Consciousness As Software

Consciousness As Software November 16, 2023

The Downloaded by Robert J. Sawyer is some light sci-fi that asks the question, “Where is consciousness? What qualifies a piece as science fiction is the story is driven by a scientific or technological problem. The story answers the question that mind and brain are dual. The brain is subject to Newtonian physics whereas the mind is constantly moving on the quantum level. If the mind stops moving, it dissipates. The  bodies of the characters are in suspended animation while the mind is uploaded into a quantum computer. They are “resurrected” 500 years later. While the story treats the consciousness of each person as separate from the software of the computer, it is hard to understand why it is.

Models of Consciousness

Natural philosophers and scientists explain consciousness is terms of the technology of the era in which they live. The mind or spirit has been compared to fire, running water, and clockwork. The comparison made to computers has been both as hardware (the opening and closing of circuits in various orders) and software (which guides the opening and closing of circuits in various orders). If the software model holds true, the mind can be downloaded into any brain without any significant loss of function. The Downloaded has a transgender character that helps the plot move along well. Sawyer’s story could have been about how the different minds fought for dominance in the quantum computer or overrode its AI. But, thankfully, it does not do this.

And yet, there is a problem of thinking about the mind as software. How is it written or coded? What exactly makes the program work?

The Problem

We know brain damage may cause changes in personality. It can also cause problems with problem-solving, reactions, and perception. Care-givers for dementia patients watch the personality almost disappear. Yet, the disease is the brain and its effects can be seen on the brain. So, the model of consciousness as software is problematic.

One solution offered is worrisome.

The Illusion of Consciousness

A solution to the problem of what and where is consciousness is to claim consciousness is an illusion. Here is an example of lazy thinking. Descartes’ famous statement, “I think therefore I am,” is denied here. Saying I think therefore I have been fooled into thinking I am begs the question of why I think at all. Descartes began assuming his own existence and being. And the problem for all questions about consciousness may lie in the Western idea of the individual person.

Humans process information rapidly and in more complex ways than any other animal. What we have fooled ourselves into thinking is that a human must exist who does this better than anyone else. We believe someone – without necessarily knowing who – can claim the title smartest person in the world. But this is the result of looking at human beings as individuals. Homo Sapiens (the man that thinks) is used to name an entire species as though it is an individual. It trips up our discussion of consciousness.

Humans As Communicators

We talk therefore we are. Human beings possess consciousness because we communicate. Isolated human beings tend toward maladjustments as though they suffer mild dementia or brain damage. We are neither the only animal that communicates nor processes information. But we have developed communication in many complex forms and thereby greatly increased our knowledge and our skills. Consciousness is a matter of community which is why it is intangible. Consciousness is between people.

Consider what would happen if we encountered intelligent extra-terrestrials. How would we know they are intelligent without a means of communication? We would claim such creatures were people or beings once we communicated with them. Many people grow to think of their pets as persons because they talk to their pets as though they communicate. We may call it consciousness or awareness. But it is because we talk to one another.

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