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Panpsychism – The Future Calls?

Toaster is in lurve

Toaster is in lurve: Cle0patra “Toaster has a new friend – Ice, they’ve been inseparable since she arrived” via Flickr

Panpsychism is the belief that all things possess consciousness. Some extend this belief to say that the type of consciousness matches the complexity of a thing’s organization.

The idea goes back to ancient times and has appeared around the globe. But it was rejected by a Church that adhered to a speculative, Aristotelian view of matter and which made a sharp distinction between organic and inorganic substances.¹

The Church’s teaching that human beings, alone, have souls complicated things, especially during times when disagreeing with or merely peeving powerful religious authoritarians could lead to ruin—that is, loss of property, torture and death.

After the Church, the philosophy of logical positivism helped to further squash panpsychism in the mid-20th century.

But it never went away.

Interest in panpsychism reemerged in academic philosophy, the New Age, science fiction and quantum physics. Also, it never really left Eastern religions, especially within Korean, Japanese and Chinese beliefs.

Image via Google Images CC

Today, with the rise of robotics, computing and artificial intelligence, a whole new vista of debate has opened up.

A contemporary panpsychist might say that an electrical circuit or machine generates a quality of consciousness in keeping with the degree of that object’s organizational complexity.

Also, the way a thing is organized could affect its consciousness. Not just the degree.

Sound nuts?

Well, let’s remember that human consciousness is demonstrably affected by our bodies and especially the electrochemical pulses coursing through the brain, nervous system and organs. So maybe the panpsychic view is not too far-fetched.

Additional critiques of panpsychism maintain that it is doubtful machines have souls, which many say is an essential component to life.

This might seem like the most compelling critique.

But can we be certain that God does not instill certain machines with souls… if not now, perhaps in the future?

St. Jerome produced a 4th-century Latin edition of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, that became the Catholic Church’s official translation – Wikipedia

Also, as our human bodies are increasingly transformed by science and technology even before conception – with in vitro fertilization – where do we draw the line between mankind and machine?

Traditional theology classes would probably not ponder these kinds of questions in a mature way.

It seems they are more geared toward generating revenue, defining intellectual boundaries and inculcating organizational obedience within a financially free clergy.²

But the questions raised by panpsychism are not going away. And soon they will have to be taken seriously.

Our future might depend on it.

¹ (a) This agrees with “Aristotle’s distinction between the mineral kingdom and the animal and vegetative kingdoms.” https://books.google.ca/books?id=KGaghraz8AUC&pg=PA526&lpg=PA526&dq=Aristotle%E2%80%99s+distinction+between+the+mineral+kingdom+and+the+animal+and+vegetative+kingdoms&source=bl&ots=o6Uhhd0oLB&sig=agRCj_3qQwuEsfs99EywODtzNac&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwirkcut4r7UAhVK44MKHQLxBaYQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=Aristotle%E2%80%99s%20distinction%20between%20the%20mineral%20kingdom%20and%20the%20animal%20and%20vegetative%20kingdoms&f=false

(b) “There is no clear or universally agreed-upon distinction between organic and inorganic compounds.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inorganic_compound

² From the perspective of depth psychology, emotionally challenged individuals often want something to cling on to. It might be hoards of money, status, or just something old and familiar. I say “financially free” because clergy who fit the bill are not burdened with financial concerns. How many working people around the world can claim that?

Related » Artificial Intelligence (AI), Strong AI Thesis, Leibniz, Spinoza

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2001: A Space Odyssey

 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a science-fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke and an MGM film with screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Clarke. The film stars Keir Dullea (as Dave Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (as Frank Pool).

2001’s Discovery – via Wikipedia

It is probably best for sci-fi fans to read the novel after seeing the enigmatic film. The novel helps to make sense of the movie, but for me it’s a bit pedantic. On the other hand, the movie is widely regarded as a cinematic classic. It was even on Pope John Paul II’s top 10 list of favorite films. And before the Star Wars debut of 1977, this sci-fi film was a benchmark for all the others.

