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Consciousness Is a Big Suitcase
A Talk With Marvin Minsky


John Horgan and Stuart Hameroff on Consciousness Is a Big Suitcase by Marvin Minsky


From: John Horgan
Date: 3-27-98

Marvin Minsky is the most entertaining self-help guru to come down the pike in a long time. I can't wait to read his book, and to see him dispense his cyber-counsel on Oprah.

A couple of nits. First, his defense of the strong AI position neglects a rather basic fact of neuroscience. Minsky seems to believe any machine engaging in complex information-processing must also be conscious, by definition. But as he surely knows, even humans can cogitate without any subjective awareness. I'm not talking about zombies or other esoterica but about blindsight, which is caused by stroke or other brain damage. A man with blindsight has no subjective, visual awareness; he insists that he can see nothing. But if you put a cartoon drawing of a lion in his hands and insist that he guess what it shows, he will guess correctly. If you throw a ball thrown at him, he will catch it. Perception and awareness seem to be to some extent distinct functions, depending on different neural regions.

Also, Minsky's confessed fondness for Freud seems to undercut his predictions about all the wonderful things that AI and neuroscience will surely accomplish in the future. Are we really going to have autocerebroscopes and intelligence-boosting implants and all this other sci-fi stuff if psychoanalysis is still the best theory of mind we can muster? To broaden the question a bit here, what does it say about modern science's grasp of the mind when people as smart as Marvin Minsky and Steve Pinker are besotted with theories-psychoanalysis and evolution, respectively-that date back to the last century? Is this progress?


From: Stuart Hameroff
Date: 3-27-98

Minsky's Big Suitcase is Big Sandbag

Marvin Minsky's recent attempt to explain away consciousness makes me wonder if my Samsonite is feeling distended, or still angry at being lost at Heathrow. OK, I know it's a metaphor, but that's just the problem. Consciousness may indeed be like a theater spotlight, neural net computer, nonlinear attractor such as the Great Spot on Jupiter, or a suitcase. But we need to ask what consciousness actually is, rather than merely what it is like.

What is consciousness? There have always been two types of answers. Socrates argued that conscious experience was something created by the cerebrum, whereas Thales, Plotinus and other ancient "panpsychists" saw conscious experience as a fundamental feature of reality.

Professor Minsky and other "computationalists" follow Socrates in that consciousness is seen as a property of complex activity in the brain's neural networks (and will eventually occur in electronic computers). However others find this view alone unable to accommodate subjective experience-the explanation seems too much like "and then a miracle happens".

Could proto-conscious qualia actually exist as fundamental properties, like spin, or charge? At very small scales spacetime geometry is not smooth, but quantized. Granularity occurs at the incredibly small "Planck scale" (10^-33 centimeters , 10^-43 seconds) which Roger Penrose portrays as a dynamical spider-web of quantum spins. Experiential qualia as well as Platonic values could exist in Planck scale geometry of quantum spin networks. How did they get there? How did anything get there. In this view qualia ensued (directly or indirectly) as particular patterns and dynamics in spacetime geometry from the Big Bang ("...a miracle DID happen").

How could the brain access this supposed "funda-mental" spacetime? Roger Penrose and I have developed a model of consciousness based on quantum computing in protein structures called microtubules inside the brain's neurons. The proposal ("orchestrated objective reduction - Orch OR") involves sequences of pre-conscious superpositions of information ("qubits") which reduce to classical "bit" solutions. Reduction occurs (non-computably) by Roger's quantum gravity threshold-instability in superposed (separated) Planck scale geometry. The Orch OR model thus portrays consciousness as brain processes connected to self-organizing ripples in the basic makeup of reality. (I'd rather be a ripple than a suitcase.)

Regardless of whether the Orch OR model pans out (and unlike other theories it is testable), computer technology seems to be evolving toward the quantum computer. As the mind has always been viewed as contemporary information processing technology, the 21st century metaphor for consciousness (and AI) may well be self-organizing quantum computation.


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