August 29th, 2016

Penrose: intelligence and consciousness, artificial and otherwise

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.]

55 Responses to “Penrose: intelligence and consciousness, artificial and otherwise”

  1. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    The inability to create an artificial intelligence that is self-aware does not, in and of itself, preclude the ability to create the conditions that allow it to emerge into existence. That is a scenario often explored by scifi authors.

  2. Nick Says:

    That quote of yours has a “dubious” footnote on Wikipedia. It appears to come from the film A Brief History of Time, but I don’t know if Penrose was speaking, or what the context was.

  3. Vanderleun Says:

    The Gate keeps us from really understanding. In short, the pelvic arch and the birth canal as simply too small for humans to evolve enough wetware to comprehend the universe.

    This is not to suggest we are at our limit but only to observe we can’t really get there from here.

  4. Vanderleun Says:

    are simply too small.”

  5. physicsguy Says:

    The EPR experiment by Aspect in the early 1980s has now been repeated in many forms and circumstances. It’s quite clear now that the quantum “measurement problem” is not going away. At present only two solutions have been proposed: many worlds, and consciousness. Many Worlds offers, to me, an unpalatable alternative to the quantum necessity that consciousness is a necessary condition for the universe. Of course many others find that unpalatable.

    I think Penrose has a point that QM likely plays a role in consciousness, but maybe symbiotic rather than cause and effect. Until we find the replacement theory for QM, we will likely never know. But if consciousness lies in neurobiology, it must involve interactions at the molecular level, then Churchland’s objection to QM involvement in consciousness is just silly.

  6. neo-neocon Says:


    I really don’t think bigger brains would give us the answer.

  7. Oldflyer Says:

    A couple of thoughts. First, it has been a long time since I studied computer science–like back in the stone age. Artificial Intelligence wasn’t spoken of. But, I don’t think that the physics of computing have changed. True, the enormous increase in computing power gives a programmer the ability to ask more complex questions, and provides more logic trees–almost to an infinite degree; but, it seems pretentious to call a computer’s output intelligence in the accepted sense, artificial or otherwise. Despite its enormous processing power, the computer simply cannot go beyond the imagination of the programmer(s) who invested the time and tedious effort into constructing its ability to respond to complex problems and situations. Or have I missed something?

    I am with you on Atheism. The logic seems awfully strained for someone to say that life has a purpose, then declare Atheism. Maybe they don’t believe in the Diety that others believe in; but, from whence comes the “purpose”? Is character no more than a function of the haphazard functioning of the electrical circuitry in individual brains; modified perhaps by a highly predictable response to early child hood stimuli? At another level, it seems to me that one has to assume an infinite number of coincidences for the entire physical world, and humanity, to have reached its present state without a guiding intelligence. That is too much for me to grasp.

    An idle thought; if you in effect promote Gaia to Diety status, can you still call yourself an Atheist?

    Let us know if you figure all of this out.

  8. n.n Says:

    The establishment of origin and expression cannot be discerned in the scientific domain. The best we can hope to realize is degrees of correlation. However, the fatal flaw of modern science (a.k.a. “post-normal science”) that has engendered scientific mysticism (i.e. integral assumptions/assertions of uniformity, independence, and linearity) is conflation through correlation.

    That said, we can begin the development of human intelligence through the recognition of moral imperatives (i.e. individual dignity and intrinsic value) including the abolition of elective abortions (e.g. selective-child, one-child) for trivial causes.

  9. docfuturity Says:

    As an atheist there’s nothing that precludes one from believing that there might be a purpose or design to the universe, but chiefly because one can in purest postmodern fashion ascribe meaning arbitrarily. That said, I think Penrose might have some other concept in mind. I suppose one can believe there’s a machine or design at work without believing in a supernatural presence or supreme being….but that might require a different kind of nomenclature than the stricter terms atheist and agnostic can fit? An atheist can eschew belief in deities without excluding that there’s a lot of information about the universe, on a scientific level, we are incapable of resolving. But an atheist can assert that all of that information, with the right tools and processes, can in theory be attained over time; something belief in supernaturalism contradicts.

    So I think his belief remains consistent with atheism, even if it presupposes belief in an idea…..atheists never said they can’t believe in something without evidence, so long as it can, eventually, be tested. We just can’t (shouldn’t) believe in things which are by definition untestable and beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. Except for theoretical physicists working on string theory…those guys can do whatever they want.

  10. neo-neocon Says:


    I don’t think “purpose” is the same thing as “design.” The latter is compatible with atheism, as long as it’s not purposeful design but more like “rules” or “patterns.” To me, “purpose” indicates something else. Unless, of course, “purpose” just means goal or endpoint. But that didn’t seem to be what Penrose meant when he said ” it’s not somehow just there by chance.”

    As for atheism and science, I highly recommend The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions .

  11. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “We just can’t (shouldn’t) believe in things which are by definition untestable and beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.” docfuturity

    By all means, when you devise a measurable test for love, hate, loyalty, honor, betrayal and beauty get back to us. None of them are testable but only the foolish would deny their existence.

    “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet, William Shakespeare

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    Geoffrey Britain:

    You would probably also like that book I linked to here.

    As a matter of fact, I might add the link in an addendum to the post.

