Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

If there is such a thing as pop analytic philosophy,

Then it probably involves the question of consciousness and artificial intelligence (AI).

As John Searle (if there is such a thing as pop analytic philosophy, then Searle is its Madonna) writes in this good book review in the latest NYRB, "the subject of consciousness has become fashionable. Amazon lists 3,865 books under 'consciousness,' a number of them new releases of the last year or two."

Searle slams a Harvard professor's book called Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness, which is, roughly, about the mind/brain problem and recent philosophical advances in making sense of what exactly consciousness is and how we can explain it. In the beginning of the article he gives a nice, succinct summary of the basic problems of consciousness as Searle's (influential) school of analytic philosophy has approached them in the past 50 years. He's basically taking issue with a somewhat technical but not too unwieldy aspect of the author's approach to the problem. Basically, Searle disagrees about which states can be classified as conscious, and in which way, and how to best approach explaining them. There's some interesting "whoa, man" stuff about what it means to visually perceive a color.

For me, the most interesting application of philosophy of consicousness involves AI. Fundamentally, these questions are relevant for AI (think Blade Runner and Pinocchio) because there will eventually be real public policy problems involving how we treat artificial beings that claim to have consciousness or that humans ascribe consciousness to. It's not just Philip K. Dick/Ethan Hawke silliness, it's an almost inevitable public policy problem.

I've been interested in this since college (or, really, since reading a lot of sci fi books as a kid) but haven't paid too much attention to the academic developments of the past 5 years, and I'm kind of heartened by Searle's optimistic conclusion:

Some traditional philosophical problems, though unfortunately not very many, can eventually receive a scientific solution. This actually happened with the problem of what constitutes life. We cannot now today recover the passions with which mechanists and vitalists debated whether a "mechanical" account of life could be given. The point is not so much that the mechanists won and the vitalists lost, but that we got a much richer conception of the mechanisms. I think we are in a similar situation today with the problem of consciousness. It will, I predict, eventually receive a scientific solution. But like other scientific solutions in biology, it will have to give us a causal account. It will have to explain how brain processes cause conscious experiences, and this may well require a much richer conception of brain functioning than we now have.

So Searle believes that as we develop a richer understanding of the causal mechanisms of consciousness, the ethical and political problems of applied philosophy of mind will seem much more manageable. We will be able to rationally explain to Pinocchio why he is not a real boy. Just before he and a swarm of pseudo-conscious nanorobots exterminate the human race, I mean.


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