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Where Does Consciousness Come From? Reflecting on Emerging Technologies

Photo of Chad RagsdaleChad Ragsdale | Bio

Chad Ragsdale

Chad Ragsdale joined the faculty at Ozark Christian College in 2005. He teaches primarily in the areas of Christian apologetics, philosophy, and biblical interpretation. In 2020, Chad was named the new Academic Dean of the institution. Chad has been married to his wife Tara since 2001 and has three kids, Logan, Adeline, and Ryane. He has a BA in preaching and an M.Div in contemporary theology both from Lincoln Christian University. He has a D.Min in engaging mind and culture from Talbot School of Theology.

Where does consciousness come from? A persistent fear many have is that emerging technologies will develop consciousness. Many wonder if what we create will eventually, sooner rather than later, gain self-awareness and become more powerful than we can control. So, what exactly is consciousness, and where does it come from? 

Any sudden leaps in technological advancement lead to two different feelings among most people: amazement and paranoia. It is only natural that people would feel wonder and curiosity when what was recently impossible is suddenly possible and eventually common. Imagine that generation which saw the introduction of “horseless carriages” followed a handful of years later by the Wright brothers and the first mechanical airplane.

But that amazement is often accompanied by paranoia. Whenever there is a sense that things are changing too quickly, people will understandably feel some anxiety and fear about the future no matter how “cool” the innovation happens to be.

This is especially the case when it comes to sudden advancements in computer or robotic technology. There’s a part of us that is fearful that what we are creating might be too powerful for us to control. What if we create a machine so powerful and so smart that we unintentionally create an apex predator that will replace us at the top of the evolutionary food chain?

Our Frankensteinian Fear

The fear of our machines has been common since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Shelley famously popularized this paranoia with Frankenstein in the early 19th century. Of course the digital age has provided even more fertile soil for these anxieties. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Terminator, War Games, I, Robot, and The Matrix are just a handful of the movies that have explored this fear. Well, I want to dedicate this post to laying some of these fears to rest.


“There’s a part of us that is fearful that what we are creating might be too powerful for us to control.”


One of our fears about artificial intelligence is that some day the machines will become so advanced that they will become conscious beings like you and I, only without some of our limitations. They will have access to all the world’s knowledge. They will not be susceptible to our frailty. Basically, we will have created gods on earth, and we will be at their mercy. We hope they will be benevolent like Data in Star Trek, but we fear they will be vengeful like Arnold in Terminator. Well, despite our very active imaginations, I do not believe that it is within our grasp to create robots with consciousness.

Don’t get me wrong. We may create extremely intelligent computer programs. In fact, we already have. But remember, a computer that can execute one command per second is essentially the same as a computer that can execute a million commands per second. The only difference is speed. The most advanced computers in the world are able to perform remarkable tasks based on sophisticated programming, but this intelligence (if we should even call it that) isn’t the same thing as consciousness.


Where does consciousness come from? “This intelligence (if we should even call it that) isn’t the same thing as consciousness.”


Can Consciousness Be Programmed?

We may also create computer programs which give the illusion of consciousness. Sherry Turkle is a psychologist at MIT who has dedicated much of her career to the study of human psychology and machines. From childhood, we intuitively transfer consciousness to our toys. We have conversations with our stuffed animals and dolls. We assign personalities to objects like cars. We treat our pets as if they are our children.

In other words, it is a part of human psychology to assign human consciousness to objects like teddy bears or to non-human beings like dogs. But this illusion of consciousness isn’t the same thing as consciousness. No, Siri is not a real person and neither is Alexa. They are no more aware of your existence than your car is aware of your existence.

We may also create computer programs that are able to learn new things independent of a programmer. Computers that are powerful enough to solve new problems or think creatively would seem to be conscious, but this too is just an illusion. Think about a fire for instance. One little spark can set a forest ablaze. The end result is much bigger than the input, but this doesn’t make the fire conscious. There may be an argument that we should be cautious about creating “runaway” programs that spread virally beyond our control, but this isn’t the same thing as consciousness. When a virus spreads through your network, it isn’t a sentient being spreading through your network. It’s a program that is still following rules.


Where does consciousness come from? “It’s a program that is still following rules.”


So why do I believe that consciousness is beyond our grasp? Well, consider this thought experiment. You are given an unlimited supply of Lego and unlimited time to build a model whale. You set about building the whale, carefully replicating everything about a whale’s physiology down to the smallest detail. You integrate hundreds of motors into your model to imitate the movements of a whale. Eventually you even add a computer to the whale to imitate the whale’s brain.

