No computer will ever be able to experience the state of Enlightenment that is familiar to Zen monks and other Buddhist meditators. If a computer is ever going to be truly intelligent -- at least in the same way that humans are -- it must be able to have religious experiences that are the same as those that humans have. The particular religious experience I am speaking of is the realization of the emptiness that is considered to be one of the fundamental truths of eastern philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism.
According to Buddhist teachings, the pure realization of emptiness is free of any form, substance, nature, characteristics, or content -- yet it is not a mere nothingness. Rather it is said to be fully awake and lucid yet totally beyond the limitations of dualistic consciousness. It contains no thought, no cognitive formations, no sense of identity or self-reflection, no perception --- in short it is totally free of any conceptuality. This is said to be the natural state of being, or the actual nature of mind itself when not obscured by conceptual overlays.
Computer systems, such as hypothetically sophisticated future artificial intelligence programs, will never be able to actually experience authentic religious experiences and will probably never be able to simulate them either -- no matter how "advanced" they are as software programs. This is because computers cannot do anything without using information -- computers are nothing but information processors. In other words, information processors are not capable of simulating or having states that contain no information content. The state of emptiness however is a state that is devoid of information content and is therefore not something that a computer will ever authentically realize. A similar religious experience that is considered to be the final level of spiritual evolution, and the highest realization, in Buddhism, is omniscience -- that state of being all-knowing, which is one of the qualities of a fully enlightened being. Omniscience is a state that is totally infinite -- it contains all information instantaneously. Computers on the other hand cannot process infinite information in finite time and can therefore not become omniscient. These are just two of many types of religious experience that are simply impossible for any computer or software program to generate. While computers and programs might be able to simulate such experiences, these simulations will never the same as the "real thing."
Simulated awareness or consciousness in a computer is not capable of replicating a state without information content. At best, a computer could simulate a lack of sensory input and a lack of cognitive formations -- but in order for that computer to be able to know that this was taking place it would have to create some infomration to represent that fact and then process that information in order to know that fact. In other words a computer can simulate emptiness but that is not the same as actual emptiness. A computer's simulation of emptiness is similar to the statement this sentence does not exist. We can say that all we like, but the mere act of saying it contradicts its meaning. In the same way, in order for a computer to simulate and know the experience of emptiness it must be in a state that is not equivalent to the state of experiencing emptiness.
Humans and other truly sentient beings are not limited in this way. We are capable of knowing emptiness directly because emptiness and awareness (that which knows) are in fact the very same thing. When a sentient being experiences emptiness it is unmediated by any information process -- emptiness is the experience of the very nature of self-awareness. In other words, because we are truly aware and our awareness is inherently aware of awareness, we are capable of being aware of emptiness which is the actual nature of awareness in its pure form (when unclouded by conceptual overlays). The point here is that when a sentient being has a direct realization of emptiness it does not take place through any conceptual process, in fact it is the opposite of a conceptual process, by definition. The experience of emptiness is a direct realization of the non-conceptual, contentless ground that underlies consciousness. Conceptual thought is merely a process of mental projection taking place on the basis of that ground. Computers are only capable of conceptual activity (although primitive at best). Computers are not capable of representing or experiencing a truly non-conceptual state of being.
For this reason, no computer will ever be truly self-aware in the same way that humans are. No computer will ever be able to experience the state of emptiness. No computer will ever be able to synthesize awareness. The Dalai Lama has mentioned in the past that someday, once computer become sophisticated enough, they may be able to support mindstreams, such that a consciousness could conceivably incarnate into such a machine. But that is very different from saying that the machine is conscious or that consciousness has been synthesized by the machine.
True consciousness, true awareness, does not emerge from any formal information process. It is fundamental to the universe. In other words, awareness does not come from something or somewhere -- it is already there and always has been. Just like energy. We never create it, it has always existed and we merely move it, transform it, and channel it from point to point.
Similarly, the human body and brain do not create conscious and are not themselves conscious either, for they are just organic machines. No machine, whether organic or silicon is really conscious in its own right. Any conciousness that appears on the basis of such machines is merely temporarily associated with them and totally independent of them. Consciousness is totally separate from machines, and from brains and bodies. It is a mystery. It always has been. It always will be. While it may arise within such systems it is not caused by them, not synthesized by their components, and cannot be reduced to them. In other words, a Zen State Automaton is impossible.
