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Can We Distinguish Between Types of Consciousness?

Jason M. Pittman Cap Tech

By Jason M. Pittman, Sc.D.

 In the last part of this series, I articulated the idea that there are three potential types of consciousness. The first, natural consciousness, is the kind that you and I have. Philosophers have dedicated entire careers to an investigation of what it entails – and to demonstrating that it is not merely an illusion.  Descartes, famously, journeyed into a personal Hell to establish that the individual instantiation of natural consciousness does in fact exist.

For the other two types -- artificial and synthetic—we have no direct evidence yet. However, this does not imply they do not exist or will not exist in the future. Can we distinguish among these three types of consciousness? Let’s find out!

Consciousness: On or Off?

I find little rationale for claiming that the types of consciousness are distinguishable. My reasoning rests on two propositions:  (1) things either have consciousness or they don’t; and (2) we are conscious.

Let’s consider an example. I’m writing an essay. You are writing an essay as well. 

Because I am conscious, and I perceive my consciousness to be the source of my ability to write (and read, by proxy), then you must be conscious too and your consciousness must be like mine in both kind and degree. Obviously, I could ask you if you’re conscious, but I’d have no way to know if you’re lying.

Most of us, in fact, would not think to ask each other such questions. Not only might it seem, rude, but we would consider it unnecessary. We assume, with good reason, that the other person writing an essay is as conscious as we are – and conscious in the same way. 

In other words, consciousness is binary to the core; it’s either on or off. There is no objective difference between consciousnesses once they have been instantiated.

Our determination that something like us is conscious is implicit and subconscious. We don’t actively think that the other essay writer must also be conscious because we are; we simply operate as if all of this true. Further, we presuppose that consciousness is the origin of behavior rather than the mediation layer between sensory input and mind/cognition. 

So, then, what basis do we have to think that artificial or synthetic consciousness would differ in kind? 

In the case of artificial consciousness, because it is by definition imitative of us, I don’t see how we’ll be able to differentiate at all. With synthetic consciousness, there is more of a puzzle. 

We perceive things like us to be conscious because they act similarly. At the same time, we seem to believe that things not like us (e.g., plants) are not conscious because those things are not like us. Plants don’t act like us, so we often assume that they do not have consciousness.

bodhi tree

As I have noted before, however, there is growing evidence that this assumption is wrong, and that plants may indeed be conscious. Remember, though, that consciousness is binary. It’s either there or it isn’t.

That means plant consciousness ought to not be different in kind from ours. However, plants do not behave the way we do. Plants do not embody intelligence or consciousness as we do. Thus, our assumptions fall short due to the difference in form. 

In other words, if we can distinguish a synthetic consciousness from other types, then it must be distinguishable. To be distinguishable, it must be detectable. We cannot reliably detect consciousnesses that are not like ours (yet).

Now that I’ve presented my answer to the question posed at the start of this post, let’s take the discussion a step further. The different types of consciousness are indistinguishable – and that’s potentially a bad thing. Tune in next time for my thoughts on why it’s a problem, and on how we might address it.