At what point in this process will you have successfully created a real whale? Will you ever be able to add enough detail that what started as a model will suddenly become the real thing?

Where Does Consciousness Come From?

There are a lot of theories about where consciousness comes from. One of the most common physicalist[1] theories is that consciousness is an emergent property. You’ve heard this theory before even if you’ve never heard it called by that name. This is the idea that consciousness just kind of emerges suddenly once things get complicated enough. This is how human beings became conscious, we are told. Over billions of years of evolution, suddenly the light bulb came on and non-conscious matter became thinking beings. Applied to computers, then, we could imagine creating a computer so sophisticated that suddenly the light bulb comes on and a machine becomes a thinking being.


Where does consciousness come from? “We could imagine creating a computer so sophisticated that suddenly the light bulb comes on and a machine becomes a thinking being.”


The only problem with the emerging property theory is that it’s completely wrong. The reason is that consciousness contains properties not present in physical things. For instance, consciousness possesses subjective awareness.

It’s what philosopher Thomas Nagel famously called “the subjective character of experience.” Nagel used the example of bats. We know they are living. We know they have subjective experience. But we have no idea what it is actually like to be a bat. No matter how much we study bats, their subjective experience of being a bat will always remain a mystery to us.

Non-conscious objects—including sophisticated machines—have no subjective awareness. There is no “what it is like” to being a computer. They also don’t possess other qualities of consciousness including “aboutness.” Conscious beings are able to think about other things, including abstract things. Only thoughts can be about something else.


Where does consciousness come from? “Only thoughts can be about something else.”


Other nouns can’t be about something else. A car can’t be about a horse, but a thought can. A book can be about a horse, but only because a book was the product of human thought. Oh, but can’t ChatGPT write a book about a horse? Well, no. ChatGPT can no more think about a horse than your car can think about a horse. ChatGPT is only coherent in its reference to horses because we are able to think about horses. The word “horse” actually means nothing to the computer because the very possibility of “meaning” is unavailable to non-conscious things.

I know this seems like a lot, so go back to the thought experiment with the whale. No matter how sophisticated that model is, it fundamentally lacks the capacity to become a living thing. It doesn’t matter how much time you have or how many Lego are at your disposal. You will never pass that threshold. Pinocchio will never be a real boy.

Or consider a much simpler illustration. Imagine you are given an endless supply of yellow bricks. Will you ever be able to arrange the bricks in a particular order sufficient to produce, suddenly, a purple brick? No. They lack the capacity to become this new thing no matter how much time you’re given. The same is true in regards to computers. No matter how sophisticated the programming is, you will never be able to cross that threshold and make a non-conscious thing suddenly conscious.


Where does consciousness come from? “No matter how sophisticated the programming is, you will never be able to cross that threshold and make a non-conscious thing suddenly conscious.”


An Argument for God’s Existence

By the way (and this is important), what I’ve just outlined for you is a powerful argument for the existence of God. Human consciousness is a significant problem for the skeptic (as many like Thomas Nagel have admitted).

It doesn’t seem at all possible that conscious beings could emerge suddenly from non-conscious material. No matter how much evolutionary time is given, you can’t bring about a purple brick from nothing but yellow bricks. Even to the skeptic, it must be admitted that consciousness is a miracle![2] Consciousness is a powerful testimony that there must exist a Mind who is not just the creator of the physical universe but the author of life.


Where does consciousness come from? “Consciousness is a powerful testimony that there must exist a Mind who is not just the creator of the physical universe but the author of life.”


One last point for you to think about. It’s worth noting that humans have already been given the capacity to create conscious beings from the union of non-conscious material. Every child that is born is a miracle and a mystery. It saddens me a bit that we possess this perverse, Frankensteinian, fascination with creating artificial life when the actual wonders of new creation have been gifted to us by our Creator.


[1] A physicalist is a person who believes that the real world is only the physical world. This extends to humans as well. According to physicalists consciousness has a physical origin and explanation.

[2] This is why some skeptics like Daniel Dennett have gone so far as to deny the existence of consciousness which is a bold flex because only a conscious being would be able to make an argument that consciousness doesn’t exist. A rock needs to make no such argument.

(From chadragsdale.wordpress.com. Used with permission.)