This post is the fourth installment of my passing on to both MindBlog readers and my future self my idiosyncratic selection of clips of text from O’Gieblyn’s book ‘God, Human, Animal, Machine’ that I have found particularly interesting. Chapters 5 and 6 form the third section of her book, titled "Network."
From Chapter 5:
When it comes to biological systems like forests and swarms, emergent behavior that appears to be unified and intelligent can exist without a centralized control system like a brain. But the theory has also been applied to the brain itself, as a way to account for human consciousness. Although most people tend to think of the brain as the body’s central processing unit, the organ itself has no central control. Philosophers and neuroscientists often point out that our belief in a unified interior self—the illusion, as Richard Dawkins once put it, that we are “a unit, not a colony”—has no basis in the actual architecture of the brain. Instead there are only millions of unconscious parts that conspire, much like a bee colony, to create a “system” that is intelligent. Emergentism often entails that consciousness isn’t just in the head; it emerges from the complex relationships that exist throughout the body, and also from the interactions between the body and its environment.
Although emergentism is rooted in physicalism, critics have often claimed that there is something inherently mystical about the theory, particularly when these higher-level patterns are said to be capable of controlling or directing physical processes...few emergentists have managed to articulate precisely what kind of structure might produce consciousness in machines; in some cases the mind is posited simply as a property of “complexity,” a term that is eminently vague. Some critics have argued that emergentism is just an updated version of vitalism—the ancient notion that the world is animated by a life force or energy that permeates all things…Although emergentism is focused specifically on consciousness, as opposed to life itself, the theory is vulnerable to the same criticism that has long haunted vitalism: it is an attempt to get “something from nothing.” It hypothesizes some additional, invisible power that exists within the mechanism, like a ghost in the machine.
…emergence in nature demonstrates that complex systems can self-organize in unexpected ways without being intended or designed. Order can arise from chaos. In machine intelligence, the hope persists that if we put the pieces together the right way—through either ingenuity or sheer accident—consciousness will simply emerge as a side effect of complexity. At some point nature will step in and finish the job…aren’t all creative undertakings rooted in processes that remain mysterious to the creator? Artists have long understood that making is an elusive endeavor, one that makes the artist porous to larger forces that seem to arise from outside herself.
From Chapter 6:
…once the world was a sacred and holy place, full of chatty and companionable objects—rocks and trees that were capable of communicating with us—we now live in a world that has been rendered mute… some disenchantment narratives place the fall from grace not with the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science but with the emergence of monotheism. The very notion of imago dei, with humanity created in God’s image and given “dominion” over creation, has linked human exceptionalism with the degradation of the natural world. Is it possible to go back? Or are these narratives embedded so deeply in the DNA of our ontological assumptions that a return is impossible? This is especially difficult when it comes to our efforts to create life from ordinary matter…In the orthodox forms of Judaism and Christianity, the ability to summon life from inert matter is denounced as paganism, witchcraft, or idolatry.
Just as the golems were sculpted out of mud and animated with a magical incantation, so the hope persists that robots built from material parts will become inhabited by that divine breath…While these mystical overtones should not discredit emergence as such—it is a useful enough way to describe complex systems like beehives and climates—the notion that consciousness can emerge from machines does seem to be a form of wishful thinking, if only because digital technologies were built on the assumption that consciousness played no role in the process of intelligence. Just as it is somewhat fanciful to believe that science can explain consciousness when modern science itself was founded on the exclusion of the mind, it is difficult to believe that technologies designed specifically to elide the notion of the conscious subject could possibly come to develop an interior life.
To dismiss emergentism as sheer magic is to ignore the specific ways in which it differs from the folklore of the golems—even as it superficially satisfies the same desire. Scratch beneath the mystical surface and it becomes clear that emergentism is often not so different from the most reductive forms of materialism, particularly when it comes to the question of human consciousness. Plant intelligence has been called a form of “mindless mastery,” and most emergentists view humans as similarly mindless. We are not rational agents but an encasement of competing systems that lack any sort of unity or agency. Minsky once described the mind as “a sort of tangled-up bureaucracy” whose parts remain ignorant of one another.
Just as the intelligence of a beehive or a traffic jam resides in the patterns of these inert, intersecting parts, so human consciousness is merely the abstract relationships that emerge out of these systems: once you get to the lowest level of intelligence, you inevitably find, as Minsky put it, agents that “cannot think at all.” There is no place in this model for what we typically think of as interior experience, or the self.
Embodied artificial intelligence is being pursued in laboratories using humanoid robots equipped with sensors and cameras that endow the robots with sensory functions and motor skills. The theory is that these sensorimotor capacities will eventually lead to more advanced cognitive skills, such as a sense of self or the ability to use language, though so far this has not happened.