In 1641, Rene Descartes was living and working in the Netherlands, and he was thinking about a topic we’re still discussing today, although maybe about robots and plants.
Consciousness. What is it?
Descartes was thinking about how our senses can be unreliable — how, when you put a stick in water it looks like it’s bent, but it’s not actually bent, so we can’t always trust what our eyes and ears tell us. He let his imagination run with that one a little bit and thought if he couldn’t trust his senses, then how does he even know if he exists at all? It’s only through his sense of touch and sight that he experiences his body. Except not quite. He wrote in his Meditations on First Philosophy:
But how can I know there is not something different from those things that I have just considered, of which one cannot have the slightest doubt? Is there not some God, or some other being by whatever name we call it, who puts these reflections into my mind? That is not necessary, for is it not possible that I am capable of producing them myself? I myself, am I not at least something? But I have already denied that I had senses and body. Yet I hesitate, for what follows from that? Am I so dependent on body and senses that I cannot exist without these? But I was persuaded that there was nothing in all the world, that there was no heaven, no earth, that there were no minds, nor any bodies: was I not then likewise persuaded that I did not exist? Not at all; of a surety I myself did exist since I persuaded myself of something [or merely because I thought of something]. But there is some deceiver or other, very powerful and very cunning, who ever employs his ingenuity in deceiving me. Then without doubt I exist also if he deceives me, and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something. So that after having reflected well and carefully examined all things, we must come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it.
And so kicked off hundreds of years of thinking about consciousness. We know we exist, if only because we are able to consider that thought.
Now we’ve got machines that seem to have some capacity for thinkin’. And we’re building software that seems more and more to be replicating our own brains. Along with artificial intelligence will there be artificial consciousness?
Well that’s the question the folks down at Red Hook art space Pioneer Works wanna think about this Friday night. They’re bringing in some experts: neuroscientist Christof Koch the president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and cognitive scientist David Chalmers, the director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at New York University, to figure it all out.
There will also be a bonfire and barbeque from their Red Hook neighbor Hometown Bar-B-Que.
The event is free and open to the public.