Can Pure Lookup Tables Be Conscious?

From: Lee Corbin (
Date: Tue Apr 24 2001 - 21:46:01 MDT

Have I been wrong for twenty years, and is it possible that a
pure lookup table can be conscious? This post is a continuation
of a discussion in "Re: How To Live In A Simulation", which ended
in late March 2001.

In my opinion, a number of people made some very interesting and
significant contributions---so many per day that I was unable to
keep up. Most significant however, was the submission by
Hal Finney (28 Mar 2001 21:59:28 -0800) that read in part:

> The index into a lookup table, if expressed as a binary address,
> presumably carries as much information as is in your own brain.
> And each successive change of that index is a transformation
> every bit as causal and dependent upon experience as the changes
> in your own brain from one moment to the next.

Yes, it is causal all right. To outward appearances it does
resemble the cherished causality that drives forward our own
conscious experiences. But I will attempt a valid reductio
ad absurdum.

A note of caution: some attack mechanism by an unacceptable
reductio ad absurdum that always goes something like this:
"Clearly one atom is not intelligent; now if N atoms are not
intelligent, it is surely the case that N+1 atoms are not
intelligent, since it is inconceivable that that addition
of a single atom is significant. Therefore, no collection
of atoms can be intelligent." The reader is encouraged to
ferret out any similar reasoning in what follows.

Suppose that by the laws of physics there turn out to be
N_QUANTUM states that an ordinary human brain goes through

in the course of a few minutes. I wish I had a good idea
of what the minimum size of N_QUANTUM is, but it has to be
10^54, or less, according to Tipler (p. 31).

The ultimate question may emerge as "does the activity
driven by a lookup table that completely duplicates a
few minutes of physics for a human brain also generate
consciousness?" But if I am lucky, this question can
be approached gradually without loss of resolution.

The argument that a super-enormous lookup table is able
to generate the same experience, regardless of input, is
a part of Hal's argument's assumptions above. This
"complete table" has the characteristic of being able to
pass the Turing Test, for example, or any other test of
flexibility that we have come to associate with genuinely
feeling programs or people. But let's focus on the
abbreviated table that is just one possible thread through
the table. In other words, "playback" as Hal says:

> You are saying that [for someone's experience] you could write
> down the series of states, and then play them back in a simple
> way? Which of course you could do with your own brain as well,
> right? You could write down the sequence of your own neural
> brain states and then "play them back".

> The question is, are such playbacks conscious? Your initial
> experience was conscious; [The original experience of the
> individual you made it from] was at least conscious when you
> created the lookup table, and possibly when you jumped around in
> it again later. Now you are playing back some of that experience.

The rest of Hal's well-written post argues persuasively that
we would have to make a number of strong assumptions about
the nature of consciousness in order to answer the question,
assumptions that we are in no position to make.

But apart from the theoretical question "Are Lookups Conscious",
there is the (perhaps soon-to-be-practical) question of the
value of playbacks, or as I called it in a thread here five years
ago, the value of "Repeated Experience". Uploaded entities
may have to soon decide what to do in real situations involving these
values. So something of practical importance, in my opinion, does hinge
on the outcome of these discussions.

To assist visualization of what is going on here and which may
facilitate the discussion, consider Conway's Game of Life.
Played on an nxn grid, it can implement fundamental logic and
so emulate any computer program. (For a great, animated
introduction, see

The advantage to Life is that the "generations" are discrete.
Suppose that we visualize a gigantic Life Board made up of electric
lights, together with simple, underlying causal circuitry beneath
the board which takes any generation as input, and outputs---again
in a display of lights on the Board---the next generation. Because
the machinery beneath the board (and in fact the whole board)
operates in accordance with quantum physics, (even classical physics),
we surely by means of this substitution have not yet crossed any
significant boundaries: a human---or a civilization---that executes
on a Life Board is no different in any significant respect from our
own. Importantly, entities on the Life Board must also possess
exactly the same kind of consciousness and feelings that we do.
(Apologies to the non-functionalists on this list. But this isn't
the thread to debate those fundamentals.)

Now "playback" in its crudest form is and never has been anything
significant, if it's merely the portrayal of computation or experience.
Suppose that you watch a television "re-creation" of some terrible
episode in which people are being depicted as tortured. If the
apparatus is really doing nothing more than arranging photons in
certain patterns and aiming them towards you, no important moral
and behavior problem really arises. We would be doing an immense
disservice to entities undergoing genuine suffering were we to
confuse portrayals and emulations here.

It is now easy and instructive to visualize such "playback" on
a Life Board. Rather than the next generation being actively
computed, we may simply have an automatic arm reach into a
sequenced table of gels, each with bright spots in fluorescent
paint, and place the next gel in sequence on the Life Board.
This gives every bit the appearance of a civilization developing,
or of an entity having an experience, but in reality has no
content. Indeed, the lights are on, but no one is home.

Therefore, giant lookup tables are not conscious.

(To suppose the contrary---that moral weight applies to
the question of whether this portrayal should be run,
brings us back to the Theory of Dust, and to a (valid)
reduction to the assertion that all experiences are really
happening in the nebulae of dust (when looked at the right
way) and thereby to the nihilistic conclusion that nothing
matters anyway. Details of this reduction can be found at

This post leaves aside the deeper question of whether a complete
lookup table---one that has all the possibilities embedded
within it, not just a single thread---is conscious. Nothing
above yet explicitly rebuts Hal's claim, which I quote again:

> The index into a lookup table, if expressed as a binary address,
> presumably carries as much information as is in your own brain.
> And each successive change of that index is a transformation
> every bit as causal and dependent upon experience as the changes
> in your own brain from one moment to the next.

I hope that for the sake of the simplicity of my own world-view,
that this point also can be refuted. Maybe later.

Lee Corbin

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