6

I use "artificial consciousness" as a broad term to describe the possibility that a computer may have the same experience of reality and of itself that we have.

I guess that a religious view, more precisely a view that requires humans to have a "soul", is fairly incompatible with the concept of "artificial consciousness".

What I am asking instead is why does such rejection sometimes come from a non-religious view?

Shouldn't a non-religious view lead almost immediately to the acceptance that humans are nothing more than machines themselves, so that every difference between humans and computers is merely architectural (biological neurons vs transistors)?

I hear sometimes people messing with the fact that the human brain has a particular structure that, mysteriously, cannot be reproduced through computation (violating the Church–Turing–Deutsch principle). This argument would require some super-natural properties related to the human brain, going back to a religious view that humans are "magical".

  • 2
    You are conflating consciousness with computability. A grave but certainly popular error. – user4894 Apr 22 at 20:08
  • 1
    "Shouldn't a non-religious view lead almost immediately to the acceptance that humans are nothing more than machines themselves?" No, it shouldn't even if one is a materialist. The types of machines whose operation we are familiar with (such as von Neumann computers) are too simplistic to account for human behavior, so we do not yet have a concept of the "machine" that we "just" could be. That the brain does not have the von Neumann architecture is uncontroversial and non-mysterious, artificial neural nets do not have it either, and we do not understand even their function well enough yet. – Conifold Apr 22 at 20:10
  • 2
    Why too simplistic? Our computers (von Neumann architecture) are implementation of Turing machines (excluding memory limitation), so they can calculate any computable function. That's really enough to compute any physical object. Indeed, in order to prove that something is not computable, you would need an infinite amount of data to back such thesis. The point is, why making such strange claims about humans (i.e. they cannot be computed) from people who already accepted the absence of souls – Juggernaut Apr 22 at 20:24
  • 2
    If one accepts that organic life forms are equivalent to machines, that does not mean that consciousess can be captured by self-contained programming code alone assuming you are talking about what is colloquially known as AI. – Cell Apr 22 at 20:34
  • 1
    Newtonian gravity is known to be what? – Juggernaut Apr 22 at 21:12
6

John R. Searle is a non-theist who believes in biological naturalism. Wikipedia describes Searle's position as:

Searle denies Cartesian dualism, the idea that the mind is a separate kind of substance to the body, as this contradicts our entire understanding of physics, and unlike Descartes, he does not bring God into the problem. Indeed, Searle denies any kind of dualism, the traditional alternative to monism, claiming the distinction is a mistake. He rejects the idea that because the mind is not objectively viewable, it does not fall under the rubric of physics.

If one has consciousness coming from a program running on a Turing machine, which is what I assume is meant by "artificial consciousness", one has dualism.

Searle expressed his concern against the dualism of strong AI in his paper, Minds, Brains and Programs, where he described the Chinese Room Argument:

This form of dualism is not the traditional Cartesian variety that claims there are two sorts of substances, but it is Cartesian in the sense that it insists that what is specifically mental about the mind has no intrinsic connection with the actual properties of the brain. This underlying dualism is masked from us by the fact that AI literature contains frequent fulminations against "dualism'-; what the authors seem to be unaware of is that their position presupposes a strong version of dualism.

So, one reason for non-theists to reject artificial consciousness is because it implies a strong form of dualism. When one moves the program from machine to machine, if that program is indeed our minds, then we have gone through an out-of-body process to be reincarnated in another body.


Searle, J. R. (1980). Minds, brains, and programs. Behavioral and brain sciences, 3(3), 417-424.

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 5). Biological naturalism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:20, April 22, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Biological_naturalism&oldid=881932833

  • Software on hardware has nothing to do with dualism. Software, like all the information we know of, is made of matter arranged in a specific manner, and nothing is spiritual about it. – armand Apr 23 at 5:50
  • 1
    @armand The question asks for reasons why some non-theists reject artificial consciousness. I am not saying you have to agree with Searle, but dualism is one reason why his non-theistic position does not accept strong AI. – Frank Hubeny Apr 23 at 9:28
2

Some people do not see how a computer could ever generate qualia, and hence believe that computers cannot be conscious. Here is an attempt to make that argument more precise. (In the below, by understanding "in principle" I mean that there is nothing fundamentally in the way of understanding it, though we may have to engage in some nontrivial logical reasoning to be able to draw the relevant conclusions.)

  1. Computers work by following a sequence of prescribed steps, and there is nothing more to the operation of the computer than that.

  2. Since we understand each of these steps, we in principle fully understand the operation of the computer.

  3. If we in principle fully understand the operation of the computer, we in principle understand every phenomenon it gives rise to.

  4. If a computer had qualia/consciousness, we would not understand how the computer's operation gives rise to that, even in principle.

  5. Therefore, a computer cannot have qualia/consciousness.

(Some of this is reminiscent of Searle's Chinese room argument.) I agree that this seems to violate the Church–Turing–Deutsch principle, but it does not seem that one has to be religious to reject (or be skeptical of) this principle. For example, some people believe that there are further facts, facts that do not follow logically from the physical facts of the world (though this need not imply a belief that computers cannot be conscious). It does not seem one has to be religious for that, at least in terms of how we commonly think of religion.

Of course, the above isn't a watertight argument; for example, step 3 seems very much debatable, and the argument doesn't convince me. It's just an attempt to sketch a possible argument against computer consciousness that seems at least somewhat reasonable and doesn't seem to be religious in nature.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.