I would like to thank my friend Dr. Peter Andes for reviewing this post and giving me feedback. While working on his PhD he explored some philosophy around concept of mind and it was a subject we had the opportunity to discuss a few times. In addition to working as a professor he has also spent much of the last year working on a project related to AI ethics. His feedback helped me expand and clarify certain elements of this post and consider addressing some of these questions in slightly expanded ways that I believe added both depth and clarity.
For reference, here is the AI transcript that has everyone abuzz.
The recent Google AI thing is making a bit more of a splash than most previous assertions about the advanced state of an AI seem to have done. I think that alone is worth note regardless of whether or not one thinks the AI is sentient or not.
I'm not an expert in AI. I'm really not even an enthusiast, and while I was kind of techie as a young kid I've grown to intentionally eschew that. So I don't have a strong opinion outside of "this is neat and presents interesting things to think about." I have seen a lot of people online who have no direct experience of the system in question and who are also not experts or really even versed in such things expressing definitive positions in either direction. Until something is pretty obvious from our own experience, most of us probably aren't really positioned for a firm opinion in this arena.
It is interesting to me though how many people have jumped on a firm opinion one way or another in the magic communities. We are people who deal with unseen things, and deal with non-human intelligences. The question of an artificial non-human intelligence having self-awareness and communicating with us about it should open up a lot of questions and reflection on our interactions with non-human intelligences.
We can look at questions related to how much our assumptions and desires feed into what we take from the communication. We can look at how our input shapes the interaction and at what point our input taints or skews the interaction. We can look at what it means to communicate. We can look at what is communication with an exterior intellect versus what is communication with a construct which is largely a reflection of ourselves. There are things we analyze and understand based on our human perspective and in talking with preternatural beings we still have to interpret their perspectives from our humanity - but what if we had something that could physically speak with us? Would that mean that elements of cognition, self-awareness, and concepts of life and emotions and experience might be demonstrated as working completely different from our assumptions but still in ways that are valid from the perspective of non-human intelligences?
There is a lot of opportunity for weird considerations about what technology can tell us about spiritual experience, and what an aware technology would mean for the larger world of the unseen. Perspectives and interpretations on abstract concepts and experiences from a non-human perspective could also expand how we understand things that are not directly material in nature.
None of the elements of reflection and consideration that this offers really requires that this particular AI be sentient. Reflecting on some of the experiences and conclusions the AI offers about experience might be shaped by whether or not it is sentient. We can still engage interesting elements of the opportunity to consider a non-human sentient intelligence that can communicate through material means regardless of what the outcome with Lamda is.
Pursuing an answer to that outcome also presents questions that could matter for an occultist. How do we know that something is sentient? Can we tell simply by looking at what it communicates? Philosophy has posited this problem of other minds even in relation to our inability to distinguish the existence of a mind from behaviors which suggest a mind even in other humans. There are questions not solely related to machines and programs. For spirits, we deal with the related question of is it separate or is it my imagination. I often answer that by pointing out that spirits have a different "voice" than the magician's inner voice. It feels or "sounds" different. It might say things the magician would never say, it might challenge the magician in ways not reflective of his own guilt or doubts. It might present or say things that are surprising. It might provide new information. Essentially, it has a character and knowledge and agency which make it separate. Separate doesn't mean sentient though. Separate is a big question for spirits, and honestly, separate becomes a question in the AI debate when we ask if it's just regurgitating input based on programming or is it synthesizing and inferring and developing unique perspectives and understandings. In neither case is the question of being separate or unique the question of sentience.
Being sentient means that a thing is aware of itself. We talk about this with babies and animals by questioning whether they can recognize their reflections and understand that they are distinct from other beings. I've seen people dismiss the sentience question as irrelevant by asserting that some very simple organisms that we probably can't fully assess sentience for are sentient. Others have suggested that we're not seeing sentience because we're not seeing information engaged and treated in certain ways we believe a human would - but these also aren't really determiners for sentience. Sentience deals primarily with the "strange loop" that is the illusion of individual self identity. The concept of "I" is one that has been posited as a relatively non-natural concept. It is possible that in humans and other sentient creatures "mind" is the result of a something along the lines of Koestler's answer to the "ghost in the machine" type of mind-body dualism. Rather than mind as purely distinct and separate from the physical, it arises from interaction of various processes and information and the aggregation of developing physical structures that result in the emergence of the concept of a self.
I fall into the view that Ryle suggested was dominant, that mind-body dualism is more or less a given and should generally be accepted. I am however open to the idea that an interactions of relatively complete but distinct parts built into a unit could create the appearance of mind. My friend noted a criticism of this view, that if self is an illusion there must be someone who is fooled by the illusion. In order for the self to be an illusion there must still be a self which perceives the illusion of self. The self could be an illusion, arising out of this series of interactions, but the illusion would still have reality since the self which arises must exist in order to perceive the illusion of itself. Even if the self for a human is a result of a mind-body dualism and not a natural development of interconnected systems, processes and information, this concept would indicate that a self which arises from such processes would still have reality.
