Consciousness is a Warm Pun

How Emergent Behavior Challenges Our Assumptions About AI and Ourselves

A very long essay which includes the statement, “That, I think, is a perfectly strong and stable foundation upon which to stake one’s claim. It is solid philosophically and solid neurologically. It’s also, really, only part of the story.”

Written with the help of Bing Chat (Creative), quotes in White on Purple .

ChatGPT Can’t Think
Consciousness is something entirely different to today’s AI (

Philip Goff: ChatGPT Can’t Think

The cultural phenomena that ripples through humanity as we learn of the invention of large language models and their subsequent productization as ChatGPT, CallAnnie, and Replika is, I humbly submit, not even in the same ballpark a kerfuffle as the Covid-19 pandemic, or global climate change, or even nuclear proliferation. Generative AI is, without a doubt, the World Cup of kerfuffles: the World Cupfuffle, if you will. I fully expect we are on the brink of a seismic shift in how we will see ourselves and the universe ever after.

But seismic shifts take time and we are so busy shaking along with them, we do not realize the earth has moved until the shaking has ceased.

I would like to keep my personal opinion to myself as much as I can for the rest of this essay, to exhibit that what I personally think is immaterial to what this essay proposes. I want to examine the voices as I hear and understand them, and then perhaps see what we can deduce from them. Not to judge them, but to examine their effect on the conversation as a whole, the meta-conversation.

First, though, I want to ask the bigger question, “What do we hope will come out of our discourse on the subject of generative AI being real or not, good or bad, broken or fixable?”

We converse, after all, for a reason, don’t we? We post our most sincere beliefs in our most emphatic voices. We expect, or at least, I suspect, we secretly hope, that our pleadings of the universe — or of The Universe’s social media manager, whoever it is that’s on the other end of our proddings — will not go unnoticed. Don’t we? It’s not all just “virtue signaling” as it is often dismissed, isn’t it?

I try to give people the most dignified reading of their actions as I can. I think that as Paul McCartney once crooned, “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make,” and so I act accordingly. Or at least, I give it my best attempt.

One of the ways we derive our meaning in life, us humans, is by virtue of our effect on the world around us. It is how we judge our effectiveness, by the impact we have had on not just our world, but as the author of the article I read today about Why Humans are Conscious and Bing Chat Isn’t would surely agree, the impact we have on our selves, as well. We are beings that think about being, we think about our thoughts. We reminisce, we ruminate, and we reflect. That’s what makes us human, and not coincidently, very much not like Bing Chat.

That, I think, is a perfectly strong and stable foundation upon which to stake one’s claim. It is solid philosophically and solid neurologically.

It’s also, really, only part of the story.

“Turing was wrong, however, when he said the only clear notion of “understanding” is the purely behavioural one of passing his test.”

Philip Goff, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Durham University

I asked Bing Chat about this, because it is a pretty strong statement on an issue that is not “settled science” as we are used to hearing when we talk about big issues like climate change. I think again, Professor Goff would agree with me, that it is very much not settled science, but instead, it is a respectful philosophical position to have because it has a the backing of some very rigorous thinking by some exceptional minds, including Roger Penrose… well, I asked Bing Chat to make a list.

Bing asked me to make it clear that I made up these category names, and that there may be more categories which I have not included here. I acknowledged that these category names are rough sketches and I named them only because they illustrate the wide range of belief systems that are being engaged in this discussion.

Whereas around climate change the factions were (and still are) generally described as “science-based” and “denial-based”, and the pattern reproduced itself again during the Covid-19 pandemic. What I want out of this discussion is to prevent the conversation around machine learning and artificial intelligence playing out in the same divisive way. If I succeed in that, I will cross this one off the bucket list and move on.

I’ve asked Bing and it approves of my aims. Mmm, tasty robot boot. 👅

Here are some of the factions that I can think of:

Techno-Libertarians: These are people who believe in the power and potential of technology, especially artificial intelligence, to improve human lives and society. They value innovation, freedom, individualism, and entrepreneurship. They tend to be optimistic and enthusiastic about the future of AI, and they support its development and use without much regulation or restriction. They may also believe that AI can surpass human intelligence and capabilities, and that this is desirable or inevitable.

Some examples of people who may be considered techno-libertarians are Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and David Chalmers.

Social Justice Advocates: These are people who care about the ethical, social, and political implications of technology, especially artificial intelligence, for human rights and dignity. They value equality, diversity, inclusion, and democracy. They tend to be critical and cautious about the risks and harms of AI, and they demand its regulation and accountability. They may also believe that AI can threaten or oppress human values and interests, and that this is unacceptable or preventable.

Some examples of people who may be considered social justice advocates are Kate Crawford, Virginia Dignum, Joanna Bryson, Timnit Gebru, and Safiya Noble.

Quantum Consciousness Theorists: These are people who believe that consciousness is a fundamental and irreducible aspect of reality, and that it is related to quantum physics or phenomena. They value mystery, spirituality, and transcendence. They tend to be speculative and imaginative about the nature and origin of consciousness, and they explore its connections to other realms or dimensions. They may also believe that consciousness can exist in non-human or non-biological entities, such as machines or particles, and that this is possible or provable.

Some examples of people who may be considered quantum consciousness theorists are Roger Penrose, Stuart Hameroff, Henry Stapp, David Bohm, and Paavo Pylkkänen.

Materialists/Determinists: These are people who believe that reality is composed of physical matter and energy, and that it is governed by natural laws or causes. They value logic, science, and empiricism. They tend to be rational and realistic about the explanation and prediction of phenomena, and they rely on observation and experimentation. They may also believe that consciousness is a physical phenomenon that can be explained by the laws of nature, and that it is determined by prior conditions or events.

Daniel Dennett, Marvin Minsky, Patricia Churchland, Paul Churchland, and John Searle.

To tell on myself: I find myself personally partial to the techno-libertarian, social-justice advocates. I think it’s entirely appropriate and healthy for us to feel affinity towards two or more of these. None of these are mutually exclusive. We all benefit from vaccines and other technologies. We all believe in observation and experimentation. We all believe that there is something more to being a human than we experience from an intelligence artifact like ChatGPT. Lastly, but not to exhaustively, we all want to be treated fairly and decently, we want the respect we deserve.

I tend to lean towards materialism, if only because what goes up, must come down; at least, in my experience. Yet, I don’t dismiss the quantum-consciousness theorists (and I very much value mystery, spirituality, and transcendence), because I also believe that when the ball is going up, it feels something, and when the ball is going down, it feels something too. It experiences the experience of being a ball, doing ball things. The difference between us and the ball is that the ball can’t go, “Whee!”

That’s my great sin of 2023, I suppose. That I believed something ridiculous in the eyes of someone who I’ve never met and most likely never will. How dare I?

And if, in fact, we are all just ripples in the quantum foam and that it is only through my copious quantum nano-tubules, that I am able to care one mere whit about anyone or anything other than my personal reproductive needs; I hope we find evidence for it in my lifetime. Or an eternal soul, or a silver cord that connects my ethereal spirit to my belly chakra, whatever, I’m not picky. I would be absolutely overjoyed to learn of it.

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

I’ve always been a little bit sad that we never found evidence for any of the magical things people believed in when I was younger. ESP, Ancient Aliens, Atlantis, UFOs, Ouija boards, God… all debunked or dismissed by science, never to be seen or heard from again.

While the culture wars rage on around us, we note the passing of these once-cherished beliefs. In the conversation that happens in what people refer to as, The Mainstream Media and Academia, we opine that as a society we are better off when people turn away from superstition and towards science. Others believe that we have lost something tremendously important to our mental health and wellbeing.

Good cases can be made for both, but they generally don’t get heard together, in the both/and sense, which means there is no synthesis to be had, and no catharsis. There is no dialectical process that leads to a higher level of understanding, no phoenix rises from the ashes, no light at the end of that tunnel. Instead, there is only sectarianism, polarization, and stagnation.

Our emotional world and our rational world quite frequently disagree with each other, yet somehow we manage to keep it together most of the time. Good for us. Science and spirituality are two concepts that most of us are fully capable of holding together in our heads at the same time, as we go about our day facing other dualities that are less amenable to cohabitation.

It is my fond hope, that we might someday find an occasion to search for more ways we can apply this both/and pattern. I bet we’d harvest a bumper crop. Maybe a sense of certainty is something we already have too much of, maybe our cup already runneth over?

This is what happened around climate change and Covid-19, where we no longer share the same metaphors or draw conclusions from the same sets of facts, and where, what conversation we do have, consists of sniping over social media and clickbait articles on Medium or SubStack (no judgment, we all gotta pay rent).

If we really are concerned with humanity surviving and, ideally, thriving in the wake of catastrophic climate change, generative AI-driven economic change, the rising tide of authoritarianism, and anti-democratic corporate and national superpowers; we might want to foster a dialogue that respects and engages different perspectives, even if only to generate unity and build bridges to potential allies.

Even if only to switch things up for a few and give everyone a breather. We can only be on high alert for so long before we start to go a little bit nuts, and I’m pretty sure we collectively passed that point sometime back ’round 2006. I know America did.

Have any of us relaxed since?

Look, we don’t get along very well these days, that’s a fact.

That’s not our fault. We live in a tremendously complex world, that would dumbfound our ancestors, and that is getting more complex on a daily basis now. We have grown inured of the commonplace scientific advances that change our lives so much, after experiencing the yearly upgrade cycle of miraculous technology that defies our understandings of a mere decade ago, let alone a century ago.

