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Guest Editorial

Consciousness–The Hard Question
by Dan Duda
from the February, 2020 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission

There’s probably no issue more basic to our understanding of reality than our own consciousness. Yet, despite a great deal of scientific study and an abundance of statements and hypotheses on the subject, consciousness remains an enigma. One of the more fascinating (and more radical) ideas addressing the issue is panpsychism. Simply stated, this suggests that everything in the universe has some element of consciousness. Not surprisingly, most of us have trouble accepting this concept. According to Dutch scientist Bernardo Kastrup “I can accept that my cats are conscious, perhaps even the bacteria in my toilet. But I have a hard time imagining that a grain of salt contains a whole community of little conscious subjects.”

Nevertheless, serious thinkers from the 17th century German polymath Gottfried Leibniz to current scientist/philosopher David Chalmers take the idea seriously. “[With panpsychism] you can leave the equations of physics as they are, but you can take them to be describing the flux of consciousness. That’s what physics is ultimately doing. On this view, it’s consciousness that puts the fire into the equations.” If true, consciousness would be one of the fundamental factors of nature along with space, time and matter.

This forms a foundation for another concept I find compelling – the philosophy of pantheism. My personal interpretation of pantheism is that the universe itself is a conscious entity (if you can call absolutely everything an entity). With this hypothesis you might say that the definition of God is the universe itself as well as everything in it. So, if you want to see God, look in a mirror. Do I believe this? Not at all, but I can’t dismiss the possibility. “Belief” is too strong a word in a world that we’ve hardly begun to comprehend.

This brings us to Artificial Intelligence (AI). Can machines become conscious? If you accept panpsychism they already are. Many proponents of this line of thought feel that the level of consciousness is related to the volume and speed of information integration involved. Our consciousness may be special due to the high concentration of neurons and other brain stuff present. These interact in a way that gives us a unified perception of ourselves.

Now, think about computers; supercomputers; and then, quantum computers. If this idea is accurate, we will soon be overtaken by a level of consciousness significantly beyond our own. Some prognosticators, like Ray Kurzweil, suggest that this is the plan of our conscious universe. We are here merely to facilitate the birth and takeover by a far superior machine intelligence. He does offer a more hopeful alternative – that we will merge with technology and become part of the new consciousness.

Perhaps the doomsayers among sci-fi writers as well as scientists are right in sounding the alarm. What would a world dominated by machines with intelligence superior to ours mean to us? Would they be compassionate? Or would they see us like we see ant colonies – a nuisance to be tolerated, or eliminated? Or, more hopefully, would Kurzweil be right with humans merging with machines and evolving into the next generation? Actually this process may have already begun. Think about glasses; contact lenses: hearing aids; cochlear implants; prosthetic joints; and AI devises. this list is growing at an accelerating rate. We really are merging with technology.

When I ponder the compelling yet ineffable nature of the universe and our conscious role in it (or as part of it) I’m drawn to Isaac Newton’s words: "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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