Natural and Artificial Intelligence, and Consciousness, Part I – Jonathan Edelmann

I begin this post by overviewing some of the ways I have thought about evolutionary theory and neuroscience using Indian thought, especially Sāṃkhya-yoga and its interpretation in Puranic theology and philosophy. In the next post I will apply some of these ideas to conceptualize Artificial Intelligence. These posting are explorations of some essential terms for discussion between India and Europe.

Due to advances in neuroscience and a widely accepted view that humans are the result of a naturalistic evolutionary process, many today would advocate physicalism, by which I mean some sort of theory that explains all aspects of the human being by natural processes. On this view, then, human consciousness is produced solely of the human brain which evolved without intervention of non-natural forces.

The dualism of classical or the old Sāṃkhya-yoga recognizes two different features of reality: (1) materiality, which includes the physical body/brain and the subjectively experienced mental domain; and (2) consciousness, the eternal and unchanging being that gives materiality the appearance of sentience.

I think that from the Sāṃkhya perspective when neuroscientists examine the correlations between mental events and brain events they are examining the correlations between two forms of materiality. In Sāṃkhya the conscious being that provides awareness to and within the mental and physical aspects of materiality is, however, considered distinct from them. Thus, whether it is the application of a drug or the targeting of specific portions of the brain, in Sāṃkhya the changes that occur are within materiality, i.e. the physical body and the mental realm. Yet in Sāṃkhya consciousness retains a distinction from both forms of materiality; it essential to human awareness, but it is not reducible to the body or mind.

I think the Sāṃkhya perspective is reductionist or physicalist in the senses that it reduces two domains of human experience (the mental and physical) into one single type of being, but it is also non-reductionist and non-physicalist in the sense that consciousness is not a product of matter. There is, then, a sense in which Sāṃkhya-yoga could agree that as bodies evolve new types of cognition might emerge, and it could also agree that quantifiable correlations might exist between the mental and physical aspects of materiality, but it also advocates of type of awareness that underpins both forms of materiality.

Many scientists and philosophers would say that any nonphysical consciousness that is said to exist independently of the human brain is implausible, but what of the other aspects of Indian thought, like karma, the acceptance of a wide range of ontological terms that we might think about as either natural or artificial. A contemporary criticism of the Sāṃkhya in particular is that the introduction of an observing consciousness quiet apart from mental and physical events adds an unnecessary and untenable item, one that neither explains the correlations of mind-body nor has any justification. The Indian tradition, however, was familiar with physicalist philosophies; approximately three hundred years ago Rādhādāmodara addressed Carvaka’s reductionistic view in his Vedāntasyamantaka, a Sanskrit introduction to Vaishnava teachings, but the discussion of Carvaka and related ideas are wide reaching.

Using this ontological framework of Sāṃkhya in the next post I suggest that AI might be thought of as a type of interaction between matter and consciousness, but that the new natural sciences offer opportunities to rethink old debates within India about the nature of the self.

About Jonathan Edelmann

Assistant Professor of Hinduism University of Florida

6 Replies to “Natural and Artificial Intelligence, and Consciousness, Part I – Jonathan Edelmann”

  1. Hi Jonathan
    Really interesting. I am currently working on a paper on Sāṃkhya Philosophy, Consciousness and Artificial Intelligence. So, this was directly in the area I am working.

    I have found to papers, one by Roy Perrett and Paul Schweizer on the issue. They both cut up the Sāṃkhya in interesting ways. One of the dimensions that is important is the relation between pure consciousness and mind. So, mind and body are reducible because of their relation to nature, while pure-consciousness is not.

    The direction that I was going for is close to what you are exploring, but I was also interested in another question: what is the value of consciousness? I think that physicalism has a hard time answering that, but Sāṃkhya I think has a really good answer. We should talk. I would love to get your thoughts on my slides. I am also working with Geoff Ashton on a new interpretation of the Sāṃkhya that could with a novel interpretation of consciousness in relation to how they cut up, mind, body, and pure consciousness.

    More to come 🙂

  2. This is great to hear Anand. Yes, I would love to chat about this. I look forward to your paper, too. The University of Florida just got a donation and it plans to invest in research on AI; I’m trying to see how India and philosophy more broadly might figure into the discussion. It is a challenge without a doubt on many levels.

    • Hi Jonathan
      We should clearly talk. I have a lot of material I am currently reading. And Geoff has a great set of material for a new interpretation of Sāṃkhya. I think that his interpretation can lead to a really interesting account of the AI, Consciousness, and Sāṃkhya distinction between purusha and prakriti. I think there is a lot in this area to explore. I will email you for further discussion. There are lots of ways that we can enter the discussion. Attention vs. Consciousness is one of them.

  3. Hi Jonathan and thanks for the interesting post! I appreciate your emphasis on the opposition between two types of materiality and on how Sanskrit authors knew reductionism and had to develop arguments against it. The case of AI, in this sense, could provide a fruitful analogy, because in the case of computers we know that there is a further intelligence at stake, behind the machine’s one…

  4. The approach of Perrett and Schweizer was long ago criticized as working just from common understanding of Samkhya categories, and not engaging with Sanskrit texts. From the categories one can easily turn to object relations theory, or the programming called object-oriented, which is certainly relevant for AI. But there was also an ancient way from the complementarity of Purusa and *not Prakriti but pradhana, signifying power or agency. That way leads from Samkhya-karika 21 to Yoga-sutra 1.48, in the ancient Samkhya-Patanjali cosmology. And the separation of the agent from agency or office comes West in Freemason lore, as a bulwark against corruption! That all belongs to esoteric studies, as followed by Isaac Newton for alchemy, and I don’t expect it to interest academics today, but it does matter for the history of medicine, and also law.

    • Hi Orwin

      I agree that the approach from Perrett and Schweizer has been criticized. It seems obvious just from reading the papers that they can be. But there are other interpretations, such as that offered by Geoff Ashton. It seems like newer interpretations can go beyond those interpretations, since they are based more in the Sanskrit texts. In addition, I am not sure other academics won’t be interested. I think it depends on what an AI researcher is interested in and how open minded they are about thinking about AI in the context of non-western traditions. It seems as if the judgment is that people working in these fields are not going to be interested in something that sounds esoteric or like a dead science. But the core ideas that come from Sāṃkhya that seem to be important that are actually in the Sanskrit texts seem clearly relevant to how we answer questions about consciousness and mind and the value of each in AI. The current discussions in AI have gone far beyond the ones the were present at the time when both of the prior author wrote. You seem more skeptical than I am. But that might be because of what you think is relevant is different from what I think is relevant.

      Thanks for pointing to the critics and the other material in this area.

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