Consciousness

This article looks at consciousness in light of the inferred materialism. Even though materialism is a fairly simple and straightforward idea, consciousness is much more mysterious. The section on trogs looks at the idea of transferring or uploading a conscious mind from a biological brain to electronic circuitry.

The Mystery of Consciousness

We are arguing that we and the universe are purely material, made of the quantum fields and particles of physics, and that there is no soul, no god and no afterlife. Consciousness is seen as an emergent property of the chemical and electrical activity of our brains.

Neurons

Of course, we have no real idea how that activity gives rise to the subjective experience that we call consciousness. To most people throughout history, consciousness has felt like something that couldn't have such a physical cause. And most people have attributed it to a non-material soul. Of course, that doesn't explain it any better than the materialists are able to. Rather, it sets the question aside as one that doesn't need an answer.

I know I am conscious. But, even if my world is objective (see the article 'Existence'), I don't know whether anyone or anything else is conscious. Looking at people, they seem to be like me, so I generally assume that they are; looking at a dog, its reactions to things are in a lot of ways quite like mine, so I tend to assume that it is conscious too. But what about a spider or a bacterium . . . or a tree, or a river? Except for maybe the spider, none of those things seem to react like me, so I tend to assume that they aren't.

However, artificial intelligence has reached the point where a person interacting with it cannot always tell that it is not a real person. So by the logic above, it would be conscious too. Maybe it is. I cannot know. Consciousness is something that I feel in myself, but that cannot be observed in anyone or anything else. Telling me that you are conscious doesn't help: a computer can tell me it's conscious. Of course I treat things according to how likely I consider them to be conscious - I am not cuel to my neighbour or my dog, though I might kill a spider and would certainly take antibiotics if necessary to treat a bacterial infection - resulting in the extermination of billions of living things!

Having a brain is probably a reasonable requirement for consciousness. It is tempting to think that animals with rudimentary brains, like spiders, have a rudimentary consciousness, maybe just some sort of awareness or mental picture of their surroundings. Animals with bigger brains like us would have a much more intricate consciousness. If there are extra-terrestrials who have evolved well beyond our technological age, it might be expected that they could have a consciousness well beyond what we could imagine.

Trogs

In the novel Empyrean, people can opt to have their brains replaced by functionally identical electronic networks, becoming a trog.

Empyrean novel cover

Individual neurons are functionally quite simple and easy to replicate; it is their complex interconnections that give the brain its complexity and power. Rather than direct electrical connections, the electronic brain uses an address system like the Internet to send messages from one neuron to others. Just as the biological brain sends output via motor neurons to muscles, glands etc, the electronic brain sends output to a computer - an environment server. The server then uses that output to calculate how the trog is moving and what its perceptions would be from its environment adjusted for those movements. The new environment in then sent back to the trog as impulses along its sensory neurons. The trog would experience a virtual reality, though, because the virtual reality would include all senses, not just sight and sound, it would be indistinguishable from real reality.

The advantages of this are that the virtual reality can be anything that can be programmed into the environment server. There would be no need for unwanted experiences like pain, sickness, getting fat, getting old or dying. The trog can design its own body and any rash actions can be undone.

The environment servers for each trog would be connected together to a master server so that trogs can see other trogs in their environment and interact with them the way they are used to interacting with other people in the biological realm.

What's more, trogs can interact with biological people in the real world via video links and electronic connections. This allows them to do much of the work that needs to be done in the real world, meaning that biological people need to work less and have a vested interest of maintaining the trog community. After all, the trog community, once established needs just a few watts of electricity - no food, no water, no air, no warmth and very little space and yet contributes disproportionately to society. The trogs can adjust how they feel about any task and so can thoroughly enjoy the work they do.

Being trogged involves having one's brain sliced, the neuron connections and synapse characteristics analysed and the results programmed into electronic hardware made for the purpose.

Conversion

Of course it is the neuron connections and synapse characteristics that constitute a person's personality, mental capacity, memories and identity. So, basically, the person is tranferred from the biological brain to the trog brain. You get an anaesthetic, go to sleeep and wake up, still the same person, just with a different substrate. The trog would remember the earlier life of the person, just as the person did before the change. Life would continue, just in a different environment with different options.

The Dilemma

As with other people, we have no way of knowing whether a trog is conscious. But, even if we assume that it is, there is another dilemma.

It is whether the person's life continues when trogged, or whether they die and a new person with the same personailty, memories, knowledge, abilities etc. is produced. Different people tend to think different ways. Those who consider that life continues would probably take the conversion, particularly if they had, say, a terminal illness, but also maybe just because they want a more pleasant life. Those who see conversion as death of one person and creation of another probably wouldn't.

