“Experts Explain: The Illusion of Consciousness – Is it Real?” – Video

“Experts Explain: The Illusion of Consciousness – Is it Real?” – Video

Is consciousness an illusion? 5 experts explain

of this progress, the hard problem of consciousness remains unsolved. This problem, as described by philosopher David Chalmers, is the challenge of explaining why and how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. This video explores the perspectives of five experts, including a neuroscientist, spiritual leader, entrepreneur, AI expert, and Nobel laureate, as they each discuss their understanding of consciousness and how it relates to our existence. The discussions delve into the fundamental nature of conscious experience, the connection between the brain and consciousness, and the philosophical and scientific implications of our understanding of consciousness. The video encourages viewers to ponder the mystery of consciousness and consider its significance in the search for meaning and purpose within the vast and enigmatic universe.

Watch the video by Big Think

Author Video Description

“If science aims to describe everything, how can it not describe the simple fact of our existence?” On this episode of Dispatches, Kmele speaks with the scientists, mathematicians, and spiritual leaders trying to do just that:

This video is an episode from @The-Well, our publication about ideas that inspire a life well-lived, created with the @JohnTempletonFoundation.

Subscribe to The Well on YouTube ► https://bit.ly/thewell-youtube
Watch the full podcast now ► https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL_B7bI1QVmJBz9-5hI4sihQbxgcShW77l&si=yX6F_3lbdjrHA5do

In the newest episode of Dispatches from The Well, we’re diving deep into the “hard problem of consciousness.” Here, Kmele combines the perspectives of five different scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders to approach one of humanity’s most pressing questions: what is consciousness?

In the AI age, the question of consciousness is more prevalent than ever. Is every single thing in the universe self-aware? What does it actually mean to be conscious? Are our bodies really just a vessel for our thoughts? Kmele asks these questions, and many more, in the most thought-provoking episode yet. This is Dispatches from The Well.

Featuring: Sir Roger Penrose, Christof Koch, Melanie Mitchell, Reid Hoffman, Swami Sarvapriyananda

Read the video transcript ► https://bigthink.com/the-well/dispatches-podcast-episode-5/?utm_source=youtube&utm_medium=video&utm_campaign=youtube_description


About Kmele Foster:

Kmele Foster is a media entrepreneur, commentator, and regular contributor to various national publications. He is the co-founder and co-host of The Fifth Column, a popular media criticism podcast.

He is the head of content at Founders Fund, a San Francisco based venture capital firm investing in companies building revolutionary technologies, and a partner at Freethink, a digital media company focused on the people and ideas changing our world.

Kmele also serves on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).


Read more from The Well:
Actually, neuroscience suggests “the self” is real
► https://bigthink.com/the-well/actually-neuroscience-suggests-self-real/?utm_source=youtube&utm_medium=video&utm_campaign=youtube_description
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can illuminate the debate over generative AI
► https://bigthink.com/the-well/mary-shelley-lessons-frankenstein-ai/?utm_source=youtube&utm_medium=video&utm_campaign=youtube_description
Few of us desire true equality. It’s time to own up to it
► https://bigthink.com/the-well/few-desire-true-equality-own-up/?utm_source=youtube&utm_medium=video&utm_campaign=youtube_description


About The Well
Do we inhabit a multiverse? Do we have free will? What is love? Is evolution directional? There are no simple answers to life’s biggest questions, and that’s why they’re the questions occupying the world’s brightest minds.

Together, let’s learn from them.

Subscribe to the weekly newsletter ► https://bit.ly/thewellemailsignup


Join The Well on your favorite platforms:
► Facebook: https://bit.ly/thewellFB
► Instagram: https://bit.ly/thewellIG

– In those quiet moments when we find ourselves wrestling with trying to understand the nature of our existence, it’s only natural to turn to the observable world for answers. We look out at the cosmos to try and decipher how the Universe came to be or we consider the rules that govern

The smallest particles of matter- all of the stuff that makes up you and me and everything else. But there’s something else that’s fundamental to our existence. The thing that makes us, us. That, in a word, is consciousness. But what exactly is consciousness? – It seems to me that so many

Of the conversations about consciousness and existence can be incredibly esoteric, but you are a person who’s actually doing scientific investigation into questions of consciousness. How do you make it coherent and make it something that you can, actually, wrap your hand around when it seems so huge? – How did that feel?