  13. Harry The Exremeist Says:

    Then of course, if we dont have enough to worry about:
    What’s the technological singularity?

  14. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “Despite its enormous processing power, the computer simply cannot go beyond the imagination of the programmer(s) who invested the time and tedious effort into constructing its ability to respond to complex problems and situations. Or have I missed something?” Oldflyer

    If you are unaware of the following, then yes, there is much you’ve missed.

    “Adam becomes first robot to make a scientific discovery after conducting its OWN experiments”
    “A robot called Adam that can think up theories and test them with almost no human help has become the first machine to make a new scientific discovery.

    “IBM develops a computer chip with one million ‘neurons’ that ‘functions like a human brain'”

    “TrueNorth is being hailed as the world’s first neurosynaptic computer chip because it can figure things out on its own.”

    ” ‘Boris’ the robot can load up dishwasher”

    “Boris” is one of the first robots in the world capable of intelligently manipulating unfamiliar objects with a humanlike grasp.
    Boris “sees” objects with depth sensors on its face and wrists. In 10 seconds it calculates up to a thousand possible ways to grasp a novel object with its five robotic fingers and plans a path of arm movements to reach its target, avoiding obstructions.
    “It’s not been programmed to pick it up – it’s been programmed to learn how to pick it up,” explained Professor Wyatt.

    “Robots can now learn to cook just like you do: by watching YouTube videos”

    “Researchers have come up with a new way to teach robots how to use tools simply by watching videos on YouTube”

    “Uh oh! Robots are learning to DISOBEY humans: Humanoid machine says no to instructions if it thinks it might be hurt”

    “Robotics engineers are developing robots that can disobey instructions from humans if they believe it may cause them to become damaged. If asked to walk forward on a table top (pictured) the robot replies that it can’t do this as it is ‘unsafe’. However, when told a human will catch it, the robot then obeys”

    But it may be the social implications of robotics and artificial intelligence that will be most impactive.

    “7 Robots That Are Replacing Farm Workers Around the World”

    “One in three jobs will be taken by software or robots by 2025”

    The Wendy’s Hamburger chain is swapping out employees for self-service kiosks.

    “Momentum Machines is creating a hamburger-making machine that churns out made-to-order burgers at industrial speeds and aims to use it in its own chain of restaurants. This self-contained, automatic device sees raw ingredients go in one end and the completed custom-made burgers come out the other at the rate of up to 400 per hour.”

    The inimitable Richard Fernandez takes note: “The Crisis of the Blue Model”

    The truth is that the early precursors to A.I. are already here.

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    Right now, computers and programs do not have free will. Whatever they can or will do, is due to programming by the human creators. If humanity can actually make a silicon binary language based entity that has free will and can learn and program itself, that would already be very close to kami waza. God techniques.

  16. Ymarsakar Says:

    Btw, in other news, some Arizona university is trying to detect gravity waves.

    Flying cars, different tech dev chain.

  17. huxley Says:

    I read The Emperor’s New Mind and dabbled with The Road to Reality.

    From what I can tell, Penrose has a plenty big brain, but his leap from consciousness to QM and microtubules seemed bizarre.

    I suspect we’ll be able to nibble AI to death with refinements until we have hardware/software which can pass the Turing Test, i.e. pass as a human to a real human, but I doubt its AI would posess consciousness or that we could tell if it did.

  18. docfuturity Says:

    @Neoneocon Berlinski’s book is a compelling read, agreed. I do tend to identify as a “natural atheist,” myself…but I come to atheism from a philosphical imperative over scientific (and yes I love post modernism as a focus for discourse and analysis). That both coincide and lend strength to one another is simply happy coincidence.

    @Geoffrey poetic discourse is great, but perhaps not an ideal foundation for belief. Likewise science does not make good bedfellows for the poet.

  19. Vanderleun Says:

    “I really don’t think bigger brains would give us the answer.”

    Actually you really can’t think what a bigger brain would do. A denser brain. A different brain. A whole new neural web bigger than all outdoors. Some sort of ultra-brain might be able to, but not in this species as currently set up.

    Sorry that being so literal threw you off. We don’t have the wetware and we won’t be getting the wetware.

    The smart monkey has limits.

  20. Mac Says:

    Coincidentally, I happen to be reading David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, and am in the middle of the section on consciousness. Hart is a theist and is concerned partly in this book to puncture, from the philosophical point of view, some of the groundless conjectures (as he sees them) of materialism, including the one that says consciousness is just some kind of epiphenomenon of brain activity. I believe he’s right. I don’t think there’s any evidence at all that that’s so; it’s just an assumption based on a highly questionable axiom. And one day educated people will be shaking their heads and wondering why anyone ever believed it.

    I highly recommend the book, btw. It’s fairly dense in places but very well-written and not so jargon-filled that you have to be a specialist to follow it.

    The Berlinski book looks really good. I make it a habit to beat up on people like Richard Dawkins for their ignorance whenever I get the chance.

  21. huxley Says:

    I read Berlinski’s book on calculus earlier this summer and was disappointed. His insights didn’t seem profound and towards the end he revealed he learned calculus from “Quick Calculus” — a splendid self-teaching book on the basics of calculus but not sufficient grounding for writing a book on calculus IMO.

