BPCC Workshop: Thoughts on Human Consciousness

By Max Henning

Held at the Brain and Creativity Institute
Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA



The main purpose of scientific and technical advances is the advancement of human welfare. Given the current and rather spectacular developments in general biology, neurobiology, and artificial intelligence, it is important to consider how these advances can benefit humanity and also debate their potential risks. In order to promote a useful discussion it is perhaps useful to begin with some key definitional issues. Specifically, does the new scientific knowledge blur the traditional boundary that separates human from non-human species? Do the novel technical developments challenge the traditional definitions of humanity and life?

The answers to the above questions have profound implications for the future of human beings, individually and socially, and are central to the mission of the Berggruen Center for Philosophy and Culture, part of whose charge is to conduct scholarly surveys of human developments, analyze their nature and origins, and investigate their consequences in distinct cultures and social settings. On these particular issues the consequences loom large in the area of moral behavior, justice, and religious belief, and, inevitably, in the worlds of governance and economics.

Rationale for the Workshop:

The technical and scientific advances that concern this workshop are unfolding rapidly. On the technology side aspects of human perception and reasoning are being successfully simulated in artificial intelligence devices, some of which already use components of brain design uncovered by neuroscience. It is also apparent that in computations based on “big data” sets, the engineered devices already surpass, in some instances, the ability of humans in terms of the inferences they manage to draw. The transfer of new knowledge about the brain to varied technical applications will no doubt continue unabated. 

While the success of the new technological feats is indisputable, a number of intriguing questions are being asked regarding their implications and significance. Unfortunately, there are no agreed upon frameworks to discuss such questions. Likewise, there are no frameworks to discuss questions regarding the possible misuses of the new intelligent artifacts, especially as they may gain some autonomy, and few questions raised about the effect of the new artifacts on job markets. 

On the science side, biology is uncovering significant similarities of structure and function between human and non-human living beings, suggesting that some complex social behaviors and even the basic phenomena of consciousness are not human alone.  Astonishingly, it appears that, at the moment, only cultural phenomena manage to be “almost” uncontroversially and uniquely human.

When the ease of global communications and the deep penetration of social media are added to all of these facts, there is little doubt that these developments will influence Western and non-Western cultures in a profound way. They need to be considered in an intelligent and informed framework so as to make way for their best possible impact in human welfare. Reflecting on how to conduct oneself so as to achieve the “Good life,” individually and socially, was a central problem in classic philosophy. It has now become vital for managing the complexities of life in the contemporary environment.


This workshop, the first of a series on this theme, focused on two specific questions: 
  1. Do developments in neurobiology alter the traditional boundaries of the definition of humanity? Should such a redefinition be considered a welcome opportunity or a perilous challenge? 

  2. As developments in artificial intelligence extend or surpass human intelligence, do they too challenge the traditional boundaries of the definition of human?
The attendance included leaders in disciplines ranging from neuroscience and neurobiology to Western and Eastern philosophy. Present were: 
Nicholas Berggruen, Antonio Damasio, Hanna Damasio, Mark Johnson, Anna Sun, Jin Li, Chenyang Li, Kingson Man, Max Henning, John Churchill, Jacob Foster, Jennifer Bourne, Dawn Nakagawa

As part of the workshop, Professor Mark Johnson addressed the participants on the topic of Embodied Mind and Moral Imagination.

Discussion and Conclusions: 
The lively exchanges had an optimistic tone uncharacteristic of much popular discussion dealing with topics such as human consciousness, the advent of the robotic age, and the global geopolitical and cultural state of affairs. The takeaway sentiment – that the problems we face in these areas are solvable – seemed to counter the popular anxiety surrounding the inevitably transitional future. A global shift from ego-centric to collectivist human understanding will take time, no doubt, but the conclusions drawn in this workshop suggested that this round of cultural innovation will be driven by powerful humanistic undercurrents in science and technology. 

Part of the popular anxiety regarding general understandings of humanity and the perils of AI is rooted in outdated neurobiological, philosophical, sociocultural paradigms of human exceptionalism. For example, the view that humans are the only beings capable of feelings and consciousness is problematic because several of the traits we exhibit are actually present, to varying degrees, at all levels of the phylogenetic tree. This is particularly so among vertebrates but even down to unicellular organisms capable of defending against attack and modulating virulence expression. 

Recognizing that mental experiences, feeling and intelligence are present in non-human animals does not alter the conception of the human, because the cultures that humans have been able to construct are distinct and render humans unique. It is simply that the source of uniqueness is not based only the presence of abilities such as consciousness. Instead, our true exceptionalism is evident in some specific arenas – the development of coded languages and in particular writing; the collection of stored knowledge immortalized outside our impermanent minds; our ability to build from scratch the objects of our imagination; and the construction of cultural institutions with frameworks within which we can make meaning for our lives. A decidedly human identity remains, and we are wiser now, knowing we do not stand alone as the only feeling and intelligent creatures; rather we are enriched by the understanding that we share the core of our minds with our non-human relatives.

With regard to developments in Artificial Intelligence, the definitional boundaries of the human remain untouched. While all attendees agreed that there are reasons for concern regarding our future relationship with AI, a dystopian super-conscious robot takeover does not appear likely. One reason for this reservation concerns intent, which in biological organisms stems from an intrinsic impetus to preserve the fragile, vulnerable organism. Such an impetus is the foundation for functions such as feelings, consciousness, and intelligence. This motivating force for life is, so far, absent in robots. How can a robot free from disease and the struggle for survival be capable of truly intentional behavior, when the root of biological intention is the preservation of life itself? To be sure, AI systems are formidable chess opponents, with decidedly superhuman abilities in data storage, mathematics, linguistics, and general computation, but, for the moment, a capacity for feeling, i.e. the visceral quality of experience that permeates every moment of life, is absent.

In conclusion, the conception of the human remains intact, but enriched, ready perhaps for the challenges ahead. As Mark Johnson put it, we are meaning-making creatures. We engage intentionally with our environment, motivated constantly by an inherent impetus for life and prosperity. Yet in the moments between survival-oriented behaviors we are perceptive of a profound aesthetic, a qualitative harmony not lost on the ancient sages of the East nor the philosophers in the West. We create meaning in a world of unimaginable complexity, and even as we try our hand at creating artificial minds, parallel developments in neurobiology remind us that no matter how high we rise into the clouds, our roots remain firmly in the ground.

Submitted by Max Henning of the Brain and Creativity Institute on 3/8/2016

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