– It felt like something, the quality of a handshake. – That’s what conscious is-it’s not esoteric. It’s the most basic thing there is. – Okay. – When somebody steps on your toe or I’m thinking whether I should step on your toe to make the point, it hurts. – Yeah. – That’s what

Conscious is- it’s as basic as that. It’s what you see. It’s what you hear. It’s the pains you have. It’s the love you have. The fear, the passion, that’s all consciousness. – So it’s experience and awareness. – It’s really the same, with different names for experience, awareness, subjectivity, phenomenology,

Qualia, these all different words that philosophers, other people have invented. It is the experience of anything. If I’m dead, if I’m deeply anesthetized or I’m in a deep sleep, there is no one there. There’s no one home, there’s no experiences. So that’s the difference.

It’s a central aspect of my life that I feel. You know it’s the most famous deduction in Western thought, ‘cogito, ergo sum,’ literally means “I’m conscious, therefore, I know I am.” The only way I know I exist, because I’m conscious. Remember Neo in “The Matrix”? – Um-hm. – You know at one point

He wakes up to the true world or the world of the machine, but he never has any doubt that he exists. Why? Because he experiences things. – Humanity has made tremendous progress in our understanding of the world- and yet, there remains no widely accepted explanation of what consciousness is.

It’s still this tantalizing mystery for scientists and philosophers alike. This is, as the philosopher David Chalmers coined it, “The hard problem of consciousness.” In this episode we’ll visit neuroscientists, spiritual leaders, entrepreneurs, AI experts and even a Nobel laureate as we try to unpack the mystery of consciousness and continue humanity’s eternal search

For meaning and purpose in our vast, miraculously complicated, rapidly expanding and incomparably mysterious cosmos. This is “Dispatches from The Well”. “I think therefore, I am.” This was the fundamental thing that philosopher and scientist, Rene Descartes, believed he could say about the world. I think, therefore, I am.

No matter what anyone might do or say that fundamental truth appears to be inviolable. Ultimately, I am something. Bye. There is an experience of being me and there is presumably an experience of being you. So as we seek to understand the Universe

In which we all live, all of our inquiries have to start from this same subjective standpoint, the self. So we’re here in New York at the New York Academy of Sciences’ Consciousness Conference, and I am certainly someone who has thought a lot about the hard problem of consciousness,

How it emerges and what the hell it even is and how to talk about it in a thoughtful way. There is the question of existence and directly related to that is this question of our experience of existence. I’m not sure if those are two separate questions or one question, but taken all together,

It’s certainly something that feels really profound. In fact, it feels, which is kind of the whole nut. The feeling of life itself. This is how Christof Koch describes consciousness. It’s also the title of his most recent book on the subject in which he argues that consciousness is likely more widespread than previously assumed.

For more than 30 years, Christof has been working to better understand how the brain generates subjective experience and self-awareness. So who better to help us understand the contours of this debate and help define some of the key terms? – If you go to grad school, they tell you physics is fundamental studies,

Everything there is. And you learn about relativity theory and you learn about quantum mechanics and electrodynamics, but nowhere is there anything about consciousness. But here I am, I’m conscious, so how do I go from these wonderful theories, but they don’t have anything about conscious in them to a conscious being- that’s the mystery.

– What is that lack of interest in the question of consciousness? Is it a lack of interest that that informs that? – No, I think many scientists would say, “I don’t doubt that I’m conscious, but I don’t know how to study it empirically. It’s something we should leave with the philosophers.”

But I always felt that’s a cop-out, because if science claims to understand everything, how can it not describe the central fact of my existence? – Right. – That I’m conscious and that you’re also conscious, so it has to account for it. – The principle instrument that we’re using alongside any other tools-

– Yes, yes. – To try and comprehend. – Yes, without conscious there’s nothing. Without conscience, I can’t even look at any meter. I can’t do science. I can’t do anything. So I have to understand the tools that I use to understand the world.

– How did you become interested in these kinds of questions? – I had a really bad toothache. – Okay. – Why does it hurt? Why does it hurt? Well the conventional explanation, which is true as far as it goes, you know your tooth is inflamed, sends electrical energy down your trigeminal nerve

That goes inside the spinal cord is switched to a double relay all the way up to cortex. And now in your brain proper, you have some neurons that fire. What does that mean? Well, that means some potassium-chloride ions sloshing on. So what? Well, I mean, why does it hurt?

There are ions sloshing on my liver and I have no conscious awareness or my heart. Hell, there’s stuff occurring all the time in my body, but I don’t feel it. But somehow here it feels. So there’s this explanatory gap, this is what philosophers call them.

