Saturday, July 12, 2008

Philosophical Puzzle Solved

One question that was really good for college 'shrooming: how do you know other people are conscious? You don't think about it until you take 'Intro to Philosophy', and then you realize you don't really have a good reason. You can imagine a robot passing the Turing test and being 'non conscious' (e.g., Searle's Chinese Room), so why do we infer consciousness without thinking about it, if we can't explain it?

Well, in the 1990's they discovered 'mirror neurons'. This book review goes over a couple of new books on this fascinating subject, here's a snippet:
The experience of artificial-intelligence researchers has taught us that what seems simple for humans (like recognizing faces) is difficult for computers, and what is difficult for humans (like playing chess) is easy for computers. Imagine that you are at a café with a friend. He reaches out toward a cup on the table between you and picks it up. What he is doing, and why, is obvious: He is drinking his coffee. But how does your brain figure all of this out in a split-second, without any need of conscious reasoning?
When you see a woman grinning broadly, how do you know she is happy? Apparently not through some abstract reasoning process that analyzes the visual information coming from her face and makes a logical inference that her expression is associated with happiness. Instead, you instantly activate parts of your brain that are active when you are happy. You may even make subtle, unconscious muscle movements to imitate her expression.
When I see someone smile, I don't have to infer what it means, I know instinctively because the exact same neurons fire in my head when I smile. This has a lot of implications about empathy, language acquisition and autism, in that they argue there is something in these mirror neurons that is different in autistic people. Thus, even though there is no logical reason we must assume consciousness in others, it is a built in feature.

This explains why we naturally infer consciousness and emotions so much easier than AI--it's an assumption! I wonder how many other puzzles can be solved in the same way, that is, we wonder why people believe X, and the answer is, because it's hard wired.


Michael F. Martin said...


Maybe I've been thinking about the mirror neurons too much, but isn't it possible also that there is no "I" in consciousness then -- perhaps only "We" are conscious. Consciousness may be an entirely emergent phenomenon, which depends on being able to mirror other behaviors.

But maybe that's going to far. Autistic and (at the other end of the spectrum of mirroring) Psychopathic pathology seem to suggest that there is also some balance between mirroring and deviating from mirroring that permits for the emergence of "self" consciousness. First we are aware of others, then we are aware of ourselves.

If we are never aware of others than we never become self-aware?

The mirror neuron research is very, very interesting. And also potentially useful to investors!

Eric Falkenstein said...

That's an interesting thought, that not being able to empathize with others implies we can't be SAS (self-aware subsystems). But I'm thinking most intelligence in the universe is no self-aware, but rather emergent.

AHWest said...

What a bunch of fuss over nothing! It's a puzzle that was created by and for PhDs. Anyone with some common sense can introspectively observe their own consciousness, and see every possible sign suggesting that virtually all other people are conscious in a similar way.

This is not instinct. It's knowledge, gained much the same way that many other pieces of knowledge about people are acquired.