My argument goes as follows:
The Zen State Automaton
1. A human being (a truly self-aware system) can be aware of their own awareness without any thoughts occuring (ie. without creating or using any information)
2. Computers cannot do anything (thus they certainly cannot sense or know anything) without using information.
3. Therefore computers will never be able to synthesize or replicate self-awareness using any information process. This proves that computers will never be self-aware or conscious in the same way that truly aware beings (such as humans) are. Without true self-awareness computers will never be truly intelligent -- at least not as intelligent as systems that are truly self-aware. Therefore, artificial intelligence will never be truly intelligent by human standards.
In other words, a Zen State Automaton is impossible.
My argument can be tested and verified by a simple experiment: can you be aware of your awareness without thought? Or rather, are thoughts the medium by which you realize that you are aware, or is self-awareness non-conceptual or at least pre-conceptual?
In other words: Is awareness always accompanied by thought or is it possible to have one without the other? Obviously one cannot claim to have thought without awareness, but they could claim to have awareness without thought. Yet if there are no thoughts occuring, then how is the knowledge of awareness mediated?
In order for anything to be known a process must take place comprising a subject, an object, and the appearance of some sort of symbolic representation of that object to the subject's senses or mind. For example to know about z one must either experience z directly through the 5 sense organs, or they must think about z. Unless either of those takes place there is no way for any information about z to be created or observed in the mind, or any other system for that matter. Unless at least some amount of information is created or observed it is impossible for anyone or anything to sense z or think of z.
Knowing is a process of sensing and thinking. Sensing and thinking are information processes in which something is conceptualized and then experienced by a subjective perceiver. If the conceptualization phase of the process does not take place, then no information is produced and thus there is no resulting experience that can be known by a subject.
So if one has no thoughts at all -- if one does not engage in any conceptualization at all -- can they know anything? Furthermore, can they know that they are aware? If they can do these things -- if awareness can be known even though there is absolutely no information taking place or being processed -- then it proves that awareness is not a thought, not a product of thought, not a thought process, and not dependent on thought. It proves that awareness is not experienced by sensing or thinking but rather by some other means that does not involve thought at all. What this would prove is that awareness is not a formal information process which in turn would make it certain that no piece of software or Turing Machine, or combination of such, will, or could ever, become aware.
This makes intuitive sense -- After all without using any information whatsoever a computer cannot run at all, let alone run some sort of complex artificial intelligence simulation that attempts to become aware of itself. If awareness is non-informational then nothing that arises within a computer is or could be equivalent to awareness. If awareness is totally not an information process then machines will never be aware and awareness will never be synthesized by a computer.
This in turn means that whatever we humans are, we are not equivalent to Turing Machines. We are not computers. Our minds are not simply machines. Human intelligence is not simply the product of computation and is not limited by the limits of compution. There is something more to us that cannot be synthesized. But what is it? How do we know it? That is the mystery!
On the other hand, in case you test this yourself with your own self-awareness and afterwards you mistakenly come to the conclusion that awareness simply cannot be known or experienced without using concepts, you will miss the point entirely. So it is very important to see why this philosophical position is invalid -- if you hold this belief, you are in fact mistaking your very subtle concept of awareness for awareness itself; you have not actually directly glimpsed awareness itself. The proof is that if you claim awareness is conceptual -- for example, that awareness is just an idea or a mental illusion or some sort of thought rather than something else. If you hold this belief then you are basically claiming that awareness is equivalent to a concept or set of concepts, or a conceptual process comprised of nothing but concepts. But if you say that awarenesss is a conceptual event of any sort, you are essentially holding that awareness takes place only when a particular conceptual process, A, arises which then somehow is able to be aware of a conceptual process (either A knowing itself, or knowing some other conceptual process B). But doesn't this just push the problem down another level? -- what is it that functions as the awareness that conceptual process A has of the other conceptual process? Can a concept know anything -- can a concept be aware? If it can't then how could a conceptual process -- a mere series of concepts -- be aware? Clearly if there awareness taking place it is not coming from such a process but must be from somewhere else. No matter what you posit awareness to be, it still requires some sort of meta-awareness to know it.
