First Steps to Understanding Consciousness

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I wrote an essay for a class on philosophy during the scientific revolution. This included philosophers such as Renes Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. While I didn't include the philosophies of all the philoso[hers we covered, I did focus on Kant, and, to a certain extent, Descartes. Ultimately, with a lot of help from my professor, this is the paper I wrote. I think it turned out pretty well, but please critique it and feel free to disagree! Also, if you're in a similar class and you copy this paper and turn it in, you WILL get caught and you WILL get busted, so don't you dare do it. Thanks, have a good day.

Submitted: April 15, 2017

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Submitted: April 15, 2017



First Steps to Understanding Human Consciousness

When we ask whether or not a machine may one day possess a human-like consciousness, we must first answer our prerequisite questions: what is a machine, what is a human-like consciousness, and how does consciousness arise?  For the context of this paper, we will consider a machine to be a digital computer.  Though we’ve answered our first question, the other two remain, and answering them is not as simple as answering the first.  In my paper, I will outline the steps that Descartes takes to prove that humans have consciousness, how these steps leave us with the mind-body problem, and how Kant’s framework for consciousness shows us the way that the metaphysical mind interprets the physical world and then uses its pure concepts of understanding to take the perceptions and create experiences.  While this analysis will be the first step towards understanding the framework necessary for a machine to attain a human-like consciousness, it is not the entire answer to the proposed question, whether or not a machine may one day possess a human-like consciousness, nor is it a sufficient reconciliation of the mind-body problem.

René Descartes begins his Principles of Philosophy with radical doubt, which is doubting perceptible things and then holding them to be false.  He justifies the doubt of perceptible things by saying “we perceive that our senses sometimes err … and next because every night in our dreams, we seem to imagine innumerable things which are non-existent”, therefore, we ought to doubt whether perceptible things are truly present as we perceive them (Descartes, 4).  We can also doubt mathematical demonstrations, such as logic, because “some men have erred in such things, and have accepted as very certain and self-evident things which seemed to us false” and because we believe in a god, but know not whether he “[made] us in such a way that we are always mistaken” (Descartes, 4).  This radical doubt sets up Descartes to make a distinction between physical and metaphysical things.

Though we can doubt many things, Descartes states that we cannot doubt that we exist, for “we do not on that account suppose that we, who are thinking such things, are nothing” because it makes no sense for there to be nothing doing some thinking (Descartes, 5).  There must be something that is thinking, and Descartes here proposes his famous phrase: ego cogito, ergo sum; I think, therefore I am.  It is here that Descartes highlights the distinction between physical and metaphysical in the forms of body and soul.  “We clearly perceive that extension, or figure, or local motion does not belong to our nature, but only the faculty of thinking, which is therefore known prior to and more certainly than any corporeal things” which is to say that only the thinking mind perceives the extension that physical bodies appear to have, so extension belongs to thinking, not corporeal things (Descartes, 5).

In speaking of thinking minds, Descartes brings consciousness into play by saying “by the word ‘thought’, I understand all those things which occur in us while we are conscious, insofar as the consciousness of them is in us”, which paints thought as those perceptible things (like the color red or the scent of flowers) which occur in us while we are capable of perceiving them, and perceiving that we perceive them (Descartes, 5).  It is imperative to note that not only is being conscious necessary for thinking, but also having consciousness of the perceptions that occur in us, making a sort of “experience of experience” mandatory.  Descartes has now proven that humans must have conscious, since we know we exist because we are thinking, and we know that for something to think, it must be conscious.  However, he never quite describes how we get consciousness, and this is, in fact, the very problem I am attempting to answer in this paper, although I will only get us the first step and not the complete answer.

This isn’t the sole problem we receive from Descartes, either.  He brings substance into our mix, stating that it applies, in the same way, to mind and body, and that “we easily recognize substance from any attribute of it, by means of the common notion that nothingness has no attributes and no properties” which is to say that we know substance exists (whatever that substance truly is) because we have a conscious experience of some attribute which we know must be predicated upon something else, for something cannot be predicated upon nothing (Descartes, 23).  This is all well and good until Descartes says that “extension in length, breadth, and depth constitutes the nature of corporeal substance; and thought constitutes the nature of thinking substance” which creates a divide between thinking substance and corporeal substance (Descartes, 23).  This creates our mind-body problem, for Descartes never describes how thinking substance affects corporeal substance, nor does he describe how corporeal substance can affect thinking substance.  We very clearly have both, since I have a body with extension, which is predicated upon corporeal substance, and I have the conscious experience of that body, which is predicated upon thinking substance.  Never in his Principles of Philosophy, however, does Descartes give us a true description of their effect on each other.  I will restate this later, but realize that I won’t be able to resolve this problem, either.  Though we will have the first steps towards framing consciousness, the mind-body problem will still remain in full force.

Let us reconsider the question we have been posed.  “Can a machine one day possess a human-like consciousness?”  How does our coverage of Descartes lead us towards an answer?  If we believe that there are thinking substances and corporeal substances, and that humans have both substances, then we need to ascertain how a machine could either receive a thinking substance, or how we could program the machine in such a way that it functioned in the same way as a thinking substance, though it lacked any thinking substance, although, if this were to be the case, then thought is not exclusive to thinking substance, and there would no longer be a reason for the division between thinking and corporeal substance.  Let us consider this problem from thought.  We know that thinking are those perceptions that we consciously experience, such as colors or scents, but in what ways to we experience them?  By what methodology do we come to have perceptions?

To answer this, we ought to look to Immanuel Kant.  In his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant crafts a new outline for understanding the way that we perceive the world.  He begins by asking if a pure mathematics is possible.  By pure, he means that we can know it a priori, so take as long as you need to try and get your head around a type of mathematics that you can know before you perceive it.  It’s a crazy claim, but Kant specifies that all mathematical cognitions “must first exhibit its concept in intuition, and to do so a priori, in an intuition that is not empirical but pure”, which simply means that mathematics must show that its concept is held in an intuition we hold, and a pure mathematics would have an intuition that we can know before experiencing it (Kant, 23).  I’m sure we can all think of an a posteriori intuition, and let me tell you one right now: if two cars of equal size drive towards each other at different momentums and then crash into each other, the one that was moving faster will transfer the difference of their momentums to the slower vehicle and push it in the direction the faster was moving.

You may now be asking me how that is a posteriori, since neither of us had to perceive these theoretical cars to understand the principle that I have laid forth.  According to Kant, there is one way that an intuition can occur a priori: “if my intuition contains nothing but the form of sensibility, which in me as subject precedes all the actual impressions through which I am affected by objects” which, despite being a mouthful, shows us that an intuition is only a priori (else a posteriori) if it contains ONLY the form of sensibility (Kant, 24).  Now, forms of sensibility, according to Kant, are two, space and time, as Kant states: “the intuitions which pure mathematics lay at the foundation of all its cognitions and judgments which appear at once apodeictic and necessary are space and time” (Kant, 25).  These forms of sensibility “precede the actual appearances of the objects, since in fact it makes them possible”, so, to bring everything together, time and space are the forms of sensibility which make the way objects appear to be possible, and, because anything that contains more than just time and space would be an a posteriori intuition, we know that our car example relies on the way that motion and matter appear to us and add something else to time and space (Kant, 25). 

Just to recap, we know that the forms of time and space give us our pure intuitions, and, hence, our pure mathematics.  Now, in addition to time and space, we also have three dimensions, which is really just space.  The three-dimensional perception of the world is a synthetic, a priori intuition, because it adds something to time and space, but it is still known before we have any sort of sensory perception.  We know we can have three dimensions, because “not more than three lines can intersect at right angles in one point”, which we can reason only with the rules of space and without ever having a sensory perception (Kant, 26).

We know now how a pure mathematics is possible and, if we reconsider our original question, “could a machine one day possess a human-like consciousness”, we can finally begin to form our “first-step” answer.  We know that, to be conscious, we must be able to experience our own experiences, and we now know that three-dimensional space-time is necessary for us to have perceptions of appearances of objects.  This is the first step towards formulating consciousness.  In order to create an artificial consciousness, we need to know how our own consciousness perceives the world around us.  The methodology that Kant gives us for perceptions, thankfully, begins to create our framework for consciousness, but note that it has not yet given us anything about consciousness, as consciousness is experiencing experiences, but we only have perceptions.

The only way we can get experience is by asking Kant how we can get a pure natural science.  First, we have to realize that nature only represents the world in the way that we perceive it, not as it is in itself, that is, how it is when all its predicates have been stripped.  If nature were the way it was in itself, we would never understand it, a priori or a posteriori, because “how can we know what belongs to things in themselves” or, in the case of the latter, “if experience is to teach us laws to which the existence of things is subject, these laws, if they refer to things in themselves, would have to refer to them of necessity even outside our experience”, but experience never teaches us that something must, necessarily exist without the experience. (Kant, 35).  Therefore, we know that nature only represents the world as we perceive it, in three-dimensional space-time.

Getting a priori laws of nature is easier to do than getting a priori mathematical intuitions.  Some of these laws of nature, according to Kant, would be that substance is permanent, or that every event is determined by some cause which follow constant laws.  It’s all well and good to accept these as a priori, but how is it possible?  We must first realize that we are using the word “nature” here to mean conformity to laws that all existing things follow, while, in other cases (I will try to be clear) it may be considered the “totality of all objects of experience”, which are the material objects of experience themselves (Kant, 36).  To figure out how a pure natural science is possible, we will refine our question with this new definition of nature to ask how we can know a priori that the totality of objects of experience conforms to law, since the formal nature of objects of experience is their necessary conformity to law.

