In the first issues of Wired UK (May 2009), there is an article by Baroness Susan Greenfield ‘What are we expecting from consciousness?’ It might have been better titled ‘Why technologists should butt out of my playground’ 🙂 but that’s not quite the focus here.
There is no doubting that Baroness Greenfield is a highly intelligent person. The trouble with some highly intelligent people is their habit of dumbing down statements in an attempt to explain ‘their stuff’ to mere mortals like me. And the worst habits involve misleading analogies. Baroness Greenfield dismisses the need to attempt to model consciousness:
“The idea of a model is that you focus on the salient features and jettison the extraneous ones. A model for flight, as exemplified by an aeroplane, would simply be the defying of gravity. We can leave out the feathers and beak.”
“So if we are to model consciousness, then we would have to know what the salient physical brain/body process(es) was/were and what bits of the brain and body we could ignore. The thing is, if we knew that, than we would have already solved the problem and there would be no need to bother with a model at all.”
The analogy fails. If you compare an aeroplane with a bird, then actually it does have comparible features (those required for flight). The beak is the hole where you insert the hose from the fuel tanker (birds eat worms, a beak is not an effective design for consuming gasoline). The feathers are required by the bird for lift, speed and direction. (A bird with just the skeleton of their wings is going nowhere). Aeroplanes have man-made wings with flaps instead of organic wings made up of skeleton, muscle and feather.
And the argument for not needing a model fails too. Models can serve two purposes – prove a theory or prove a concept based on a theory. The former is used to learn, the latter to apply. With Baroness Greenfield’s argument, we would have never invented aeroplanes at all, we would have just understood how birds fly (‘problem solved’). Progress comes from applying what we know, not just knowing.
That all said, I actually agree with her rebuttal of technologists like Ray Kurzeil claiming computers will surpass human consciousness within the next few decades. Advances in current technology alone are unlikely to achieve such a goal. Even if we could model consciousness, the application will almost certainly be very different to what humans do, just as aeroplanes fly in a very different manner and for a different purpose to what birds do…
Related posts: Do books matter? (Don’t think Baroness Greenfield is a fan of technology)