In a time before CGI and the first moonwalk, 2001 was groundbreaking, and rightly recognized as such. The apes in the opening shots were painstakingly researched and constructed. Actors studied the movement of real apes and were filmed with actual baby apes. Anthropologists were consulted, partly because “Man The Ape” was a resonant theme back then.¹ In fact, in the late 60s, it was hip to be “Anthro.” And the apes in 2001 were leaps and bounds ahead of the apes in the original Planet of the Apes movie (also released in 1968).

Watching the film today, we find some awkward anachronisms that just wouldn’t wash in 2016. For instance, when Dr. Heywood Floyd he arrives in an orbiting space station, he is generically asked by a computer to enter his “Christian Name.” Russians are cast as a sneaky lot (this negative stereotype continuing until the new millennium, around which point Hollywood branched out to find new ethnicities, cultures and personality types for their cardboard cutout characters).²

English: The famous red eye of HAL 9000

The famous red eye of HAL 9000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The special FX in 2001 were mind-bending for 1968. Today they seem pretty lame and most of the sets dated. But we have to remember that this is an older film with big ideas.

With a bare minimum of dialog and certainly no love story, two related themes are explored:

  • The evolution of Mankind
  • Mankind vs. Machine

The machine, a HAL 9000 computer, malfunctions and murders astronaut Frank Pool and several others traveling in suspended animation en route to Jupiter (Saturn in the novel). The catalyst for the Jupiter mission (and for the eventual transformation of Bowman) is a signal emanating from an anomalous, rectangular monolith discovered just underneath the Moon’s surface (TMA-1).

The film tells us that another, identical object was present on Earth at the dawn of mankind, which we see in the opening scenes with the apes. (The novel explains that the monolith was planted by aliens in order to guide mankind’s evolution through the centuries.)

In an eerily dramatic scene, the lone survivor, Dave Bowman, disconnects HAL’s higher processing modules, despite HAL’s psychiatric advice to “take a stress pill, relax, and think it over.” HAL then sings a song learned in “childhood” as his voice processor slows down to nothingness.

The "Star Gate" sequence, one of man...

The “Star Gate” sequence, one of many ground-breaking visual effects. It was primarily for these that Stanley Kubrick won his only personal Academy Award. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bowman is directly transported through an alien gateway to a distant world. Back in the day people used to talk about the “fantastic” special FX of this segment, which nowadays seem unspectacular.

The next segment, perhaps the most interesting and odd, sees Dave in a strange kind of Renaissance room, where he ages rapidly.³ Dying in front of another monolith, he is reborn a Star Child.

In the novel the Star Child orbits the Earth and safely detonates a low-orbiting hydrogen bomb to prevent it from being used for violence. Unsure what to do next, the Star Child will “think of something.” The film, however, leaves us with an ambiguous ending. We see the Star Child in orbit. And that’s it. Close curtain.

On the whole, the screenplay is far more open-ended than the novel. But both portray astronaut Dave Bowman’s metamorphosis in a way consistent with world myths illustrating the mythic cycle of death/rebirth and transformation. So 2001 could be taken as another myth situated in a longstanding tradition of death/rebirth and transformation myths.

Subsequent novels like 2010 (also a film, not nearly as respected by critics), 2064 and 3001 use the literary device of retroactive continuity. Retroactive continuity means that some plot and setting details are modified (or elaborated on) for a greater, holistic sense of coherence. For instance, in the sequel film 2010 we learn that the HAL 9000 was told to lie by Washington, which was incompatible with HAL’s programming. So the computer’s somewhat sinister ‘malfunction’ in 2001 becomes something of an unavoidable, forgivable psychosis ultimately caused by human error, as HAL ironically suggested in the original film.  

Stanley Kubrick

To me, this kind of retroactive continuity detracts from the magic of the original film. Not to mention charm. Perhaps that’s the difference between Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick. One a very talented but essentially pragmatic writer who likes to tie up all the loose ends. The other, a cinematic genius who realizes the value of mystery.

Having said that, Clarke’s novel 3001 explores an idea where human consciousness (Dave Bowman) eventually merges with a computer program (HAL) to create a new kind of hybrid named Halman. And this is an intriguing idea, considering our potentially endless future.

