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Evolution intervened between psychology and physics


Accounting for qualia with complicated processes
Marvin Minsky Scientist
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So when these philosophers talk about qualia, they’re saying that they think that in peoples' mind there are very simple and therefore incomprehensible relationships between the external world and the ideas you have about the world. What I’m saying is that usually there are probably 10 or 20 different layers of processing and perhaps 30 or 40 or 100 different processes involved in producing the final reaction and the new state of mind that comes from this. So, the idea that there are qualia is sort of like the… the people who talk about those things remind me of the Greek philosophers who started the atomic theory with a rather good idea that there was earth, air, water, and fire; namely, solids, liquids, gases, and... I forget what... plasmas. I don't know. And they got stuck at this very simple level. So, there’s some well known scientists… public philosophers who talk about qualia and say that this is the deepest problem about how the mind works and the most profound. And I think that’s complete nonsense. If you take the word consciousness or the word qualia or whatever they’re saying... then probably the way to deal with that is to break it into three, 10, or maybe even 30 different theories and find out how they’re interlocking and... and how they work. When a person says something, they know what they’ve said because they can remember what’s happened, and that’s a complicated process itself, but they can’t tell you how they... when you saw something orange, how did you choose the word orange instead of the word dog or round thing? And if you ask somebody that, they say, oh… it must be a direct connection between the stimulus and the production of the word or... Well of course there's not. It’s very complicated. It takes a child 18 months before they start making the… assigning the right words and heaven knows how many layers of complicated processes there are. But as far as the reflective aspect of so-called consciousness, you just saw it and you said what it was. It seems simple and immediate just like if you tell a horse to... never mind. If you tell somebody to do something and they do it, you don’t say, isn’t that a miracle? How come they know exactly what you mean? The answer is, they don’t know exactly what you meant and neither do you. And there are 30 or 40 things and... it’s all wonderfully complicated.

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was one of the pioneers of the field of Artificial Intelligence, founding the MIT AI lab in 1970. He also made many contributions to the fields of mathematics, cognitive psychology, robotics, optics and computational linguistics. Since the 1950s, he had been attempting to define and explain human cognition, the ideas of which can be found in his two books, The Emotion Machine and The Society of Mind. His many inventions include the first confocal scanning microscope, the first neural network simulator (SNARC) and the first LOGO 'turtle'.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: qualia, cognition

Duration: 3 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: 29-31 Jan 2011

Date story went live: 13 May 2011