The Screaming Shame of Science – We Don’t Understand Consciousness

Straight up:

The screaming shame of modern science is our lack of understanding of consciousness itself.

It is things that are conscious that hold moral weight. A coffee mug or a granite stone or an iPhone are unlikely to have an “internal movie” (qualia) of subjective experience. They are relevant insomuch as they impact sentient entities (humans, animals).

I may be wrong about my hypothesis above (see: Panpsychism or various other more open theories of consciousness), but it’s hard to deny that, pragmatically, the theory holds.

Consciousness is What Matters

The premise that I hold out is the following:

As consciousness itself – the bedrock of moral value – becomes create-able (artificial general intelligence) or enhance-able (transhumanism), we humans are arriving at the greatest moral precipice imaginable by humans.


Without a strong grounding of how consciousness arises, what it is, its varieties and types, and how it works… we will be hopelessly lost in navigating the grand trajectory of intelligence and sentience that we are likely to be unleashing in the next century.

If we are to build what will become diety-level consciousnesses, or entirely post-human superintelligent entities, then doing so in the “best” way possible is critical.

Exploding confused or suffering consciousness would be the literal creation of hell, and ill-conceived experiments with superintelligence (without an understanding of consciousness) may lead to the proliferation of negative qualia instead of positive.

It may even be the case that some grounded sense of what consciousness is (and how it works) will allow us to more accurately build friendly AI, or transhuman permutations that are less likely to result in conflict and suffering.

Consequences of Different Theories of Consciousness

It’s important to not create suffering conscious super-entities, but the consequences of different theories of consciousness have a much more broad impact on shared human goals.

For example, let’s take account of a few possible discoveries about consciousness, and what those hypothetical “discoveries” would imply for how humans could arrive at a beneficial future:

  • Consciousness can only exist in carbon-based life – In such a situation, humanity should place a much greater emphasis on expanding carbon-based sentience with genomics and cognitive enhancement, and AI would be created only in order to serve carbon-based, conscious life (rather than being conscious itself).
  • Animals below a certain cognitive complexity (say, that of a rodent) act conscious experience no actual qualia – In such a situation, the impact of humans and post-humans on the environment (and various species within it) would be altered significantly – factoring some entities out of our “utilitarian calculus.”
  • There are gradients of qualia beyond pain-and-pleasure (which humans cannot access, but new AI-created consciousness can experience – In such a situation, humanity may have to validate other modes of consciousness and explore these new vistas of consciousness, rather than pursuing pain-pleasure utilitarian spectrum.

The permutations of the above scenarios are endless, and indeed many of them are beyond the human imagination. It is unlikely that any such discoveries would be permanent, stationary “truths”, but rather, new anchor points in the web of discoveries, an evolving body of knowledge.

Even given said evolution, this web would be positively critical for navigating the future with an eye to the utilitarian “good” along the way.

What Can Be Done

It may well be the case that we can only go as far as Lucretius did – positing theories about how the world works, living and dying and hopefully being edified or soothed by our meager understanding of the universe, and other epicurean (in the classical sense) facets of life.

I have argued that we likely need some kind of superintelligence with more cognitive firepower than humans in order to understand the universe, and in order to understand consciousness, and the nature of things (read: AGI / Finding the Good).

It may be the case that all human attempted to grasp consciousness will be so feeble as to be useless, and that we’ll have to lean out into the precipice of cognitive enhancement or AGI creation in order to see beyond the tip of the iceberg well enough to develop theories of consciousness beyond those that we have today. It is likely a good idea to thoroughly understand what consciousness is before we build a machine more powerful than ourselves. We should hope the universe to be populated with positive qualia, not with “digital zombies” void of sentience.

Regardless, the absence of a more robust understanding of consciousness – given the fact that it is the bedrock of moral value itself (arguably the measure we could use to see if our actions are “making the world a better place“) – is the screaming shame of modern science.

Here’s what I suspect would be required to have the best shot at creating the best aggregately beneficial trajectory of intelligence and sentience:

  • Humans should focus overtly on global efforts to discover the point at which consciousness originates (in the development of animals, or in the process of evolution).
  • Humans should work to get on the same page (internationally) about the moral consequences of creating or enhancing consciousness – potentially agreeing on the moral value of various kinds of created sentiences. Eventually, this will likely involve accepting that drastically post-human consciousnesses have a higher moral value than individual human beings, and it will be hard to our species to digest this truth without conflict and strife – but I suspect we’ll have to find a way to do so.

Who knows how far we’ll get towards another higher paradigm of understanding consciousness, or if such a new level can be reached (nevermind agreed-upon) before we start tinkering with conscious machines and cognitive augmentation – but it seems like a worthy goal to strive for if we want to best shot at the best shared future.


Header image credit: The Met