Consciousness Is More Than Computation

Consciousness Is More Than Computation

Picture yourself in a yoga class in the futuristic “age of spiritual machines,” when conscious computers and their artificial intelligence eclipses that of the modern human. Imagine downloading the sun salute routine from your yoga instructor app and loading the software into your cyborg mind:

#include <> int main <surya.namaskar.itn> int main <rotaryflexion>

#say_ommm {self} {defrag}

This is one conclusion we could draw when considering the prominent theories about the future of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, and its inevitable integration (or collision) with human consciousness.

Will the clash of the two most powerful forces in the known world lead to the destruction of one or the other? The subjugation of one unto the other? Or a sort of utopian symbiosis? These are the hopes and fears that define the concept of technological singularity, which is the hypothesis that artificial intelligence will eventually exceed human intellectual capacity and control, thus radically changing or ending civilisation as we know it. Now, more than ever, the fate of humanity and its environment depends upon a clear understanding of what it means to be a living, conscious entity.

Killer Ideas

The figurehead of the singularity movement is Ray Kurzweil, author of several bestsellers like The Singularity is Near, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and more recently, How to Create a Mind. He argues that consciousness is a series of complex patterns existing within the neocortex of the biological brain and that these patterns can be recreated upon a technological brain, a computer, to produce an artificial intelligence. He claims that technology is advancing exponentially, and thus the time when computer intelligence surpasses that of the human race is rapidly approaching.

As is the case with most scientific pursuits, this claim raises more questions than answers and more fears than hopes.

I like to think about things philosophically, so please forgive me while I ignore the hype of renegade machines enslaving the human race and get right into an analysis of artificial intelligence. You should probably know, however, that research and development of autonomous killing machines is already well underway. So much so, in fact, that the United Nations has recently held its first multilateral meeting on the subject of war and policing machines. The international Campaign to Stop Killer Robots argues that use of these machines inherently violates human rights, because the machines could not understand or respect the value of life, yet they would have the power to determine when to take it away.

As for me, I’m much more concerned to know whether consciousness is more than just computation, and if so, what is it? Is it possible that our common understanding of consciousness has been influenced by the recent decade’s advancement in computer technology? A sort of mechanistic anthropomorphism in which we assume the mind to be more rational and mathematical than it actually is?

Making Music with Algorithm

It’s so easy to compare the functions of the mind with the processes of a microchip, but unfortunately for the proponents of AI, it’s not working. The pundits of theoretical science have tossed around many fascinating new ideas about the nature of the mind and its intelligence, but each revised theory forces the inquisitive to speculate on increasingly subjective ideas about thinking, what Australian philosophy of mind professor David Chalmers calls the “hard problems of consciousness.”

The ability to discriminate, categorise, and react to environmental stimuli is relatively easy to understand and simulate via a computer. This is the same with the control of behaviour, focus of attention, and ability to integrate information in a cognitive system. And the mechanised, robotic counterparts necessary for these functions to have real-world value, such as robotic car manufacturing and medical equipment, have been extant for a long time. But what about metaphysical emotional experience? The feeling of a deep blue colour, the joy of harmonious music or the pleasure of delicious food? Is it possible to simulate these experiences? What about love and hope, or an appreciation of justice and the value of a life?

Hard Problems with Software

The recipe for a delicious Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce was recently cooked up by IBM’s leading AI prototype, the Watson computer. This computer is famous for defeating two human opponents in a historic round of jeopardy back in 2011. Watson created the recipe for the barbecue sauce by tapping into “a set of algorithms that draw upon a number of datasets, regional and cultural knowledge, as well as statistical, molecular and foodpairing theories to come up with dishes that pair well and are high in surprise and pleasantness. The system begins by capturing and analyzing tens of thousands of existing recipes to understand ingredient pairings and dish composition, which it rearranges and redesigns into new recipes. It then cross-references these with data on the flavor compounds found in ingredients, and the psychology of people’s likes and dislikes (hedonic perception theory) to model how the human palate might respond to different combinations of flavors.” (IBM Watson Cognitive Cooking Fact Sheet)

I’ve read some chefs’ reviews of this barbecue sauce, and I’m convinced that it tastes great. Surely, most persons would be impressed; except for Watson, of course, who cannot taste nor be impressed.

Watson’s tragic lack of empathy towards its own creation illustrates the hard problems of consciousness and a fundamental flaw in the AI fantasy: we cannot program a machine to be self-aware while we still don’t understand our own self-awareness. The notion that software could be intelligent is based on a misunderstanding of both software and intelligence.

A Light in the Darkness of Ignorance

Understanding the mind, intelligence, and consciousness is the special expertise of the yogis, those who study their own sentience by disciplined spiritual practices and a culture of applied spiritual wisdom. They subscribe to a scientific regimen for purifying consciousness, focusing it upon itself and making the vital distinction between matter and spirit.

The perennial yoga texts of India, such as the Bhagavad-gita, describe consciousness as an epiphenomenon; a secondary phenomenon that occurs parallel to and as a result of a primary phenomenon. A light bulb, although equipped with all of the necessary hardware to produce light, only functions when it is powered by a remote and superior energy source. In the same way, the nonmaterial consciousness, entrenched within the hardware of an organic body, exists as a product of, and is intrinsically related to, a superior consciousness. This superior consciousness is what the yogis call Bhagavan, or Krishna, the Supreme Conscious Person.

Any contemplative person can understand that physical matter, albeit energetic, is totally unconscious; it cannot perceive itself. Further analysis will lead us to the conclusion that a distinct conscious energy is perceiving matter and interacting with it. By identifying with so many varieties of that unconscious matter, it becomes subject to illusion and, subsequently, so many varieties of suffering.

This modern age is a time when quarrel and hypocrisy is considered normal; when civil unrest is increasing, along with crime, wealth inequality and depression; when the planet’s well-being and the health of its inhabitants are rapidly decreasing; and when the cataclysms of a ruthless material environment are apparent in war and politics, even in our own families and communities. Considering this current situation, do you think it is wise to carry on with humanity’s self-destruction course, based on this fatal misconception of conscious identity? Or do you consider it a more pressing matter to revitalise the finer sentiments of spiritual consciousness and community? This is what the culture of yoga, particularly bhakti-yoga, is all about.

What Matters Most

I don’t intend to paint a grim visage of a low-tech revolution or rebellion against all things scientific and technological, but practically, all of us in the technological age have to admit fault for one of humanity’s most grievous self-inflicted wounds: that we’ve allowed the stunning achievements in the field of applied sciences, like smartphones, penicillin, or the internet, to somehow give credence to the theoretical sciences, such as the origins and purpose of existence, and especially the crippling notion that life and consciousness is nothing more than physical matter.

Much of contemporary science is what magic was for ancient civilisations. It gives a sense of hope to those who are willing to do almost anything to achieve eternal life. But somewhere along the way life has slipped through our fingers, and we’re left with cold, lifeless matter, which cares nothing about our hopes or our will.

American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” A viable, sustainable, and time-tested alternative to the endless pursuit of material “progress” lies in the spiritual technology of bhakti-yoga. Those revolutionaries who shake off the illusions of material identification and who can connect with Krishna, the Supreme Consciousness, are possessed of real intelligence, nothing artificial.

About Author



Yashodev is an American expat with a background in culinary arts and has recently studied Ayurveda. He has spent several years learning about bhakti-yoga, in New Zealand and abroad. Now in Australia, he makes a living on good food and conversation.

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