In 1995, David Chalmers stated what he calls the hard problem of consciousness: why do we feel alive, why do we experience the world? He separates this from what he terms the “easy” problems or functions like reportability, attention focus etc. He answers his own question by positing a new fundamental unit, not part of the physical universe. In Red Mary I explained why I disagree with the answer, but I do think it’s a good question.
A detractor of Chalmers’, Daniel Dennett, maintains that the functions of consciousness alone are the explanation of subjective experience. That’s clearly nonsense. We can replicate all the functions in computers or other machines without these being aware. Therefore the functions alone do not explain our subjective awareness.
|Consciousness||It’s not a bug, it’s a feature|
|Chalmers’ list of “easy” problems|
|The ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli||“Incorrect password. Please try again.”|
|The integration of information by a cognitive system||CPU|
|The reportability of mental states||“Insufficient memory. Please free up some disc space.”|
|The ability of a system to access its own internal states||Going into sleep mode due to low battery.|
|The focus of attention||Allocation of processors.|
|The deliberate control of behavior||Control processes on production systems.|
|The difference between wakefulness and sleep||Sleep mode|
|Delight and dismay*||Motor running smoothly vs. motor makes weird screeching noises.|
|Distraction and concentration||Allocation of processors|
|Feelings of foreboding*||“Are you sure you want to delete this?”|
|Disregard of perceptual details||Cache not cleared|
|Obsessions||Do you know how often an SAP run reads the company code customising? Talk about OCD!|
|Oversights||Allocation of processors|
|Inability to hold more than a few items in consciousness||Insufficient RAM|
|My ability to be moved to tears by X.*||Plant watering automat – the rest is subjective “feeling”.|
|Inability to catch myself in the act of Y.||“An unexpected error has occurred.”|
|*Delight, dismay, sinking feeling of foreboding, being moved to tears: these are subjective emotions, not functions.||I’ve given parallels to what we may do functionally when these states occur.|
|Some of my own|
|Bad hair day / Getting out of bed on the wrong side.||Processes stuck in loops, caches not cleared. This is why IT support tells you to “turn it off and on again” – a new day for the computer.|
|We’re stuck because we want to eat our cake and have it.||Two processes are waiting for each other.|
Now, I don’t believe my laptop is conscious. Nor will it become conscious when I add an app that measures things like available disc space, CPU capacity, and battery state, and says: “I’m feeling stressed out!” when the CPU is at more than 98% capacity, “I feel sick” when it’s out of disc space, and “I’m hungry” when the battery’s going. Actually, my iPod already does this: “Low battery,” it says mournfully.
But, I hear myself saying, that’s not how I work. I have no idea how high my blood-sugar is. But when it’s too low, I feel hungry. And that’s where the “extra” bit comes in. I feel.
Emotions have a function, or quite a few different functions. And we “feel” them. This is not a necessary consequence of the functions – we can write computer programmes that fulfill these functions without the computers suffering. But the path nature took to solve these issues is one that made us aware.
For my part: I’m happy it did. Aren’t you?