Let’s measure consciousness!

If you’re driving, you’re having a subjective experience of colors, sounds and vibrations. But does a self-driving car have a subjective experience? Does it feel like anything at all to be a self-driving car, or is it a zombie in the sense of having behavior without experience? This question of why and when matter is conscious is the essence of what philosopher David Chalmers has termed “the hard problem” of consciousness, and it’s important not only in philosophy. For example, if you’re an emergency room doctor, how can you determine whether an unresponsive patient is conscious in the sense of having a subjective experience? Patients with locked-in syndrome have functioning minds without being able to move or communicate. And what about a future robot intelligent enough to converse like a human?

A traditional answer to this problem is dualism — that living entities differ from inanimate ones because they contain some non-physical element such as an “anima” or “soul”. Support for dualism among scientists has gradually dwindled. To understand why, consider that your body is made of about 1029 quarks and electrons, which as far as we can tell move according to simple physical laws. Imagine a future technology able to track all your particles: if they were found to obey the laws of physics exactly, then your purported soul is having no effect on your particles, so your conscious mind and its ability to control your movements would have nothing to do with a soul. If your particles were instead found not to obey the known laws of physics because they were being pushed around by your soul, then we could treat the soul as just another physical entity able to exert forces on particles, and study what physical laws it obeys.

Let us therefore explore the other —> Read More