Is your mind just a parasite on your physical body?

Take a deep breath. Can you feel your lungs filling with air? Now look at your hand. Can you see your five fingers with their jointed joints?

With each of these experiences, you are not only aware of what you are experiencing – you are also aware of what you are experiencing. You are aware of the experience, and that implies that you are aware to begin with. But here’s a question for you: What is this awareness for? What does it do? Is it really necessary?

These questions are central to the incredible sci-fi novel blindsight by Peter Watts. I just finished the book. Since my day job sometimes involves thinking about aliens and how they might evolve, it hit me hard.

blindsight is a novel of first contact—a story about humanity’s first encounter with an intelligent alien species. There are, of course, a million first contact stories out there. But blindsight stands out from other entries of its kind, because what the book really offers is a deep meditation on the nature of intelligence and consciousness in general.

meaningless conversations

Before we get back to that point, let me give you an overview of the plot. There are some spoilers ahead, but you’ll still want to read the book for yourself. Is so good.

In the not-too-distant future, a spacecraft manned by some highly modified humans is sent to the edges of the solar system after Earth is scanned by devices obviously of alien origin. Outside, beyond Pluto’s orbit, they find a massive craft that engages them in long conversations while warning them not to come any closer.

Sign up to receive counter-intuitive, surprising and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

After a while, humans discover that whatever is on the other side of the dialogue doesn’t understand anything. It simply knows the rules of human language and is providing properly structured responses to any communication that humans send. No meaning is taking place at your end. (As the book notes, the aliens are exemplifying philosopher John Searle’s famous Chinese Room AI thought experiment.)

The humans eventually breach the alien ship and capture some of its inhabitants. Examining the specimens, it soon becomes clear that the creatures lack the neural architecture necessary to sustain the consciousness that takes place in the human brain. Eventually, the crew comes to the startling conclusion that while the aliens are much smarter than we are, they lack consciousness entirely. They process information, innovate and solve problems, but they are not aware of what they are doing.

Challenging centuries of philosophical assumptions

Throughout the long history of debates over the evolution of the human mind, there has always been a fundamental assumption that intelligence and self-awareness go hand in hand. This was made explicit in Descartes’ famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am”. And the interiority of our inner voice that validates our experiences as real and confirms that they belong to us. This high intelligence exists because we possess these selves, with their ability to reflect on the data our senses send us.

But in recent decades, some cognitive scientists and philosophers have begun to ask new questions about what actually constitutes consciousness. David Chalmers, for example, asked about what he called philosophical zombies. They are creatures that resemble us in all their outward behavior, but lack any inner experience. They have no interiority. For zombies, the response follows the stimulus without experience or meaning. When he posed the problem of philosophical zombies, what Chalmers was really trying to point out was what makes consciousness, and us, special.

blindsight turns the Chalmers point on its head.

Consciousness as an evolutionary dead weight

What the book posits is that there may not be anything special about consciousness. In fact, it may be an evolutionary dead end.

The real-world phenomenon of “blindsight” occurs when the visual processing machinery in someone’s brain is destroyed. They can no longer react to visual stimuli. Under certain circumstances, however, your body will still respond properly to visual information, as if some lower part of the nervous system is doing the work of seeing.

Using this blindsight as a metaphor, Watts is asking whether the self-awareness we associate with consciousness might just be a complement to energy-consuming brain function that is not necessary for intelligence. In this view, the Self we hold dear is an evolutionary development that took place in the lineage of Earth’s intelligent creatures – us – but is not necessary. Going even further, the book implies that evolution will not continue to select consciousness in the long run. Our self-aware minds are, as one character suggests, a kind of parasite that is riding our body’s nervous system. It’s not necessary and it would be better to launch as soon as possible. the universe of blindsight is full of advanced alien technologies developed by advanced alien intelligence. But none of them carry the additional evolutionary burden of self-awareness.

This is a pretty remarkable idea. I will note that other writers have toyed with this before, notably Alastair Reynolds in Poseidon’s Trail. In fact, it is an idea well rooted in scientific and philosophical literature. but what does blindsight so powerful is the weaving of these dense ideas into a compelling story that completes its importance.

I will end by noting that I think the idea of ​​intelligence without conscience is wrong. It is based on the use of machine metaphors for life and the mind (in short, the idea that you are nothing more than a flesh computer). Machine metaphors for life and the mind are, I believe, profoundly mistaken. But I could be wrong about that too, and that’s what it does blindsight and your ideas a great read.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: