The Red Herring of Consciousness

Friday, March 17, 2023

I haven't posted to this blog in years. Mostly because it's filled with writing and examples about software. Today, with the explosion of advancements in generative AI, I've decided to start sharing some of my private writing about the topic over the years. Today, I'll start with some writing I've done about intelligence and consciousness.

Consciousness: Easy or Hard?

It's a popular assumption that consciousness is a hard problem to solve. But is it really? The truth is that consciousness itself may not be the hard problem - it's the wiring that makes it difficult.

In 1995, philosopher David Chalmers introduced the term "hard problem of consciousness" in a paper titled "Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness". His work influenced some of the world's greatest scientific minds on the subject of conscious experience. But the idea that intelligence should be as complex as the brain is what I call the "red herring of consciousness".

People don't set out to solve the hard problem of consciousness because they think it will be easy. That would be silly, arrogant, grandiose, and a big waste of time. But the most groundbreaking discoveries in human thought were made by people who challenged assumptions and popular norms.

When we assume that consciousness must be a hard problem to solve, we tend to look for its solution in all the wrong places. Evolution doesn't solve hard problems - natural selection makes simple decisions that add up to an easy solution to what would otherwise be a hard problem. If natural selection had to choose between an easy problem and a hard problem, it would choose the easier problem every time.

The simplest organisms tend to be the most abundant. For example, the platypus is one of the least evolved mammals, but it has solved the hard problem of survival by choosing the easiest habitat to live in. When many equally adapted species share the same habitat and draw upon a shared pool of resources, evolution happens more rapidly.

The octopus is notable for having independently evolved the capacity for advanced intelligence, doing so as an invertebrate. If consciousness and intelligence were based on mechanisms that were fundamentally hard problems to solve, there would be less evidence of it in divergent species.

When we treat the problem of consciousness as something that should be easy to solve, it becomes possible to stop looking in all the wrong places for difficult answers. So, maybe consciousness isn't the hard problem after all - it's the wiring that's hard.

Platypus in its natural habitat

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Be curious, I dare you.