    There is a good book to be written on the story of calculus and its significance for civilization, but Berlinski didn’t nail that one.

  22. Geoffrey Britain Says:


    Any system of beliefs that excludes the poetic has no soul and cannot but lead to dissappointment. Life isn’t worth living without them and anything that essential to life itself must have a deep connection with reality, even if currently untestable.


    I predict that the limits of the monkey brain we possess will be found to have been greatly underestimated. As I suspect God’s evolution is far from done with us. There have repeatedly appeared spiritual ‘singularities’ that periodically crop up throughout history. Only our modern hubris and arrogance leads us to imagine that they can only happen to ‘unsophisticated primitives’. We live in a world that cries out for a deeper understanding. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears” Buddhist proverb

  23. Vanderleun Says:

    “I predict that the limits of the monkey brain we possess will be found to have been greatly underestimated. ”

    Could be, but neither you nor I nor the next lebenty-leben thousand generations will be around to find out. So that’s a safe little prediction.

    A more contemporary and true maxim might be; “Your arms too short to box with God.”

  24. Big Maq Says:

    “…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…” – Neo

    Arguably, one might say that most religions evolved from the basis of needing an explanation for unanswerable questions. A statement of heresy to many, I know.

    We now have the rigors of science (notwithstanding the politicization we see today) which itself has a history of weird and wild theories that later proved to be erroneous to explain the previously unexplainable.

    One example: Phlogiston – born out of the idea that there were four core elements: water, earth, fire and air. To explain the combustion process, Phlogiston was thought to be a substance an essence that permeates substances, without color, odor, taste, or weight, yet was given off in burning.

    Then came the Oxygen Theory of Combustion – Lavoisier.

    Penrose may think there won’t be an explanation, nor that humanity couldn’t somehow independently create consciousness.

    I rather think that between biology / genetics and computing technology, there will be a point where the capability arrives. We’ve just seen too many previously considered to be insurmountable barriers to be overcome.

  25. Oldflyer Says:

    GB: “The truth is that the early precursors to A.I. are already here”.
    Wonderful. I doubt that I will be here when the precursors become reality. Nor am I sure that I want to be. But, it does provide wonderful material for SciFi.

    I have not yet digested all of your examples of the wonders of machines; but, just to cut to the chase. Are any of them doing anything that was not programmed? Are any of them modifying their own coding? Now that is a scary thought.

    I really love the part about learning to use tools by watching You Tube. I assume that by “watching” it is meant that some process is in play that records images, digitalizes them, compares them to information stored in memory by some form of human input, and then a programmed response is chosen from the library of responses also stored by humans. Is that sort of what is meant? Or does the robot think, “look at that. Well, if that tool can be used in that way, let me think of other ways in which I might use it.” As a simple human, for instance, I have learned that it is easier on aging fingers to open a pop top can by sticking a small screw driver in the finger hole, prying it up partially, then turning the screw driver around to finish popping it from the other side. I keep a screw driver next to where I store the cans of cat food. I suppose those intelligent robots could figure out something that simple?

    I do not mean to trivialize what computers are capable of doing. From my vantage point I have seen the progress from standing at a machine the size of a refrigerator with flashing lights on the front, and memory measured in kilobytes, to the miracles we carry around in our pockets in every day life. But, I do not ascribe human like characteristics–such as intelligence–to them.

    Well, this discussion has certainly reminded me of the limitations of my intellect. Very humbling. Docfuturity’s dissertation for instance. For starters, I cannot even get my head around the concept of post-modernity. Are we there yet? Did I miss the step in which certain enlightened people went from modernity to post-modernity?
    I do understand that some people can “ascribe meaning arbitrarily”. We see that from our politicians on a daily basis. I have it on good authority that college professors are also wont to do so. But, run aground when pondering whether arbitrarily ascribed meaning has meaning.

    Finally, the idea that there is a “machine of design”, without a supernatural presence makes my head spin. Could such a machine be said to possess artificial intelligence?

    Well, at least there was no mention of Trump. Not until now.

  26. Big Maq Says:

    “I suspect we’ll be able to nibble AI to death with refinements until we have hardware/software which can pass the Turing Test, i.e. pass as a human to a real human, but I doubt its AI would posess consciousness or that we could tell if it did.”

    Well, if we couldn’t tell (and I don’t mean that as a casual observation, but upon intense observation and testing – something more in depth than in Blade Runner or Turing), that may mean that we have no way to deny there is consciousness, which comes rather close to being by legal definition a human level of consciousness with all the implications that has.

    And we have problems now with bathroom assignments? /jk

    Maybe they’d all be Dem voters? /jk

    But, maybe you are reaching into the question of the concept of having a “soul”, or maybe a “conscience”? Those are things right now that seem to be “unmeasurable”.

    Interesting philosophical questions raised by this topic.

  27. Big Maq Says:

    “I predict that the limits of the monkey brain we possess will be found to have been greatly underestimated.” – GB

    This is probably true. There is plenty of mileage well before we get to “God’s evolution” with genetics, micoprocessors (or their future equivalent), and microrobots.

  28. parker Says:

    The future (duh) is an unkown unkown. Humanity is capable of engineering its destruction; but somehow we survive despite our urges to pursue folly and engage in hubris. I fear not our AI overlords.