Argument for Life Continuing

I am a different person now from the person I was when I was young. What connects the two is the continuation of memories from the young me to the older me. If, at the age of 30, I lost all memory of my earlier life, then the person after 30 and person before 30 would be essentially two different people. What happened to one wouldn't matter to the other. Having the same body and even the same brain doesn't make them the same person. The person I am today is the same person that I was yesterday only because we share the same memories. An unbroken stream of memories from one version of someone to the next is what makes those two versions the same person. By that reasoning the trog would be the same person as the one he or she was made from.

If I get the conversion, my biological brain will cease to exist, but there will be a trog with my mind and my memories, thinking it is still me. This will be the same person just as much as the person I am today is the same as the person I was yesterday - and much more so than that the person I am now is the person I was when I was a small child. The trog will be very glad to have had the conversion and won't lament the non-existence of their former biological self any more than I lament the non-existence of my yesterday self.

Here's another way of looking at the problem. Suppose the neurons in my brain were replaced with electronic ones, one at a time with me being conscious between each replacement. No single neuron replacement would be expected to make a significant difference to my identity or conscious state and, when the job was finished, it might be expected that I would feel the same and feel and that my life had continued uninterrupted right through the process. Then suppose that the neurons were replaced two at a time, then 100 at a time, then a tenth of them at a time, then half of them, then all of them in one go. One wouldn't expect the result to be any different. In each case I would still be me at the end of the process.

Argument against Life Continuing

There is a theory that the universe is one of an infinite number of universe - a multiverse. Amongst other things, this would explain the fine tuning of the physical constants of our universe to allow the existence of life. The probability that the constant values we see would come together by chance is almost infinitessimal. The anthropic principle suggests that there are an infinte number of universes all with random values of the physical constants. Of course, life could only develop in the very few that are favourable and so all life would see an uncannily fine-tuned universe.

An infinite number of parallel universes means of course that, another universe would exist essentially the same as this one and that you and I would live the same lives up to the present there as we do here. In fact there would have to be an infinite number of universes containing a version of me and a version of you. If I die here, would I be content to know that I would still exist and my life would still continue in one of these other universes? I think not - even if I was certain that such universes did exist. I wouldn't see that other person as being me.

Duplication

Of course, when someone is trogged, there is nothing to stop the technicians making two copies of the trog from the one person, or indeed from making an exact copy of a trog after they have been converted.

Two people the same

This raises some interesting questions. If they made a copy of me as a trog, the original trog and the copy would both be equally me with my identity, my memories etc. If they then told the copy that they were going to kill it (turn it off permanently and destroy the data), how would it feel? Presumably the same way as the original me would feel if they said that to me. It would see it as a bad thing. Then, after the copy was dead, would anything bad have happened in the process of reproduction and disposal? Things would be exactly the same after the process as they were before, so, in a sense, no. Neither trog would be unhappy or have any regrets about what had happened. I would still exist as I did before.

This seems to beg some fundamental questions about the nature of identity and the value and importance of life - something maybe worth exploring more.

Consider someone who believes in the afterlife and who takes the view that, after conversion to a trog, the orginal person is dead and a new person is formed. They might be expected to have the same problem when thinking about their physical body dying and themselves being converted to a spiritual person in heaven (or wherever). Why would the spiritual person be a continuation of the original person while the trog wouldn't?

The Inevitability of Trogs

The question of whether the trog is the same person may never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction: it is a philosophical question rather than a scientific one. But what is sure is that there will always be people taking the view that it is the same person - and some of these people will go for the conversion. People on the fence might well go for it too if they have terminal cancer or something else than renders their biological life of little or no further value - what have they got to lose?

It seems that, once we develop the technology, trogs will happen. It may take a little while to get the technology right, but it will happen. Once trogs start to be made, as they don't die, they will progressively accumulate. As mentioned, they will do a lot of the work that needs to be done for the biological population - and at very little cost to them. So non-trogs will have a vested interest in encouraging conversions and looking after the converted.

The next step will be the creation of trog avatars. With an avatar, the trog's motor output goes to the environment server and is then relayed to a robot (which might look human). Sensory data from the robot is then relayed back via the environment server to the trog and so on. These avatars can do manual work that ordinary trogs can't do. In particular, they can do work that is dangerous for bio people, partly because the robots will be less destructible than bio people and partly because no one dies if they are destroyed anyway. A conventional army would be no match for a trog avatar army.

Trogs will produce most of the software for the environments in which the trogs live. This will become a major trog industry in addition to the work they do for the non-trog population

Of course, there will be people who object to trogs, mostly on religious grounds, so there will be opposition and most likely conflict. The world might be polarised into two camps, both worried that the other camp might plan to eliminate them.

The novel takes a deeper look at these and other issues.

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Image Acknowledgements

Neurons: File:1 sinapse durante o sono - prompt Sergio Valle Duarte.jpg (cropped) - Wikimedia Commons
Machine: Photo by Charlss GonzHu on Pexels
Twins: Lucid-AI on DeviantArt