Consciousness – Orthogonal or Crucial?

The following is an excerpt from my book Reflections on Intelligence (2016/2020).


A question often considered open, sometimes even irrelevant, when it comes to “AGIs” and “superintelligences” is whether such entities would be conscious. Here is Nick Bostrom expressing such a sentiment:

By a “superintelligence” we mean an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills. This definition leaves open how the superintelligence is implemented: it could be a digital computer, an ensemble of networked computers, cultured cortical tissue or what have you. It also leaves open whether the superintelligence is conscious and has subjective experiences.

(Bostrom, 2012, “Definition of ‘superintelligence’”)

This is false, however. On no meaningful definition of “more capable than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills” can the question of consciousness be considered irrelevant. This is like defining a “superintelligence” as an entity “smarter” than any human, and to then claim that this definition leaves open whether such an entity can read natural language or perform mathematical calculations. Consciousness is integral to virtually everything we do and excel at, and thus if an entity is not conscious, it cannot possibly outperform the best humans “in practically every field”. Especially not in “scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills”. Let us look at these three in turn.

Social Skills

Good social skills depend on an ability to understand others. And in order to understand other people, we have to simulate what it is like to be them. Fortunately, this comes quite naturally to most of us. We know what it is like to consciously experience emotions such as sadness, fear, and joy directly, and this enables us to understand where people are coming from when they report and act on these emotions.

Consider the following example: without knowing anything about a stranger you observe on the street, you can roughly know how that person would feel and react if they suddenly, by the snap of a finger, had no clothes on right there on the street. Embarrassment, distress, wanting to cover up and get away from the situation are almost certain to be the reaction of any randomly selected person. We know this, not because we have read about it, but because of our immediate simulations of the minds of others – one of the main things our big brains evolved to do. This is what enables us to understand the minds of other people, and hence without running this conscious simulation of the minds of others, one will have no chance of gaining good social skills and interpersonal understanding.

But couldn’t a computer just simulate people’s brains and then understand them without being conscious? Is the consciousness bit really relevant here?

Yes, consciousness is relevant. At the very least, it is relevant for us. Consider, for instance, the job of a therapist, or indeed the “job” of any person who attempts to listen to another person in a deep conversation. When we tell someone about our own state or situation, it matters deeply to us that the listener actually understands what we are saying. A listener who merely pretends to feel and understand would be no good. Indeed, this would be worse than no good, as such a “listener” would then essentially be lying and deceiving in a most insensitive way, in every sense of the word.

Frustrated Human: “Do you actually know the feeling I’m talking about here? Do you even know the difference between joy and hopeless despair?”

Unconscious liar: “Yes.”

Whether someone is actually feeling us when we tell them something matters to us, especially when it comes to our willingness to share our perspectives, and hence it matters for “social skills”. An unconscious entity cannot have better social skills than “the best human brains” because it would lack the very essence of social skills: truly feeling and understanding others. Without a conscious mind there is no way to understand what it is like to have such a mind.

General Wisdom

Given how relevant social skills are for general wisdom, and given the relevance of consciousness for social skills, the claim that consciousness is irrelevant to general wisdom should already stand in serious doubt at this point.

Yet rather than restricting our focus to “general wisdom”, let us consider ethics in its entirety, which, broadly construed at least, includes any relevant sense of “general wisdom”. For in order to reason about ethics, one must be able to consider and evaluate questions like the following:

Can certain forms of suffering be outweighed by a certain amount of happiness?

Does the nature of the experience of suffering in some sense demand that reducing suffering is given greater moral priority than increasing happiness (for the already happy)?

Can realist normative claims be made on the basis of the properties of such experiences?

One has to be conscious to answer such questions. That is, one must know what such experiences are like in order to understand their experiential properties and significance. Knowing what terms like “suffering” and “happiness” refer to – i.e. knowing what the actual experiences of suffering and happiness are like – is as crucial to ethics as numbers are to mathematics.

The same point holds true about other areas of philosophy that bear on wisdom, such as the philosophy of mind: without knowing what it is like to have a conscious mind, one cannot contribute to the discussion about what it is like to have one and what the nature of consciousness is. Indeed, an unconscious entity has no idea about what the issue is even about in the first place.

So both in ethics and in the philosophy of mind, an unconscious entity would be less than clueless about the deep questions at hand. If an entity not only fails to surpass humans in this area, but fails to even have the slightest clue about what we are talking about, it hardly surpasses the best human brains in practically every field. After all, these questions are also relevant to many other fields, ranging from questions in psychology to questions concerning the core foundations of knowledge.

Experiencing and reasoning about consciousness is a most essential part of “human abilities”, and hence an entity that cannot do this cannot be claimed to surpass humans in the most important, much less all, human abilities.

Scientific Creativity

The third and final ability mentioned above that an unconscious entity can supposedly surpass humans in is scientific creativity. Yet scientific creativity must relate to all fields of knowledge, including the science of the conscious mind itself. This is also a part of the natural world, and a most relevant one at that.

Experiencing and accurately reporting what a given state of consciousness is like is essential for the science of mind, yet an unconscious entity obviously cannot do such a thing, as there is no experience it can report from. It cannot display any scientific creativity, or even produce mere observations, in this most important science. Again, the most it can do is produce lies – the very anti-matter of science.


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