  29. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Since I believe in an afterlife, I fully expect to learn whether that prediction is accurate or not.

    Big Maq,

    All the major religions started with a claim of revelation (if genuine, a spiritual singularity) by an individual(s).


    Whether artificial intelligence if a blessing or a curse will depend upon whether it is beneficial. The very first article I linked to about “Adam” described it as inventing and then conducting a follow-up experiment for which it had NOT been programmed. That is why it is noteworthy.

    As for food for thought, arguably… self-aware machine intelligence would have a right to both independent autonomy and citizenship…

  30. Geoffrey Britain Says:


    I agree, humanity is far too treacherous and devious for linear logic to cope with, should they get ‘uppity 😉

  31. parker Says:


    Yes, many of us are devious and vicious beyond the ‘imagination’ of our potential AI overlords.

    Not strictly on topic; but humanis are capable of such amazing feats and able to demonstrate kindness towards others (Louisiana floods), and conversely capable of depraved evil. Amazing, beautiful, terrible, debased creatures are we. Yet, when it all looks like drakness, we eventually turn toward enlightenment. Deja vu all over again.

  32. AesopFan Says:

    Oldflyer Says:
    August 29th, 2016 at 4:48 pm
    “An idle thought; if you in effect promote Gaia to Diety status, can you still call yourself an Atheist?”
    * * *
    However, the point of the Gaia-worshiping “atheists” is that their god doesn’t ask them to do, or be, anything other than “a natural man” —

    But if She wants to be a real Deity, She has to get her own dirt.*


  33. Oldflyer Says:

    Oh, oh Aesop fan. Trigger warning. How could you?. Natural man indeed.

    I think of Gaia worshipers as “Pagan Light”.

  34. groundhog Says:

    I think AI could go a long way to improving life of the aged and infirm.

    A nursing home environment where the assistants are eternally patient, not abusive, always just a few minutes away, don’t ignore patients and aren’t bored seems like it would be a nice improvement.

  35. Roy Lofquist Says:

    “Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it.”

    Pascual Jordan

    “When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.”

    Eugene Wigner

    “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.”

    Bernard d’Espagnat

    “In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it.”

    Martin Rees

    The world only exists if it is perceived by a consciousness. Therein lies the definition of an “artificial intelligence” – can it imagine a world that is different in significant respect to the “objective” world of common experience. Four year old humans can and do. Computers never will.

  36. Julie near Chicago Says:

    Well, I see it like this.

    You can explain how masses “attract” each other or “cause warps in space-time” (Newton, Bowdlerized Einstein, respectively) until the cows come home, but neither of those explanations are going to tell what it feels like to be subject to the “force” (if such it be) of gravity.

    I can give you my mother-in-law’s recipe for carrot cake, and the biochemists and food chemists and neuroscientists can get together and (in the Ideal World) tell me exactly what receptors of yours are going to tickled by which molecule in the cake, and to what degree, and how your entire neurological system is going to respond, right down to the gazillionth of a nano-volt — and none of that will tell me what the cake tastes like to you.

    Even if we were to arrive at the point where we can “explain” consciousness (in the hard sciences, this sort of “explanation” is really the result of a mapping of observable facts onto pertinent concepts we’ve developed in our minds), that would not convey the experience of consciousness.

    Or, as that guy Korzybski put it,

    The map is not the territory.

    . . .

    As for the other, I am sick of the Wars of Religion. I’m an atheist by temperament, an agnostic by logic, and I hate hate hate militant atheists and militant theists and militant philosophies, real or ersatz, of any kind.

    There really are good and sensible people out there who are atheists but not Professional Atheists, like Hitch or Dawkins (but of course they’re really showmen, however much they may believe their spiel); and ditto for those who follow a religion.

    There are also atheists who really do hate the religious in the same way that one religious group hates another: Out of fear. Fear of loss of power, and fear of a world in which they would not be able to make their way, which fear we often call a fear of not being in control.

    (As an aside: That sort of fear is perfectly legitimate in and of itself; ideally it reminds us to stay alert and keep our wits about us when in unknown territory. But it can become pathological when it becomes a need to exercise power over others.)



  37. brdavis9 Says:

    Neo’s: The only politi-cultural blog I could even imagine might ever include a comment/commenter mentioning Alfred Korzybski.

    And has.

    And correctly.

    See? – There is a god.

    You just made my year @Julie.

  38. Dennis Says:

    I imagine the reason Penrose thought the mind uses quantum physics is because of the ability of particles to become entangled and thus to be able to influence each other at a distance. One of the problems in explaining the mind in terms of traditional physics is that one can be aware of an entire field of information simultaneously. Reductionism simply can not explain that ability.

    With entanglement it is possible for multiple entangled particles to communicate instantaneously. If the weirdness of quantum physics is an integral part of the mind, that means that the synapses with their off or on signals are not the only way that various parts of the brain communicate. Entangled particles could be much more nuanced and could provide a field which is not confined to a delimited space.

    If the mind is the result of entangled particles which are in constant communication, that means that today’s AI can perhaps be programmed to resemble the human mind but will always be qualitatively different.