On the one hand you have physics, you have the brain, or heart and other organs, and the other hand you have conscious experience and it’s very unclear how do you get from one to the other. Okay, this is the beating heart of the mind-body problem.

And I was a physicist and a budding neuroscientist, so I said, “Hell, neuroscience should be able to address this, right. ‘Cause after all, it’s not the heart that gives rise to pain it’s the brain. So I’m a brain scientist, so we should be able to use modern, scientific techniques to understand

The link between the brain and consciousness.” At the time I was working with Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate who discovered the double helical structure of DNA. And he and I then popularized this notion of the neuronal footprint of consciousness called the NCC, the Neuronal Correlates of Consciousness, using scientific tools to track

Where are the footprints in your brain? Are they all over the brain or are they just in a particular part of the brain? Are they in your spinal cord? When do we first see them? – According to this theory, there are specific mechanisms in the brain that are necessary

And sufficient for a conscious experience to occur. If this could be sufficiently measured, scientists might at least be able to identify where consciousness occurs in the brain, even if we couldn’t explain how. In spite of more than three decades of study since Koch and Crick put forth this theory

It remains just that, a theory. Is consciousness simply an attribute of the material world? Or does it exist somewhere else on some other plane? Do we have any way of knowing? – I would say the shoe’s on the other foot. Essentially, philosophy of minds organize around two poles: the physical and the mental.

Materialism says, “All there is, is matter and consciousness is, you’re really confused about it. It doesn’t really exist.” That’s what a modern analytical philosopher would say. An idealist would say, “Well, the only thing that really exists is mental and this entire world, ultimately, is a manifestation of the mental.”

And there’s some people who say, “Well, both exist simultaneously and it’s like the inside and the outside.” From the outside, there’s this physical thing: You, including your brain. But then from the inside you feel. That’s exactly the way this physical system feels from the inside.

So both exist simultaneously, which is known as panpsychism. – Panpsychism suggests that consciousness, the subjective experience of being aware, isn’t just something that humans and some animals have. Instead, the theory goes, consciousness may be an inherent characteristic of all matter. Imagine every tiny thing in the Universe has some tiny bit of consciousness.

Whether you buy it or not, it’s an intriguing theory. So what’s the difference between dualism and panpsychism? – So dualism says there are really two different domains. This is the way I grew up. I grew up as a Catholic and so they teach you,

‘Okay, there’s your brain and then there is the real you. This is like the spirit floating above the water and that’s a soul. And the soul makes you do thing, you know the soul ultimately decides like a free will and of course once you die,

The soul sort of gets disconnected from the body and maybe gets resurrected at the end of time to live in the eschaton and all of that.’ But then the problem has always been what’s the connection between the brain, the physical and the mental, the soul? Because if the soul is really spooky stuff,

How does the soul make my brain do things? And so there’s no evidence for such a soul, you know because it has to exchange energy. We’ve never measured any such a soul. So we got rid of it. Panpsychism is different. Panpsychism really says, “Fundamentally, everything in the universe has two aspects:

Has an inner aspect and has an outer aspect.” It’s not something in additional you have to presuppose, but it comes inherent with object, with things. Complex things have complex minds associated with it. Simple things like maybe a fly or Protozoa have very, very, very simple minds associated with them.

– So there are degrees of consciousness? – Yes. – And we can imagine this consciousness evolving in different ways. – That’s correct. So we have a lot of it but, of course, there could be creatures who have more. And as a baby with little of it,

And a dog has has less of it. Like my dog doesn’t know about the weekend, but my dog is clearly conscious. You know it can have pain and pleasure and it can be happy and sad. And mice, presumably, have less and bees, presumably, have less and somewhere down there

Becomes so dim at the root of life. You know does a fly really have consciousness? Right now, it’s very difficult to address experimentally. But it may well feel like something to be a bee, to be alive, to have just drank some golden nectar. – Over on the other side of Central Park

Is an unassuming townhouse wherein the Vedanta Society of New York is housed. Hey. – Namaste, namaste. – Namaste. – And good morning. – Pleasure to meet you. It’s a place where consciousness has been a topic for more than 100 years. Swami Sarvapriyananda, a Hindu monk, is its minister and spiritual leader.

You’re in a profession that is, by definition almost, interested in these questions on the perimeter of what we can know for certain. – Yes. – That traffics in things that all of us, I think, wrestle with to different degrees: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do?

