Fine Tuning, Consciousness, and Artificial Intelligence
Each day I’m astonished to be alive. I can’t help contemplating how I/we got here. Or what I/we are. Let’s start with the big picture.
The Fine Tuning
The observable portion of our universe contains some one trillion galaxies that are visible to telescopes. Each of those galaxies likely contains an average of more than 100 billion stars. Our planet is an infinitesimal speck in creation. And yet… and yet the universe seems made for us, or at least for the existence of organic life. The laws of physics seem to be fine-tuned in an extraordinary way to make our existence possible. This is the greatest mystery of science — way beyond the question of why there is something instead of nothing. It’s more like, why is this something so unimaginably fine-tuned to make it possible for us to be here to be gobsmacked by it.
The universe is information. Information that is constantly being processed and exchanged. The Higgs field reminds your body to have mass. The electromagnetic force tells the atoms in your body not to fly apart but yet to break their bonds in many precise ways to allow the chemical reactions that keep you alive. The strong nuclear force coaches your protons and neutrons to stick together, but if that force was the tiniest bit stronger or weaker, stars could not form and die the way they do, and the elements that make up your body could not be.
The forces are not merely in the right strengths to create a Goldilocks universe for organic life, but in just the right ratios as well. For instance, the strength of the electromagnetic force is 10 to the 40th power stronger than gravity, and this turns out again to be just the correct ratio to make stars and stuff possible.
Stephen Hawking wrote, “The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. … The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”
Meanwhile, the universe keeps on processing according to its programming, birthing new stars and minding the death throes of other ones. The demise of stars in cataclysmic explosions called supernovae are responsible for creating the heavier elements beyond helium. These elements, such as oxygen, carbon, and iron, are essential for organic life. In this way, we are all star children. All of the essential elements that make up our bodies, except for the hydrogen created during the big bang, were forged inside an exploding sun.
One explanation for the fine-tuning is that there are an infinite number of universes with laws of physics different from our own. We are in the one that has all the right conditions to make life and sentience possible. Supposing there are an infinite number of universes, then this Goldilocks one should come around. But that theory requires an infinite number of infinities to make our existence possible.
In any case, sentience has not been an easy construct. The universe has gone through a lot to produce some three-pound blobs with which to contemplate itself.
What is Consciousness?
One of the other unanswered questions of science is: what is consciousness, and how does it arise? Mystics have searched for the answer for millennia. Neti neti from Sanskrit translates to “not this, not that.” In deep meditation, when all sensation this and thought that have been silenced, there is still consciousness. What is it then? Where does it come from?
Some scientists believe that humans can create sentience in machines. The question is: no matter how intelligent machines become, will they be aware in somewhat the way we are, in other words, conscious. Are self-awareness and consciousness the same thing? I don’t think so. Experiments have shown that some higher animals have some self-awareness. For example, they can recognise themselves in a mirror. Most animals can’t do this, but are they still conscious?
In 2012, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness came to a scientific consensus that humans are not the only conscious beings and that “non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses possess neurological substrates complex enough to support consciousness …”
There is an assumption that consciousness somehow arises as a result of cognition. It’s sometimes hard for humans to conceive of a mental state that is not always whirling with thought, usually based on linear language constructs. Even though animals are capable of cognition, it is doubtful that their minds continuously work this way. Their consciousness would likely be maintained by constant imputes and neural feedbacks. This might be similar to how skilled athletes function in the so-called “flow state.” We talk about this state as being characterized as having the mind shut down and operation turned over the body’s trained reflexes. Indeed, thoughts during a high level of athletic performance can be interfering and even hazardous. But the flow state is hardly unconscious. My own experiences with this space during activities like rock climbing or skiing through tight trees, for instance, is that the senses and neural feedbacks are heightened and extremely focused. There can be a sense of exhilaration and mental calm at the same time. Those of us in adventure sports live for these moments. I’ve often thought of these states as a kind of dynamic meditation.
I recall watching a langur monkey climbing a cliff in Nepal. He wasn’t foraging for food, but climbing for fun and clearly pushing his limits — risking a fatal fall. When he got to the crux of the climb, below a small overhang, he hesitated. He made a move and backed off. Then he made the move again, only this time he reached further over the lip of the roof. Then he backed off again. He seemed to be rehearsing the critical moves, just like a human climber might. Then he reached over the lip again, but this time he made the commitment to the next move, which carried him past the crux. Having surmounted the roof, he let out a cry. The other monkeys that had been watching somewhat noisily from the safety of the ground went nuts. Seems humans aren’t the only ones who engage in adventure sports. Definitely, a focused consciousness happening there. Since then, I have often watched Langurs engaging in stunts and acrobatics, seemingly for the sheer fun of it. Or, when they look to see if I’m watching, to show off.
Anthropomorphizing used to be jeered. Now it’s become a much more legitimate way to look at animals. By shrugging off a little bit of our chauvinistic speciesism, we learn a great deal more about our own minds.
Where does Consciousness come from?
I will suggest an idea somewhat borrowed from Vedic philosophy: that consciousness is a latent quality of all matter. It becomes manifest through sensory perception, and higher cognition is what sets it free to the state of self-awareness.
If this sounds a little woo woo, it doesn’t have to be. Science would not deny that consciousness arose out of matter based on the embedded laws of physics.
On the other hand, if you decide that the organization of the universe brings you to contemplate pantheism, well, that’s the way Spinoza and Einstein leaned. They were hardly intellectual lightweights.
Here’s a quote from an interview with Einstein in 1923.
“Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and view things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. […] This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance, this may be described as ‘pantheistic.’ ”
If human civilization survives long enough (a big if right now) to create self-aware AIs, then I think that they may be our inheritors, our immortal children. They will explore the universe, an endeavour which will always be impossible for organic beings. Perhaps there are AIs of extra terrestrial origin doing that now.
Can an AI have a soul?
Everything that is is the soul.