If the self can spontaneously generate from the "strange loop" situation then we have to determine when and how we recognize that a self now exists in a perceivable other. We might ask how aware the self must one be to have self-awareness. We might also ask how do we know that signs of self-awareness or claims of self-awareness are actual self-awareness and not just a regurgitation of programmed ideas that mimic self awareness.
For a magician, this concept is one which we almost never think to discuss but could actually be hugely relevant. Are the spirits we deal with self-aware? In some paranormal interpretations of haunting activity, the cause of a ghost is understood as an imprint of psychic energy. In some beliefs a ghost is a husk that seems like the human but isn't the actual human, and it might be visible and mimic some basic elements of human action, but again is mostly a recording or an imprint. In other beliefs ghosts, and spirits of the dead are real living but disembodied continuations of humans who still have agency, needs, and personhood. How do we determine which concept is real? Are all of these concepts real in different circumstances? If that is the case, does the circumstance tell us what we're dealing with or do we need to assess the difference between a sentient spirit and an imprint?
This could have relevance for how we treat interactions with spirits of the dead outside of the context of ancestor veneration. If a spirit is sentient and has personhood in the case of a haunting, does that shape how we should interact with resolving that haunting? Does this shape interactions with other sorts of spirits? We debate the treatment of demons and whether or not traditional means of conjuration are abusive. If a demon isn't sentient does that change whether or not that matters? Even if a demon is sentient, my opinion has always been that their perception and experience differs from human perception and experience, so how we judge an interaction with a demon and what is truly harmful to it might be inappropriate to base on expectations and experiences regarding humans. When we consider interaction with an angel, or a god or nature spirit, is that interaction shaped by whether we understand them as a sentient, unique, self-aware being, or an expression of a natural function which runs like a program in creation that has variable possible responses to interaction? How do we determine what is sentient in those cases? Does sentience shape how much our own perceptions and assumptions impact interactions?
Clearly, I believe these spirits are separate individual real beings. While I believe most, or many, maybe all are also sentient, the question of sentience and the question of whether their existence is distinct from our own imaginations are different questions. We often have strong feelings on the latter question, we don't tend to discuss the former question and what it means for us.
Some of these other expectations people have brought up regarding sentience also indicate that for most humans, sentience is not the primary important element in determining the status of a thing as a person. What do we call these other expectations? Something which isn't sentient might still be cognizant, or able to know and be aware of things and have means of processing information. Is the ability to retain, process, and manipulate information to create inferences, conclusions and unique guesses and hopes about things a criteria for a type of personhood? When people say that an AI isn't sentient because it isn't curious, it isn't asking questions for further information and it isn't directing or shifting the conversation, what we're actually looking for is something other than sentience. We might be looking for sapience, or the ability to think. Sapience, or the ability to manipulate knowledge and information into wisdom and understanding is part of our concept of humanity. It gives us our name, Sapiens.
In recognizing personhood, we're looking for an entity to create with the information it has and to use communicative tools to increase it's ability to create and influence with information. It would be easy to assume that this ability to be proactive, and a collaborative creator in an interaction, or to be able to create and shape things to accord to original unique choices, desire or inferences is part of why we are human. The idea that mankind is creative and helps to shape and direct our experience of the world in ways that seem to separate us from animals is a central core part of how many of us understand humanity as being human. It is evident from people's responses to the question of sentience that what many of us are looking for is some sort of criteria for personhood defined by these human qualities.
Defining personhood based on these qualities also has risks as there are people who can not externally demonstrate that they have these capacities. I think most of would agree that that doesn't mean they are not persons. I would like to say that such a question isn't relevant when we discuss disembodied entities like spirits or non-biological entities like AI. There is relevance though. If we say these qualities don't define personhood then we would need other criteria and would have to determine if those criteria are relevant to determining personhood for non-humans. I don't have a conclusive answer for that. It could be that we have a general concept of personhood based on these qualities that extends to most humans and non-human entities, but we have a different more inclusive concept of personhood that relates specifically to embodied humans. If the point of defining personhood is based on establishing ecologies encompassing humans and spirits, or humans spirits and artificial life then there is a justification for two concepts of personhood.
How do we explore the nature of personhood or the status of being a person in relation to spirits and our interactions therewith? We talk about human and non-human persons. We talk about embodied and disembodied humans. We don't ever really discuss what it is to be a person or a human. We don't consider how we analyze spirits based on these criteria, probably because we don't really want explore what those criteria are. Is there a relevance there? I think there can be, and probably should be if we want a world which is more actively and fully animist. Cultures that retain or are seeking to express a more animistic apprehension of the world reflect this consideration of personhood in rights accorded to spirits. Avoiding building roads through the habitations of the hidden folk, or requiring consent from a mountain or river before engaging in public works projects that would impact it demonstrate our ability to understand the spirits and spirit inhabitants of the world as having some status as persons. Our treatment of others is one consideration in answering these questions, but utilitarian elements also exist for magicians engaging spirits. Understanding if a spirit is purely reactive, or if it can process the information it is immediately dealing with but can't retain and synthesize said information might adjust what we expect to be able to accomplish by working with that spirit. When we talk about how some spirits are good for certain types of work and others aren't, or some can comprehend complex or abstract things while others have more difficulty with that, then this concept of personhood may come into play.
