Unofficial Q&A about Consciousness

Steven D Marlow
14 min readAug 6, 2021


I just came across a tweet from The Chapman Brain Institute, and a still active survey related to the nature of consciousness (original date of tweet was May 12th). The first page of statements seemed interesting enough, so I decided to write-out the thinking behind all of my answers. What follows is just a long list of statements from the survey, if I agree with them or not, and the reasoning behind that.

Anyone involved with AI research should take a crack at this.

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All conscious experiences are explainable solely in terms of neural activity.

Disagree. Experience is different from awareness, and while awareness of thought can happen absent all other activity, experiences require both direct input from sense organs and the feedback from mind to body and back to mind. Solely also implies a reductionist view that just looking at neural activity is enough to understand all of the processes involved. This lacks temporal understanding and ignores the “encrypted” nature of memories (activity alone is not a description for exactly what is going on and can’t be directly replicated between different people).

The primary goal of a scientific theory is to yield practical applications.

Disagree. Scientific inquiry is about further understanding, and a specific theory is just a framework from which to operate against (supporting results or holes in the logic).

It will one day be possible for a machine to be conscious.

Strongly agree. We must accept that a complex chain of evolutionary events led to human consciousness, and that no external factor plays a role in its existence. A hardware agnostic representation of consciousness, and what we would call conscious activity, could surely be replicated in digital form. *arguments over neuron to transistor count and the parallel nature of brain activity haven’t been shown (as of yet) to be critical barriers to conscious activity.

Studying consciousness is fundamentally different to studying wakefulness.

Disagree. The implication here is that consciousness involves non-wakeful states, or perhaps meta-wakeful activity, which is a poor framing of the problem space. *I understand there may be a school of thought that describes wakefulness as a “higher plane of consciousness” but would reject that as well.

Scientific theories must be disprovable (ie., falsifiable) by evidence.

Somewhat agree. There is a problem with claims that seem to survive on possibility despite offering zero forms of challenge (and indeed, the inability to challenge them often becomes self-reinforcing). Panpsychism being the most relevant case. However, it may be the case that untestability in the negative (to disprove a theory) won’t matter as much if there is evidence in support of said theory. The burden, of course, becomes one of scientific method vs… wishful conjecture.

Since X is capable of recognizing its own reflection in the mirror, X is self-aware.

False. Recognition is not clearly defined and already within the problem space of other minds (that the mirror test presumes to “solve”). Humans, being known for self-awareness, exhibit biased, dysmorphic, or other non-aligned issues when viewing one’s self in the mirror (flipped left/right, camera adds 10 lbs, etc.). Why do some cats assume a defensive stance while others seem indifferent? How does the concept of a mirror drive “acceptance of function?” The other side of the issue is understanding behavior in different test subjects, and having to address the idea of being sentient (where we might find proto-forms of awareness but not at a conscious level ie, “I know there is a spot on my body that isn’t natural”).

Since X is capable of strategic decision making, X is self-aware.

False. Ignoring the self-awareness issue, “strategic decision making” is loaded with cognitive assumptions. Some spiders build webs to catch food, while others can hunt for it directly. Two different skill sets that have evolved over time. Innate abilities, with no active effort required, and in fact, no agency in the matter.

Since X is cognizant of its body as distinct from its surroundings, X is self-aware.

True. Self-awareness and consciousness should not be taken as pass/fail in terms of finding just the right question (I loathe the framing of this “self-awareness” list), but the ability to have a distinct mental model of body that is different from the world around it, and the perceptual awareness of “a larger world space” is an important part of describing self-awareness.

Since X is cognizant of how its body interacts with its surroundings, X is self-aware.

False. At first, this seems like the perfect follow-up to the previous statement, which should also render it true. I see it as a regression, or subset. Sans mind, insects perfectly fit into this category, and there are no indications of self-awareness on their part (nor other priors which would imply they are close to being self-aware).

Since X responds to stimuli for the purpose of preservation (survival), X is self-aware.

False. This is the correct follow-up to the body interaction statement, where behaviors are governed by a set of pre-existing conditions that don’t require a sense of awareness, or more broadly, there is no inner awareness to override innate behaviors.

Since X is capable of assessing changes in bodily state, x is self-aware.

