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Does a glass bottle have a consciousness? – Of course not.

Does a leaf in the wind have a consciousness? – Of course not.

Does a tree have a consciousness? – Of course not.

Does a bee have a consciousness? – Probably not.

Does a cow have a consciousness? A dog? A monkey? – Hmmm.

Does a computer program which passes the Turing test, i.e., with which you can “talk” just like with any human (so that it will even be able to explain its “feelings” to you) have a consciousness? – Well, people are more inclined to agree that it is “intelligent”, but more hesitant to admit it has a consciousness.

What would an alien from another planet have to do to convince you that it has a consciousness? It might look very different and might even “think” differently. But does that mean it cannot have a consciousness?

When does a person, who is 100% paralyzed, lose his consciousness? Suppose there is no reaction whatsoever to the things in the outside world, does that mean there is no consciousness? What if some brain activity could be measured? What if this activity was lower than “normal”? What would this person need to “do” to prove to you that he still has a consciousness?

Can a machine be “hungry”? What about a simple robot, which moves about in a room and, when its batteries are low, tries to find a power socket. Is it hungry?

I also find the ethical implications interesting. Killing animals is usually considered ok, or at least not a crime (at least if they taste good). Would killing be aliens be considered ok as well? Does consciousness matter for this question?

[If you also find these kind of questions fascinating, check out “The Emperor’s New Mind“.]

Harilal Gandhi. Ever heard of him? Well, at least I hadn’t.

He was the oldest son of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, aka Mahatma. The latter, a person of seemingly infinite wisdom and compassion, lost all ties to his own son when his son was 23.

“Harilal had always wanted to go on to higher studies, including becoming a barrister as his father had been. His father was firmly opposed to this, and disallowed him from pursuing it, believing that receiving this Western styled education was not helpful in the struggle against British rule over India. Eventually Harilal rebelled against his father’s decision. He renounced all family ties in 1911 and embarked upon a tragic, lifelong path of self-destruction.” (Taken from the Wikipedia article.)

Here are a few (hopefully correct) quotes from the two (taken from this site):

“Dear Bapu,” wrote Harilal to his father once. “In your laboratory of experiments, unfortunately, I am the one truth that has gone wrong… Yours Harilal.” Elsewhere, he said, “He is the greatest father you have… but he is the one father I wish I did not have.” As for Gandhi, he once said, “The greatest regret of my life…. Two people I could never convince – my Muslim friend Mohammed Ali Jinnah and my own son Harilal Gandhi.

This “black spot” adds a facet which I wasn’t aware of before to a fascinating person.

I’m wondering, whether a completely different approach to structuring governments would be possible.

To me it seems that most civil wars are caused by the fact that ethnic group A gets suppressed by ethnic group B (who is currently in power), or by the feeling by ethnic group C that it is underrepresented in the the nation. Ultimately, this problem is caused as governments automatically rule over territories, and not over social groups. So if you live on “my land” then you’re under my jurisdiction, even if you “don’t want to belong to me”.

Would it not be possible to install another type of government, where you’re under the jurisdiction of a certain group (which could be a tribe or an ethnic group) but this jurisdictional unit is not per se automatically linked to a geographical area?

Why does a nation need a well-defined territory?

Groups of people agreeing on certain ethical values or sharing a certain heritage are a very real and concrete things. But borders between nations seem so completely arbitrary. Why does so much of my life depend on which side of some line I’m on?

I could pay my taxes to “my nation” wherever I live. Then, to use a service which belongs to another group me or my nation would have to pay the other nation who constructed the service. Some mechanism would be needed to ensure a certain solidarity between the groups/nations, to help out the weak groups/nations. Maybe certain criminal laws would have to be universal, but other “non-local” laws, such as tax law, could be defined by each group.

One of the problems I could see would involve one large (or rather rich) group buying all the world’s property. So then we’re again back to the problem that land causes conflict.

It’s a tough problem, but I still consider it worthwhile thinking about alternative organizational structures, as this would have the potential to solve so many conflicts in the world (e.g., the current crisis in Kenya or the tensions in the Kurdish regions).

What I have a problem with is religion posing as science. If there is a god and he’s intelligent, then I would guess he has a sense of humor.

Wise words, but not mine, but Bob Henderson’s.

In case you’ve never heard of him: Bob Henderson is the prophet of the Pastafarians, who “believe” that the world was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. This religion has its origin in an open letter sent to the Kansas State Board of Education in protest of the requirements at school to teach intelligent design as an alternative to biological evolution.

Within only 2 1/2 years this religion has gained an enormous number of followers, probably in the millions. (I first had “religion” rather than religion in the previous phrase, but I removed the quotes.)

I’d heard of the FSM (Flying Spaghetti Monster) before, and I really have to get myself one of those bumper stickers, but I while reading up on the eight “I’d really rather you didn’t”s I also realized that I should really read more classical philosophy, as Russell’s teapot was completely new to me.

If you prefer more aesthetically pleasing deities, then maybe the Invisible Pink Unicorn might be the right god for you.

Solid, liquid, gas.

Ok, in fact there are many more: plasmas, quark-gluon plasma, Rydberg matter, Bose-Einstein condensates and fermionic condensates, quantum spin Hall state, degenerate matter, strange matter, superfluids and supersolids, and possibly string-net liquids. (This list was taken from the Wikipedia article on state of matter.) But why are there any discrete states at all? Why is there not just one continuous level of “blurriness”? Maybe with one or two other dimensions to describe the state.

I couldn’t find an explanation on the Wikipedia page but I assume this is simple stuff (as long as one doesn’t continue to ask “why” too often). With atoms I’m fairly ok with the discrete level of states/orbits for the electrons. “That’s just the way it is.” Or at least the explanation is on a low enough level for me to swallow it and not to ask any further.

But the state of matter is an inter-atom/inter-molecular thing (it doesn’t make sense, I think, to say that an individual atom or molecule is in solid state) and it should somehow be possible to derive an explanation form the description of individual molecules (just as one can make statements about which molecules will form by only looking at the individual  atoms). Where does this additional discreteness of our existence come from? Can anybody point me in the right direction? Maybe this is standard A-level chemistry/physics stuff.

Why is all matter limited to a discrete set of states?

That’s one of the questions about consciousness discussed in Gödel, Escher, Bach. I agree with the author that the answer is “yes” but I think this is kind of the wrong question to ask and not a good test for consciousness.

I personally believe that the ability to recognize beauty is nothing INNATE (???!), but something we learn, something we are taught. If you grew up believing that the sunset crimsons the horizon, it means that the source of all life demands the sacrifice of human blood, you would probably no longer view the sunset as being beautiful. I also believe that not only the recognition of beauty but also the appreciation of beauty is something we are taught. Of course, here it is more difficult to define, what it would mean for a computer to “appreciate” a nice .jpg file, as this would essentially involve a definition of a “feeling”. But maybe a “feeling” can somehow be defined as a different operational mode. I.e., that a feeling defines certain
rational/computational paradigms according to which our brain operates.
A somewhat related thought: One of the best tests for true artificial intelligence that I’ve heard of is the following:
Ask a computer to explain a joke to you.
But even this might not be the ultimate test as (i) for some jokes even humans have problems, and (ii) with some simple rules/heuristics you can probably “teach” a computer (at least conceptually) to explain simple jokes (involving blondes etc.). Recognition of irony might be more difficult. But, again, here also humans fail regularly. The good old Turing Test would probably be passed by some simple programs (along the lines of Eliza) if the other person involved in the conversation is not used to dealing with computers and/or having non-standard conversations. [E.g., the program could use simple “escape phrases” when it is not sure, what to answer, such as “I’m really not in the mood to discuss this kind of topic.” or the more Eliza-like “Why do you ask this?”]

Anyways, endless topic. Still always interesting to think about, what actually defines a conscious mind, what is needed for self-awareness and whether our kind of intelligence
is really qualitatively different from that of, say, apes. (Of course, we’re smarter but are we more than just “clever apes”? Is the fact that they can recognize their mirror image not sufficient to prove that they have a [low] level of self-awareness?)

Enough random nonsense.

My favorite thought these days concerns an analogy between the human brain and an ant colony.

Hypothetically speaking it is suggested (in Gödel, Escher, Bach) that the whole colony could have a consciousness (and that you could even have conversations with it by “reading” certain ant trails and by manipulating them) while each ant is completely unaware of it (just like a single neuron has no idea of a “thought”). Similarly, the “thought” or even the whole consciousness doesn’t really care about individual neurons or is even aware of them.

There are still certain things I’d disagree with in this analogy, but it gives you lots of things to ponder.

Aunt Hillary is the name of such a colony whose best friend is an ant-eater.


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