David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Fun with Consciousness

I love the philosophy of consciousness. Is there any other field of philosophy that proceeds with so few objective reference points, where people spend so much time fighting over pure first principles? Yes, probably, but they aren’t as interesting to me as consciousness. Some (like a certain eliminativist I was arguing with earlier tonight) argue for its nonexistence; others (Descartes, anyone?) argue that it’s all that there definitely is. And throughout, language is thoroughly inadequate of providing referentiality to any of it. Late Wittgenstein isn’t the only one who would agree with that; early Wittgenstein would agree too.

Quick crash course for those who are not quite as obsessed with these things: consciousness = internal, subjective experience. It means that when I poke you, you don’t only react with behavior indicating pain (yelping, yelling, etc.), but you also have some internal, private sense of actual pain. These two things, as one can read over and over in later Wittgenstein, have no apparent necessary connection to one another. But at least for me, it’s a rather significant assumption I make that other people have rather similar private subjective experience to mine that matches up with their behavior in similar ways.

See also Thomas Disch’s Fun With Your New Head. “Taste, see, smell, and ‘pain’ with a HEAD. Every minute is different from the next minute in incredible thought-chaos of a HEAD.”

Steven Shaviro reviewed a new s-f novel called Blindsight by Peter Watts. It sounds a little pulpy, and it’s unlikely that I’ll get around to it any time soon, at least not until I finish Thomas Metzinger’s marvelous  Being No One. But Shaviro has conveniently described some of the consciousness aspects that come into play:

What really distinguishes the aliens is that they are zombies: not in the George Romero, living dead sense, but in the sense that the term has been used by cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. A zombie is a being who acts just as you or I do, who shows clear signs of language, intelligence, and so on; but who is inwardly devoid of sentience or consciousness. It’s the old Cartesian/solipsist dilemma: I know that I have consciousness, interiority, and a sense of self; but how do I know that you have all these things? For all I know–since all I really know (according to Descartes) comes from introspection, everyone else in the world may well be a machine, or an
automoton, only simulating consciousness. 

Now, there’s a caveat here, in that the aliens aren’t actually philosophical zombies, because these aliens don’t act like you or I do, or even as conscious aliens would. Watts provides clear behavioral indicators for what non-conscious intelligent beings would act like and how they would differ. I’ll get to those in a moment. A real zombie, in the sense that David Chalmers and all put it, requires the assumption that there are no behavioral or linguistic (or even neurological) cues that peg someone as having subjective experience or not. The Waggish-zombie would claim to be conscious, just as I do.

Given the possibility of true zombies, consciousness is epiphenomenal, i.e., it has no bearing whatsoever on physical events. Epiphenomenal consciousness lacks causal force, and it is superfluous to any causal chain of events. This leads to some fairly bizarre scenarios, like this one that Raymond Smullyan describes (he actually uses it against dualism, but it works against epiphenomenalism as well):

Then came the discovery of the miracle drug! Its effect on the taker was to annihilate the soul or mind entirely but to leave the body functioning exactly as before. Absolutely no observable change came over the taker; the body continued to act just as if it still had a soul. Not the closest friend or observer could possibly know that the taker had taken the drug, unless the taker informed him.

Then a person who wishes to have no more subjective experience (to escape various pains and traumas), but not to hurt anyone by committing explicit suicide, takes the pill. And of course, he promptly says, “Damn, it didn’t work!”

Right then. Epiphenomenalism also leads to boring books! Reading about the difference between people who do and don’t have consciousness but act the same either way is not terribly exciting. (Actually, I can think of one way in which it would be interesting, but I’m keeping it a secret in case I write about it some day.) So Watts cooks up a few differences to keep things going:

By the end of the novel, the difference between conscious beings and zombies seems to be that only conscious beings possess aesthetics. The aliens in the novel are a bit like logical positivists: they have no aesthetic sensibility, and find aesthetic and affective statements to be, strictly speaking, meaningless. They can carry on complex conversations, despite not “understanding’’ what the words mean; but they can only regard non-functional expressions as a sort of spam. In this way, Watts’ Darwinism ends up confirming Kant: the defining attribute of the aesthetic is that it is unavoidably “disinterested,’’ that its purposiveness of structure serves no actual (empirical or utilitarian) purpose. In other words, an aesthetic sensibility — which at this point we can pretty much equate with consciousness tout court — is not an evolutionary adaptation, but mere nonadaptive byproduct.

Again, though, this is ultimately an arbitrary and suppositional distinction. There’s no necessary reason why beings without consciousness and subjective experience couldn’t have an aesthetics, just as there could well be an aesthetics amongst a group of people who each saw a different color of the spectrum. Under Wittgenstein, aesthetics remains a series of rule-application speech acts, wholly independent from private subjective experience.

Shaviro hypothesizes that it is putatively nonadaptive behavior like aesthetics that constitutes “human-ness,” but I’m frankly surprised that a Marxist like him would claim that aesthetics ever indeed is disinterested. (He may simply be playing this out as a consequence of Watts’s views.) Yet the moment consciousness becomes more than purely epiphenomenal, it is completely up for grabs as adaptive, precisely because it must manifest itself in particular types of behavior, but without any contingent restrictions on what those behaviors could be. To imply a particular link between consciousness and certain types of behavior (such as the href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test>mirror test, which
proves self-awareness but hardly indicates anything about subjective experience) is wholly speculative. The epiphenomenalists go too far in the other direction by saying that there cannot be any necessary connections between behavior and consciousness; the answer is that we simply don’t know yet.

Now, the book is speculative fiction; my issue is that the speculation assumes too much. This is no worse a sin than many consciousness philosophers and neurologists, but as a hypothesis for behavioral differences, I don’t find the aesthetics argument particularly compelling at first glance. If there were general behavioral differences between beings with and without subjective experience, my intuition suggests that they would be far greater than mere aesthetics, and I’m all for the next writer who wants to take a shot at guessing what they would be.


  1. Discussions of consciousness would benefit from having a time limit. For example:
    Consciousness A–any amount of time up to a hundreth of a second duration
    Consciousness B–1/100 up to a quarter
    Consciosness C–1/4 to 1/2 second,
    and so on.

    The leverage point where consciousness determines behavior is the one where enough time has elapsed for alternative behaviors to be weighed and chosen between. Long enough to be around for working memory. That is consciousness’ raison d’etre, why evolution allowed it. Anything enduring over less time than that can be handed over to eliminativsts. Or not. It makes no difference.

    The discussions without time frames remind me of silly epistemological discussions in the 60s, before “psychologism” (or reality, if you prefer) was allowed into discussions. What do we see when we see an orange? Well, time and motion make all the difference in the world. Stabilize the retinal image to eliminate saccades and we just see some geometrical fragments. Etc.

  2. fetched, but not far. a buddhist would tell you that you are a zombie and have no idea what it means to be awake. sadly you think you are awake. as for aesthetics, duh!

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