Thursday, September 02, 2010

Is Consciousness Necessary?

The TIME article I wrote about last week mentions the theory held by many philosophers, notably Descartes, that animals have no consciousness. These people believed nonhuman animals were fleshly automata with no self-awareness, emotions, or capacity to feel pain and pleasure.

Recently I also read an anthology of essays called ZOMBIES, VAMPIRES, AND PHILOSOPHY: NEW LIFE FOR THE UNDEAD. One author, Dale Jacquette, proposes a thought experiment in which zombie-like human beings exist, "people" who operate entirely on instinct and have no consciousness, no inner mental and emotional lives. The difference between the zombies in this essay and those in voodoo tradition or horror movies is that the thought-experiment creatures look and behave exactly like the rest of us. They perfectly simulate not only the behavior and speech of ordinary people but even the outward signs of emotion. Yet we know for a fact that they are automata. Would it be morally acceptable to use them in gory gladiatorial combats to the death? Jacquette concludes it wouldn't, because of the desensitizing effect on the spectators.

What about intelligent beings who have no consciousness? Could intelligence exist without awareness? Peter Watts creates aliens like this in his novel BLINDSIGHT. When they accidentally pick up communications from Earth, they find the evidence of our self-awareness so alien that they consider Earth a threat that must be obliterated. You can read the entire novel on the web (warning, it's heavy going in places, at least I thought so), and Watts also includes his notes on the story's background and the research sources he used. Scroll down to the section on sentience and intelligence:


Here's an excerpt from that section:

"But beneath the unthreatening, superficial question of what consciousness is floats the more functional question of what it's good for. BLINDSIGHT plays with that issue at length, and I won't reiterate points already made. Suffice to say that, at least under routine conditions, consciousness does little beyond taking memos from the vastly richer subconscious environment, rubber-stamping them, and taking the credit for itself. In fact, the nonconscious mind usually works so well on its own that it actually employs a gatekeeper in the anterious cingulate cortex to do nothing but prevent the conscious self from interfering in daily operations. (If the rest of your brain were conscious, it would probably regard you as the pointy-haired boss from DILBERT.)

Sentience isn't even necessary to develop a "theory of mind". That might seem completely counterintuitive: how could you learn to recognise that other individuals are autonomous agents, with their own interests and agendas, if you weren't even aware of your own? But there's no contradiction, and no call for consciousness. It is entirely possible to track the intentions of others without being the slightest bit self-reflective."

And here's another quote that I find quite unsettling:

"It turns out that the unconscious mind is better at making complex decisions than is the conscious mind. The conscious mind just can't handle as many variables, apparently. Quoth one of the researchers: “At some point in our evolution, we started to make decisions consciously, and we're not very good at it.”"

How do we know people other than ourselves aren't mindless androids like the zombies in Jacquette's article? How do we know they have conscious minds? We assume they do because they have the same body and brain structures we do and display the same outward signs of thinking and feeling. So we accept that they probably have inner lives similar to ours. In the absence of telepathy, though, we have no proof of this hypothesis. We have to accept the consciousness of other people on faith.

The protagonists of the Marquis de Sade's fiction use this situation to justify what most of us would consider inhuman behavior. If there's no way to be sure other human beings have the same emotions and sensations we do, why go out of our way to try to make them feel good? With no direct access to their minds, we have no certainty our efforts are successful, so why bother? If cruelty to others makes US feel good, go for it. Scary.

As for Peter Watts, I have to give him credit for creating truly ALIEN aliens in BLINDSIGHT. I still have trouble getting my mind around the concept, though. Acting and reacting without consciousness can be imagined, but how can the communication of abstract ideas necessary to produce a space-traveling civilization occur without self-awareness and a theory of mind (the hypothesis that other individuals have thought processes like our own)?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Thank you for this far-out commentary on consciousness. Food for thought!

  2. "it would probably regard you as the pointy-haired boss from DILBERT."

    LOL! How true. I wonder if, when it is all boiled down, if what constitutes true "enlightenment" is getting the conscious mind to shut the hell up for just one minute.

    I wouldn't be entirely surprised to find out this was indeed the case. FYI