Therefore both logical possibilities lead to the same conclusion: Whether you experience awareness to be non-conceptual or you claim it is purely conceptual, you end up not finding anything that you can point to and differentiate as that is awareness. But do you find nothing at all? Is there a difference between nothing and what is found or not found when you look for awareness? This a very crucial distinction. Many people mistakenly decide that awareness must be some sort of nothingness just because they cannot find anything concrete to label as awareness.
For example, many otherwise reputable scientists hold the belief that if awareness exists it must be findable and since it is not findable it does not exist; therefore they believe that either there is no awareness at all or that awareness is some sort of nothingness. Neither of these conclusions are correct. Firstly, the mere fact that something cannot be found doesn't mean it is non-existent. For example: Space. Space cannot actually be found anywhere -- nobody has ever seen space, measured space, or touched space directly -- but clearly it exists.
Secondly, nothingness is impossible. There are two problems with saying that x is nothingness -- first of all, if x is nothingness how can you even posit x to be nothingness -- that is a contradiction in that it posits that x is both something and nothing. Second, since nothing has no qualities whatsoever how could this nothing be known -- what is there in it to know? And if it is unknowable, then how could you know that x is equivalent to it -- what is there to compare x to? Furthermore, to posit that there exists a phenomenon of nothingness is ludicrous because by definition nothingness contains nothing at all to posit, not even the quality of having existence, not even the quality of being nothingness. The very idea of nothing is an illusion for there is nothing for it to refer to at all, it doesn't represent what it symbolizes, it doesn't symbolize anything. If something called nothing actually existed, it wouldn't therefore be nothing.
So the final question is: Based on your own self-observation, how do you know that you are self-aware? On what evidence can you base such a claim? You feel that you are aware, you are certain you are aware -- but how do you know this -- where does the certainty stem from? If awareness cannot be found, is not a concept and is not conceptual, and if it you cannot really say it exists or does not exist, yet you are sure that it is not nothingness, then what is it and how is it known and what is it that is capable of knowing it? Clearly since you directly sense your own self-awareness there must be some way to know it without using any conceptual processes -- but how? And what are the implications of knowing this, of seeing it for oneself?
We humans are indeed able to be aware of our own awareness, despite the fact that our ability to do so involves no concepts at all. Self-awareness is a paradox, yet it's a fact. It completely transcends the way we normally think about the world. It completely transcends all thought entirely. Yet here it is blazing forth. What is it? Where does it come from? How could it even be possible! This is the miracle of life. The miracle of sentient beings, of the whole universe in fact. And we will never understand it, let alone recreate it in our own image using machines. Machines are simply not aware and never will be. Awareness is not created by physical processes or informational processes. Who can say what it comes from? All we can be sure about is that it does not come from any technological process known to mankind. And in principle it is reasonable to suspect that it is theoretically impossible that any technological process will ever generate or synethsize it.
Because awareness appears to be totally beyond concepts, matter, time, space or anything else we can imagine, it may in fact be the strangest thing we know of. It completely defies description. In fact, we know it but cannot even see it, explain it or express it. Perhaps it is impossible for something to be aware unless it already is aware and always will be aware. Perhaps there is no way to inject awareness into something that is not aware, and no way to remove awareness from something that is aware. After all, if we cannot encapsulate or create awareness, how could we ever add it to anything else? Furthermore, if we cannot understand it, grasp or even describe, how can we design a machine to replicate it? Finally, if no amount or structure of information is equivalent to the experience of self-awareness, then how can we ever hope for a machine or computer program to synthesize it? If awareness is indeed like this, then it must be something quite beyond our ordinary concepts about ourselves and the universe.
At the very least, all speculations aside, the simple experiment of The Zen State Automaton proves that humans can do something that in principle no machine or program can ever do: we can be self-aware without any information taking place. In fact, our awareness -- in its own nature -- is totally non-conceptual. Concepts are not equivalent to awareness, they arise within it, but they are not aware. In other words the conceptual mind is not the source of awareness, awareness is not the mind -- awareness comes from beyond the mind. It is not the mind; It is the nature of mind.
The mind is just an information process but awareness is not an information process at all. It totally transcends computation. Therefore, nobody will ever be able to design a machine, or software program, that is aware. Awareness is not equivalent to, or the result of, any machine or information process. In other words, awareness cannot be synthesized. As a result, any form of intelligence that requires self-awareness can also not be synthesized. Therefore, for example, artificial intelligence is impossible. No scientist will ever succeed in building a conscious or intelligent machine.