The recent science fiction film, Ex Machina, about the invention of a conscious android takes us straight to the heart of the nature of consciousness. The android, named Ava, has a clear choice, preference and desire to be free from the underground chamber in which she is confined, and also to be free from the direction of her inventor.
The inventor, Nathan, asks the other main character, Caleb, to go beyond the Turing test. This is good advice as the Turing test was an annoying distraction for 20th century consciousness studies. The test was intended to assess whether a computer, or concealed robot, could convince a human conversant that the computer/robot was a human. Some computers are nowadays claimed to pass this test.
But Nathan sensibly asks Caleb to go beyond looking for the mere successful simulation required by the Turing test, and to assess whether Ava is really conscious of her environment and her self. However, Caleb does not feel the need to apply any formal tests, as the reality of the android’s consciousness quickly becomes obvious to him. Along with this he becomes aware of her preference for escaping both a possible switch off (effectively death), and also escaping to the outside world that she has learnt about.
Mary the colour scientist
An aside in the film is the famous, or perhaps notorious, thought experiment of Mary the colour scientist. In this, an unfortunate scientist, Mary, studies everything that is known about the science of colour and colour perception while being confined for the whole of her life in a black and white environment. Then with her studies complete, she is released into a normal (and therefore coloured) environment. Perversely, a possible majority of consciousness philosophers argue that she would not experience anything new on her release, although even an elementary knowledge of neuroscience shows this claim to be false. The film makers obviously considered this to be too much for the crowd-sourced common sense of their audience, and merely suggested how escape from her underground confinement would widen Ava’s experience, in the same way that Mary’s escape from black-and-white world had widened her experience.
20th century meanderings
The direct to the pointness of the film’s fiction is in sharp contrast to the apparently valueless meanderings of modern consciousness studies, as outlined in Anil Seth’s article in New Scientist. We are treated to convoluted reasoning about whether consciousness rests on other peoples beliefs about something being conscious. Seth tries to return to the world of sense by remarking that he seems to himself to be conscious when he wakes up and smells coffee in the morning. But this is a brief interlude, as we immediately plunge back into Wittgenstein’s philosophy where the relevance of ‘seeming’ is questioned. In contrast to the film, this philosophising quite misses the point that ‘seeming’ is what consciousness is. The failure to grasp that has been yet another fatal cul-de-sac in 20th century consciousness studies.
Worse is to follow, with the usual consciousness studies’ compulsory visit to Dennett. This philosopher insists that consciousness is an illusion although there is an obvious circularity here, as it is not clear how one could be subject to an illusion without being conscious in the first place. Dennett played a major role in rendering the 1990s arid and unprofitable for those seeking to understand consciousness.
Tononi points the way
More hopeful is the work of the neuroscientist, Tononi, who accepts both that consciousness is generated by processing in areas of localised concentrations in the brain as demonstrated by 21st century neuroscience and that this involves a fundamental physical property of the same given and unexplained nature as mass or electrical charge. The insistence that information is somehow the same as this basic property of consciousness is, however, a good deal less convincing.