True. The truth of this statement hangs on the understanding that “assessing” already points to mental activity that has an active model of body AND has a tacit understanding of changes (such as a broken leg) rather than being a complex stimuli (a bird that transitions from resting state to one of being hungry and needing to hunt for food).

Since X is capable of assessing changes in its own mental state, X is self-aware.

True. This should be strongly correlated with an ability to override innate behaviors. Mental state, though, shouldn’t be taken as meaning a literal inner monologue. A condition that triggers a fear response can be replaced by a new conditioned response that doesn’t have to imply “an internal knowing of the two.” As with the time required for humans to develop self-awareness, animals at this level (sentient?) also require time. This means that a puppy in a new environment can override its initial fears, but only as an older dog will it exhibit full self-awareness properties (ie, can’t make the mental assessment of being scared while being a puppy).

Since x responds to stimuli, X is self-aware.

False. Is this the plant stuff? A flower has rudimentary elements of hydro-electric body function, and any examples that might go beyond stimulus-response require diligent examination.

Since X feels pain, X is self-aware.

False. “Feel” being another loaded term that implies higher cognitive ability. “X has aversion response to a negative stimulus” is the correct framing. And again, sans mind, the body has had about a billion extra years to develop a wide range of innate abilities and functions that contribute to its continued existence.

Since X is capable of communicating its mental states, X is self-aware.

True. Again, self-awareness should not be taken to mean a fully cognizant state of mind with internal reflections. The exchange of state information is the root of language, which is the foundation of consciousness. Birds that “synchronize” vocalization with inner state are branching out from that distinction between body and environment, to now include other bodies (not yet enough to say awareness of other minds, though the octopus would be a likely candidate proving such ability). It’s a “simple” awareness that my sound for my state matches that birds sound, and they seem to be in that same state. *of course, the vocalizations are learned/colloquial

Since X is capable of ascribing mental states to other, X is self-aware.

True. *already explained as part of previous statement

It is impossible to be conscious without being self-aware.

Strongly agree. I would posit that self-awareness is a precursor to being fully conscious, but that elements of consciousness are the same thing as what we might describe as being self-aware. Said another way, awareness and consciousness require years of development. Call it the Tarzan hypothesis, where there may be conditions where a human could grow to be self-aware, but still lack a fully conscious mind (aka feral human). But, there is no conceivable condition where the reverse would be true, where an adult human is fully conscious, but lacks and sense of self-awareness. *There is rom for having an alternate form of awareness, such as being born into a fully immersive virtual world, where the human mind can be trained as normal, but the “known body and environment” are completely alien to human experience.

Scientific theories must be verifiable (ie., grounded in empirical and replicable results).

Somewhat agree. The ability to replicate results may be outside the realm of human control (such as observation of stellar activity where many factors are unknowable and impossible to directly set).

A theory of consciousness should take inner experience into account.

Strongly agree. To reject any first-hand account of consciousness, or the experience of being conscious, would be a deliberate attempt to confine the problem space to fit a pre-existing notion (likely based in a purely mathematical ontology).

To understand consciousness, scientists should make use of verbal reports about the feelings associated with experience.

Disagree. This is the realm of philosophy, and it has divided the consciousness community between what we can research and “the hard problem” which is only hard because body and time are removed from examination process. “Feeling” is feedback between mind and body, so the question introduces more problems (widens the problem space while still expecting “simple” answers).

Subjective data are more valuable than objective data for the purpose of scientific research on consciousness.

Disagree. I already understand the conflict between subjective experience of being conscious as an important tool for understanding vs “rejecting” it in favor something “more objective.” However, if the only examples of objective data come from a narrow examination of brain function, the value of said data needs to be in question (I’ll stop short of suggesting that current neuron-based frameworks represent a false objective, and simply imply the objectiveness is unclear).

Everyday (social/cultural/intuitive) beliefs about the world should guide our scientific inquiries.

Neither agree or disagree. Taking a step back, this is simply a question about what drives people, what is the root of motivation, for anything we do. To suggest we “should” follow some kind of belief system implies any of us has been operating without such guidance. *I’ll ignore the implication that some belief systems are “more true” or “more grounded in science” than others.

Science is a purely sociological phenomenon.

