I wrote this essay a few months back after reading a wonderful book by Meghan O’Gieblyn titled God, Human, Animal, Machine, but never got around to publishing it. This week’s Twitter debate on the subjective experience of large language models reminded me that I’d written it, so I thought I’d throw it out here.
From my perspective, the current conversation around conscious experience in artificial systems—while worth having—is fundamentally misguided. It reflects our implicit bias towards viewing arbitrary chunks of the universe as discrete, and ignores the near impossibility of defining what an artificial system actually is.
This essay doesn’t explicitly discuss artificial intelligence, but it makes a case for an expansive view of consciousness that leaves a lot of this week’s questions moot. A deep learning model running on a cluster of computational hardware is an interplay of information, systems, and matter. It’s an idea, not an entity. Before we ask if it can have subjective experience, we need to do the same of its constituent parts.
I find panpsychism the only really satisfying model that explains consciousness, but my intuitive idea of it is a little different to the way it’s described in the current debate.
Panpsychism solves the hard problem of consciousness—how and why do we, specifically, have conscious experiences?—by explaining that consciousness is a property of all matter. This removes the “specialness” of minds, which we haven’t been able to explain by any scientific or reason-based approach.
The biggest problem with panpsychism is said to be the combination problem, whereby some mechanism allows the tiny consciousnesses of subatomic particles (or whatever constitutes the atom of consciousness) to combine into a greater consciousness, like the consciousness experienced by humans.
I think this combination problem is the result of a mental trap—even in a panpsychist worldview, we think of consciousnesses as discrete. To underline the combination problem, a philosopher might ask why a large group of human beings working together to emulate the functions of a brain would not “merge together” into one large mind.
It is logical to us that, since we are each experiencing the world from a single point of view, that the bounds of that point of view must represent one “entity” of consciousness—and, crucially, that that entity follows the same metaphor of “discreteness” that we apply to our own bodies. Our physical bodies appear separate from the world around them, as do the objects and entities we encounter, and we assume the same must be true of our consciousness.
But this discreteness is a mirage even in the physical world: for example, through our respiration we are constantly exchanging matter with the atmosphere that surrounds us, so that there is no meaningful distinction between our body and the air. Through our consumption of plants and animals, or our participation in society, we do the same. What truly meaningful separation can be drawn between a human couple, their newborn baby, and the farmland they tend to sustain them?
We are composed of overlapping systems that overlap both within ourselves and with things we consider “external” to us, and the idea of physical separateness is a byproduct of the way our brains model the world in order to help us reason and survive at an animal level.
In my example of the couple, their baby, and their farm, even many proponents of panpsychism would draw a line between each entity, as if consciousness must follow physical form in the idealized, Platonic way that our default worldview describes it.
This is what results in the combination problem—how do small consciousnesses (such as those of atoms composing the food we eat) combine into grand ones (such as our minds, composed of those same atoms)?
But the combination problem disappears if you do not think of consciousness as discrete, the same way Platonic Forms disappear when you cease to think of objects as discrete and recognize that they are all part of the same aggregation of matter that forms our universe.
I feel like I am writing this journal from the experiential perspective of one central consciousness, based in my brain. Simultaneously, however, a dizzying number of overlapping consciousnesses—that incorporate all, part, or none of my body—are also experiencing the same thing.
The consciousnesses associated with the matter and systems that include my sensory organs and brain—eyes, ears, Broca’s area, motor cortex—are experiencing the act of writing as if they are the originators of it. They are composed from matter that includes the matter that is producing and sensing the action of writing, so they naturally experience it and identify with it strongly.
Simultaneously, other consciousnesses—composed of matter in my body that is not included directly in the writing process—are aware of other things. Some of these consciousnesses experience and identify with the compression of my heart muscles, the rush of blood through arteries and veins. Some experience the interplay of molecules that join and leave my body through my breathing. And others experience a combination of my own body and the world around it—the systems of cause and effect that exist between my skin and the fabric of the clothes I am wearing, the chair I am sitting on, and the desert morning sunlight that is entering my eyes.
These consciousnesses all exist concurrently, overlapping, with no meaningful distinction between them. Every subset and superset of causally linked matter has its own simultaneous experience, with none more prominent—there is no main consciousness that my mind has, there are instead a near infinite number of overlapping consciousnesses that each incorporate the awareness associated with the matter or systems that make up all or part of my brain.
Like a set of infinitely overlapping Venn diagram circles, these also intersect with the rest of my body, and the external world. Each experience is separate, with the same set of matter hosting a multitude of unique and distinct experiences. Any physical matter that is causally connected to another—that is involved in some kind of system—is connected by shared awareness. So my body is part of an infinite number of shared self-aware systems that include those within the bounds of my skin, the room I am sitting in, the land and planet those exist within, and the surrounding cosmology.
None of these concurrent, overlapping consciousnesses are in the “driving seat”. They all experience the phenomena of existence, but they don’t control it. Our behavior, personality, and actions are entirely decided by the physical structure and processes of our brain—which just happens to be composed of a material that has a subjective experience of itself. You could consider all of the multitude of experiencing consciousnesses as passengers, along for the ride. You could equally consider them an irremovable property of the matter itself—since I am indeed the subjective experience of my brain and body, of course I identify strongly with my brain and body’s actions.
Since consciousness is a property of matter or energy itself—a fundamental part of what it means for something to be in our universe—the universe is a staggeringly infinite array of overlapping experiences, at every possible scale. Assuming information cannot travel past the speed of light, perhaps there are some discrete experiences—ones that do not overlap—in regions of the universe that are currently causally isolated from one another. But perhaps consciousness doesn’t follow these same laws, and the universe itself—causally tied through a shared inception at the Big Bang—has a truly global conscious experience.
It remains to be seen whether consciousness is a property of matter itself, or only of the systems where matter exchanges energy with other matter—with the increase of entropy. I would suspect the latter, and that experience may end with the heat death of the universe. But even with this question, I think there’s a compelling case to be made that consciousness is part of the fabric of reality, and that the distinctions we imagine between ourselves and other matter are utterly meaningless in the grander scheme of things.