What is awareness?

I wrote this for some philosopher friends. For sure it is a bit ”out there”, and contains some gaping holes, but I think the general message is interesting and novel.

What is awareness?

The human brain and body, as far as is apparent, form an inseparable system that is however nonetheless a machine. Yet it is generally accepted that humans are aware and, excluding some other animals, that all contemporary machines are not.

Take as example a small circular mobile robot. The robot is equipped with: several infra-red (IR) proximity sensors placed to give rudimentary panoramic coverage; two electric motors placed to enable bi-directional rotation and forward-backward motion; auxiliary wiring, a small computer, and a small deterministic program which arbitrates action according to rules specified on the finite domain of sensory information available to it and its current internal state. Let us assume that the robot has been programmed, successfully, to move forward continuously, and only to deviate from this behavior if necessary to avoid crashing into fixed objects such as walls, when placed in a small manufactured enclosure. Note that this is realizable, relatively simple, and has already been done.

Imagine this robot in action; aimlessly wondering around its world avoiding objects. Does it sound crazy to suggest that this autonomous robot, as it moves around, is aware of the proximity of objects implied by its IR sensors? Is it aware to any extent? Not aware according to some arbitrarily defined philosophical criteria, but really aware, the same kind of awareness one might attribute to a lower animal, a lesser form of our own experience of awareness?

Physical differences aside, there is no evidence to suggest that there is any distinction between the mind of one machine and the mind of the next, other than in the complexity and type of information flow which that mind supports.

Unless we are to believe, unscientifically, the presence of some metaphysical property that endows animals with awareness, it seems undeniable that awareness must arise naturally as an emergent property associated with certain situated patterns of information flow.

But what are information and the flow of it, without our abstraction, to take the brain as an example, other than the movement of chemicals across synapses, the movement of ions through membranes, and so on?

Information is nothing but an abstraction and is attributable to configurations of atoms. Information flow is therefore a change in these configurations. Thus it would appear that there are certain configurations of objects and certain changes of configurations of objects which are in some sense “special'’ and which bring forth awareness?

Perhaps awareness is more fundamental? Can awareness be associated with all information flow? Is configuration change generally equivalent to information flow? Can awareness therefore be associated with all configuration change? Without justification, I am inclined to think not, but I proceed anyway because I like the picture that is painted.

When heat dissipates, are the atoms involved aware? When ions move across through channels in a neuron cell membrane, are the channels and ions aware? Is the neuron which contains the channels aware? Are the neural circuits, composed of the neurons aware? Is the brain, composed of the neural circuits aware? Is the being, composed of the brain and the rest of the cells aware? Is society aware as a consequence of information flow between beings? Is awareness present on the earth, in the configuration change associated with tectonic plate movements, weather change, river flows, growth, birth, death, life, and evolution? Is awareness present in the dissipation of the suns energy to its surroundings? Is awareness present in the changes in the fabric of space associated with the movement of planets? In the growth and expansion of the universe? Is the universe, in its possible infinity of interacting parts, at some level, holistically aware as a consequence?

At what point, and under what conditions, does awareness become manifest?

I do not know the answer and I do not know if the question can ever be scientifically answered.

I do not know how to conclude: thus I end abruptly in awe at the possibilities.


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