  39. Artfldgr Says:

    which really doesn’t seem to explain a whole lot except to say “it’s a mystery.”

    not really if you read the book and know the work behind it too… the key being things like spooky action at a distance and quantum tunneling etc…

    basically penrose says that while computations can be mimic and calculations too… which would be the appearance of AI… but that conciousness given chemistry and other ways our biology works, goes down to the quantum level, and so, that is where for lack of better terminology our soul connects to the infinite… (though he doesnt say it that way)

    i did lots of work in AI for wall street and such
    then made the mistake of coming to where i am where they locked me down and ruined my career
    now i get entry level pay to do senior level work, no regard or respect, and i sit waiting to die as my reward as thats the only out…

    AI and expert systems including neural nets and such are very interesting… been working for 20 years with them… not that i have the social skills to do anyhthing with my discoveries…

  40. Sergey Says:

    There is no answer, and never will be. The problem of consciousness simply is not a scientific one, the phenomenon can’t be even expressed in scientific terms, much less explained. Science deals only with explaining natural phenomena in terms of natural phenomena, but consciousness by its very nature is supernatural. The best approach in my opinion belongs to famous physicist Erwin Shroedinger, who was also a deep philosopher, and is given in his book “What life is from perspective of physicist”, where he postulates that inner states of a quantum system, that can not be measured in any possible physical experiment due principle on uncertainty, can nevertheless be affected by free will, a non-physical, supernatural force, and this explains the very phenomenon of free will, that is, human ability to command his own body. Brain in this interpretation is a quantum computer specifically created for connection between soul and body.

  41. Sergey Says:

    Art, it seems Penrose asserts just the same what Schroedinger does.

  42. David Foster Says:

    A think piece on the question ‘can we upload a brain to a computer’, at (oddly enough!) the GE blog, which gets a little philosophical occasionally:

  43. Oldflyer Says:

    Thank you Julie. Enjoyable.

    I suspect that many believers have agnostic characteristics. Faith allows room for doubt. Would it be wrong to say that faith is also the parent of doubt?

    I have reached the point–perhaps real thinkers do so earlier in life–at which I anticipate the next step. Don’t get me wrong; I am patient and content to wait. But, all of the questions that are posed here and elsewhere will be answered in the only possible way. The concept is sort of exciting; kind of like a cat shot from a carrier deck on a very dark night. Of course if one does not believe in an after-life, one will never know the answers, eh?

    It goes without saying that is not valid to always equate belief and faith with religion. Religion is a human construct, and is susceptible to all of the ills that humans can inflict; although it can also nurture faith. Religion can be a convenient vehicle to justify aberrant behavior; but there are others. We cannot ignore that there was one notorious regime that hid behind science to justify simply awful depredations.

    If one is an atheist by temperament, and an agnositc by logic, could that simply mean that the person is repulsed by religious excess, while having the normal “crises of faith”? Not to put words in your mouth of course.

  44. huxley Says:

    I was excited about the Singularity idea of uploading my brain to a computer to become immortal–until I realized it meant “I” as the being currently experiencing consciousness would still die.

    The fact that a memorex clone of me might carry on in some hi-tech fashion from a brain recording was little comfort.

  45. huxley Says:

    Whatever realities may or may not lie behind religion and religious experience, I’m convinced the religious impulse is an important part of being human. That it’s double-edged — like sex or intellect — shouldn’t be surprising.

    I think it’s a sort of blindness or hubris on the part of the militant atheist crew to suppose that religion should be excised from humanity for its own good.

    A few months ago I started reading science-fiction again and was annoyed by Arthur C. Clarke’s constant jabs at religion in “3001,” the final book in the 2001 series.

  46. Mac Says:

    Julie near Chicago, re what it’s like to taste the cake, etc.: this is one of the main points DB Hart makes in the book I mentioned. Attempts to account for it by physical investigation and theory strike me as just plain absurd.

  47. Ray Says:

    There is actually a competition in AI.

  48. J.J. Says:

    My story is long and filled with grappling with faith. I went from a Presbyterian, to an agnostic, to a belief in predestination, and finally to being a strong Deist. My faith that there is a God, the Creator, the Force, He-Who-May-Not-Be-Named, or ????, is based upon a series of transcendental experiences over a period of several years.

    The first came at a time when I was at a very low point in life and suffering from deep grief over the death of our son. A woman we did not know came to our house with a message of comfort. It was a poem and it spoke directly to us as a message from our son. When she left, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of great peace and overwhelming love. I sensed a message that our son was where he was supposed to be. I refer to what I experienced as Grace, and the woman who came to us as an Angel. The feeling of grace stayed with me for about two weeks and then gradually faded. I kept trying to regain it, but it was elusive. It could not be summoned at will.

    Five years later I was going through another low point and had been searching for meaning in my life. One day while out hiking in the Colorado mountains I observed a giant thunder storm go through it’s life process – building into an enormous, towering giant with the whitest whites and blackest blacks intertwined. Lightning was ejected in massive bolts and thunder roared from the peaks and valleys. Rain poured down in torrents. It was a mighty display of the power of Nature. I had seen many thunderstorms before, but this one transfixed me. When it was over, I was suddenly visited by Grace again. This time I felt the overpowering love and sense of peace, but also saw quite clearly that we are all loved unconditionally. Yes, no matter our station, we are all beloved children of our Creator. Again the feeling of Grace faded but it was a turning point for me. I now knew, deep within every fiber of my being, that we are loved and there is a Creator.

