Lately it feels like we do not talk about anything else than the covid-19 pandemic anymore. Amazing that such a small thing as a virus can completely disable the supposedly dominant species, right? So, what kind of incredible organism managed to do this? Well… According to the not-so-stable scientific consensus, no organism at all!
Excuse me? - someone will say. The hell are you talking about?
Here is the thing - organism are by definition living things and whether viruses are alive or not is a matter of debate.
What do you mean? How is this possible that we do not know if something is alive?
Quite simple. Our definition of being alive is not derived from first principles. We just take a set of the most distinct features that we can find in things that we consider alive and try to check how many of those appear in other objects. You know - if it floats and has wings, then it must be a duck. Essentially, we do pattern matching with very generic and imprecise conditions. It’s like a neural network, but we have only one set of data, did the labeling ourselves and arbitrarily fixed the number of nodes and layers. Yeah. I’m not even trying to count all the possible cognitive biases.
What is the conclusion from all that? That we do not really know what it means to be alive.
Viruses cause us a particular headache, because they behave differently when outside and inside of host cells. They are, what we would call, “biologically inactive” when separated from an environment in which they can reproduce.
OK, so is it possible that a virus is alive only under some specific conditions? Did we find the place where the show starts? Will this allow us to expose the first principles?
I have a different theory though.
Maybe viruses cause us so much problems because they prove that the thing that we are looking for does not exist in the first place. We assumed that the state of “alive” is a given, that’s our axiom. What if it was wrong all this time?
Being alive is a lie.
How could we miss that?
I think that there was a mix-up of concepts. We saw another emergent phenomena - consciousness, could not explain it, and imagined that there is some other “magical” property that makes it tick. Nothing like that exists, but we could not verify it because we lacked any real information about cognitive processes.
The state of our knowledge changed dramatically, but we never corrected our previous assumptions. It’s a bit funny, because this advancement produced another problem, that can be solved once we discover our first mistake.
We got to a point at which we, more or less, know how the brain works and we create machines that are getting more and more close to emulating it. The question is well know and widely covered - can the artificial intelligence be alive? If yes, how do we recognize when it has made the leap?
It seems to me, that if we find such issues on both ends of the spectrum, then maybe we should just give up and acknowledge the truth. The king is naked. Nothing is alive. Being alive does not exist. Now we do not have to worry about living AI, but we are still left with the question about consciousness.
Wait just a moment! - the crowd shouts. This is all BS. You are presenting no evidence, this is just pure speculation, totally unscientific!
The angry mob would be right. This is not a scientific theory. Here is the thing - neither is the current theory of “alive”. You cannot disprove it, which is the necessary trait of anything that aspires to be considered scientific theory. My drunken rambling has pretty much the same value. The only downside is, that it does not give us any magical properties.
OK, lets assume that we are not “alive”, whatever that means. What about consciousness then? All those nice qualia that we are experiencing must have some significance, right? It most certainly puts us in some different category than those nasty viruses?
Well… Yes and no. We are definitely special when compared to other life forms on earth, but only in quantity and not quality. Lets tackle another often repeated myth. You can still hear this one from people who are a bit on the religious side or not that confident about themselves.
“Animals do not poses intelligence, they have instinct.”
Do I even have to say that this is not true? There is absolutely no difference between us and “lesser” life forms that we know of. What we learned from experience is that some primates operate with abstraction and can imagine things, that herd animals have rich social life, that most animals and even plants can feel emotional pain. No magical moment happened in evolution at which the spark of god came upon us. All the mechanisms on which we operate are present to some degree in other animals, possibly plants, and maybe even things that we right now consider objects.
So what is consciousness?
To put it very simply, it’s a model ot the world that references itself. During the course of evolution my body has developed a special organ that creates a sophisticated simulation of environment, which gives it an increased survival chance. It contains the most regularly referenced parts of its previous states - the past. Of course, it also comes packaged with a state of what it considers useful perspective of current situation - present. Using those two, it can create a prediction that can helps it guess what can happen under changing circumstances - the future. Most importantly, somehow it has to represent the thing that it tries to protects. And that would be me. This illusion is what we all are.
Not a very satisfying conclusion, right?
I exist. I feel. If I’m unlucky, one day I will stop.
We cannot explain the qualia in any meaningful way. On the other hand, we also cannot give an explanation for why a single atom of matter exists. Why should we then treat one with more mysticism than the other?
It just “feels” like something else, right?
That’s a pretty weak argument for me.
OK, getting back to the topic. We have a spectrum of objects that are possibly conscious. Some of them have an obvious resemblance to ourselves - they poses a neural system in some form. Some of them we accepted as our brothers in consciousness - primates, dolphins, elephants, etc. Some of them are a bit of a mystery - fungi, termite colonies, forests.
Even if we choose only a subset of those, there is still some sort of hierarchy among them. We like to imagine ourselves as being the most complex, and this might as well be true, but we could create an approximation of complexity progression in general.
If we use this scale, then does it reflect only intelligence or also consciousness?
Let me rephrase the question - are some objects more conscious than others?
The intuitive answer would be - yes, they are. It’s hard to imagine, that a fish is conscious in the same way that a lion is. The capacity of it’s neural network does not allow for the modeling to be that sophisticated.
What would enforce this idea, are the creation myths present in most of human cultures. They pretty much describe the process of obtaining the level of consciousness that allowed us to reflect on our situation in the world. “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil”.
That’s some interesting stuff, right?
Now lets destroy the rest of our belief system.
Do you think that every human being is conscious in the same way?
Let that question sink in deep.
We suspect now, that depending on the complexity of the neural network, different objects have varying capacity for being conscious. Additionally, we know that the variation between individual human beings in term of the same factor can be bigger than between distinct species of animals. What it would suggest, is that two people can have different ability of being conscious.
This is not only the difference in intelligence, but in “being alive”!
I will never be alive as much as Bill Gates or Elon Musk. Some day they will surpass me even further thanks to advancement of technology.
We rely on our consciousness to give us that special meaning, that we proudly call “being human”. That would lead to the conclusion that I’m less of a human being than Musk.
Not a very happy thought to live with, right? We try to pretend that everyone in our society is somehow equal, but even in the most basic sense we are not. The problem is, that the concept of equality is derived from the “magical” property of classifying as a human. We can try to go further down this path, but we soon will have very real problems with keeping the masquerade. Maybe the solution is to stop with the lies?
We are the same as everything else, just further up the scale. More things that we assume might be conscious. There are, and will be, things that surpass us in ways that we cannot imagine. So far, one cannot escape the necessity of extinguishing “life” of other things along the way.
The only thing that comes into my mind, that allows me to deal with the above statements, is compassion. Compassion for other things. Compassion for myself. Maybe I’m just creating another lie, but I think that accepting the reality is the first step on a way to progress.
What do you think?