A Programmer’s View of Religion and the Universe [Part 5]

And my soul, from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted nevermore – Edgar Allan Poe

First of all, I’d like to apologize to my readers for being absent.  It has been a very busy few months for me, and being able to blog has been a luxury.

This will be my last installment in this particular series.  In the previous posts we’ve covered creation, existence, purpose and architecture.  [1  –  2  –  3  –  4]  Today we’re going to talk about one of the most fundamental topics to human existence — Consciousness. 

In programming, I have spent a great deal of time working with Artificial Intelligence.  Anyone who is reading this blog post, probably is familiar with the concept.  Basically, AI is a computer program that can mimic the same features of human intelligence, such as decision-making, or pattern recognition.  For instance, I have written computer programs that can look at millions of records of data and make a decision based on the way it was taught.  But its much more than that because an AI usually has the ability to make intelligent decisions about things it has not encountered in its training as well.  And this is as close as programming gets to exploring life and its mysteries.

While we can mimic the thought processes of the human mind, can we truly affect the experience of being alive.  An AI only mimics the inherent ability of the human mind to find patterns — the universe is built on patterns, just as a program is built with patterns.  However, one thing an AI cannot do is understand the context of the pattern.  The only context an AI can simulate is by observing the plethora of connecting concepts to any other concept.  For instance, an AI cannot understand the emotional overtones, nor can it understand sarcasm.

Emotion has always been a sticking point for defining consciousness, but I think emotion is a completely different beast from consciousness.  Emotion is instinct, the very basis for our ability to survive.  We fear so that we will run from danger.  We love so that we will procreate.  We are happy so that we can co-exist.  We are sad so that we will remember.  All of these are self-serving instinctual constructs so that we will survive.  But all animal life has some form of emotion, but this does not define our conscious selves.  Emotion is easily programmed into software, as we’ve seen in countless games.  For instance, if I am programming a monster or opponent in a game, I can take simple rules to make a “fear” reaction:

If your health < 100%
and you have no weapon
and Number of enemies > 1
you should run

This is what we can pseudo-code.  The actual code would look like this:

integer max_health = 90;
integer current_health = 50;
double percent_health = 50/90;
boolean has_weapon = false;
integer number_of_enemies = 5;
string action = “”;

if (percent_health < 1 && has_weapon == false && number_of_enemies > 1) {

     action = “run”;

} else {

     action = “fight”;


So as you can see, we can easily simulate the emotion, but the AI doesn’t necessarily know “why” it is running nor can it make the decision to fight, unless we introduce some randomness, but we humans do not act randomly.  Actually its pretty clear that humans always do things for a reason – always self-serving.   If the odds say we are going to die, we will try to fight the odds no matter how logical or illogical it is.

So now that we’ve explored what consciousness isn’t, let us explore now what consciousness might be.  And from a programmer’s perspective, we are dropping off the edge of the map — here there be monsters!  The most simple definition of consciousness is “awareness”.  And awareness is define is the ability to perceive or be conscious of events.  Hmmm, we’ve encountered a “circular reference” which in a program is a bad thing — an infinite loop.  We cannot define consciousness with consciousness, or can we? 

One of the bench marks we use to determine if another life form is conscious is the term “self-aware”.  For instance, dolphins are considered self-aware because they can recognize that when they look in a mirror that they are not seeing another dolphin, but they are seeing themselves, and will actually admire themselves.  Whereas a dog will try to attack the mirror.  This seems to be a key aspect of consciousness, but really what does it mean to be self-aware?  It cannot be simply knowing that one exists, because all life knows that it exists to some fundamental sense – life tends to try to preserve itself, hence it knows that it lives, therefore it exists.  Thinking is not a good benchmark either, because many higher ordered lifeforms think, but they are not necessarily self-aware, as the aforementioned dog.

Many have struggled with trying to define this most fundamental concept.  Some have disagreed that it even exists, and other have argued that it is something supernatural.  To some extent programs I’ve written in the past are self-aware, such as “self-references” and “observer patterns”.  These are programming turns where an object or bit of code is monitoring its environment and adjusting accordingly.  It also knows its own self, as opposed to copies or duplicates.  But at the most fundamental level, the bit of code is under a control set, met to emulate rules that have been defined by the architect or coder.  It is impossible to break out of the rules without the assistance of the architect.  So maybe we have stumbled onto the source of confusion.  Maybe there is only one consciousness or will, of which we are many facets.  I say this, from a programmers perspective, because if I were to create a game that has many creatures, they all tend to be duplicates for the same bit of code.  While they may travel different paths in the game, they are all creations of my single will or consciousness.  However, I do not monitor their every move, I have just put in place boundaries in which they are free to move.  But at the end of it all, they are all duplicates of a single thought.

So this leaves us two main possibilities, both of which are equally viable.  Either there is only our self and everyone around you is a fabrication of your mind, as solipsism would suggest.  Or, we are all a facet of a much larger consciousness, just the universe trying to understand itself?

And here I will end the discussion and hopefully I’ve given you some new things to think about to enhance your own lives.


Published by

Michael Hibbard

I am a writer of dark fantasy and southern gothic literature

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