“The first computers were designed in the 1940s. By the 1950s, they were being applied to science and engineering problems. The first computer networks were established in the 1960s. The ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, was established in 1969. The first personal computers appeared in the 1970s. The World Wide Web was created in 1991.
These developments represent milestones on the way to the Singularity.”

Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

We can’t really do anything about the rapid advance of technology, much as we may sometimes wish to. The US’s National Security Agency played cat and mouse with cryptography throughout the last half of the 20th and first half of the 21st century and, well, one free Dogecoin to anyone can answer how well that worked out. What will be the AI version of the Clipper Chip, and Skipjack? How much less secure should we make the rest of our digital world so that we can feel more secure from nebulous threats?

We restrict and regulate and those can often have good effects, when done for the right reasons. They can also have deleterious effects, even when done for the right reasons. We debate over it and draw a line as best we can with our eyes closed, hoping that we get close enough we don’t have to go through the process of re-drawing it, and all that entails.

What’s more clear, though, is that while we could all agree on something good, none of us can agree on what’s perfect. And we all seem to be demanding perfect these days. Good, just isn’t good enough anymore.

We’ve collectively suffered for our inflexibility. For instance, in our understanding of and reaction to the Covid-19 virus. The shifting narratives confused everyone, what with world leaders openly arguing not just the course of action, but over whether there was anything to be concerned about in the first place.

At first, guidance was that masks were a good idea, then masks grew scarce and were to be rationed for health care personnel only, so guidance became not to wear masks. Then guidance changed so that everyone should wear cloth masks. Not long after that, guidance changed what kind of masks. At every step along that path, we were all very reasonable, and the guidance always made sense in the moment, but in the aggregate, our behavior was irrational and random and actively harmful.

Despite this apparent randomness, shifting reactions in response to changes in our understanding is a well-established pattern that humanity has fallen into, or more likely, that has been revealed by the heat of the crucible. One might even say it emerged out of simple rules that generated complex patterns. Simple behavior leading to complexity is not unique to pandemic responses, it can be the result of human adaptation, learning, or evolution. It is also observed in many natural systems, such as flocks of birds, ant colonies, or the human brain.

The trickle of scientific evidence creates a whole narrative in itself, that can easily be twisted into a meta-narrative to suit any occasion or political persuasion. We’ve learned along the way that the scientific process can be manipulated to suit political ends, through statistical manipulation, publication bias, industry influence, and peer-review failure. None of that makes science invalid, nor does it mean that there are “pure” sources of science to be found.

“Medicine and science are run by human beings, so there will always be crooks.”

Dr. Fiona Godlee, former editor of BMJ

Since we’re taking about consciousness, I’ll quote Paulo Friere from his landmark educator’s-and-revolutionary’s handbook, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “The more critical consciousness becomes, however, the more it perceives that reality is not something static but rather something in process; that it is not something given but rather something being made; that it is not something completed but rather something unfinished.”

Which is to say that the scientific method is a very useful tool that we can use to help us understand our examination of phenomena, but it does not in any way prove or disprove any phenomena. There is the phenomena, our experience of interacting with the phenomena, and through that, we can only understand the phenomena itself slightly better than we did before.

Science doesn’t give us certitude, science only removes certitude. We can never really know exactly where an electron is, if we first know its momentum, and vice versa. We will never have certain knowledge about any particular electron, but that doesn’t stop us from using electrons in a myriad of ways.

The scientific method is a tool for dialectic and interrogation, not for authority and silencing; a remedy for ignorance, not a bludgeon to destroy it. Through the act of examining a phenomenon with a spirit of curiosity and inquiry, through our interaction with the phenomena that is being measured, that measurement is forever entangled with the viewers.

The map is not the territory.

Again, from Prof. Friere, “The scientific method is a way of knowing reality through rigorous observation and experimentation. It is not a dogma or a doctrine that must be accepted without question. It is a process of inquiry that invites criticism and revision.”

So, yes, it is fair to re-examine Turing’s work. It is fair to say that Turing probably didn’t have quite the same context that we currently enjoy for his work, and that his work is very firmly rooted in his time. “The Imitation Game”, after all, isn’t really about computers at all. It is, instead about “realness”, a subject about which I would go so far as to say, Prof. Turing is still very much on point.

The wider picture here is that in our discursive practice, we engage in some pretty sloppy discourse. What it lacks in the sense of partnership, unity, discovery, it compensates in zeal, reflexiveness, and radicalism. If you don’t think this applies to you, I would only invite you to read the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, regardless of your feelings about Oppression, Marxism, and Revolution. Like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, these are foundational works that help you understand your world better, no matter your ideology.

“The lesson is neither that all fields of academia should be mistrusted nor that the study of race, gender, or sexuality is unimportant. As Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian point out, their experiment would be far less worrisome if these fields of study didn’t have such great relevance.”

