This series of articles will discuss the basic differences between human and computer intelligence, a particularly important distinction today, flooded as we are with predictions that artificial intelligence and robots will soon surpass human abilities. What is true and what is fiction in the conflicting stories we hear about this subject?
The crucial distinctions rest on the ultimate nature of consciousness and life itself, which are fundamental aspects of reality currently not well understood by science. However, neuroscientists, biologists, and cognitive scientists, having accepted the materialist and reductionist assumptions of physics, are attempting to explain consciousness as an emergent property of the brain considered as a classical machine. Using the same premises, humans have been declared to be machines, at least in principle, because those same assumptions have been making excellent predictions about the inanimate world.
Accepting without question that we are machines, many computer scientists and engineers are forecasting that future computers will be smarter than us, and conscious as well, without any logical contradiction. The rest of us, however, is surprised and worried about these predictions because common sense is telling us that something must be wrong somewhere. Do not worry, they say, this is the order of things, and you might as well make the best of it. Still, in the domain of life and consciousness we are dealing with an order of phenomena that go well beyond the explanatory reach of reductionist science. My position is that consciousness is essentially a quantum phenomenon and living organisms are quantum-classical structures that allow to interface between the reductive classical world of ordinary object and the holistic quantum world of consciousness.
The first two articles will cover the remarkable aspects of consciousness for which current science has no explanation. These properties are incommensurable when compared to the mechanical, algorithmic properties of computers. Articles three and four will make the point that to explain consciousness the assumptions of physics must be changed by giving consciousness the status of a fundamental property of nature. This crucial change is further discussed in the fifth article with the hypothesis that space, time, matter, and energy are emergent properties of the interactions of conscious entities. This new hypothesis returns meaning and purpose to the universe that materialism had denied. The sixth article will discuss the nature of classical and quantum information, and finally the last two articles will discuss the fundamental differences between living organisms and classical machines, concluding that classical computers cannot be conscious. Computers may have superior mechanical intelligence (AI) compared to human beings but they will never possess human intelligence that is based on the non-algorithmic properties of consciousness, such as qualia perception, comprehension, intuition, and emotions.
What is consciousness?
I know within myself that I exist. This is a common experience to every human being. But how do I know? I know because I feel in my interiority that I exist. The feeling carries the meaning (I exist). Therefore, the capacity to have feelings and understand their meaning is the essential property that “explains” how we know. This is the crucial capacity of consciousness.
When I smell a flower, I feel the scent. But the feeling is neither the set of electrical signals produced by the olfactory receptors inside my nose, nor the electrical signals generated by the brain after it has processed the olfactory signals. The output signals of the brain are correlated with the scent, but the scent is not equal to those signals. Electrical signals carry information, but that information is translated within my consciousness into a subjective feeling: the scent I feel within.
We could build an instrument capable of detecting the specific molecules that carry what we perceive as the scent of a flower and correctly identify a jasmine, for example, by the type of molecules it emits. Such machine could even say “jasmine” by converting the electrical code that identified the flower to another electrical code driving a loudspeaker to voice “jasmine,” but that machine would still feel nothing.
To have consciousness, a machine should feel. Instead, its sensory capacity stops at the electrical signals. From those signals, other ones can be generated to cause some response or action, but no feelings exist between the signal recognition and the programmed action. We could say that there is darkness inside a machine, but this would only be a poetic statement because a machine has no "inside." The interiority we experience is entirely created by our consciousness.
Consciousness allows us to do much more than recognizing and reacting to sensory signals like machines do, however. By feeling the smell, seeing the image, and touching the petals of the jasmine, we connect with it in a special way. We “experience” the jasmine, and this lived experience has special significance for us, producing other feelings like joy, curiosity, and love. A machine cannot connect with anything: it is only a web of meaningless action-reactions.
We could then simply define consciousness as the capacity to feel. But feeling implies the existence of an entity that feels, an observer, a self. Consciousness is in fact inextricably linked to a self. It is one of the core properties that characterizes a self: it is its capacity to perceive and know through feelings, through a sentient experience. But there is more, because consciousness can also turn toward the self allowing it to know itself in addition to perceiving and knowing the outer world. The other fundamental property of a self is the capacity to act with free will. This property will be discussed in a later essay of this series.
We could even say that the self comes into existence in a process of self-reflection: I exist because I feel myself existing, and I feel existing because I exist. This is a slightly more nuanced version of the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. I come into existence at the very instant in which I experience myself existing for the first time. This self-knowing is creative because it leads to the existence of the self from an unconscious level that we could call potential existence. In other words, the “substance” of which the self is made must be self-reflecting and in knowing itself it becomes a self. In this view, existence and knowing are like two irreducible faces of the same coin.
The nature of feelings
We have seen that perception and knowing ride on the conscious feelings of the self. However, feelings are a different category of phenomena than physical signals. They are incommensurable with electrical, biochemical, or electromagnetic signals and nobody knows how feelings might possibly arise out of inert (unconscious) matter. Philosophers have coined the word quale (the plural is qualia) to mean “what something feels like.” Explaining the existence and the workings of qualia has been called the hard problem of consciousness because it is still an unsolved problem.