– I think human beings, wherever they are and whichever time we live, we have always been fascinated by these big questions. As you said, who am I really? What am I doing here? What’s the point of all of this and what’s our destiny? And what is this? – How do you define consciousness?

– That’s a great question and, I would say, the central theme in what we teach in the philosophy of Vedanta is consciousness. – Hmm. – The reason Vedanta and other Indian philosophies, in general, have been interest in consciousness is the common project in ancient India was how to go beyond suffering.

How to attain fulfillment in human life and that concerns the human self. And when you come to the human self, us, I, the first thing that strikes you is that central to ourselves is consciousness. And so they became very interested in what this consciousness was.

The way we look at consciousness is from the inside out. If you ask Christof Koch or some of the brain scientists, they try to look at it from outside in. You know they’ll study the brain and then electrical activity in the brain and try to understand what consciousness is.

What we do is we look at our own experience. I mean the evidence of consciousness is available to all of us. That’s the first experience that we have in all our lives. We’re first aware and then aware of something else. Consciousness itself does not need evidence ’cause it’s self-evident.

It’s what in Vedanta we call ‘self-luminous.’ Light is a good example. In a dark room, when you switch on a light everything in that room, people and tables and chairs, they’re all revealed by that light. You don’t need another light to see that light. Consciousness is the light of lights,

In Sanskrit (speaking in foreign language). By its light, everything here is lit up. When we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, speaking, doing things, all the time one common thread all throughout is that we’re conscious. These are all activities, experiences in consciousness. And if you define life as a series of experiences,

Then what we would say is that an experience is consciousness plus an object. You are aware and then you’re aware of something. – Right. – And the things that we’re aware of, they keep changing. So we have a series of experiences. And consciousness plus object one is one experience. Consciousness plus object two

Is another experience and so on. And the consciousness is constant. In Western thought the one who came closest to this, I would say, was the philosopher, mathematician, scientist, Descartes, who about 300 years ago, set out to find out an absolute certain basis for knowledge. And he questioned whatever could be questioned, doubted,

You could doubt, but he found that your own existence can’t be doubted. “I think, therefore I exist.” Vedanta would say that, exactly, but you need to go one step further. Even when I don’t think, I’m still aware of not thinking. – Hmm. – So- – Yeah, that’s a- – Consciousness is primary.

Either thinking or not thinking, seeing. I think that’s what Descartes was probably driving at. In Descartes “Meditations”, there’s a very poignant place where he says, “How strange it is that whatever I know in this world, I can doubt it. I’m not sure of it. We can doubt any of this exists.”

It could be in the Matrix, you could be dreaming. But what I’m absolutely sure of my own existence, I don’t know anything about it, that consciousness. – Do you think anything about the different approaches to understanding the world and understanding consciousness, say the spiritual and the materialist approaches,

That they necessarily lead to different conclusions about meaning and purpose? – I am a conscious being, first and foremost. Before even I am a body or a human being, I’m a conscious being first. And if that consciousness itself is denied, as an illusion or as nothing but activities in matter,

In your living in the brain, in that case, the things which consciousness uniquely does, like meaning and purpose, they will also be denied. They will also be reduced to either matter or be dismissed as an illusion. You’ll inevitably have a worldview which is devoid of meaning, of purpose. So now we have this

Profoundly disconnected culture in the world today. There is science, hardcore science, and which claims absolute possession of truth. And there is religion, humanities, all of which science would say is sort of derivative. You know that reality is matter, space, time, energy and from that life has evolved.

And then life sort of comes up with these little illusions of purpose, meaning, value, beauty, goodness. I think one interesting place is this, where right now with ChatGPT and everything with the AI, notice something very interesting is happening. Whatever we human beings are capable of

And we thought our highest capacities are like intelligence, like memory or like creativity, like decision-making. Now these machines, AI-powered machines are capable of doing all of that except one thing and that one thing is they’re not conscious. And if you say that, all right, make the machines conscious,

They wouldn’t know where to begin. That’s why they’re asking what is consciousness and how can you know artificial programs, machines become conscious. That’s a huge issue. – So some people say, “Well, I was typing with the chatbot and I asked if it was conscious- – Yes. – And it said it was conscious.

So therefore it’s conscious.” – Right. – And you’re like, “Okay by the way, here I am, I sit here as a human being in front of you, I tell you I am God.” Okay? Right? I mean like that doesn’t, you know there’s more to it then a reply like that.

