Consciousness and Intelligence are Convoluted

There’s been great discussion on LW as to the value of consciousness as a concept. The general conclusion many have come away with is that we should probably just taboo ‘consciousness’ and get to the meat. I tend to agree.

I’d like to present a slightly different reasoning though. The feeling of consciousness in ourselves and others is a hardcoded trait. This immediately should lead us to be very suspicious of it as a consistent concept. It’s clearly useful for development, if only to be used as a proxy for “human-ness”, but I’ll argue that it is just that, a heuristic. There are many interesting phenomena hiding in ‘consciousness’, but they should be considered distinct phenomena. They are bound together by the their shared name, and we often switch between them in conversation without noticing, assuming they’re the same concept. That’s right, ‘Consciousness’ is convoluted.

Here are a few things people tend to mean with conciousness, each interesting on their own. It is not immediately obvious that they represent the same phenomena, though I suspect that they are deeply related. It’s important to lay them out as separate ideas so that their connection can be made explicit, rather than equivalent “by definition”.

  1. The feeling of free will – The generation of counterfactual scenarios and an evaluation of those scenarios
  2. The feeling of self awareness – To contain a model of ones self and mental processes
  3. Perception of qualia – The recognition of sense as “internal” experiences, such as awareness of the color red.

Similarly, the term “Intelligence” is convoluted and we should taboo it. Some possible meanings are

  1. Consciousness – yes, sometimes consciousness and intelligence are used synonymously
  2. Containing sufficient processing power, being sufficiently complex so as to be unpredictable – in common usage, we sometimes say someone is “intelligent” if they can learn and think quickly. Many times things feel intelligent if they are complex.
  3. Acting sufficiently agent-like – Intelligent things feel as if they act according to goals and rational decisions based on those goals.
    1. Often a good heuristic for “agent-like” is “self-like”, if you consider the class of all things you encounter, you’re probably one of the more agent-like things you deal with. So in many cases, this is the feeling we’re actually referring to when we say “intelligent”. This one is just flat Wrong, beware of it.

Consider these meanings, which you tend to use most often, and how they might be related. Be mindful of how you use them during conversation and when you feel the urge to switch meanings; it should greatly improve the clarity of your arguments.


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