    Since then I have had several other periods of Grace. Most occurring when I was observing some miraculous facet of nature or beauty created by the genius of humans.

    I don’t know why I have had these experiences. I know I’m thankful for them. I’m hesitent to share them because most people that I have shared with have been quite skeptical. I don’t blame them and I wouldn’t claim that I have any special religious insight except that which is very personal to me.

    I am a supporter of all religious beliefs that are about forging a closer relationship with God as you perceive Him/Her. I don’t mind atheists as long as they are tolerant, but too many seem to believe that by being an atheist they must, by definition, be intolerant of Deist religious beliefs. And that’s a pity.


  49. DNW Says:

    “As for food for thought, arguably… self-aware machine intelligence would have a right to both independent autonomy and citizenship…”

    I don’t know why. They are just artifacts with an ability to register the impact of the environment on their operating system. Unless there is an argument that some particular quality or attribute they are given entails that they now are entitled to … something for some reason.

    However trying to argue associative or other rights from “self-awareness” per se, turns out to be a trickier proposition – meaning argument – than most people seem to assume.

    But others are apparently saying similar things.

    I personally do not understand how one can owe a thing anything, or how such entitlements logically flow from its manufacture; any more than they would to varying degrees, one would assume, with a hammer, a CNC lathe, or a robotic welding arm with a feedback loop. These are tools or mechanisms built to amplify or mimic certain human activities. That does not make the tool alive, or imply it has rights.

    Suppose for example, it registered the environment around it as distinct from “itself” but no one programmed it to self-perpetuate. Does it have an “interest” in “staying on”, anymore than a light bulb does?

  50. DNW Says:

    Sergey seems to be more or less on the right track to me. You will necessarily end up examining what life is, and what it means to have, in the current lexicon of progressive ethical thinking, “interests”; and then what ethical freight these supposed interests, taken purely as interests, are supposed to bear.

    When you try to extract rights, conceived of as human legal entitlements inferred from some other more basic principles or observations about a thing’s supposed nature, you will almost inevitably be forced into a kind of Aristotelian-ism for the sake of salvaging any kind of conceptual coherence.

    The alternative is mere stipulation and fiat.

  51. n.n Says:

    Since people discovered “fire”, they have rejected logic, and there is a popular belief that everything is known and knowable (e.g. scientific mysticism). The limits of the scientific domain are routinely violated for political/social cause, and the scientific method is reinterpreted at will. Case in point, the fantasy of spontaneous conception that heralded the resumption of abortion rites. Also, other “scientific theories” and legal frameworks that are conceived with liberal assumptions/assertions of uniformity, independence, and linearity. Ironically, most theists process the separation of logical domains better than atheists, and agnostics are few and far between. And religion (i.e. moral philosophy) is rejected in favor of authoritarianism for their greater good. We are on a recurring progressive slope.

  52. Julie near Chicago Says:

    Thank you, to those who found something a bit interesting or useful in my remarks above.

    @Oldflyer, August 30th, 2016 at 12:04 pm:

    If one is an atheist by temperament, and an agnostic by logic, could that simply mean that the person is repulsed by religious excess, while having the normal “crises of faith”?

    Interesting thought. It would depended on what one means by “excesses,” I suppose.


    I grew up the Congregational Church, var. midwesterniensis. Most of this was before the Congregational Churches decided whether to merge with the Evangelical & Reformed Church. This was a marriage of convenience: I thought it was a philosophical catastrophic blunder, because my church specifically had no hierarchy (“Congregational”!) nor absolute requirement except for belief in God as the Trinity. We didn’t go in for sackcloth & ashes, nor for fire & brimstone, nor for proselytizing. We did set store by the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. We did not Fear God. We believed in tolerance (in the usual sense — not in “tolerating the intolerable” or some such nonsense).

    My main takeaway from my religious upbringing:

    God gave us a brain; He expects us to use it.™

    I feel repulsed by certain religious practices of certain religionists, naturally, but I don’t blame that so much on religion as on the evil thing that humans can make of it. They can make and have made the exact same sort of evil thing out of atheism.


    My own relationship with Christianity (and Judaism) I like to indicate by a metaphor:

    I grew up in the house of my parents. I have moved out now into my own place, which is different from theirs in some fundamental respects; but I love them still, admire and respect them still, and when I visit I still feel feel that it is home. It’s a good place to visit, though I no longer live there.

    I never knew my grandparents terribly well, but there were visits back and forth, and I felt safe and welcome around them. Their home was a bit strange to me, but it was fun to explore and certainly not intimidating in any way. And I could see how my own parents were their children, grew up under their influence and with their ways, and felt toward their parents as I feel toward mine.

    I hope this is clear…The Parents symbolize Christianity, the Grandparents Judaism.

    I think both these have done a good deal of good over the last two and three (roughly) millenia. In my book, Western Civilization does depend on the Four Strains: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome (as Daniel Robinson, I think it was, put it), and Britain, perhaps out of Germania (in the sense that Secretariat was out of his dam).

    I don’t Believe anymore for the simple reasons that I have no inner Need or Call to Believe, and I personally don’t see anything that justifies to me the adoption of the POSTULATE (in the strict mathematical sense) that we call “Faith,” so often with an entirely unmerited sneer.

