Interview by Spencer Schluter & Janae Jean –
This episode, we had the pleasure of speaking with noted thinker and writer, Ken Wilber. Ken is the founder of Integral Institute, a think tank for studying Integral Theory and Practice. Ken is the author of more than twenty books including The Brief History of Everything. His latest book The Religion of Tomorrow will be released in May 2018.
To find more about Ken and his work, visit www.kenwilber.com .
The following transcription is only one of the fascinating topics we discussed with Ken during this interview. To listen to the entire interview, listen to the podcast in the player below or wherever you prefer to stream or download podcasts. Subscribe to the Conscious Community Podcast on iTunes, GooglePlay, Stitcher, TuneIn and Youtube.
Spencer: One of my favorite subjects is artificial intelligence. I listen to a lot of podcasts with different thinkers. Everything from neuroscience to biology is converging right now on the subject of the nature of consciousness. I think it’s taken philosophy and made it this really relevant, timely thing. I was wondering what you would say about that.
Ken: I’m a fan of artificial intelligence. I think it’s making some great strides. But, I think there’s a couple of major, major steps that they’re going to have to take because it’s essentially heading in the wrong direction. This is indeed a metaphysical concept. What you’re going to come out of artificial intelligence with, in terms of its attempt to simulate consciousness, is exactly what’s consciousness, how it’s understood, what you’re actually trying to create in A.I.
If you look at any of the world’s metaphysical systems, they’re pretty unanimous that there are at least two major types of consciousness. One is relative consciousness, and that’s the consciousness that every typical human being has, often referred to as “ego” consciousness, “rational” consciousness or “conventional” consciousness. All of them also maintain that there’s another type of consciousness that’s an ultimate consciousness, “radical” consciousness, “ultimate unity” consciousness. Or, in Zen, it’s referred to as having satori. In Vedanta, it’s a moksha. Those are sort of the central experiences of the world’s great meditative traditions, the great contemplative traditions. It’s an experience of “ultimate unity consciousness.” That’s taken to be quite different from an everyday, ordinary consciousness. So, there’s really no artificial intelligence group of people anywhere on the planet, certainly that I’m aware of, that’s working with this ultimate reality, ultimate unity consciousness. There’s certainly no algorithm to come anywhere near it.
So, then we have to look at, how are they doing with relative consciousness? How are they doing with rationality, language translation and all of that? Relatively well, in a certain sense. It used to be said ten or fifteen years ago that computers would never figure out chess. Chess was sort of the ultimate in human rationality. A computer would never figure that out. Then, of course, they figured it out quite easily, actually, chess games can be done with one algorithm, and now, any computer can beat any human when it comes to chess. What computers still can’t do are a lot of the things a child can do in the first year of life. That’s because that’s where all of the background components for consciousness are really showing up. These are the components that in a sense we find in all the previous stages of evolution. So, they’re doing things that a cat can do, or a deer can do, or a gorilla can do. But, those turn out to be incredibly complex. They have to do pattern recognition across multiple sensory domains. That’s one of the things computers still don’t do very well is multiple types of different pattern recognitions and creative processes. When you look at, where does this relative consciousness come from? What’s the history of that? What is it actually made of? You can start to see why they’re not doing very well with producing what’s called “general artificial intelligence,” artificial intelligence that can recognize patterns across multiple different sensory domains or different domains in general.
If you take any of the world’s metaphysical systems they believe in some version of a type of panpsychism. Alfred North Whitehead’s version, for example, is that every single entity in the universe, including even an atom, has at least a little spark of awareness or spark of consciousness. They call that “prehension.” I happen to believe that there’s some truth to that but you have to be very, very careful about how you qualify prehension. Most people make it much too complex. An atom’s form of prehension has to be extremely simple. The atom does have an interior and an exterior, you can’t have one without the other. The problem is during evolution, atoms first emerged and then they have a little interior prehension, a little spark of awareness. Then they have an exterior, it’s what the atom would look like if you could actually get a video camera down there and take a picture of it. You couldn’t see its interior, that would be its little bit of consciousness. Atoms, several millions of years later, came together and formed molecules. Then that single molecule is itself going to have a prehension, its own little bit of molecular prehension. It still contains atoms and each of those atoms have a little bit of prehension. So, the molecule’s prehension transcends but includes atomic prehension. At some point, molecules all came together into cells. The cell had its prehension, but it also contained molecules that had their prehension. The molecules contained atoms that their prehension and so on up through the entire tree of life –through fishes, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, primates, and then human beings. When the first human body appeared on this planet it contained atoms, and molecules, and cells, it had a reptilian brainstem, it had a paleo-mammalian limbic system, it had a primate neocortex … all of those had prehension.
The problem is computer scientists, they’re thinking rationally and they’re sort of skimming that rationality off the top and trying to create simulations that artificial intelligence can recreate. To some degree, with chess or go or almost any game show, they do that but it’s all these somewhat simple things that they can’t do. One of the likely reasons is that they’re not looking, nor do they know how to look at atomic prehension, molecular prehension, cellular prehension, reptilian prehension, mammalian prehension, those are all there. Every time we have a rational thought, it’s hundreds of these major transformations still contained in our bodies. Each one of those still contains a bit of consciousness. Those are enveloped, and they transcend and include, transcend and include, transcend and include … still going all the way down to quark and atomic prehension, all the way through the entire scale all the way up to rationality which pops out at the top.
A.I. specialists skim that thin top cream off and that’s what they study. If they keep doing that, and consciousness really does have an evolutionary history, and it really does embody its own previous stages of awareness, A.I. is never going to get a general level of intelligence where it’s actually representing what relative consciousness is. It’s not going to do that at all if there’s any truth to that view. It’s also not touching ultimate consciousness, the consciousness you would have with satori or moksha or Nirvana or metamorphosis or the great liberation.
So, it’s a little bit of a mixed report card that I’d have to give it [the search for artificial intelligence].
Podcast Theme Music: Sublimation (Theme from the Conscious Community Podcast)
Janae Jean Almen and Spencer Schluter, composers SpindriftGreenMusic Publishing ©2017
Photo: Hubble’s View of Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1672 – News release ID: STScI-2007-15