– There’s some competing claims. – Yes. – We’ll have to sort that out. – Yes. – Reid Hoffman is one of the world’s best known tech entrepreneurs and investors. Perhaps best known for his role in helping to co-found LinkedIn, he’s also an accomplished writer and a student of philosophy.

Reid was an early investor and advisor to OpenAI, the startup responsible for creating what is likely the best known artificial intelligence tool in the world, ChatGPT. ChatGPT is a large language model that answers questions put to it in natural language. For example, what are the challenges

In trying to understand the nature of consciousness? Reid explored the ins and outs of this emerging technology by actually co-authoring his most recent book, “Impromptu” with GPT-4. We wanted to talk to Reid about how artificial intelligence could help us better understand human intelligence and what it means to be conscious.

When was the first time you remember thinking about artificial intelligence? – Well my undergraduate major, Symbolic Systems, is basically artificial intelligence and cognitive science. So I was interested in how we think, how we speak, how we understand ourselves, how we understand each other and how we do that both individually and collaboratively.

And Stanford had a great artificial intelligence department, and part of why it ended up being computation and cognition was my specific suggestion was kind of like, “Okay, these cognition capabilities by these machines help us understand our own, help us amplify our own, might even create something really amazing and understand what intelligence is

’cause we are very anthropocentric. So it’s like, well, thinking is what humans do.” – Yeah. – And you’re like, “Well, we certainly are a very good example of thinking beings and creatures. But think about all the other thinking creatures.” Like we generally are very negative on how other animals think.

And like they think a lot more than we think they do. I mean they pair bond, they mate for life. They coordinate in packs and groups. I mean there’s all kinds of things. And we say, “Well, they don’t really think the way we think.”

Well of course they don’t think the way we think, but they do think, right? Well, now we also have another pattern of thinking. How do these machines think? ‘Cause, by the way, they are thinking today too. They’re not thinking the way we are. They may not be thinking at our level of capability

In some regard, but it’s a pattern of thought, right? And so you think about, okay, how do we understand all of these different patterns of thought and where are they similar and where are they different? – Okay, Descartes is, “I think, therefore I am.” – Yes. – Right,

And in general with respect to philosophy, there’s no uniformity of agreement that I can really know that you are having a conscious experience in the same way that I am having a conscious experience. Is that true or no or do you disagree? – Well, it’s complicated. – Okay.

– So part of what I think Wittgenstein and other philosophers did in upgrading Descartes, to put it in fairly simple terms: So he says, “I think, therefore I am,” because I go through this doubt and I realize that I must exist in order to doubt that I’m existing.

So okay I’m formulating a thought about like, I think therefore I exist. How do I formulate that thought? How does it have any coherence? How is it communicable to myself or to you? And when you begin analyzing language, you begin to realize that in the pattern of it

There may be some kind of, as it were, transcendental observations about the nature of reality that come about if you believe- – Uh-huh, I think I understand what you just said, but you may need to explain that in more detail. But go ahead. – Yes, if you believe that we are actually succeeding

In communicating at all versus making random noises. – Okay. – So then you begin to go to, okay, what do words mean and how do we apply a word like conscious? And I say, “I am conscious and you’re conscious” and we learn the Wittgenstein phrases,

We’re a form of life and we play a language game. And Wittgenstein’s argument would be because of the way the word consciousness works in our form of language we do actually, in fact, share some experience that is objective and shared even though it is each of our subjective consciousnesses.

– Okay. – Now, that doesn’t mean that that our consciousness are exactly the same. Like where I smell something different when I smell apricot and you smell something else- – Right, right, right. – When you smell apricot- – The quality of- – Yes, the quality of it. Maybe there’s something that is diverse

And subjective in it, but we learn in our use of language the pattern by which we go, “Oh, I smell apricot,” and we synchronize in our language dances with each other what that is. And so we have some level of quality of shared experience in what that is.

And so there is, in forms of life, a presumption that successful language use does lead to some observations about the way the world is, not just by science, but by our ability to communicate to each other about the worlds that we are mutually living in. – Okay, so I’m persuaded

That you are also conscious then. – Yes. – But we are living in a moment, where fairly recently, there’s been this thunder clap of excitement and energy with and around AI with ChatGPT and all of these large language models. And it’s remarkable how quickly the developments are happening.

And I understand why people would say things like, “It’s not conscious.” But it seems to me that there’s something about the way these mechanisms, which are being built and which we largely understand what’s happening, how they seem to do things in a way that’s kind of mechanistic.

