030103 – Consciousness and the Self

030103 Consciousness and the Self

To the extent that humans (or any beings as yet unknown to us, like space aliens, say, or sophisticated AI’s) have any views at all on the topic, they will believe that they have free will.  The argument is relatively simple: I believe that any intelligent being will have as a part of its intelligence an internal model of the physical universe (to whatever level of detail is appropriate) that it uses consciously to assess possible courses of action in anticipation of selecting one for execution.  Implied in such a model is a model of the being itself.  This enables analyses of the form, “If I do X, how will I feel about that?”

The model of the self must be contained in the organism as must the larger model of the physical universe.  This ensures that the model cannot model the organism itself with complete accuracy.  To do so would require that the model of the organism include a model of the model of the organism and that model would in turn have to contain a model of the organism and so on ad infinitum.  Thus, the model of the self cannot be 100% accurate.  In effect, one will make inaccurate predictions about one’s own behavior.  Stated another way, no one can know with absolute certainty what he or she will do in a particular set of circumstances.  We experience this as making up our minds at the last minute or as having free will.

The Mind – The Inner Voice

It is by no means clear or self-evident why each of us should have within us a voice that we use sometimes for the purpose of planning things and sometimes for the purpose of commenting on the world around or within us.  Up to the present, all reports of this inner voice have been subjective.  It is interesting to speculate that there may come a time when brain activity recording will become sufficiently sensitive and sophisticated to enable us to identify and even record in some way the “utterances” of this voice.  I rush to assert, however, that we are a long way measured in decades from the ability to listen in on the contents of someone else’s comic book thought balloons.

So, for the time being, the little voice remains private to each individual.

Why do we “hear” this voice?  We know that it is not external.  It does not make a sound.  What do we know about it?  It speaks in whatever language we choose to have it speak.  Sometimes it is silent.  Sometimes it is next to impossible to make it be silent, as for example when it decides in the middle of the night to rehearse all the things you should have said to whomever it was you should have said them to.  When you write something, it says the words to you and you transfer them to the paper or type them at the computer as or just after it says them.

Systems Analysis

Suppose evolutionarily that we are modifying an organism that operates purely in a simple stimulus-response fashion (whatever that means).  We want to improve it in such a way that it can “anticipate” or “plan ahead” in some sense.  A reasonably parsimonious approach might be to recruit brain structures to produce internal representations of possible future states and inject them into the stimulus-response arc (decision-making system) as additional inputs that would be distinguishable from direct real-world inputs, but would somehow carry at least some of the weight of current real-world inputs.

In general, the organism should not confuse these forward-looking inputs with real-world inputs.  Dreams should not be confused with reality.

In the simplest form, such a system would give the organism the ability to perform Gedanken experiments on its environment.  That is, instead of physically trying a strategy to determine its outcome, the organism would be able to “imagine” the outcome and evaluate it against other possible strategies and outcomes.

To accomplish this requires an internal model of the external environment to the extent of modeling physical objects and at least to some extent their relevant physical properties.

When I first wrote the above, I had not thought much about the nature of the model that is required.  It would seem that the model, if it is “automatic” or “unconscious” (which is what I think it’s reasonable to assume was true at least initially in evolutionary terms), must be of the PHEPH (post hoc ergo propter hoc) type that is easy for neuro-glial circuits to implement.

It is advantageous to an organism to be able to abstract invariants from the environment, e.g., object constancy in the presence of partial visual occlusions and in the presence of changes in appearance resulting from viewpoint and changes in the object itself.

Language plays an interesting role in consciousness.  Language serves as a communications medium among humans.  Language is a way of signaling one person’s internal state to another.  Internally, language plays a role in representing concepts to our internal decision-making system.  We “talk to ourselves” (out loud or subvocally) to give ourselves advice or to explore abstract alternatives.

Things we say to ourselves are often things another person might say to us, e.g., “I don’t think this is such a good idea.”  In effect, our language ability is used in two different ways: to communicate with others and to communicate with ourselves.

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