I recently presented a brief video episode about our experience of life,
and wanted to elaborate on the topic of our experiential awareness a bit, since there seems to be a fair amount of variation in the understanding of how our experience of life comes about. This is a fairly broad topic and I wanted to extend the conversation a bit to extend my position on the subject.
There are a number of research studies being conducted currently by the scientific community, in particular within neuroscientific circles, whose basic premise begins with the notion that the brain alone is responsible for our experiential subjective awareness, positing that consciousness “emerges” from brain physiology. The confluence of neurons and brain processes, communications between brain regions, and the electrochemical nature of impulses called “action potentials,” coursing through millions of neural networks, across trillions of synaptic gaps, somehow produces consciousness, sufficiently explaining our subjective experience.
While many of these important studies are increasing our knowledge of cognitive functioning and revealing more and more about the physiological processes which take place within a nominally functional brain, scientists still continue to have enormous difficulty explaining how it is that cognitive functioning alone is responsible for such a potent and inexplicable subjective experience. It seems unlikely to me that it’s all just input being processed by the senses and brain functionality—but in order to progress, any explanation of consciousness must also show why our human experience of existing in the physical world brings with it such a vivid subjective experience of our awareness of “being.”
Clearly, we are reliant upon our brains and the nearly miraculous combination of form and function within the brain, for perception, memory, and the many autonomous functions of the human body. Anyone with even a basic understanding of how the brain works and how it provides us with the cognitive capacities we enjoy as sentient beings can conclude that we need our nominally functional brain and central nervous system to meaningfully act and interact in our daily experience of life on Earth. What is not so clear, aside from the extraordinary complexity of the functions taking place within the human brain, is why we sometimes seem to possess awareness of other levels of perception and interaction, which “transcend” those of ordinary daily experience.
Human history contains an enormous range of reports of subjective experiences that have been recorded over the millennia, many of which cannot be comprehensively described in empirical terms, and even in our 21st century materialistic worldview, questions persist about the many ways in which our experiential awareness seems to include perceptions and subjective experiences which are not easily explained by our physiology.
In spite of significant leaps in computing power, and a number of astonishing feats by devices infused with potent artificial intelligence, like IBM’s “Deep Blue,” and an array of “smart devices,” and “digital assistants,” like “Siri” and “Alexa,” we continue to arrive at thresholds where there is no progress beyond a certain point.
There will, no doubt, be advances in the future which increase the abilities of “intelligent” devices, and progress made in comprehending how to construct new devices which emulate the form and function of the human brain, in ways that will likely narrow the gaps between human and artificial intelligence which currently exist. We are already advancing rapidly toward reliance upon artificially intelligent sources for nearly every basic function in business, health care, and education. Many of the advances we are seeing have great advantages for our species, and as long as we are not faced in the near future with some cataclysm which renders these technologies ineffective or incapable of functioning, we can expect that these technologies will become ubiquitous and be a part of our daily routines as social media and cell phones are today.
The real challenge we face in each of these areas is sustaining the key components of our humanity as the technology expands beyond what humans are capable of producing without them. There aren’t any humans currently who could realistically compete with the computing power of a supercomputer, at least in conducting calculations or processing huge quantities of raw data, in any meaningful way at least, and although there are a number of very intelligent humans who might be able to reach a similar conclusion to a difficult problem given sufficient time and resources, it seems to me that the point of constructing huge supercomputers and creating technologies which supplant the necessity of human intervention isn’t to replace humans, but rather to increase the number of opportunities for humans to dedicate time to pursuits which do not require processing of that sort.
My own experience of life over the last seven decades is a good example of why we should pursue artificial intelligence and find ways of doing the work of humans which could make the future much better generally for others like me. Over the fifty odd years of my efforts to earn a living, it required me to spend untold hours creating income to support my family, and left precious little time for family activities and my individual pursuits. With sufficient progress being made in virtual experience technologies, as well as in artificial intelligence, it may be possible for future generations to have more time for those important aspects of human life, and if that is the only benefit to result from the advances in the future, it will be totally worthwhile.
Where we cannot allow the emerging technological advancement to take over is where we exist in our most human place—within us. Life is not simply a matter of chemistry and physical laws. There are vitally important aspects of life which are founded upon our complex chemistry and which cannot exist without those physical laws, but they do not define our humanity completely, nor can they constitute the fullness of our nature as human beings.
We must not allow our inner lives to evaporate or to be crushed under the weight of technological advancement. We must persist in our efforts to protect and enhance the core of our humanity, by seeking out the fullness of what we can become if we look within ourselves. The future of our species may very well depend on our efforts to enhance our awareness of what exists within us, and to bring it into the forefront of our experience of life.