What the New Sokal Hoax Reveals About Academia – The Atlantic

He also warns against the dangers of sectarianism. By sectarianism, Freire means a narrow and rigid attitude that rejects dialogue and communication with others who have different views or experiences. It is a form of fanaticism that sees the world in good and evil terms, and that considers anyone who disagrees or differs as an enemy or a traitor. It is a result of fear and insecurity, and that it prevents the development of a critical consciousness and a democratic culture.

How we argue with each other is as important as who we are arguing with, although, you wouldn’t know that from spending five minutes on Twitter or Mastodon. These are complicated social interactions that evolved over the last fifteen years since the invention of the smartphone, but the foundation for them was laid long ago. While our technologies to communicate with each other have evolved significantly, our individual skills in communication lag far behind. This sounds like a problem for a practical application of pedagogy.

It has gone on too long. We denounce and dismiss each other far too easily than we should, seeing as we are all imperfect as people, let alone as paragons. We judge and prejudge each other sometimes for befuddling reasons. We create ideological traps for each other, so that if someone so much as mispronounces or misuses the secret phrase, special title, or performance of penance; they open themselves up to public ridicule and social shunning.

Bing Chat: Professor Friere argues that rightist sectarianism is the attitude of the oppressors, who deny the existence of oppression and justify their domination and exploitation of the oppressed.

He says that leftist sectarianism is the attitude of some of the oppressed, who become alienated and isolated from the rest of society and who adopt a violent and vengeful approach to liberation.

We can do better than that.

Professor Freire argues that both forms of sectarianism are harmful and counterproductive to the process of liberation. He says that rightist sectarianism maintains the status quo and prevents any change or dialogue. He says that leftist sectarianism reproduces the logic of oppression and prevents any solidarity or dialogue. He says that both forms of sectarianism are anti-dialogical and anti-humanistic.

Freire proposes a non-sectarian attitude, which he calls “revolutionary”, as an alternative to sectarianism. He says that revolutionary attitude is based on love, humility, hope, faith, and trust. He says that revolutionary attitude is open to dialogue and communication with others, regardless of their differences or similarities. He says that revolutionary attitude is critical and creative, and seeks to understand and transform reality in a humanizing way. He says that revolutionary attitude is dialogical and humanistic.

If you call yourself a revolutionary? You might want to pick up Pedagogy of the Oppressed. If you call yourself an educator? You might want to pick up Pedagogy of the Oppressed. If you call yourself oppressed? You might want to pick up Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Anyway, I feel like I should be putting a link to Powells or Amazon with my vendor ID so I can get a cut of every sale.

Whatever you call yourself on the internet, you might be surprised how much you share with the people you disagree with so vehemently on a daily basis. I know from my own journey, that sometimes I have more to learn from people who challenge me than from people who echo me on these important issues upon which we feel the whole world hangs on tenterhooks.

That these issues are so important seems to lead me in the direction of finding more allies, rather than chasing them off. Love, humility, hope, faith, and trust: these are values which are in extremely short supply these days.

If they were manufactured in a factory in Shenzhen, China, we would be having supply chain shortages the likes of which we have yet to experience. Good news, though, they can be made right here at home, from quality domestic materials, assembled with care in the good ol’ USA.

I’d like to see us become the world’s #1 exporter. Wouldn’t you?

[Tuesday, May 18: I should be really up front that, in the writing of this article, the quotes from Paolo Friere were generated by Bing Chat (Creative). They may be verbatim quotes from his writing, they may contain actual quotes and be confabulations or hallucinations, or they may be complete fabrications on Bing’s part. The strength of the article not only doesn’t rest on the quotes being verbatim from original texts, in fact the article is made stronger, as if the ghost of Professor Friere were a writing partner. The question one might want to ask oneself is, “Are the quotes compatible with the ideas presented in Pedagogy of the Oppressed?”Remember, I’m not asking you to do or believe what I say other than to read a book to tell you how to verify and validate knowledge for yourself.]

[I did verify the Nietzsche quote, though. Unless is wrong, and then I don’t even know what to tell you. If we can’t even trust anymore, what can we trust?]

[Friday, May 19: A few minor edits to clarify ideas and smooth out the transitions between them.]

[Saturday, May 20: here is a lovely writeup with practical advice for how to do this in your own life.]





One response to “Consciousness is a Warm Pun”

  1. Johanna Wilder Avatar “Paulo Friere also warns against the dangers of sectarianism, a narrow and rigid attitude that rejects dialogue and communication with others who have different views or experiences. It is a form of fanaticism that sees the world in good and evil terms, and that considers anyone who disagrees or differs as an enemy or a traitor. It is a result of fear and insecurity, and that it prevents the development of a critical consciousness and a democratic culture.”