What Consciousness Is

Anybody who follows this blog (hi!  All three of you!) probably knows that two of the questions I have been obsessively pondering, are “What the heck is consciousness anyway?” and “Why is human intelligence in particular unique?”

I think that I have now answered these questions, at least to my  own satisfaction.  Regarding what consciousness is, Wittgenstein was right.  Consciousness is found nowhere except in the process of organizing information for planning purposeful action.

However, that’s a necessary but not sufficient condition.  I think that consciousness implies self-consciousness, and that therefore part of the information that a conscious thing is organizing has to be its current state and the effects of the execution of that plan on its own state.

This trivializes consciousness to the point where it’s ridiculously simple to create a thing that meets the definition, but once the planning process requires sufficient complexity, I think that is what elevates something from problem solving to consciousness.

Now, on to the second question, what is it that’s special about our specific kind of symbol-using consciousness that gives our intelligence the shape it has?  This is an important question because every kind of mammal is conscious (sentient) and some of them have big brains and use them to execute very complex survival strategies that they couldn’t manage otherwise (intelligent) but our intelligence is of a different kind than the intelligence of any other terrestrial species.

I had been thinking in terms of consciousness and our kind of symbolic, linguistic intelligence as goals that the system should develop some strategy to achieve, but that was mistaken. These things are not goals, they are strategies.  This particular type of Intelligence is of enormous benefit for executing our particular survival strategy, and therefore potentially emergent from that strategy.

So what is special about our own survival strategy that requires our kind of intelligence – our symbolic, language-using intelligence?  Our intelligence that can manipulate abstract symbols in a way that allows us to do mathematics and to plan in terms of symbols and design aircraft?


Language is a strategy for achieving our survival strategy, applicable to our origins as a social species with individually adaptive specialization.  We develop such varied specializations that we have to explain to each other what we can do, or what we need others to do in order to cooperate with us.  When we pass along a skill we use language to explain it.  The better we do at language the better we do at being a social species with individually adaptive specialization.

What I’d been missing was that language isn’t just another tool in our survival toolbox.   Language is something that adds tremendous effectiveness to our survival strategy, and we could not do it as well if we were not symbol-using intelligences.  Language requires us to communicate using symbols. Communication using symbols, if we’re to be any good at it, requires thinking using symbols.  And that kind of symbol-based thinking is exactly what we value about human-style intelligence.  Language isn’t something that a pre-existing symbolic intelligence just invents one day. Language is something that gives an intelligence a good reason to be a symbolic intelligence.

I can’t look back through time at those early troops of hominins and see what went on; This is one of many “just so stories” that plausibly explains how a symbol-using intelligence might have evolved.  But whether it’s how this happened to us or not, it’s a way that a symbol-using intelligence similar to ours could evolve. That’s good enough for empirical purposes.

It follows that this method could plausibly produce a symbolically-thinking, conscious, humanlike AI.  Define a task that requires self-aware planning, with the merely literal meaning that forming a sensible plan requires considering the effect on the planner of, and ability of the planner to, carry it out. Make sure that that using language with all its flexibility and expressiveness is a good strategy for solving it. Use machine learning techniques to try to create a solver for it.  A system capable of self-aware planning and using language to solve that problem would be expected to be a symbolic intelligence – ie, it should have intelligence of the specific kind that we think of as uniquely human.

The problem can’t be language itself – language is a strategy, not a goal.  If you make the problem language itself, you just get something like a database frontend.  That is to say, a system that emulates some behavior in the absence of any reasons for that behavior to exist.

So what the heck kind of task is that, and how many years of computer time are we talking about?  I don’t know, but being able to frame the question this way is a definite improvement.  “what is consciousness” and “what is special about human-style symbolic intelligence” were philosophers’ questions, not subject to definite answers.  And I’m not a philosopher, because I’m not content to endlessly worry questions that can never be resolved.  “What kind of task is that” and “how can I use machine learning techniques to create a solver for it” are empirical questions, subject to experiment and testing.  So now I have a way forward, however difficult and unlikely, which I didn’t have a week ago.