For once, in my opinion – and more importantly, the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett – Betteridge’s law of headlines is incorrect, because the answer to the ’Is consciousness just an illusion?’ story, is surely a very exciting yes!
Consciousness is real. Of course it is. We experience it every day. But for Daniel Dennett, consciousness is no more real than the screen on your laptop or your phone… Pressing icons on our phones makes us feel in control. We feel in charge of the hardware inside. But what we do with our fingers on our phones is a rather pathetic contribution to the sum total of phone activity. And, of course, it tells us absolutely nothing about how they work. Human consciousness is the same, says Dennett. “It’s the brain’s ‘user illusion’ of itself,” he says.
The computer and phone screen UI is a nice simile. From the human perspective it reminds me of the rider and the elephant analogy. Both reveal the reality that ‘we’ think ‘we’ have more control over ourselves and our consciousness than we actually do. In reality there is no ‘we’ or ‘I’ or ‘self’. Just a collection of parts being driven by genetic instinct, with an operating system creating the illusion of something else.
Our brains are made of a hundred billion neurons. If you were to count all the neurons in your brain at a rate of one a second, it would take more than 3,000 years. Our minds are made of molecular machines, otherwise known as brain cells. And if you find this depressing then you lack imagination, says Dennett.
I agree with that last point in particular. I’ve long felt that there’s nothing magical or outside of science about consciousness, imagination and creativity, but I don’t feel that it’s a pessimistic or depressing view. Just exciting. Imagine for example, how imaginative a more powerful brain could be, and what ideas that more capable computer could create. This doesn’t stop me enjoying my consciousness and creativity any more than another person’s brain does now. That said, I’m conscious that we quickly get back to Superintelligence and Nick Bostrom territory when talking about computer brains and consciousness!