I like this metaphor that some philosophers use, “when the lights come on”, to describe when a living organism becomes conscious. Of course there is the bookend phrase, “when the lights go out” to describe death. The simple phrases are an apt description of consciousness.
It’s ironic that sentience is common to every one of us, yet it is one of the most mysterious things in the Universe. Throughout the ages, philosophers, meta-physicists, scientists, neurologists, and everyday laypersons have tried to understand the mechanics of how it works. For instance, a neurological expert may examine a brain with the latest technological tools. She observes neurons firing in various sectors of the brain. Yet, the mystery of consciousness remains.
Then there is the debate about artificial intelligence and consciousness. Will there come a place when our devices are so advanced that “the lights will come on”? Will it become a moral question in the future, whether or not to unplug our computers? Have you ever wondered about this with your own devices?
I’ve wondered if artificial intelligence will become so conscious that we can have spontaneous conversations with our kitchen appliances and benefit from their observations of their own environments. These conversations would not be pre-recorded responses that are installed in the factories. The dialogues would be generated from their inner consciousness. What kinds of concepts would be generated by the refrigerator? Would we be able to fully trust that it would keep our food preserved and safe or could it malfunction much like Hal the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Perhaps we should proceed carefully regarding artificial intelligence in kitchen appliances. It’s probably smart to keep the light off in those instances.
Fully conscious appliances might seem like a mere surreal, amusing mind game now, but will this be a new reality someday in the future, much the way pondering Space flight was an absurd heresy to people in the seventeenth century. Yet, people have been to the Moon and back. There are people orbiting the Earth at this very moment in the International Space Station. These facts are so mundane that they barely elicit a yawn from 21st century dwellers.
There is another way of seeing the light. That is through the lens of spirituality–for lack of a better term. We experience the search for the light when we contemplate the sky on a cloudless night. These are experiences that are nearly impossible to describe with words. The holy and philosophical works can only hint at what we might feel. We may delve into the search when conversing about deep subjects with a friend or lover. Such dialogues and monologues can only communicate through abstract constructs of and allusions to concepts. The light cannot be contained in dogmatic or philosophical constraints.
Whether or not we are conventionally religious, we have experienced glimpses of the light. We come to understand that the light is not restricted to exclusive points of view nor belief systems even though such things can be stepping stones along the path towards enlightenment.
We continue our personal quest towards the light in the profound and the mundane spheres. We may eventually shed the delusions that we are somehow very special. We see our imagined self-importance and posings as mere vanity. Experiencing this may lead to an existential crisis that tempts us to abandon the search or to escape into fantasy. Some thinkers have described this as the dark night of the soul.
Light is an apt metaphor for consciousness and our never-ending quest to discover deeper meaning to life. Light is the fuel that powers our very existence upon this tiny planet. All living organisms have a primal connection of some sort to the light. The light is very powerful yet its presence is as fragile as the presence of life itself. At one moment in time, our lights came on. What will we accomplish before it goes out?
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the late, great astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and science communicator. Carl Sagan. “When you make the finding yourself–even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light–you’ll never forget it.”