If we now examine our feelings, we can immediately recognize four distinct classes:
1) physical sensations and feelings
4) spiritual feelings.
The first class consists of the sensations and feelings that arise from perceiving the physical environment both inside and outside our body. Examples of physical sensations and feelings are: what food tastes like; what objects or animals smell like; what touching something feels like; what colors and shapes feel like; and what our body feels like, including pain in various parts of it, and the feelings of physical well-being.
I want to clarify that when I say “inner feelings” I refer to something correlated with the signals produced by either physical organs inside the body or physical objects outside the body. For example, when I touch my left arm with my right hand, I feel sensations localized in my hand and arm even though the signals associated with those sensations are produced in a different location, my brain. Likewise, when I see an object in front of me, the shape and color sensations of the object are correlated with signals produced by my brain and are projected in the outer space occupied by that object. Since the brain signals exist only inside my head, how is this feat possible? I should perceive the object like a “picture of that object” existing only within my head, not in the space in front of me. Science can neither explain the nature of qualia nor how objects can be perceived outside of us when the corresponding signals are inside our skull.
The second class, emotions, has a distinctively different “feel” than the first. To this class belong fear, anger, sadness, curiosity, friendship, compassion, pride, greed, confusion, trust, self-will, shame, envy, and so on. Emotions feel quite different compared with physical sensations. We instinctively know that emotions come from a different “layer” of our nature than the one from which our physical sensations arise.
Surprisingly, most people are not completely in touch with their own emotions. For example, if I were to ask you, “what do you feel right now?” you would typically tell me what you think you feel because we normally do not feel any clearly identifiable sentiment, unless our emotions are particularly intense. Therefore, your answer would commonly describe what you think you may be feeling, i.e. the memory of an emotion felt in the past, rather than an emotion lived in the present moment.
The third category is made of thoughts. Interestingly, a thought is generally not considered to be a type of feeling, but if I ask: “how do you know you had a thought?” you may recognize that you felt something vaguely cross your mental “screen,” leaving a faint “image,” a quale, with the essential meaning of that thought. Most people do not recognize the barely conscious quale-image prior to its swift and automatic translation into mental words (symbols), believing their thought came directly in verbal form. We have usually learned to ignore the qualia that are the essence of a thought.
When the intensity of our thoughts or emotions are close to normal, we feel next to nothing, and since we confuse thoughts and emotions, we often believe that a thought may change how we feel. This idea only appears to be true because when we think we are feeling something we are most likely bringing up from memory a synthetic emotion like the one we thought about. We do this when we are not in touch with our true feelings.
A true feeling can only happen spontaneously in the present as a “live form.” The memory of a past feeling is not a real feeling; it is what a symbol feels like, not what “I” feel like right now. “I” is the self, and the self is not a symbol. When an artificial feeling replaces the apparent lack of feelings in our consciousness, we are led to believe that a thought can cause an emotion. This happens only because we were not aware of our real feelings. If we had been, a thought could not have changed a true feeling. For example, when we have a strong emotion like rage or grief, no amount of thinking can make it vanish, even when we would very much like to do it, proving that thoughts neither cause nor change real emotions.
We have learned to use our thoughts to “crowd out” our weaker feelings and occasionally replace them with “memories of feelings.” This is particularly true when we believe we should feel something that is politically correct in the situation at hand. We do not realize that by making a habit of it we close off an essential source of information about ourselves, because a synthetic feeling is far different than the presence in the now of a spontaneous feeling that reveals something much deeper about ourselves.
Finally, the fourth class of qualia contains spiritual feelings. In this category, we have the most subtle and revealing knowing about our true nature. For example, the deepest sense of existing as an independent and unique self, beyond any doubt; the clearest sense of having a deep and independent intention and purpose; the most intimate feelings of love with the desire to know ourselves and the people we love; the sense of connection with the universe and with some transcendent “presence” vaster than we are; and so on.
The categories of feelings are useful to indicate the origin of a specific feeling, but then, the effect of a real feeling, particularly if it is intense, may spread to all the other layers of our self, bringing forth other feelings associated with the first. For example, anger is typically born in the “emotional layer,” but its impact quickly spreads to the physical layer with sensations of arousal and often a call for action. Anger may also affect the thinking layer with thoughts of retribution, for example. Finally, anger may inhibit any spiritual feelings while it is present. This means that emotions, thoughts, and spiritual feelings do not have clear boundaries like the sensations of physical objects and therefore their categories are not sharply defined.
There are also some feelings that have the same name, even though they originate in different layers of the self and can be clearly discriminated from each other. The feeling of love is a case in point because it may arise as a physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual feeling, each quite different from the others, despite bearing the same name. Love may be special because it involves a feeling of union, or merging, at all levels of being. For the remainder of this essay, I will use quale to indicate any feeling originating in any of the four layers just described.