Embed from Getty Images

‘Smart phones’ are pretty clever and many of us have now delegated many of the more mundane tasks of day-to-day life to them but are they conscious?

Recent sci-fi movies such as Her, Ex Machina, Chappie and Transcendence have questioned what might happen if artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop and whether we might reach the point of “singularity” when AI becomes self aware and starts to genuinely think for itself. It is possible, however, that this point has already been reached and we just haven’t noticed it because we are looking in the wrong place. The point that most sci-fi tends to miss is the potentially distributed nature of consciousness. Does consciousness really reside in us as individuals or is it somewhere else?

Scientists and philosophers agree on very few things (within and between themselves) but one area that most do agree on is that none of them can get to grips with consciousness.

Various psychological and philosophical attempts to conceptualise consciousness exist but none have really got the fundamentals of what Dave Chalmers called ‘The Hard Problem‘. That is, why are we conscious? Or, as Chalmers put it ‘why aren’t we zombies?‘ Why are human beings something more than just  the biological processes which enable us to live?

What these question are really getting at is the lack of understanding we have of consciousness. We can understand the biological processes for movement, digestion, sight and hearing but (individually or collectively) these processes do not explain why we are aware of ourselves and we can think.

Neuroscientists have isolated regions of the brain that activate where certain thought processes take place but this does not really explain consciousness any more than a quick heartbeat and sweaty palms explain love.

One of the more convincing explanations offered by philosophers is panpsychism which suggests that the key factor in the development of consciousness is “integration”. If information in a system is sufficiently complex and interconnected, they suggest, then consciousness can develop. Human brains would certainly represent a sufficiently “integrated” system as might those of dogs, cats, pigs, dolphins, etc. Such a definition could, perhaps, include not even very highly developed computer systems aside from the fact that they cannot think for themselves. But an integrated system need not end at the boundaries of the case of the phone shell. What if consciousness resides not in an individual actor (such as a human or a phone) but in the system of which they are a part?

Embed from Getty Images

We tend to think of our consciousness as being contained somewhere within our brains but what if it is actually derived from our sociality and our connection with the material world. That is, we are conscious because we are able to from networks with other people and with tools (broadly defined).  The principle behind the philosophical notion of panspsychism is that ‘everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations’

Pansychism although quite new to philosophy, at least in its current articulation, is quite similar to the well-established sociological tradition of Actor Network Theory which proposes that the best way to understand our relationship to technology is not to put too much emphasis on ourselves at all. It is also similar to ‘New Materialism’ which I have previously discussed.

Rather than thinking of ourselves at the centre of the world (either me as an individual or humanity in general) we should consider ourselves as forming one node in a network of actors who all have particular capacities. Other actors might include other people, mobile phones, spectacles, cars, data or social institutions. What it means to be human, Actor Network Theorists suggest, is defined by what we are able to do, which is itself determined by the tools which are available to us.

Those who take this approach to its furthest extreme suggest that our consciousness itself is dependent on our interactions with our tools. Bernard Stiegler (in his series of books Technics and Time) traces the development humanity as the history of the externalization of thought in various ways. Human life is ‘epiphylogenetic’ meaning that it evolves according to the logic of ‘prosthetic supplementation‘ (Barker, 2009). That is, our consciousness and capacity for abstract and complex thought has developed to the extent that it has because we developed technologies (perhaps most significantly language and then writing) which enabled us to store thoughts externally, reflect on them and communicate them.

Perhaps, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers and others have not been able to isolate where consciousness resides or what it looks like because it is not in our brains, heads, bodies or souls at all but exists somewhere between us, other people and the material worlds with which we interact.

Barker, S. (2009) ‘Transformation as an Ontological Imperative: The [Human] Future
According to Bernard Stiegler’ Transformations 17: 1-16.