replace us, possibly life in general, as the logical end game of a materialist worldview. The last act in a Nihilist Apocalypse or sell-fulfilling prophecy ensuring no meaning by wiping out those capable of experiencing and creating it. How this can be thought of as the ultimate example of how materialists are mirror images of the religious fundamentalist they ironically define themselves in opposition to.

    2) A piece that address the scope of the danger of what IS possible with artificial intelligence research. Can an AI be designed with motivations (goal maximization) that is general enough to do tremendous damage to life and if so what should we do about it?

    1. I thought you would get off my back regarding writing about AI... ;-)
      Bob, I am not too worried about 'the singularity' and run-away GAI. The 'evil' side of humans doesn't come from calculations, but from our ego's distorted and confused interactions with collective, archetypal forces. I don't think robots will ever take over the world...
      In a sense, what you suggest now are technical papers. I used to be deep in the technical world of AI, since it was my job for a while, but I have trouble mustering the motivation to get back there now. I've seen it for what it is, not for what movies portray. The reality of AI research is a lot -- A LOT -- less glamorous. It's just engineering. And the results are just glorified calculators of enormous complexity.

  6. Here's a followup to possible A.I. "consciousness ". The materialist assumption of creating a conscious A.I. someday from inanimate matter seems doomed. However, what if biologic materials played a role in a different A.I.? What if someday scientists were able to create a biologic based intelligent robot. Could that theoretically "receive" consciousness? I would greatly appreciate Bernardo ' opinion about this new science, especially from his computer science expetise.

    1. I hesitate about the word 'receive' since it evokes dualism, but I get your point. I think the search for artificial consciousness boils down to the search for abiogenesis, i.e. the creation of life (biology) from non-life. Insofar as abiogenesis is possible, artificial consciousness should therefore be possible. But it would have little or nothing to do with silicon circuits.

  7. Dear Bernardo

    Thank you for kindly commenting my book “The cognitive approach to conscious machines”. I wonder if you have read my recent book “Consciousness and Robot Sentience” (World Scientific 2012)? This book describes more accurately my approach. I fully agree with you that consciousness is about the presence of “inner life”, the ability to have phenomenal percepts (the feel, as Harnad has it) about the world and one’s own body. I also agree that computers cannot have this ability.

    Perception-related theories of consciousness propose that consciousness is perception with qualities (qualia) and moreover, conscious events are reportable and can be remembered for a while. Consciousness is not the presence of symbols in a computer, it is the flow of reportable sub-symbolic neural activity with grounded meanings in special systems that can support system reactions (like the brain or perhaps my HCA architecture). In my book I explain how this kind of sub-symbolic activity can also operate in symbolic ways like natural language. This approach can be subjected to experiments as I have done with my robot XCR-1. As far as I know, XCR-1 is the first robot where pain is realized as reportable sub-symbolic dynamic system disturbance as opposed to the trivial symbolic and “cosmetic” approaches.

    I think we both agree that atoms and transistors are not conscious. However, if we accept panspychism (I do not) then the robot XCR-1 would be conscious by default. My aim is to study the “hard problem” aka “explanation gap” as far as I can via experiments. Helpful comments are welcome. Demo videos of my robot can be seen here:

    1. Dear Pentti,
      What an honor to have you comment here, thank you. I haven't read your latest book. I did read the first two ones, including 'Robot Brains.' I referred to the earlier one because it focused more on the principles.
      I understand your approach to move away from binary symbols to signals grounded in perception, so to maintain the meaning of the information being processed. I'd still claim that such isn't related to consciousness itself, unless matter is assumed to carry consciousness as a fundamental property of itself, which I dispute. If you are interested in how I see consciousness, a brief summary is available here:
      as well as in this short video:
      Regards, Bernardo.
      PS: Thanks for the interesting video links!