Neither agree or disagree. Historical evidence would suggest this statement to be true, but motivation is sometimes framed as being “for the science.” There is a desire for “science for the sake of science,” but once that is used to give more weight to some ideas over others, it falls back into purely sociological space.

To understand consciousness, we should focus on objective, quantitative information about the brain.

Somewhat disagree. There is no harm in having an objective focus on the human brain. Nor is there a harm in seeking correlations and differences in the brains of other mammals. However, without a clear understanding of consciousness, it is hubris to conclude that any one area of research is closer to the truth, closer to understanding, or in fact the only path required to gain access to a complete picture. As stated before, there is more to consciousness than JUST neural activity.

Subjective reports about conscious experience are of scientific interest.

Somewhat agree. Subjective reports about experience are of scientific interest. That does not automatically equate to the study of consciousness.

Scientific theories inform common beliefs about the world.

Somewhat disagree. While science is of sociological interest, I don’t think science has a direct impact on common beliefs. Examples of “big moments in science” turning into social phenomenon are all around, but the crowd is not beholden to scientific principles. Could go so far as to say that, once at the level of common understanding, it is no longer science.

Science is progressing towards a true account of reality.

Neither agree or disagree. In an effort to remain consistent, there is likely a path from culture, to philosophy, to science, and to common understanding (where this new culture has new questions with new theories leading to new discoveries, etc). “True account of reality” is just some future point where there is no science, no philosophy, and no unknowns. As it is part of a cycle, it is equally valid (and equally wrong?) to say philosophy is progressing towards a true account of reality. Or that society as a whole is slowly making progress to that end.

Science has or will one day be able to demonstrate the existence of consciousness in others.

Agree. The ability for non-conscious animals to exchange information about their own internal state (or to make the association between one’s own state and the internal state of another thru communication) already breaks the other minds bubble. Corvids that learn a task from example are getting a non-verbal exchange of cognitive actions (the trade of whole behaviors, not just a single state). That requires a common set of priors (having a subset understanding of all the mini behaviors required to make the one big one), which is no different (in terms of innate brain function; below awareness and cognition) from having a common language in which to exchange meaning. I have a complex concept in my mind that you haven’t been exposed to before, but if I write my thoughts out (correctly), you will read them and reconstruct the same concept in your mind (again, a great deal of sub-understanding must be there for it to work). Is that not a demonstration of consciousness in another?

Objective data are more valuable than subjective data for the purpose of scientific research on consciousness.

Somewhat agree. As answered before, it’s important to define the objective nature of the data. This survey makes clear that different domains will have a different understanding of terms, and this holds true with the interpretation, or presentation, of “objective” data. *an ounce of truth from one domain can be falsely applied to many others, and while it won’t invalidate “the truth of it,” it makes refuting the application of said data more complicated.

Science will one day fully account for all phenomena in the universe (including consciousness) with a unified theory.

Strongly disagree. Billions of light years makes a full account of everything in the universe a fool’s errand. And a unified theory of everything implies all of existence is just math. In fact, it might be the ultimate form of reductionist thinking (never mind that there are already numbers so large they can’t be expressed in physical form; to say an algorithm can describe both how a brain works AND determine it’s contents, thru all of time.. bunk I say).

Information about physical phenomena is sufficient to establish satisfactory theory of consciousness.

Agree. Systems within systems. The application of behavior. Complex, and on a scale we can’t keep track of all at once, but still explainable in enough detail to build the digital equivalent (without the need to simulate it directly).

The best theory of consciousness is that which best fits the empirical data pertaining to physical phenomena.

Neither agree or disagree. The best theory is the one that breaks the least when challenged. It might be grounded in the physical world, but that doesn’t make it a defining characteristic.

Science will eventually solve all human problems.

Disagree. Humans will always be a problem for humans. We are the only species with the capacity to act immorally.

When evaluating competing theories, performance should be given to those that make the fewest assumptions.

Disagree. Evaluating? Why should any theory be of more merit than another? All assumptions should be challenged. That a theory only depends on one assumption shouldn’t imply that it’s correct. The danger of hanging an entire industry on a very narrow assumption *cough* machine learning */cough* is very real, and there is more incentive to protect the assumption, or defend it against objective data.

It will one day be possible to upload an individual human consciousness to a machine.

