Artificial intelligence (AI) has advanced spectacularly in capacity over recent decades; many believe that it will soon have subjective consciousness. One may examine this possibility from the perspectives of both neurology and parapsychology. The possibility depends much on the basis of consciousness. If consciousness is just some function of matter in some complex form, such as our brains (as believed by the materialists), then AI consciousness must be possible, at least in principle.
Neurological findings supportive of materialism and the recent reversals
Two neurological findings in the 1970’s appeared to provide definite support for materialism and, hence, the possibility of AI consciousness.
The split-brain study
First, there was the split-brain study. The human brain consists of two hemispheres connected by the corpus callosum. For the treatment of certain epileptic patients, the corpus callosum is sometimes transected, cutting off communication between the two hemispheres. In this situation, each of the two hemispheres seems to have a mind of its own. This suggests that human has two, not just one, minds. This also supports the materialist position that the mind is just a function of the brain.
Recent studies have cast doubt on this previously well-regarded finding in neuroscience. Pinto et al. (2017) demonstrate that ‘although the two hemispheres are completely insulated from one another, the brain as a whole is still able to produce only one conscious agent. This directly contradicts current orthodoxy and highlights the complexity of unified consciousness.’ Split-brain subjects claim to feel no different after the surgery and are undistinguishable in everyday life. Some experiments ‘show that whilst perceptual information is localized to a given hemisphere during the split-brain experiment, cognitive access is not localized to a given hemisphere’.
Reviewing the split-brain literature over the last few decades, de Haan et al. (2020) also note the erosion of the old view ‘overtime’, and that ‘the mind may remain unified when the brain is split’.
Do we have free will?
The second finding in the 1970’s supportive of materialism was some neurological experiments challenging the existence of free will. Deecke, Grozinger and Kornhuber (1976) explored voluntary finger movements. Participants were instructed to flex their index fingers suddenly; at times they chose independently. Electrodes recorded brain activities (EEG; electroencephalograph) and the precise instances of muscle actions. It was found that activities in the brain began to rise markedly as much as a full second before the supposedly deliberate action was consciously undertaken. Previous studies have shown it takes a full half-second before a subject consciously perceives a skin stimulation. However, it takes only a few hundredths of a second for the stimulus to reach the cerebral cortex.
However, if the subject is told beforehand to push a button as soon as he feels the skin stimulus, he may react in about 1/10 of a second, i.e., well before conscious perception. Nevertheless, the subject is convinced, after his conscious perception of the stimulus, that he pressed the button consciously in response to the stimulus. Delayed consciousness is referred back to the instant the stimulus occurred or reached the cortex. But how could something (conscious perception) that happens later be the cause of something (pressing a button) earlier? It seems that what we believe to be undertaken by our mental self freely is just determined by our material brain.
However, the above experimental negation of free will has been challenged later. It has been shown that the rise in brain activities half a second before actual action is just noise, not the brewing intention of the brain at all, but something random. Rather, ‘the neural decision to move coincides in time with average subjective estimates of the time of awareness of intention to move’. Though this does not establish free will, it negates Libet’s conclusion against free will and suggests that the problem of free will is much more complicated.
Parapsychological evidence supportive of postmortem survival
If one is willing to cast their eyes beyond the narrow confines of materialistic sciences, there is much evidence in parapsychology (defined widely) supportive of our survival after biological death. The following three main areas are surveyed.
1. Evidence from medium communication
Rigorous studies of trance mediums since the establishment of the Society for Psychical Research (UK) in 1882 have provided many strong pieces of evidence that convinced the originally skeptical researchers amidst many fraudulent mediums. These include the rigorous study of Mrs. Leonora Piper, who was never caught cheating despite the employment of detectives to follow her outings.
Secondly, there were the cross correspondences where 5 mediums (including Piper) in three different countries (England, America, and India) communicated through automatic writing in trance, pieces of writing of no sensible meaning. However, when pieced together, they form meaningful sentences in classical studies, the main area of Frederic Myers, who passed away just before the commencement of the cross correspondences. Before his death, Myers said he would try to prove postmortem survival. The matter is, however, complex and controversial.
Who was the mastermind behind the mosaic [of cross correspondences] formed by the various pieces over different continents? Who else apart from Myers himself who was already dead?Yew-Kwang Ng
Thirdly, reports of materialized spiritual hands moulded into gloves during séances and stored at the Institut Metapsychique International in Paris have attracted attention to the study of paranormal phenomena. Photographic documentation of these events exists, dating back several decades. However, these claims are met with skepticism. Critics argue that such moulds could have been fabricated, citing historical instances of alleged fraud in similar cases. This controversy underscores the ongoing debate between believers and skeptics in the realm of spiritualism.
2. Near-death experience
A typical (paranormal) near-death experience (NDE) is leaving one’s own body, sometimes through a tunnel, and seeing the bright light of love (usually interpreted by experiencers as God) and relatives already dead. They often see themselves as floating up to the ceiling and looking down, seeing their physical body in bed under emergency rescue, with details seen later confirmed. Most regard the experience as more real than normal reality perceived in normal waking time. This includes the NDE of a neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander.
Research into NDEs, including those experienced by medical professionals, has shown that while some out-of-body experiences could be attributed to hallucinations caused by brain dysfunction, drugs, or brain stimulation, this explanation does not apply to all cases. Extensive studies have explored the authenticity and implications of these experiences, differentiating true NDEs from hallucinatory events.
3. Reincarnation? Memories of previous lives
Evidence supporting non-materialistic views includes the recorded memories of many children about their supposed previous lives. This field of study, focusing on reincarnation, was established in the mid-20th century. Researchers dedicated nearly fifty years to examining over 2,500 cases, with around 1,400 confirming the actual existence of the individuals in the children’s memories. This extensive research has led various scholars to conclude firmly in the reality of reincarnation.
When brought to the homes of their previous lives, many children showed uncanny familiarity, including finding money hidden during their previous lives. Many could speak the language of the previous life, never learned during the present life. A very high proportion of past-life memories involves cases of abnormal death. Many of such children have natural birthmarks at the precise places of previous fatal wounds. For cases of death from being shot, the birthmarks are consistent with the smaller wound at the bullet entrance than the exit place.
If one survives the biological death, it seems that consciousness has a mental aspect, not just the function of the material brain. This makes AI consciousness much less likely. Rather than worrying about AI becoming conscious or allocating significant resources to its instantiation, society should shift its attention to lowering the cost of robots and improving their utility for our communities.
Ng, Y. K. (2023). Could artificial intelligence have consciousness? Some perspectives from neurology and parapsychology. AI & SOCIETY, 38(1), 425-436. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-021-01305-x