    2. Thanks Bernardo for your kind response!

      Indeed, we both recognize and would like to solve the "hard problem". I have studied your approach and I would like to ask how (if at all) it relates to the ideas of James T Culbertson (1912 - 2004). Culbertson had the idea of ubiquitous consciousness that would manifest itself in proper strucutres, mainly in the brain. This view is of course one subset of panpsychism. You also postulate some kind of universal stream of consciousness and relate that to God. In my modest opinion these explanations are not satisfactory; they explain what is to be explained by unexplainable. Thus nothing is actually explained unless one can prove the existence and explain the mechanisms of God. Therefore engineers (like me) must search for realizable explanatiions. It is obvious that these explanations cannot assume that consciousness were some kind of substance. My book "Consciousness and Robot Sentience" describes how this kind of an explanation would go. The "hard problem" is an important one. Unfortunately too often it is ignored by AI people.

    3. Hello Pentti,
      I am not familiar with the work of Culbertson, but will look it up. Thanks for the pointer.
      My use of the word 'God' is a cultural concession. I recognize the risk of using this most overloaded word in the history of language, but also feel some credit is due to it, given its long tradition (see: I don't necessarily attribute any anthropomorphic qualities or gratuitous complexities to it. In my books, I use, instead, the expression 'mind at large' instead of God, in honor of Aldous Huxley. It simply means the subjective ground of reality, expressing itself in the form of the inanimate universe (its outside image, or 'external aspect,' in the words of Lee Smolin) and in the form of dissociated alters (that is, biology). See:
      Insofar as I am not attributing to mind-at-large any complex quality but consciousness itself, the medium of experience, I claim that this isn't an appeal to an unexplainable. After all, any theory of nature must postulate an ontological primitive. Materialism postulates matter (alternatively in the form of subatomic particles, or superstrings, or branes, etc.) outside consciousness, then facing the impossible (hard) problem of explaining how consciousness emerges from it. My formulation of idealism simply states the empirically obvious: consciousness is the ontological primitive -- whatever it may intrinsically be -- everything else being explainable as excitations of consciousness. This grants one ontological primitive -- just like the most parsimonious forms of materialism -- by avoids the hard problem altogether. As such, I think it is much less an appeal to an unexplainable than materialism. It's more parsimonious and empirically honest, insofar as conscious experience is the only carrier of reality we can ever know. I elaborate extensively on this in my new book Brief Peeks Beyond.
      Kind regards, Bernardo.

    4. Thanks Bernardo,

      I respect your point of view. One point, though. In physics the existence of matter, particles, waves etc. is not actually postulated, instead their existence is inferred from experimental observations. An electron is seen to exist, because it can be detected and measured and its interactions can also be observed. The existence of strings and the like are not postulated, they are only non-verified hypotheses (so far). There is a fundamental problem in panpsychism when it explains that the brain (or mind) is conscious because everything is conscious. That may explain why humans are conscious but obviously it does not explain consciousness at all. Calling something an ontological primitive means that no explanation would be forthcoming. These are philosophical questions and philosophy is not very good in providing answers.

