Consciousness and Machines: A Commentary Drawing on Japanese Philosophy

Philosophy East and West 74 (2):305-314 (2024)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Consciousness and Machines:A Commentary Drawing on Japanese PhilosophyS. D. Noam Cook (bio)Viewed from within the great unity of consciousness, thinking is a wave on the surface of a great intuition.Kitarō NishidaIntroductionRecent developments in AI have made the long-standing debate about what computers can and can't do a major public concern. What we understand the properties of such machines to be, and consequently how we design [End Page 305] and deploy them, will increasingly shape how we live and how we understand ourselves. Thus, there is an urgent need for better understanding of these issues.Susan Schneider, in her book Artificial You: AI and the Future of Your Mind, offers an exceptionally careful and insightful examination of key issues entailed in how we understand AI and ourselves. One of her central concerns is how we might test for machine consciousness. Given the variations in design and function among current and projected AIs, Schneider sees no likely one-size-fits-all test. So, she offers a battery of different tests that she believes together will make such testing more reliable. This seems a wise approach, and reflects the conceptual and pragmatic care Schneider takes throughout the book.Similarly, it seems to me that the question of machine consciousness should also include various understandings of consciousness itself. What consciousness is taken to be has varied widely both historically and culturally. No commonly accepted single understanding has emerged, and may never emerge. Just as having a battery of tests might help us better assess possible machine consciousness, having different understandings of consciousness might give us a better understanding of what we are testing for. The two should work in tandem, each gauging and shaping the other.Like the development of computers themselves, the predominant thinking about AI has been shaped, in part, by key presuppositions of a scientific worldview, with its origins in Western thought and culture. Among these presuppositions are materialism, reductionism, and a primary focus on objective behavior. These are reflected in the common concern with observable behavior of physical aspects of the brain in efforts to understand human consciousness, which in turn has become a familiar model for work on machine consciousness. All this is important and valuable work. But, in the spirit of Schneider's cautions, it should not be taken as one-size-fits-all. Accordingly, I offer one view of consciousness from a different perspective.In what follows, I sketch out an understanding of consciousness that draws on Japanese philosophy, particularly that of the highly influential early twentieth-century Japanese philosopher Kitarō Nishida (1870–1945). I then explore how the tests for machine consciousness that Schneider proposes might be viewed from that perspective.Consciousness: A Perspective from Japanese PhilosophyConsciousness was a central concern for Nishida, whose philosophy is deeply informed by Japanese culture and by Zen theory and practice. As one might expect from such a philosopher, Nishida's exploration of consciousness is not concerned with properties of the brain, but with what we might discern through disciplined reflection on the experience of our own consciousness. Ultimately, he views consciousness as an organic whole [End Page 306] of systemically organized interrelationships of activities and sensations within our subjective experience. This may be understood by first considering 'nothingness'.For Nishida, nothingness does not suggest an ultimate and absolute vacuity, as is often understandably assumed. In Nishida's sense, it is a singular "place" that mirrors the multifaceted world of our common experience. In understanding this, I am told by native Japanese speakers that the English word 'nothingness' has an advantage over the Japanese equivalent, 'mu', in that 'nothingness' can usefully be broken down as 'nothing-ness'. This suggests that nothingness is a state of consciousness where what we commonly experience as distinct (self, other, world, blue, ache, joy, etc.) is indistinct, a state of unified experience. This is consciousness without our finding or discriminating in it the myriad "things" of common experience, but rather a "pure experience" of a singular whole. Nishida introduces his concept of "pure experience" as follows:To experience means to know facts just as they are, to know in accordance with facts by completely relinquishing one...

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