David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: thomas disch (page 2 of 2)

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.

Oulipo Tangent: John Sladek

I was always surprised that there wasn’t more overlap between the Oulipo and science fiction, since both fields were among the most ready to dispose of character and meaning in search of advances in their respective fields. Calvino had Cosmicomics and T-Zero, but those are more fantasies than anything resembling generic exercises. There have been a few sf authors over the years who have tried Oulipo experiments, and probably more recently that I don’t know about: the latest I know of is Geoff Ryman’s 253, which also happens to be one of the more successful hypertexts out there. I believe it succeeds on its own terms, but it does come off as a bit of an exercise, a left-brained excursion in assembling fragments that’s closer to computer programming than to writing a novel–which is not a criticism. It is also, of course, not science fiction. Why Ryman chose ordinary reality for his experiment is not for me to answer, but perhaps, as with Harry Mathews’ Tlooth, it’s more coherent to maintain the physical rules of common reality if you’re going to play havoc with the metaphysics of coincidence, symbolism, and structure.

(There is an old EC Comics story, I think from Weird Science, in which a man mows his double down with his car shortly before finding a time machine, and, well, you know the rest, but the best part of the story is the appendix, in which the entire loop is graphically represented and explained for teenagers who hadn’t yet read “By His Bootstraps.” This type of structure, in its simplest form in this story, requires as much contrivance as some of the Oulipo techniques, and may offer a similar form of getting-out-of-a-jam.)

I suspected that 253 was inspired by Thomas Disch’s 334, a fix-up collection of linked stories laid out in appropriately Perecesque fashion. But Disch seems to be toying with the device with less than full passion; it’s his friend, the late John Sladek, who always read as the most influenced by the Oulipo metaphysics. (If you aren’t convinced, Sladek references Mathews and people like Robert Coover and John Barth in this nice interview.)

Nearly all of Sladek’s books are set up like Rube Goldberg machines with the strings in plain sight, as he maneuvers all his pieces into place for a final conflagration. Sometimes, as with his massive 800-page Roderick, about a robot Candide, he lets the chain of events go slack to focus more on episodes of straight satire (which is always there to the degree that it’s not being steamrolled by the plot). Other times, as with The Muller-Fokker Effect, whose protagonist disappears very early on after his mind is transferred onto computer, the overwhelming drive is action, action, action towards that blowout at the end. Consequently, he doesn’t have time to develop most characters beyond caricatured monsters–corrupt professors, foolish hicks, parochial megalomaniacs–which happen to be exactly what the stories require.

The exception is Bugs. Whether it’s because of a slightly less complicated plot or a focus on one particular character, