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Ursula Goodenough

As I am neither a neuroscientist nor a physicist, I invited a departmental colleague who is a physics-trained neuroscientist to read through some of this conversation and offer her/his assessment. Here’s the response: 


The software analogy is deeply flawed both in discussions of computer “intelligence” and particularly with respect to life and consciousness. Cogent critiques of these software/hardware analogies have been available for decades, but perennial talk of “uploading” minds to computers has continued to find its way into pop movies and new age tech conference venues. But this is where science fiction and fantasy overlap. 


Software is written by people as instructions prescribing machine operations to accomplish some task. When these instructions aren’t being carried out, they are just instructions. Like text in an unread book. When they are being followed by a computer they are just machine operations, not in any way fundamentally different than the operation of an automobile engine. Think about instructions explaining how to fold a napkin, and actually folding a napkin. In which of these do we find consciousness, except for the person who “interprets” the instructions? A napkin-folding machine would also operate according to these instructions. 


I am uploading my thought to a computer right now. That’s as close as we’ll get.


But if you believe that minds compute, and you additionally extend this to quantum computing, and you are ensnared by dualistic thinking, then it is only a few additional missteps of logic to take you to claims of consciousness pervading the cosmos in the quantum foam with brains serving as I/O devices.


The issue with most consciousness talk is that some people find that even a whisper of out of the body experience, spiritualism, immaterial mind, dualism, etc., when framed in even vaguely scientific terms, is just too attractive to pass up. Such strong emotions have always been able to overcome clear thinking. I find it particularly interesting that physicists are some of the most easily attracted to these ideas, perhaps due to a platonistic leaning borne of their fascination with the unreasonably descriptive power of mathematics.


Quantum physics is attractive in large part because of its Alice-through-the-looking-glass affront to our intuitions. But quantum processes don’t have the qualities we need consciousness to have. There is no self there, just indeterminacy, entanglement, acausality, lack of simple location. So what do they contribute to the analysis? What is missing from quantum theory is an account of any property that could account for autonomous agency and the interiority of subjective experience. Consciousness seems mysteriously counterintuitive, quantum processes seem mysteriously counterintuitive, therefore they must be related—right?—or maybe the only relationship between them is our ignorance.