But I suppose we do things in a way that’s mechanistic, but we also have a conscious experience. And how will we know if the machines are having some sort of conscious experience, in addition, to the mechanistic thing that’s happening? Is it preposterous to think that, that might be going on?

– It’s certainly not preposterous, although it’s preposterous the way that some people say it. ‘Cause I think right now the machines are much closer to tools than they are to creatures. Because part of how we make judgements and consciousness is like one of us will say something to each other that we’ll go,

“Oh that is, actually, you’ve shown me something about the experience of that.” Or I see your response in kind of in delight or in pain with this and then I see a reflection of that in how I would do it. And so that’s part of how we do these things

And the devices aren’t there right now. There’s nothing that says the devices couldn’t get there in some version. – Right. – And part of the amazement of that is, well, how do we learn better about ourselves in that, too. Like for example even playing with GPT-4,

Which I’ve been playing with since last August, when I go, “Wow, this thing can do a number of things better than 99% of human beings.” All right, what’s the role of specialness? Like what are the things that we still do that we are so much better than this at?

And so then how do we still use this as an amplifier? I think is one of the great questions about how do we come to understand other presences, cognitive entities in ourselves and how do we have a elevated existence by partnering, dancing together, etc. – I don’t think consciousness is all or nothing.

It’s clearly a continuum and it’s a continuum within an individual. You know I’m more conscious when I’m awake. And within a collection of species; you know I think certain species are more conscious than other species and I think it’s true with machines as well.

You know maybe, I don’t think that we have any machines that are conscious in any interesting sense yet. But I think if we ever do, they’ll be part of that spectrum. – Melanie Mitchell is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute who studied artificial intelligence for decades.

– Technical thing I’m gonna say tonight. – She’s also the author of “Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans”. – I’ve been interested in science my whole life, essentially. But I got really interested in the topic of intelligence when I read Doug Hofstadter’s book, “Godel, Escher, Bach”,

Way back when I graduated from college. It was about how intelligence can emerge from this giant collection of non-intelligent things like cells in the body, neurons and their connections. So a neuron isn’t intelligent, I think most people would agree to that. But when you put a huge collection of them together

And they interact in certain ways. What we call intelligence emerges along with a lot of other kind of mental cognitive qualities, like emotions, self-awareness and other things of that nature. So that was incredibly fascinating to me. And I kind of got into AI because I went to work with Hofstadter

And that’s what he was working on. I mean it was sort of a mix of cognitive science and AI, ’cause we were interested in understanding human intelligence by trying to develop intelligence in machines. All this AI controversy about consciousness has kind of brought it into the limelight of the broader public

Thinking about like what is consciousness? What is this thing we call self-awareness? How is that different from things that are not self-aware? You know things that people don’t usually talk about. But you know we have these systems now that talk to us in natural language and they seem like they’re self-aware.

We know that they probably aren’t, almost certainly aren’t. But how would we tell? What kind of tests would we give? And then we start realizing that these questions don’t just apply to like AI; they apply to things like when is an infant self-aware? – Sure. – It used to be,

You know maybe 30, 40 years ago, people used to think that infants didn’t feel pain. – Hmm. – And they would do surgeries on newborn babies without anesthesia. You know it seems crazy now. You know our understanding of how consciousness develops, it’s increasing. Often, a lot of people don’t think animals

Have consciousness and that, therefore, it’s fine to use them as farm laborers and to eat them and all that kind of thing. But we really have very little understanding of these questions about consciousness. So I think AI has helped us to really see that this is an important question,

Not just for philosophy, but for real life. – Yeah. – And for making moral decisions. – Good morning to you. – And good afternoon to you, sir. – Whatever we have in our heads which enables us to understand things is not something you can put on a computer. It’s very relevant, of course,

To what people say now about AI. You see they seem to say, “Oh well, these AI systems they’re so clever, so smart that they’ll supersede us.” But to me, that’s a mistake. They get pretty clever and they can do all sorts of things faster than we can, sure, but they don’t understand anything.

They don’t understand what they’re doing. Understanding is a quality which needs consciousness and they don’t have consciousness. – Sir Roger Penrose is a mathematician, physicist and philosopher of science. He’s won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on black holes and shares a Wolf Prize with Stephen Hawking

For their contributions to the theory of general relativity. In 1988, he published “The Emperor’s New Mind,” a book venturing into the realm of consciousness studies. Most approaches to explaining consciousness using classical physics end up describing something that sounds like a really complicated computer or AI. But for some scientists and philosophers,

There’s a nagging sense that there’s still something special about consciousness that can’t be captured by classical physics alone- and, as a result, can’t be reduced to simple computation. This is what led Roger to explore whether the weirdness and mystery of quantum physics might help explain the weirdness and mystery of consciousness.