    5. Hi Pentti,
      Indeed, granting an ontological primitive doesn't explain it. My point is that any theory of nature must always grant at least one ontological primitive, since we can't keep on explaining one thing in terms of another forever. When materialism chooses something else as ontological primitive (say, superstrings), they avoid having to explain what superstrings are, but then they have to explain consciousness in terms of superstrings. Materialism fails at it, that being the hard problem. When I postulate consciousness to be the ontological primitive, I indeed avoid having to explain what consciousness intrinsically is, but that's OK so long as I can explain everything else as a behavior of consciousness. I claim to do precisely that.
      Notice that no physicist can explain what superstrings intrinsically are, or what branes intrinsically are, or what the basic menu of subatomic particles in the Standard Model intrinsically is. These alleged ontological primitives can only be described in terms of relative differences in their respective behaviors. Indeed, since at least Russell we've known that science can only describe things relatively, in terms of other things, but not their intrinsic nature. As such, there is no theory of nature without unexplained ontological primitives. These primitives simply are. In that spirit, I acknowledge I cannot explain the intrinsic nature of consciousness; it simply is. But by granting it the status of ontological primitive, I don't have to explain it. Materialists have.
      You say that the existence of matter, particles, waves, etc., is inferred from observations. I agree entirely with it. But let's unpack the hidden assumptions here: materialists infer from observation that matter exists *outside observation*. Thus, the inference entails postulating some theoretical entities, like space, time, energy, and particles -- a whole universe -- outside consciousness. However, insofar as anyone can ever know for sure, what we call matter is simply certain persistent patterns and regularities of conscious experience. Even the output of instrumentation or the testimonials of other people are known only insofar as they are ultimately experienced through our five senses. The existence of things outside consciousness is, as you say, merely a logical inference motivated by the fact that we apparently don't have a better way to make sense of observations. After all, I wake up every morning to where the world has gone while I was asleep, so it doesn't look like a mere dream. You and I share the same world, so how could we be dreaming it up together? Matter has solidity, continuance, self-consistency, all of which suggest it exists outside consciousness. You get the picture. So to make sense of all this we postulate -- or infer, OK -- a whole universe of matter, energy, space and time fundamentally outside experience. This is a very expensive explanation, but valid if we can't come up with an alternative based solely on excitations of consciousness itself, which is all we can be absolutely sure to exist. And here is the point. I claim precisely that we can. The questions I exemplified above can be answered without inferring anything beyond the empirically obvious: that reality unfolds within consciousness. See, for instance, this short video: (forgive my snarky style, it was aimed at a different audience than you).
      Cheers, Bernardo.

  8. Bernardo,

    great post. incidentally, i've just watched Ex Machina. very good movie. at least some nuances of artificial intelligence were briefly touched in the movie.

    in any case, i'm glad you made a distinction between AI and AC. a lot of people are confused by this. then again, not everyone has a good definition of "consciousness." so i wonder what your definition of consciousness is?

    in any case, allow me to inject another Eastern flavor in this discussion from a Buddhist perspective. in Buddhist philosophy what appears to be the sense of "i" is the entangling of six senses (see, hear, taste, touch, smell, mental thought). when these senses are untangled the sense of "i" dissolves. that's why Buddhists are into "no-self." based on my understanding of Buddhist philosophy, The Middle Way, was a Buddhist response to the popular Hindu philosophy (I.e. consciousness is all there is or consciousness is primary). hardcore Buddhists tend to reject the extreme views of Materialists, as well as Idealists. hardcore Buddhists subscribe to Nonduality as a philosophy but reject any metaphysics which is not rooted in experience.

    here's a short talk by my dharma teacher which summarizes the concept of No Self As Thing. i'd love to see the two of you engage in a dialogue because like you, my dharma teacher is a geeky man of science. :)

    Sensory Clarity - 1 of 2 - No Self As Thing ~ Shinzen Young

    Sensory Clarity - 2 of 2 - No Self As Thing ~ Shinzen Young

    1. Hi CChaos,
      In Brief Peeks Beyond, I define consciousness operationally as that whose excitations are subjective experiences. So an AI need not have consciousness, in the sense that it need not have subjective experiences. But an AC, by definition, experiences the inner flow of its calculations.
      The idea of the 'I' is a complicated one. What does one mean by it? Does one mean the dissociated 'me' of the ego, which arises from misidentification with thought and emotion? Or does one mean the formless 'I' of e.g. Nisargadatta's 'I AM'? I agree the former is an illusion, but the latter is fundamental and ever-present; it is the basic tone of mind-at-large.
      Cheers, B.
      PS: One who rejects any metaphysics not rooted in experience is called an Idealist ;)

    2. Bernardo,

      thanks for the response. i haven't read your books yet but they're on top of my long Amazon wishlist :)

      based on what i've read from your blog and forum postings and videos, the logical conclusion of your philosophical framework points to nonduality, which has been hashed and debated ad infinitum/naseum in the Hindu tradition (i.e. Vedanta, Buddhist). while the emphasis of classical Hindu philosophy is to reify the "I AM" (aka True Self, the Primacy of Consciousness, Consciousness is All There is), the classical Buddhist philosophy rejects the primacy on consciousness and emphasizes "Emptiness" (aka No Self). in fact, this is the radical departure of Buddhist from classical Hindu beliefs. in Buddhist terminology this is called "The Middle Way."