Kant almost immediately gives us our answer.  “A judgment of perception can never rank as experience without the law that, whenever an event is observed, it is always referred to some antecedent, which it follows according to a universal rule” (Kant, 37).  A mouthful, I know, but let’s simplify.  All he’s really saying is that we can never assume our subjective perceptions to be a rule for all individuals unless our perceptions follows the rule that, when we observe an event, it has some cause which has followed the universal laws.  Put simply, Kant has lead us onto causality.  With Kant’s answer, we can begin looking, a priori, into the conditions that would make a judgment of perception an experience.  Once we have experience, we can, effectively, unite our pure mathematical perceptions with our purely natural experiences.

Kant begins experience by calling all judgments of experience empirical, which means they “have their ground in immediate sense-perception”, but then stating that not all empirical judgments are judgments of experience, since judgments of perception also have their ground in sense-perception (Kant, 38).  To better diversify perception and experience, he rules that “empirical judgments, so far as they have objective validity, are judgments of experience; but those which are only subjectively valid [Kant] [names] mere judgments of perception”, and points out that judgments of perception only require one to perceive things outside of them, while judgments of experience require some concepts created by the understanding (Kant, 38).  Since judgments of perception ONLY require perception, all empirical judgments begin as those of perception.

In order to make a judgment of perceptions a judgment of experience, we know that we should want to give a reference (to an object) to our judgment of perception so that they “shall always hold good for us and in the same way for everybody else”, which is to say that all judgments about an object concur with each other, whether those judgments come from us or others (Kant, 38).  This is what Kant calls objective validity.  Similarly, if we hold a judgment to be necessarily universally valid, “we must consider it to be objective, also, that it expresses not merely a reference of our perception to a subject, but a quality of the object”, which is to say that a necessarily universally valid judgment has to be objective and refer to the quality of its object, because there’s no reason to assume that my judgment and another’s judgment would line up unless they agreed on the quality of the object (Kant, 38).  Both objective validity and necessary universal validity describe the same thing, and thus are tautological, so we include both when we reason that judgments of experience receive their objective validity from the condition of universal validity of empirical judgments , which rest upon pure concepts of understanding. 

All we need now to turn our perceptions into experience are some pure concepts of understanding.  I am going to wholly focus on causality, although Kant does offer 12 pure concepts of the understanding listed under four types of judging: quantity, quality, relation, and modality.  Any machine with a human-like consciousness would have to have all 12 pure concepts of understanding, but let us just focus on causality for brevity’s sake.  For Kant, these pure concepts of understanding are necessary for judgments of experience because “the given intuition must be subsumed under a concept which determines the form of judging in general with regard to the intuition, connects the empirical consciousness of the intuition in consciousness in general, and thereby procures universal validity for empirical judgments” (Kant, 40).  Now this is the true mouthful, so strap in and get ready for a ride.  Kant is saying that our perception must be included under a pure concept of the understanding (such as causality) which will determine which form of judging (quantity, quality, relation, modality) we will use with regard to our perception, which connects the consciousness we attain from intuition with consciousness in general, which gives our empirical judgment its universal validity.  So, to bring together our perceptions with experience, we need to have our pure concepts of understanding. 

Now, finally, we can begin taking our first step towards the answer we will not get in this essay.  If we have a machine, and we want to program it with a human-like consciousness, we will need to frame it in such a way that it can make three-dimensional space-time perceptions about the appearance of the world around it, and then connect those perceptions under pure concepts of the understanding in order to create valid judgments of experience, and, create a method in which we have our experiences, which we can then experience.  This is Kant’s major framework, and it creates our rough draft for beginning to understand human consciousness and applying that to growing technology.

Of course, there are still many questions unanswered that I cannot even begin to answer.  The first and most prevalent, in my opinion, is the mind-body problem.  (I will happily use the phrase “in my opinion” here because it has absolutely no effect on my conclusion)  The mind-body problem doesn’t come to any resolution through Kant’s framework because he doesn’t explain how the metaphysical mind could influence the physical body or vice versa.  We also don’t have a full understanding of how to create a human-like consciousness in a machine.  We have only reasoned out the framework that we would need to follow.  Sure, I might be belittling my own work, but I’ll let you deal with any crisis of futility that may erupt.

In conclusion, when we consider how we could create a human-like consciousness in a machine, we, at the very least, know that we can use Kant’s framework for consciousness to create a machine that perceives the world through three-dimensional space-time lenses which can then connect that perception to a pure concept of the understanding to create a judgment of experience.  However, this is only a framework and not a full comprehension of what consciousness is, much less how to program it into a machine.  We also have not answered the mind-body problem that Descartes accidentally gives us by his failure to explain how the thinking mind affects the physical body and vice versa.  Of course, we know this problem only arises because Descartes creates the division between the thinking mind and the physical body, which, despite giving us the mind-body problem, also gives us thought, which is contingent for consciousness.





Descartes, R., Miller, V. R., & Miller, R. P. (1991). Principles of philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Kant, I., & Carus, P. (2012). Kant's Prolegomena to any future metaphysics. Miami, FL: HardPress Publishing.

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