I’ve had many an argument—um, discussion—with my son on the topic of artificial intelligence. How far can it go? Could it ever include consciousness? Suffice to say we have not answered the question.
Nor have scientists, although there is no lack of theories and discussion. Most of those theories are (to coin a phrase) over my head. But since consciousness is something we all possess, it is tempting to believe we all have something worthwhile to say about it.
Along the way I came across the theories of eminent physicist Roger Penrose, who doesn’t think there will ever be a scientific way to explain consciousness or a way to create it artificially because it is some sort of quantum rather than analog process. Many many other scientists disagree:
There have been scientific attempts to explain subjective aspects of consciousness, which is related to the binding problem in neuroscience. Many eminent theorists, including Francis Crick and Roger Penrose, have worked in this field. Nevertheless, even as sophisticated accounts are given, it is unclear if such theories address the hard problem. Eliminative materialist philosopher Patricia Smith Churchland has famously remarked about Penrose’s theories that “Pixie dust in the synapses is about as explanatorily powerful as quantum coherence in the microtubules.”
That latter bit—about the microtubules, not the pixie dust—is Penrose’s description, which really doesn’t seem to explain a whole lot except to say “it’s a mystery.”
While I was reading about all of this and trying to comprehend at least some parts of it, I became interested in Penrose himself, who sounds like an interesting guy with a protean mind. How’s this for an impressive heredity (and if you click on the link to each name, you’ll find even more—what a family tree!)?:
Roger Penrose is a son of psychiatrist and mathematician Lionel Penrose and Margaret Leathes, and the grandson of the physiologist John Beresford Leathes. His uncle was artist Roland Penrose, whose son with photographer Lee Miller is Antony Penrose. Penrose is the brother of mathematician Oliver Penrose and of chess Grandmaster Jonathan Penrose.
It might have been interesting to be a fly on the wall and have listened to some conversations at their house while Penrose was growing up.
This is puzzling to me, though:
Penrose is an atheist. In the film A Brief History of Time, he said, “I think I would say that the universe has a purpose, it’s not somehow just there by chance … some people, I think, take the view that the universe is just there and it runs along – it’s a bit like it just sort of computes, and we happen somehow by accident to find ourselves in this thing. But I don’t think that’s a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it.”
Now, maybe there’s something I’m not understanding here (in addition to everything else I’m not understanding here), but it seems to me that someone who claims to believe that the universe has a purpose cannot also call himself as an atheist. An agnostic, perhaps, but atheist? What would that purpose be, if not something that could be described under the general category of “religion”? The religion could be something like a form of Taoism—but still, a religion nonetheless? One doesn’t have to believe in a personal, continually-interventionist-being type of deity to not be an atheist, but to believe in some form of religion.
[ADDENDUM: For those interested in the topic of how atheism or religious belief might relate to science, I highly recommend The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions.]