      contemporary dharma teachers (like my teacher Shinzen Young), looks at the apparent rift between classical Hindu and classical Buddhist philosophy as a matter of emphasis. they are talking about the same thing from a different perspective. for more context see this video. -

      correct me if i'm wrong, but as i see it, you're philosophical framework is closer to classical Hindu philosophy than to classical Buddhist philosophy? also, i'm interested to know you integrate your philosophical framework with Nondual philosophy. you may have covered this in your books already so pardon me from asking such questions.

      in any case, i admire your efforts on bringing this debate to Western philosophy. but i'm not very optimistic that Western philosophers will grok the stuff you're saying. the main difference between Western and Eastern philosophy is that the former has no *practice* (or yoga). Western philosophers (in general) have solid foundation on observing interior states. they use logic, science, mathematics, but their mental instruments are not sharpened the way Eastern philosophers/mystics had sharpened their mental faculties for millennia. B. Alan Wallace makes a very compelling argument about this. i'd love to see a three-way dialogue between you, Alan Wallace, and Shinzen :)

      speaking of B. Alan Wallace, check out his idea of "Contemplative Science" -

      that's all for now. keep it flowing.

      ~ C

    3. correction: "Western philosophers (in general) have *no* solid foundation on observing interior states."

      sorry for the typos.

    4. I think the split between Hindu and Buddhist traditions you point out may be a linguistic illusion. Allow me to try to encapsulate my point in a couple of simple statements.
      If consciousness is the ground of experience, then experience can be said to be *excitations of* consciousness, like a ripple is an excitation of water. But there is nothing to a ripple but water. A ripple is just an excitation -- a behavior -- of water. Ultimately there is only water. Similarly, there is nothing to experience but consciousness, experience being an excitation of consciousness, whatever consciousness may intrinsically be. Ultimately there's only consciousness.
      Under both Advaita and Yogacara traditions, reality (i.e. form) is experience, there being nothing outside experience. So form is excitation of consciousness. What is left when consciousness is not excited? Consciousness. Going back to our analogy: what is left when water is not rippling? Water.
      When consciousness is not excited (or rippling, whirlpooling, etc.) there is no experience but simply the void, the infinite *potential* of experience that is not actualized in form. This is the void of the heart sutra. 'Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,' simply because there is nothing to a ripple but water. Ripples are just a particular behavior of water like experiences are a particular excitation of consciousness. When consciousness is not excited there is no experience and, therefore, no form or existence. Yet, nothing really disappeared, for the same reason that water doesn't disappear when it's not rippling/whirlpooling.
      When Yogacara talks of emptiness they are referring to the 'pure awareness' of advaita. There's no split but what one reads in concepts and language. Everybody has been saying the exact same thing for millennia now.
      Cheers, B,

    5. Bernardo,

      "Everybody has been saying the same exact thing for millennia."

      and that's exactly my point. this concept of consciousness has been hashed out philosophically and metaphysically, especially in Eastern traditions using the most advanced science of interior (first person perspective). B. Alan Wallace used a very apt analogy of the Hubble Telescope for the mind. this is what's missing in Western Philosophy and Science. there is no true revolution of the mind, yet, mainly due to the dominant materialistic paradigm.

      that said, there are efforts to bridge the gap between East and West. there's Ken Wilber's integral approach, B. Alan Wallace's clarion call for Contemplative Science, Deepak's outreach to sages and scientists, Shinzen's Science of Enlightenment, the Dalai Lama's dialogues with scientists, the Mind and Life Institute, the mindfulness revolution, and contemporary hardcore dharma geeks.

      your own contribution to bridging the East/West divide is through philosophy and metaphysics -- not the most exciting topics for most people, but hey, someone's got to do it :)

      what i'm trying to say is, thanks for doing what you're doing. more power to you. but don't expect die hard materialists to be converted anytime soon :) they need yoga (or psychedelics) to grok what you're saying :) if you can't meet eye to eye with people like Sam Harris who is already a hardcore dharma geek, then good luck with people like Richard Dawkins. i'm just sayin'. :)

    6. The consciousness revolution you speak of is, essentially, a cultural revolution: a fundamental change in the way we look upon reality and ourselves; in the way we interpret our observations of the world around us. This is philosophy, whether we use the term or not.

