Why do we need (the idea of) consciousness?

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What is consciousness? Is it possible to have an artificial one? How can we say that we are looking at one? If we accept that someone (or something) has one, how do we treat it? If consciousness is a spectrum (continuous feature) where is the acceptance threshold? …and many more like this.

In simpler times, in magic times, we had souls. A soul is something tangible, divine even, that encapsulates our individuality, our memories, our wisdom, and “lives” forever. After some painful years on Earth, our souls will look down on our decaying bodies with a grin and be one with all the good souls, if we are in the right department. Now the idea of a soul is restricted to a religious context only. Now we have consciousness, but we still feel the need to protect what was soul representative of. That’s why (the idea of) consciousness is surrounded by many layers of protection. Let’s peel some of them.

  • Unless you have been conditioned to submit your entire self to some great idea or deity, you would like to think you are unique and the way you can tell your uniqueness is through your experiences. Only you can possibly know what it is to be you. That is very important for developing a healthy self and ego. You deserve your place under the sun because of your deep, rich but mostly unique experiences (a delusional entitlement, but hey…). Your intuition tells you that even though that may not be entirely true you need to make it so or at least behave like it is. As a result, as long as your experiences are identical to your consciousness you need the concept of the latter to protect your unique identity.
  • What about artificial consciousness (AC)? If AC can be indistinguishable from the natural one we have two problems: first — we have a hard time respecting fellow humans (as it is) if they are not within our line of thinking. AC cries to be rejected by the same “logic” even before seeing the light of day. Second — having a fully functional AC opens the route to forbidden knowledge. That means, my own consciousness could be deconstructed and then modelled and then manipulated. Albeit it has already happened to some degree, understanding how consciousness works would make me less of a human in the sense that we will see ourselves as something with moving parts (robot-like), which is simply wrong, disgusting even.
  • We would never agree on a test for consciousness. I’m not talking about the Turing test, which already has been passed and there is GPT3. Any “official” (recognized by the law and society at large) test could be targeted by AI guys and eventually passed. And then, it may require some respect. And then, maybe declare some artificial thing to have the same rights as myself. Can you imagine anything more absurd?
  • Every discipline dealing with consciousness in some way (like neurology or psychology) has an operational understanding of consciousness fit to a particular purpose of the undergoing study. So if we need a definition of consciousness in a specific context there are rarely any debates. Now, what about consciousness “in general” (philosophically speaking), then we stumble on that “subjective vs objective” conundrum. How do we define consciousness without context? We simply assume a context based on our intuition and that context could vary widely from person to person. Hence the wide variety of irreconcilable ideas about consciousness. Exploring this confusion is another way to protect the idea of consciousness.
  • Whatever scientific approach we apply towards consciousness, it will consider and process the facts of consciousness as something objective. The trick is that by the established definition consciousness is something intrinsically subjective, so it could never be approached by conventional science. The scientific approach reveals a lot of the machinery of consciousness (aka “the easy problem”), but in the end, by making it something objective we lose its essence (subjectivity) in the process. In the literature, having such subjective qualia is known as the hard problem of consciousness.
  • Consciousness is a prerequisite for free will. Our socially accepted understanding is that only conscious beings can make decisions, so without consciousness, we have just some force of nature with no free will. Consequently, without free will how can we hold anybody responsible for their actions, and without personal responsibility, society deteriorates. As a result, without consciousness society will decline. In this sense, you may consider the concept of consciousness a socio-political necessity.

So in times of sparse magic, we need the idea of consciousness to protect our identity, our dignity, our rights and our society (you know, the important stuff). Similar to what Voltaire said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”, so is consciousness.
I realise the enormity of the subject of consciousness (or do I). Here I’m only trying to get you thinking…

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Categories human condition, society

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