    However, I’ve had at least one experience that made a profound impression on me. Personally I’m convinced it was the result of a sudden and major change in my body chemistry, but if I were of a nature receptive to religion to begin with, I might well have considered it a Conversion Experience.

    I don’t doubt for a second that many people have had experiences that they interpret, perfectly sensibly, as evidence of God. If so, it would be quite irrational of them to “blank-out” their experience.

    So: By temperament, one who adopts the faith — the POSTULATE — that “There is no God.”

    But by logic, whether there is or can be a God depends on your definition of God, and the premises that your experience of Reality and that your logical thought (to the extent that your logic is correct) lead you to posit and accept. So the answer here is, “It depends: Sometimes No, sometimes Maybe So.”

    Thus, agnostic (unknowing, unsure) on logical grounds.

  53. The Other Gary Says:

    Julie near Chicago wrote:

    I can give you my mother-in-law’s recipe for carrot cake, and the biochemists and food chemists and neuroscientists can get together and (in the Ideal World) tell me exactly what receptors of yours are going to tickled by which molecule in the cake, and to what degree, and how your entire neurological system is going to respond, right down to the gazillionth of a nano-volt — and none of that will tell me what the cake tastes like to you.

    Exactly. No matter how detailed and correct the physical description is, it simply omits one’s experience of eating that carrot cake. It seems to me there is an entire experiential dimension not addressed by materialist explanation.

    But by logic, whether there is or can be a God depends on your definition of God, and the premises that your experience of Reality and that your logical thought (to the extent that your logic is correct) lead you to posit and accept. So the answer here is, “It depends: Sometimes No, sometimes Maybe So.”

    Completely agree. When I was younger I went through an atheist phase, but only because I could not believe in the personal God of the bible (and mostly still cannot). But I find it quite easy to believe in the impersonal, immanent-essence-of-all-things God.

  54. Oldflyer Says:

    Agree with the Other Gary. Clearly, God has different “perceived” characteristics, even among people of the same broad religion; e.g. Christians.

    I believe in God. I do not believe that God micro-manages our lives. I believe that God set the world in motion, gave us free will, and that for the most part God allows life to run in automatic mode. I have no idea whether there was a time, Old Testament Biblical, when God was more actively involved. I do believe that there are still interventions, but suspect that they are more rare than many accept, and beyond our comprehension. So, my God allows for outcomes based on human decisions, as well as on natural phenomena. As we used to say in Naval Aviation, “stuff happens”. Thus, I don’t pray for specific outcomes; but, to give thanks for blessings and for the wisdom and strength to face what is to be. And for forgiveness, of course. Well, not true. I fudge and pray for God’s protection and general benevolence toward my loved ones. Humans can be inconsistent.

    Like so many Christians, and as we often hear from the pulpit; my wife believes that God is ever present in our lives. Micro-managing if you will. She does not believe in pre-destination exactly; but, she does believe that she can influence specific outcomes through prayer. Strangely, she is also much more prone to anxiety than I.

    We both believe in the Christian God. I have no idea which of us has the more accurate concept. To be revealed at a later date.

    I would really love to cut to the chase and know what is going on in the mind of an avowed Atheist. I am suspicious that deep in there, there is some belief that they work to deny. Maybe they conveniently lump it all under the category of things that science has yet to explain. Not my problem as long as they go their way, and let me go mine..

  55. Ymarsakar Says:

    From what I can tell, Penrose has a plenty big brain, but his leap from consciousness to QM and microtubules seemed bizarre.

    It’s a minor leap from quantum computing to silicon computing. Although it looks large from an engineering stand point.

    Physics, specifically quantum mechanics, and consciousness is linked by Schroedinger’s Cat type mechanics.

    As for the human brain being too small, computer chips are the same size now as before, but they process faster and better due to better architecture, smaller nanometer construction, and better parallel processing. The brain is only half of what humans use to process information. Mastering the tool, isn’t something everyone can do, even when given the manual.

    The difference between someone using one language to process a theoretical concept and someone using two languages in parallax and parallel to process the same theoretical concept, is much the same as the difference between a Pentium II chip and a latter generation quad core.

    Silicon hardware has a heating issue. Biological wetware has an oxygen and blood toxin issue. Since most people aren’t even extracting the maximum oxygen from the air their lungs can draw out, there’s no way they can have their brains run even at 80% of natural capacity. The human body has balancing and safety measures, which includes not allowing muscles to constrict past 80% of their max force, absent adrenaline or other conditions. Often times the human brain is just set on “power save”, and that’s how most people go through their lives, after childhood. But again, the brain is merely half of the human processing power. The other half is in the second brain.

    A lot of this connects to religions and atheism. Atheism cannot be based on faith, because it is supposed to use conscious rationalism to figure things out, using proof or some kind of concrete basis. But quantum mechanics and faith itself, are not concrete or even demonstrable. Much like the electromagnetic field, it is invisible, except for the effects.

    As for God, it’s not hard to conceive of higher or lower dimensions in which entities exist that are not the same as biological humanoids or biological life on planets. Even human science fiction has figured this one out, for entertainment purposes.