Related » Cylons

Book cover

Book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Desmond Morris published the massive bestseller, The Naked Ape in 1967 and the popular imagination was very much attuned to our roots in Africa along with the mind-boggling achievements of NASA. Oval pottery and anything remotely “tribal” was equally as trendy as rounded plastic chairs. So this film came along at the right time, to put it mildly.

² This constant updating of marginalized types arguably reflects and reinforces the bigotry and xenophobia of a given era.

³ The renaissance room is explained in the book (which itself is based on Clarke’s earlier short story, “The Sentinel”). The aliens have been monitoring Earth. But due to the time it takes for light to travel to their home world, their information about a “normal” living space is dated by a few centuries. Today, we think about wormholes, bending the space-time continuum and the instantaneous transfer of information across space and time. So this explanation seems not only pedantic but also dated. In this regard, the TV show Star Trek (1966-69) was light years ahead with its warp drive and several episodes about time travel.


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Strong AI Thesis

The Strong AI Thesis was named by American philosopher John Searle (born 1931), to describe the belief that AI (artificial intelligence) may possess actual consciousness like that of a human being.

The idea is expressed as follows:

The appropriately programmed digital computer with the right inputs and outputs would thereby have a mind in exactly the sense that human beings have minds”¹

Searle, himself, rejects the Strong AI Thesis. He believes that computer intelligence simulates but doesn’t possess real thought, a position called “Weak AI.” His Chinese Room thought experiment gives us a compelling argument in support of his position.

English: Mica (Brionne Dawson) is trapped in t...

Mica (Brionne Dawson) is trapped in the Chinese Room. It is an imaginary space first described by philosopher John Searle, though this is from the 2009 fiction narrative feature The Chinese Room, inspired by Searle’s thought experiment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Others believe that Strong AI isn’t too far-fetched, considering that human beings are, at least in part, made up of electrochemical interactions. If Strong AI is true, we can reduce idea down to the simplest levels and argue that even your refrigerator, toaster or iPad have some kind of unique electro-organizational consciousness that would distinguish them from, say, a pile of rocks.

These ideas are explored in many science fiction novels, TV-shows and films. One of the better treatments is found in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, where the line between humans and Cylons sometimes seems very thin.

¹ John Searle, 1998 in Dennett, Damiel C. Consciousness Explained, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991 p. 435.

Related Posts » Isaac Asimov, Commander Data, Hal 9000, Panpsychism

 

 


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Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov Quote

Isaac Asimov Quote (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a Russian-born scientist and science fiction writer. Asimov’s family emigrated to the U.S. In 1923 and he was granted citizenship in 1928.

He taught at Boston University from 1949, to become a Professor of Biochemistry (1979-92). After that he moved to Manhattan when he divorced is first wife. He quickly remarried and remained there for the rest of his life.

Among many other sci-fi stories and novels, Asimov was the author of I Robot (1950), a novel containing a formal code of ethics for artificial intelligence (AI). But here’s the catch. The ethical code wasn’t-for users of AI, but for AI itself.  This code was presented way before many people started seriously asking if AI could possibly possess consciousness, a question now common among philosophers and geeks, alike.

Other commercially successful works include Pebble in the Sky (1950), The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Foundation Trilogy (1963).


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Data (Commander)

Brent Spiner aka Data from Star Trek: the Next...

Brent Spiner aka Data from Star Trek: the Next Generation (Photo credit: Pop Culture Geek)

Commander Data is an android science officer played by actor Brent Spiner aboard the starship Enterprise in the science fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Data’s character evolves during the course of the series. At first he’s mostly an amusing and capable robot, much like C3PO in the original Star Wars film. As the story cycle evolves, however, we see Data wondering who he is, what it’s like to have feelings, parents, children and if he would enjoy sex.

Through various tricks and turns Data eventually experiences human emotions and activities, to become a sort of mythic representative for the idea of AI rights, a theme followed up by the holographic doctor in Star Trek: Voyager.

This might seem fanciful today but as computer technology advances at warp speed, in the not-too-distant future ethical concerns about AI could be headline news. We see this possibility in the science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which illustrates the potential dangers of an intelligent machine (the HAL 9000 computer) gone wrong.