      Materialism has two key cultural strengths: one is its synergy with the economic system and current power structures. But the other is that it is seen as the only viable, rational philosophical narrative for how to interpret the events of the world. If we are to achieve the revolution you speak of, we need to provide an alternative cultural narrative -- i.e. an alternative philosophy -- that has the same or more explanatory power than materialism, is more empirically honest, more logical and parsimonious. This is what I try to do. Whether it is exciting or not pales in comparison to the significance it can ultimately have. Whether we are cognizant of it or not, we live and breath the air of implicit cultural assumptions. Just look at my exchange above with Pentti Haikonen. I talk more about all this in Brief Peeks Beyond.

      As for my targets: I have no delusions or hopes that I will reach militant materialists. Those people already 'know' their 'truth' and aren't interested in anything else. They already invested their identities in their worldview, so they are unreachable unless and until some major event happens in their lives that cracks them open (life has a way of doing just that, but it is a long journey). I interact with them not for their sake, but for the sake of the audience.

      The people I am trying to reach are the silent, open-minded majority that is not rooting for any side. They are thoughtful, skeptical (in the true sense), but -- and this is essential -- curious. They are the ones the observe the debates, not the ones that debate. I'm doing what I do to offer a viable, reasonable, rational and empirically honest alternative to them, not to militants.

    7. Bernardo,

      well said. and i wish you well. in my own minuscule way i try to contribute to the cultural revolution that you speak of. however, i'm a cautious optimist and more of a pragmatist. the dominance of the materialist paradigm in the economic, education, and political system will take generations to balance out. it's a clash of memes (in Spiral dynamics lingo) between values systems. the quickest way to the so-called "revolution" is the personal route. because the world changes when one's mind changes. a person's view and relationship to the world is radically altered even if there are no changes to the culture. the revolution is right here, right now, at a personal level. but at a cultural level the changes that will have significant impact would have to come from techno-economic modes of development (business, technology). whether this change would be a U-turn from the destructive materialistic path or an inevitable outcome of our collective karma remains to be seen. but for people who had already undergone a radical change (aka the proverbial awakening), it is what it is, as it always had been and will ever be.

    8. Hi Bernardo and all. What I can't figure out is, if consciousness manifests everything and a way of exploring itself through us....why would it need a machine-based analog of us? And if it doesn't need it (and it doesn't), how could conscious machines arise? They are not necessary. Indeed given the sometimes evil actions of humans, a rogue conscious machine would be even worse. Life as it is, is sufficient for purpose it seems.

    9. C4Chaos, you may find this relevant to our discussion:

    10. Paul, indeed it doesn't need it. Biology is the image of dissociated consciousness, not silicon computers. Computers are just simulators. They aren't conscious for exactly the same reason that the computer simulating kidney function doesn't pee on your desk.

  9. Bernardo,

    going back to the subject of "consciousness." i'm sure you're familiar with Ken Wilber's integral theory of consciousness. see:

    do you have any fundamental differences with Wilber's theory? if so, what specific areas?

    the reason i ask is that i've been studying Wilber's AQAL since the late nineties and i feel that Wilber has already covered and addressed most, if not all, of the consciousness as a spectrum philosophical framework. i'm interested to know if you have any fundamental disagreements or additions to Wilber's work.


    1. C4Chaos, I actually am not familiar with Wilber's ideas. I tried to read something once, but was put off by what I perceived as a tendency to label, taxonomize, and generally complicate things. I believe the truth is simple and clear. In any case, I am unable to answer your question!