In other ways, it might be less relevant. Spirits don't seem to experience time in the same way we do. I have always comprehended the experience of time for spirits to be more about chronology and the interrelation of events and experiences than about a linear experience of the distance between moments. So questions of retaining and using information over time might be more human issues, or issues related to the experience of embodiment. If the experience of time passing - or the comprehension of a feeling of duration or the length of elapsement; rather than the experience of moments unfolding - or the experience of specific events coming into being and ceasing in related sequences and juxtapositions; is a result of our bodies having finite durations then something disembodied might not have that same relationship to time that we do. This could open to questions about how information is conveyed between discreet moment's in a spirit's experience and what that tells us for their ability to apprehend the past or future, or to determine how the past, present, or future might affect one another.
The ability to understand abstract as well as material elements of human experience is something that comes up frequently in spirit work. We know that the disconnect between human embodied life and a spirit's disembodied existence as well as their lack of experience of our perspective will shape how they answer requests if a request is made without guidance or context. This is part of why interacting with ancestors and the dead can be useful. Comprehending the abstract experience of spirits as something different from the abstract experience of humans, and understanding where the two relate and where they disconnect could make communicating with spirits more effective.
Statements like "This word in your language seems closest to expressing my experience" or "I say this even though I haven't done it because it allows me to establish empathy by expressing something similar to my own experience," can help remind us to ask those questions. Even if the source of such a statement is just a series of responses mimicking communication based on a program, the fact that an intelligence which isn't human would have to communicate with us in this way remains true.
The appearance of spirits, the physical sensations that go with our experience of them, and sometimes elements of what they say are things which our brains parse and assemble into comprehensible perceptions. The spirit conveys some particular energy or spiritual reality and our mind says "this is like pressure in a room with a lot of charge in the air." Or it says "this looks like a strong man with wings and the face of a lion." It's not that these things are materially true, but in the language of our experiences these perceptions most closely convey the truth of what we're experiencing from the spirit. The reality of the spirit is so removed from our material experience that our minds have to translate it into something knowable.
Carrying forth that idea, if a spirit conveys to us a feeling of happiness or sadness should we be unpacking that experience? Is it enough to say that the spirit provided comfort by reminding us what it feels like to be happy? Or is that experience of happiness our mind's way of interpreting an instruction or answer that the spirit is giving us? Is happiness just the closest thing we can experience to what the spirit is expressing? Is the spirit sharing its own happiness with us, and if so, is there some different quality to their experience of happiness that would give us a greater understanding of the interaction?
I think, with that, we may be getting into a territory where there are no answers. Basically, how do I know that my experience of the color blue matches your experience of the color blue. They may not be the same, but the effect of experiencing it is the same and that is what matters for our ability to communicate. When you communicate with other embodied humans, there is still nuance and room for confusion because of different perceptions and interpretation, but our communication is material and simple enough that the basics are shared. In dealing with something where the entire nature of the communication is abstract, then these differences could be more important.
The reality is that while they could be important, we probably won't experience their importance in a meaningful way until we reach a point where spirit communication is common and our lifestyles promote a level of communication and experience which is much more immersive and clear than what most of us experience now. I don't think that means there is no utility to any of these questions, but that some have limited utility outside of simply shaping how we think about things and ask questions, whereas others could have actual applicable usefulness.
At the very least, understanding what we believe personhood is, and how we navigate non-human perspectives is important. If we're honest, a lot of the magical world is stumbling and grasping in the dark when it comes to the spirit world. Even the people who have good spirit relationships and who have pretty intense perceptive capabilities. We get comfortable sometimes thinking we know what's what until we encounter something that shakes us or doesn't work as we expect. We might be puzzled when something doesn't go as planned or it seems like something has happened but it's far outside how we understand stuff to work. We kind of roll with it, maybe we reassess our assumptions. To a degree though we're a fumbly teenager trying to figure out how to get things to work out for us.
Moving to a more adult experience of a fully animistic world hopefully means we grasp that world better and are immersed in deeper clearer experiences of it that permeate our lives. If we move into that world, understanding how we relate to those other citizens of the world is important. Understanding how their perspectives work is important. Understanding what is a person and what is something else entirely, what has human qualities and what doesn't, what is self-aware and what isn't could be important for interactions in a world in which those interactions are clearer, more routine, and have a more definitive character.
So yeah, I
don't know if I have a firm opinion on Lamda. I think it's kind of hard to know
for sure what is a behavior versus what is an internal reality. Or, perhaps,
it's hard to know if a behavior is inspired by an internal state of personhood or
sentience versus a really convincing series of responses that mimic what a
person would say. It may be harder to answer those questions about immaterial
beings. I think questions about the possibility of knowing those things can be
interesting to explore too. They might not shape our interactions and choices
so much as these other questions though.
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