– So I began to wonder about, “Well, what is it that we can have in our heads which isn’t something you could put on a computer.” Now I am a physicalist, in the sense that I believe what’s going on in our heads is part of the physical world.

And it’s the same with what’s going on in this glass or what’s going on in this thing, with this light. All those things are part of the physical world. The argument I would make is that consciousness, if you make a conscious decision, your conscious action is not a computation,

But it’s something which depends on this mysterious part of physics which is a sort of gap in our understanding, which is the collapse of the wave function. – In quantum mechanics, the collapse of the wave function refers to what happens when you try to, actually, measure the state of a quantum system

At a given moment in time. The thing is quantum entities like electrons can exist in multiple states at the same time. Think of it like a roll of the dice. When they’re in the air, they’re all potential. They have no numerical value at all. But when they land, they collapse into

One of 21 possible combinations for a pair of dice. But the single number you land on isn’t an accurate description of the dice as they exist when they’re moving through the air, when all the possibilities they could land on still exist. Penrose theorized that, perhaps, this quantum process

May have a role in generating consciousness. – There’s a probability of this, a probability of that. But maybe that’s not the whole story. There’s more to the story which means that this collapse of the wave function is something which, in our brains, we sort of harness whatever is going on.

And this was the point I was trying to make in the, you asked me about the popular books I wrote, or I can call them semi-popular, if you like, they’re a little more technical than many popular books. And “The Emperors New Mind” was the book I wrote first.

And I was trying to promote this view that, okay, there must be something going on in our heads which requires the collapse of the wave function and that, that is the sort of foundation stone of whatever consciousness is. – Hmm. – And Stuart Hameroff read my book and he got hold of me

And said, “Well, evidently you don’t know about something else, which you should know.” He didn’t say it like that, but these were microtubules And I was completely ignorant of microtubules, he was absolutely right. I didn’t know what they were for, I had never heard of them. – Stuart Hameroff is an anesthesiologist who,

Around the same time in the 1980s, was trying to understand consciousness by studying the process of shutting it off. Together, Roger and Stuart theorized that perhaps these microtubules, tiny straw-like structures inside ourselves that help give our cells their shape and act like highways for important information, that these microtubules could be

Where these quantum processes occur, giving rise to consciousness. – Anyway, so we got together and the idea started off, I think nobody really believed us. I think it’s got to the point where it’s sort of one of the three or four most prominent theories. So it’s taken sort of seriously.

And I think that it’s regarded as, certainly, a different angle from what most people would think. They tend to think it’s some kind of computer-like action in the brain. And what we’re trying to say is, “No, it’s something quite different.” – Penrose and Hameroff’s theory known as ‘orchestrated objective reduction’ remains controversial.

But it’s not called the hard problem of consciousness for nothing. There is no shortage of arguments for and against, virtually, every proposed explanation of the thing that makes us, us. When we were chatting a bit earlier about science and religion, I was having a little bit of trouble squaring your perspective.

Because in one respect, I think there’s a sense that science and religion shouldn’t be afraid of one another and it oughta be able to address some of the same questions. But in another respect, we are defining two very different kind of approaches. – Yes. – So how do you

Define religion and how do you define science relative to one another? – Our definition of religion would be that it’s the manifestation of a potential divinity in all of us and the goal is to manifest this divinity within us. – Hm. – You do it through philosophy. You do it through meditation.

You do it through devotional religion. You do it through good works. In all the ways in which humanity has tried to become better and greater, it is a manifestation of the divinity within us. And science, as far as we have it now, is a quest to understand what reality is.

So far it has been focused on external reality and, curiously, it has ignored ourselves. You know, at most, we are focused on the body and we’ve learned an enormous lot about it. But the science of the mind is still in its infancy. I mean if you ask a materialist reductionist, what’s a thought?