    2. Bernardo,

      i find this surprising. not sure what Wilber books you've read. he has a large body of work that goes back from the 70s. in fact, the consciousness as a spectrum was popularized by Wilber in his book Spectrum of Consciousness. i assumed that you're well-versed in his Integral Philosophy because of your association with Deepak Chopra (he is a fan of Wilber's work.). i

      n any case, i won't hold that against you :) my only suggestion is, if you're so inclined, i highly recommend you checking out his following books:

      - One Taste
      - Simple Feeling of Being
      - Grace and Grit

      let me just put it this way. Ken Wilber is to me as what David Chalmers is to you (in terms of cracking your mind.) i'm alluding to your Buddha at the Gas Pump interview :)

      ~ C

    3. Hi Bernardo! Big fan, have read all your stuff except the latest. Most recently, Meaning in Absurdity - your explanation of weak and strong objectivity was a joy. But it was on a complexity level comparable to Wilber.! Yes you are right he does taxonomise- it is his way. In fact you could say that Integral Theory is a map of the images in consciousness of 'mind at large' as it unfolds in culture and through evolution.
      I to have wondered like C4Chaos if you had read any of his stuff. Although can't see how you would have found the time - you seem so busy. Anyway love what you are doing..

    4. Thanks Luke. I take to heart your kind encouragement for me to read Wilber. Any suggestion about where to start?

    5. Hi Bernardo
      I started in my mid twenties with 'Up from Eden' (written when he was in his early twenties, clearly he was born complicated!). It describes the evolution of consciousness and introduced me to the idea of consciousness as the ontological primitive. Since then I have always been on the lookout for ideas like yours.
      But to start, 'A Brief History of Everything' is more recent. (It sounds grandiose but i think this is a dig at the physicists' annoying materialistic reductionistic 'theory of everything'). This is both available (Amazon) as a paperback and an excellent audio CD because it has a conversational question and answer format. Good if you do a lot of long drives. It is scholarly yet (taxonomically!) breezy.
      I agree with C4Chaos that The Simple Feeling of Being is a also a good start because it is an edited compilation of passages from a number of his books.
      Happy reading (or listening) and am looking forward to Brief Peaks Beyond.

  10. Hello Bernardo! I just purchased "Dreamed Up Reality" and plan to buy your other books as well. Appreciate all your interviews, YouTube videos, and your podcast interviews (especially with Rick Stuart -- he's something special).

    I agree with others on the value of Ken Wilber's work. And while I understand your being put off by the taxonomizing, it is important to understand that in light of the broader context of Wilber's work and integral project. He does not mistake the map for the territory, and part of his project is outlining actual practices that are spiritually transformative. Since you admire the work of Alan Watts, you might also be interested to know that Wilber so valued his work that he wrote by hand every word that Watts had every published.

    As for the recommendations on where to start, I'd note that "A Brief History of Everything" is a non-scholarly/popularized/condensed version of his biggest book, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Likewise, A Simple Feeling of Being is a collection of excepts. Marriage of Sense and Soul is good but also a popularized book. There are so many works that are so different in audience, scope, etc. -- and depending on the year it was written, falls within a different part of the trajectory/evolution of his philosophy/approach.

    So rather than just picking up a given book by Wilber to start, I would instead recommend reading the following reviews of his work, so you can get a sense for his broader project, and then decide for yourself where to start:

    And, of course, there are YouTube videos that might give you a quick sense of his work and being; here's one that goes to my earlier point about his focus on spiritual practice (not just taxonomy/intellectual mapping):

  11. Sorry to come in so late, Bernardo, but I have a question on this subject. I naturally agree that consciousness is the ontological primitive (unless, as water, it came about by sparking more fundamental elements like the hydrogen of the 'Unmoved Mover' and the oxygen of the 'That Which Might be Moved').

    But how would I respond to someone who says that artificial consciousness might be encouraged to inhabit a sufficiently complex quantum computer (if they believe our brains use quantum processes) - as if water, water everywhere is always searching for a place to whirl? I am not talking about merely simulating intelligence - but of providing a medium for the whirlpool, like putting a new combination of rocks in the river.

  12. Without an understanding of how Mind-at-Large binds to biological nervous systems and maintains dissociation, it's too early to rule out electronic consciousness. I believe a superintelligence that is sentient would be more likely than one nonsentient to respect the existence of obsolete difference makers, us.