Strongly disagree. All of a person’s life experiences are encrypted. No amount of understanding of the brain, or consciousness, will be able to unlock that.

The primary goal of a scientific theory is to provide an objective account of the world.

Somewhat disagree. I don’t know if many of these questions are reframed in subtle ways to cross-check individual responses, but the tiny changes can have a large impact on the answer. I’m sure “search for truth” is a valid goal, though it seems like “should be” is missing from the statement. As an absolute, I won’t accept it. On a larger scale, over time, the end result is objective knowledge. On a personal level, the motivating factor shouldn’t be based on one’s acceptance speech. Science as altruism, and all that.

The strength of a theory should be judged based on its ability to make accurate predictions.

Somewhat agree. Supporting evidence that validates parts of a theory or model is a good thing, but strength comes from weathering not just a shift in data (objective or not), but a shift in “the politics” of any field. An accurate prediction from days past might become a racist hate crime tomorrow.

Research in theoretical scientific fields should be valued independently of potential practical applications.

Disagree. I take this to mean “science for the sake of scientific understanding” where not everything leads to financial windfalls, but for theoretical ideas that can’t be disproven, there may be no end game, or no objective data at the end of the tunnel. In these cases, there should be some cost analysis to measure against. Perhaps the better phrasing would involve asking how many swings at the pinata does every area of theoretical research get before accepting there is no pinata.

Our intuitive everyday beliefs about the world deceive or misguide us.

Disagree. So if no one is omnipotent, we are all scratching around in the dirt, oblivious to the wonders above our heads? We each live in our own “reality” based on a lifetime of experience, and when there is enough overlap with enough people, we might refer to it as culture or a belief system. If anything, our intuition “about the world” will clash with the current belief system and helps us find something that is closer to matching our own experience, rather than being forced into other people’s narratives.

Science, in its present form, is incapable of providing an explanation of consciousness.

Neither agree or disagree. It would be better to suggest that the culture of science today is almost antithetical to any explanation that doesn’t favor one’s own theory. A perfectly good explanation could be hiding in plain sight.

A phenomenon can be explained without being fully described.

Somewhat agree. I think there is truth to this statement, but any such explanation requires that information be discarded. And in the case of many theories, the simple reduced explanation can’t be scaled back up and expected to still be valid (or fully represent the problem space any more).

Science is fundamentally concerned with objectivity, whereas consciousness is fundamentally subjective.

Somewhat agree. This is the argument that consciousness is a philosophical question rather than a scientific one. It’s further divided into an explanation for how consciousness works and why we even have consciousness. Subjective experience is still real. It can be described. It can be understood. It just isn’t something you can capture in an MRI scan. It could just be that the Material/Objective frameworks are incomplete.

Subjective data are less valuable than objective data when we are concerned with developing scientific theories.

Disagree. The starting point for any theory is not bound by the rules of “objective reality.” A theories sole purpose might be the disproval of an objective “fact.”

If a phenomenon is fully described, then it is fully explained.

Somewhat disagree. Fully described implies giving evidence for underlying activity, which would be a full explanation. Simply describing a phenomenon doesn’t provide access to the unseen elements driving it.

[ Consciousness is not all or nothing (pass/fail). We are not even the same “consciousness” over the course of our lives. I’m of the belief that “full consciousness” isn’t reached until (roughly) the age of 14, so of course there are elements that partially exist or don’t yet exist from the time we are born until then. ]

My views on consciousness are in line with the views of others in my discipline.

Disagree. I don’t ascribe to any of the mainstream theories of consciousness, and even among those in agreement about the development of conscious machines (someday), there is no generally accepted framework.

My own views on consciousness are in line with a position represented in consciousness research.

Somewhat agree. There is no perfect overlap which would allow me to follow any one theory, and some ideas (such as Behaviorism) are actively shunned.

It is legitimate to hold contradictory theories.

Neither agree or disagree. There will always be accusations of holding contradictory views. There can also be “new” explanations for an established theory that seem to describe a once contradictory stance. Internal consistency is all that matters.

[ Consciousness is the application of behavior. ]

[ We won’t understand consciousness without understanding the evolution of minds. ]



Steven D Marlow

I'm applying for the mad scientist position. Have robot. Will travel.