    The crucial difference is whether divine revelation is real, that a divine entity wants to have a person relationship, contract, or such with a human tribe, and if the recorded thoughts and feelings transmitted through corrupted (post Babel) language is accurate or not.

    This separates people who are Deists or Agnostics, from people who believe in a particular divine revelation from a god or their god. Divine revelation is much like a family inheritance or a martial arts lineage, much of it must be qualified by its quality. If it isn’t real, then it doesn’t matter, except as a placebo effect on human behavior. If it is real, but not accurate, then we got more problems. If it is real, and also accurate, then there are even more problems.

    While it would have been ludicrous to expect primitive humans back in the day to imagine how a higher level eneity could have created a planet or a solar system, humans right now can envision the power levels capable of such a feat. A Kardashev 2-3 type civilization could easily do so. Most humans think of such as another biological civilization or empire, because humans have to anthropomorphize things, like a higher entity, to make sense of it. That’s less of a limitation on the source of pure power, as it is a rendition of human flaws and limits.

    It is precisely because higher level entities have a hard time relating to us, and that we have a hard time relating to them, that communication breaks down. Consider trying to have a meaningful contract, verbal spar, or negotiation with an ant. Crush an ant, throw water on a colony, or kick it out, and the ant merely recognizes you as part of the natural world. Your malice or other intent, doesn’t get through to them, because you don’t communicate in pheromones. Nor do the ant’s communications make sense to you, except due diligent reverse engineering using human reason.

    The reason, if there needs to be a reason, for why people pray to God and they cannot magically affect the world, is pretty simple. Try being an ant and then telling a human not to step on it. Go ahead and try. It’s not impossible, but it’s not done in the usual method.

    Without faith, the spiritual conduit cannot reach this earthly realm and affect change. This is why science cannot accept divine power, because divine power breaks the known laws of physics. Except for quantum mechanics which is already weird and has already forced a reconsideration of the nature of matter. Faith vis a vis Schroedinger’s Cat, would be never opening the box, then hoping some chance or element will bring out the desired result. Because if you try to “prove” whether the cat is dead or alive, you have now sealed that fate into the reality by collapsing the wave front via observation. Only by making sure it is a closed box, and observing it with faith only, can an outside force then affect the contents of that closed box, which they can open, if you don’t open it first.

    As for why I speak of faith affecting miracles on Earth, it’s because there are plenty of unexplained things under the sun for the scientific methodology. Whether God is or not, whether the Bible is true or not, whether it even is accurate or not, doesn’t matter, since right now I have seen evidence where humans have called upon powers outside of themselves, in order to effect change. Now usually that would be called a “coincidence”, but not even I can accept that as the case, given what I’ve seen and researched.

    Jean De Arc was merely one of the notable examples, there are plenty more from this and last century.

    Also, a lot of atheists these days, aren’t atheists. They operate on faith, even if it is faith in a man made god or humanity itself or the scientific status quo. It’s still faith, they haven’t transcended and left us behind, while they operate 100% on reason and rationality. The same things people desire from a religion, atheists get it from their belief systems, it’s just not the same method, just the same result.

    As for proof, the microwave may be humanity’s proof that their theory of the atom was right… after a few renditions and system overhauls. But the proof why God works is more subtle, since God is managing the entire planet and the entire human race. So unless a person understands all of humanity’s good and evil, all of its flaws and fruits, that person cannot even hope to understand whether the system is working or not. They could compare Christian nations to Islamic nations, but that would be a superficial, political comparison. Divine level entities care about spirits and divine level powers. Human power politics is far beneath them, merely a bug in the “debugging”.

    “Why” divine level entities would be interested in affairs on a planet (which they could easily create if they wished) is the unanswered question. Although actually, it’s more like a question everyone thinks they know the answer to, just as scientists thought they knew how the world worked back when the theory of atom involved no protons and no neutrons. They certainly did know how the world worked… to the limit of their mortal comprehension at least. And yet as primitive as they were to us, those 2000-4000 years ago, are even more primitive to the early physicists. And as the progression appears, imagine what a divine level entity, which is more intelligent than every single human that has ever lived, combined together, operates at.

    Genesis speaks of God creating the Earth, the waters, and the system in 6 days. Joseph Smith from the 1830s, added that this was a simulation. Smith also added in certain parts to Genesis, which I felt was left out. Such as exactly what was meant by “days”. It’s not earthly days, because the earth didn’t exist yet and it wasn’t even spinning on the current axial tilt. So whose days was it, that Abraham was thinking of? The people back then couldn’t count to 360 easily, they had to use the degrees of star gazing to figure out the years, months, and days. They would use sun dial geometries to measure the degrees of divergence as stars and planets moved in the heavens, calculating the seasons and thus the days, in a 360 degree arc, and thus in 360 days. These were measured purely in triangles.

    A god or a divine level entity, that exists purely as spirit and not in this realm at all like a hyper volume, trying to explain stellar mechanics to Abraham? There would be certain things they could not leave out, since the explanation would have to be very basic. Those explanations are missing in Genesis itself. Either it didn’t happen, which calls into question whether Abraham was really talking to a superior entity, or it happened and nobody bothered to write it down. Or they did write it down but nobody could then understand it using human language, so people forgot about it, like the telephone game.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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