There is no space for a thought. You have to explain everything in terms of matter and energy and time and space. Where in time, space, matter, energy is a thought? What they will immediately say is that, of course, a thought is nothing but activity in the brain. But that’s where you run into

The hard problem of consciousness. And that’s the biggest question in consciousness studies today. You know what exactly is consciousness? That it cannot be reduced to a brain. So even from a very rigorous, strict scientific perspective, you can no longer deny that there is something that it might be, in principle, impossible to explain

Through at least our present idea of science. – Um-hm. – And I’m open, actually, and people might think that you’re a monk and committed to religion, which I am, but I’m also open in principle to the idea that I could be completely wrong. – Sure. – And Richard Dawkins

Or Daniel Dennett might be completely right, that it just might be matter. And therefore, all our religion, all of it might be just a matter of culture, of practice. Religion is good, but I don’t subscribe to that. I subscribe to the heavy metaphysical baggage that there is an ultimate reality,

Which you may dress up as God, but something like that exists and it’s somehow deeply connected to our existence as consciousness and as conscious beings. – There are many theologians who have a very different perspective on consciousness. And they imagine, perhaps, that there is this kind of supernatural world that exists

And is perhaps outside of our own world and that our conscious experience, separate from the material world, is something else altogether. That it can’t possibly be understood in the way that you are trying to understand it. Do you have a general sentiment with respect to the competing approach?

– Well, very often it’s not so much competing because they agree that in this life, my brain is essential for conscious. If I lose my brain due to an accident or gunshot or whatever, conscious will be gone. – Yeah. – So in that sense, we both agree.

They offer a larger narrative that says, “Well then you die, but then God will resurrect you in the fullness of time.” – Right, right. – I have no proof of that. I have no disprove that it doesn’t happen. But for myself it doesn’t, because there’s simply no evidence for it.

There’s this other view, this idealism view, which is sort of non-religious, that says, “Yes ultimately, it’s all a manifestation of the mental.” And if you die, yes, your individual conscious will be absorbed into the greater whole, think of it like an ocean. You are right now an individual drop, with your own ego.

But then when you die, you’ll return to the infinite ocean and be part of the larger conscious. So in that sense, what is most fundamental is not the physical, it’s actually the mental. – Um-hm. – But it’s not personal survival. It’s very different from the classical,

You know you will be there in heaven floating around in some cloud in paradise. – Right. It’s interesting that you could think about all there is, the sort of mystery of all of that and that drop could either be descending into some void never to be heard from again

Or returning to become a part of all there is. And one could hold the same thought, essentially, and frame it in those different ways- – In two different ways, yes. – Yeah. – And the physicalist would say, yeah, that drop disappears into the void, as you just said.

Or an idealist would say, no, it returns sort of to that the ooze or substance from which it all came. It’s a very different view, but you know might be true. – Yeah, what if this is just ineffable? We can approach it, but we’ll always be infinitely far away.

– Yeah, there’s no guarantee that there will be a final ultimate theory of consciousness. But I know there’s a guarantee that there will not be such a theory if we don’t try. – The debate over how consciousness works, where it resides and why we have,

It seems unlikely to be resolved in my lifetime. But as humans, we’re prone to filling in gaps in our understanding with speculation and superstition. But I’ve gotta say that with something as fundamental to our experience as consciousness, it’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t have some purpose. – Maybe there is a teleology

Towards the elevation of consciousness and being in the Universe, which we are somehow participants in, may be leading examples of. That would be a beautiful existence. – You would like that to be- – That would be a great, that’d be wonderful. – Okay. – You know like I think the Buddhism karmic rebirth

Is one of the most elegant metaphysics, should it actually, in fact, really exist. Look, say the world doesn’t have a teleology, there’s no reason that we need to treat the world as if it doesn’t. We can say, “No, we think that it is a elegant thing,

A thing of beauty, a thing of importance about the expansion of consciousness in the Universe.” That is the mission that we’re on, that we are demonstrating and it doesn’t matter if you say, wow, there’s only like physics and atoms and so forth. But let’s act in a way such that,

That the nobility of that quest of becoming our aspirational humanity, becoming more conscious is the point of life. We can choose that. We can anoint that. We can say that is where we’re going. – Consciousness is a gift. Whatever it turns out to be

And whether or not it has a purpose, it is present. It’s the foundation of all human action: past, present and future. It imbues us with the power to shape our world, to understand the Universe- and, sometimes, even to step back and appreciate that feeling of life itself.

About Big Think

Big Think is the leading source of expert-driven, actionable, educational content — with thousands of videos, featuring experts ranging from Bill Clinton to Bill Nye, we help you get smarter, faster. Get actionable lessons from the world’s greatest thinkers & doers. Our experts are either disrupting or leading their respective fields.

Video “Is consciousness an illusion? 5 experts explain” was uploaded on 01/11/2024 to Youtube Channel Big Think