Consciousness, Free Will and Artificial Intelligence

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by Neil Godfrey

ChatGPT (or any Artificial Intelligence) lacks consciousness of what it is doing and hence cannot be said to have the “free will” or “subjective impulses” to determine what direction its “thoughts” will take. (See critical comments on an earlier ChatGPT post).

A nagging question persists in the back of my mind, however. Do even humans have “free will” to guide the directions of their thoughts and conclusions? Every time I read a relatively recent work on human consciousness (e.g. Greenfield, Churchland) I am left with the disturbing notion that there may be a possibility that our consciousness of ourselves and what we are doing is an illusion. Although my inner gut resists that idea I do know that my inner gut does not have an infallible record of guiding me in the way of Truth. Ditto for my notion of “common sense”.

So it was with much appreciation and interest that I read posts on a new blog, Black Box Site, especially the second item, The Color of Your Consciousness or, Getting in Front of a Mob and Calling it a Parade. The author, Blackmun, has been keeping abreast of many more publications on consciousness than I have  so it was an immense pleasure to read his survey of some research findings. His overview draws upon…

  • Aitchison, Laurence, and Máté Lengyel. “With or without You: Predictive Coding and Bayesian Inference in the Brain.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology 46 (October 2017): 219–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conb.2017.08.010.
  • Dehaene, Stanislas. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. 2014.
  • Nørretranders, Tor. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. 1998.
  • Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. 1995.
  • ———. Awakenings. 1987.
  • ———. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales. 1985.
  • Schurger, Aaron, Jacobo Sitt, and Stanislas Dehaene. “An Accumulator Model for Spontaneous Neural Activity Prior to Self-Initiated Movement.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (August 6, 2012): E2904-13. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1210467109.
  • Wegner, Daniel M. The Illusion of Conscious Will. 2018, 2002
  • Wilson, Timothy D. Strangers to Ourselves. 2004.

Some concluding gems:

CARTESIAN, adj. Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum – whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum – “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;” as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made. (The Devil’s Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce)

. . . .

And as Isaac Bashevis Singer liked to quip: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.

. . . .

. . . exactly what am I?

A rational maximizer? A child of God? A lizard that thinks it knows what it’s doing?

Does the main difference between our thinking and that of AI come down to AI having fewer hidden biases and parameters than the human brain?

It’s a fearful notion. That lizard would have no option but to resist it.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Consciousness, Free Will and Artificial Intelligence”

  1. My favorite demonstration of free will was an episode of the Word Series of Poker. In that episode, one of the very best poker players of his generation folded the winning hand for no obvious reason. When asked about it later, he sheepishly stated that he didn’t see the winning combination of cards. So, how is that deterministic? What determined his action? Did he not have free will in the choice to fold or not.

    I suggest that free will exists, as does determinism. To insist it has to be one way or another is a failure of philosophy, namely philosophy’s love of absolutes.

    1. Free will of what, though? What is the thing that has free will? The soul? The mind? The brain? I find it very difficulty, despite my personal experience of thinking and “deciding” to see where this resides or how it fits with General Relativity and propagation of electromagnetic waves at the speed of light.

      That is, the interactions in your brain are carried by photons which themselves do not experience time and therefore “know” at the outset what they will find at the end of their journey. This may have a random element (perhaps the Bohmian pilot-wave theory) but there is nothing which can change the development of the field once the choice has been made. In that context, it is hard to see where the freedom lies unless we posit something outside of our mind/brain which is capable of introducing “will”. Unpacking the influences seems to always result in a circularity of “this is what makes that free, and this second thing is what makes the first thing free….and this nth thing is what made the 1st thing free”.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Zspu7ziA8Y&t=24s&pp=ygUMcGhvdG9ucyB0aW1l discusses the lack of time in the perspective of photons (in fact, anything travelling at the speed of light).

    2. I agree with Steve Ruis. One has to precisely define concepts before trying to determine whether they exist or not. The notion of free will is more nuanced than usually presented. For example, it’s probably better to think of it not as a unary relation, e.g. “Jane has free will”, or even a binary relation, e.g. “Jane has free will in ordering dinner”, but rather as a ternary relation, e.g. “Jane has free will in ordering dinner despite the waiter’s suggestion”.

  2. A superior criterion of Free Will I know is simply intuiting Free Will. We intuitively recognize when we are being forced to do something *against* our will. Our ancestors fought wars against Tyranny. Those who didn’t lived to regret it. We always long to be Free, and Freedom is exactly the same as Free Will.

    But the best proof I know is the Cartesian Cogito, which is the one fact of reality that is *impossible* to deny, said Descartes. I cannot doubt that “I think therefore I am”, because doubting is also a form of thinking. Reflection on my own thinking is a 100% Free Act. Nobody can force me to do this.

    As for ChatGPT and AI, it is a superfast, super-sophisticated version of the Chinese Room, for those computer scientists out there who know what that it. It requires a stable DATABASE of data to work with — but it uses computers to access that data super-fast.

    Computers first began defeating global chess masters after computer scientists programmed their programs to play other computers at the speed of electricity. Countless millions of winning and losing moves were stored in a DATABASE, and accessed with the speed of electricity.

    The ILLUSION is that the computer is THINKING. Actually, it is merely data processing.

    ChatGPT also has a similar database, namely GOOGLE, which has stored 25 years of human information from over a billion users worldwide. No single human can compete with that. Also, ChatGPT, and all new AI products, specialize in Language Grammar and can produce sentences as smoothly as a college professor.

    But who is truly threatened by such programs? Google perhaps? No — Google has now produced it’s own version of ChatGPT for free on the Google search engine. Writers in Hollywood? Not a chance.

    See, you can program a computer to do what college professors can put into formulas — like English Grammar. But you can’t program a computer to do what humans can’t put into formulas — like Truly Unique Creative Writing or Music Composition.

    Now, some children couldn’t tell truly unique Creative Writing from nonsense, or truly unique Music from children’s songs — so there may be some small market for AI scripts and songs. Maybe. More likely COPYRIGHT lawsuits would proliferate.

  3. The stance of the free will deniers is analogous to defining real magic as the one practiced by Harry Potter, not the likes of David Copperfield. I don’t think that’s how it should work. (check the first link below if the analogy is not clear)
    Re your comment of free will as an illusion, yes, I think that’s the case, but real nonetheless. Of course, these are just my opinions and I’m not an authority on the matter, but try to follow the arguments from people who is.
    For instance (talk by Dennett, 9 years ago): https://youtu.be/wGPIzSe5cAU?si=Gv9ocSiAr-gjkvED
    And a very recent interview (with discussion of Sapolsky included): https://youtu.be/tm6nDmpnmEU?si=mCYI4Dp_ZSJgW0Sp
    Hope this helps.

  4. I think free will is a red herring. The value of human consciousness is in feeling.
    Now how real feeling is, … that’s another rabbit hole.

  5. “Consciousness of ourselves and what we are doing” is not an illusion, Neil. But “free will” surely is!
    It’s been recently discovered via brain activity scans that our body has made the decision we make just prior to our act of deciding.
    Hadn’t you heard?

  6. Music and appetite. I jog on a treadmill and have a list of 500 songs I listen to while walking. Sometimes one of my favorite songs is something I’m just not in the mood for. Am I deciding my mood?

    I go to the ice cream store. I look at the selections. I just trust my free will to decide for me what I want.

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