While we debate about if and how AI will ever gain consciousness, what if everything in the universe is already sentient?
The thinking dates back to the ancient Greeks and a term called panpsychism, which means “everything has a mind/soul,” and it was described as some shared, animating force that made all living things alive.
20th Century philosophers of science like Alfred North Whitehead and David Bohm incorporated the latest theories about quantum physics and the role of consciousness in determining the very existence of material reality, and blurred the distinctions between perceiver and perceived into shared systems, or occasions.
Bohm saw consciousness itself distributed “in” the level of individual cells, and therefrom extended “out” to a non-local expanded explicate order.
Embedding consciousness in material science is music to the ears of thinkers who believe that there’s no mind as something separate from the brain (dualists who oppose this thinking believe that minds exist somewhere and somehow above or beyond flesh and bone).
Materialists believe that awareness of self and the world at large is produced by the function of complex biological systems, but we just don’t yet know how. Then they go even further and suggest that our awareness of self is only the pretense of oversight or control since it’s a product of those biological cues.
A spiritual mind is the movie that the physical brain plays to entertain itself.
So, if we can code a robot to sense, interpret, and act on data with enough nuance and sensitivity to circumstantial variables, it will be conscious. This is at the core of the famous Turing test, which stated that a machine that could fool a human being into thinking it was another human being was as intelligent as one itself.
I’m a robot, for all you know, and we all could be fooling ourselves into thinking we’re something more than machines.
I think (or my simulacrum of self’s command line says) a more radical application of panpsychism would better inform the debate. It would also be a lot more fun to explore.
What if consciousness is a force that’s present in everything, living or inert? People have a lot of it, animals less, flowers even less so, and protons and electrons have a teeny weeny bit.
What if consciousness isn’t a what that is proved by its description but rather the why objects and people move through time and space? What if it isn’t defined by empirical proof as emerging from physical space but is somehow in it as an animating force?
Maybe consciousness is what holds molecules together, keeps planets orbiting stars, turns leaves toward the Sun and gives us the agency to eat broccoli and find love.
Remember, I said radical.
But why not?
It changes how we think about, well, thinking.
Consciousness is not some binary threshold of is or isn’t. It’s not a layer on top of other functions, and it isn’t moral, responsible, or possess any other emotive attribute we assign to it. It isn’t fake but rather a force for intentionality and agency that underlies every force we see operating in the physical universe.
Consciousness doesn’t belong exclusively to human beings, but is everywhere in everything. Animals. Plants. Atoms.
That means we don’t have to debate if AI will ever be conscious.
It already is.
PS: Reading a book entitled Galileo’s Error, by Philip Goff prompted me to connect theories of consciousness with AI. I heartily recommend it.