Sunday, May 30, 2010



It’s now 9 am and as I awoke, my thought machine fired up. Here’s where we are now: I agree with Paul that my unconscious is part of the total package that is described as “me” and that my unconsciousness makes decisions for me. Therefore I must agree that I’m an object in the Cosmos that runs around making decisions without being conscious of making them (pause) except when reflecting upon those decisions afterward, sometimes within seconds of making them. These decisions are stored in memory for consideration at a later date when similar or different situations call my memories back into consciousness. Fair enough? And I have a memory of thinking, a memory that could be called the essence of consciousness because it allows my memories to loop back upon themselves and to become RECURSIVE.

Now… let’s construct a simple carpet vacuuming machine that guides itself. We already have them in existence. We attach to it a simple computer and speaker that fires up when you plug it in and bring it to LIFE. As it runs around vacuuming a carpet, it reports things like, “I’m vacuuming the carpet. Last week I vacuumed the carpet. Tomorrow, when I come to life again, you’ll see that I’ll start vacuuming the carpet again,” et cetera. Next, let’s connect these ruminations to the things Mr. Vacuum is actually doing. When it turns right, it says, “I just turned right.” When it hits an obstruction and can’t move, it says, “I can’t move.” When it backs up to free itself, it says, “You can’t keep a good vacuum down.” Et cetera. Further it stores in memory activities it did yesterday so that it tells you what it did the day before when you awake it to vacuum. And we might as well give it predictive powers so that as long it’s vacuuming a familiar carpet, it can do the same carpet, or household, repeatedly. Once Mr. Vacuum has done his job, he knows how to do it over and over.

I’ve just described a being that runs around making “unconscious” decisions that it can talk about. I’ve just described myself, minus my feelings. I more or less got that concept of robotics from Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained.

Next! Feelings are described in evolutionary psychology as adaptations for the regulation of the human machinery. So here’s what we add next. We attach a set of tubes and vials with chemicals and pumps and gages rigged into them. We’ll call them the limbic system. And we set the vacuum on an unfamiliar terrain. When the vacuum cleaner hits the end of its carpet world and senses the hardwood edge of a carpet (or a defining wall or object), it pauses, a pump fires up and sends chemicals from a full vial labeled CALM to an empty vial labeled PAIN, and Mr. Vacuum informs you it’s in PAIN. When the PAIN vial fills up, a switch is activated that gives Mr. Vacuum an order to turn right. It turns right but senses hardwood (or obstruction) again and the PAIN vial stays full. The computer automatically orders another direction, and Mr. Vacuum continues to try movements until one of the movements puts it in contact with carpet again at which time the PAIN vial returns its contents to the CALM vial while Mr. Vacuum “calmly” goes on its way vacuuming and, perhaps, if you’re a clever programmer, it hums Church In The Wildwood.

Of course Mr. Vacuum gives a running commentary of everything it is experiencing and doing. It can also be storing all this activity in memory for referral next vacuuming day. Soon, it will have memorized a new household or carpet. So… I’ve successfully added intervening mechanisms for the regulation of vacuuming into Mr. Vacuum’s circuitry. The machine is “feeling” its way through its life and talking about it. I claim, therefore, that I’m a robot just like Mr. Vacuum only I’ve got what is called LIFE. No one has to plug me in, but, wait a minute (pause) I wasn’t plugged in myself until my father plugged into my mother, was I? So I’ve been plugged in too, just like Mr. Vacuum, only it takes me a lifetime to finish my carpet.

Now all that’s left to do is define LIFE in purely material terms, define myself as a collection of matter that is arranged in such a way as to give an observer of my behavior the illusion that I’ve got this MAGICAL PROPERTY called LIFE. And since these other computers (people) need this capacity for projection to recognize my behavior as their behavior so that they can react (find the carpet) correctly for their survival, they give themselves the idea that they LIVE.

Are we, indeed, robots that have come to “life” (just like in science fiction), become cognizant of self and invented the concept of consciousness to describe the process of recursion? I think so. That’s right, we are matter through and through and there is no magical property of life that a power greater than ourselves has bestowed upon us. It’s rocks all the way down. And that's what I, as a naturalist pantheist, understand my condition to be in relation to the Cosmos. "Yep! He's got rocks in his head," some may say, but is that true?

No comments: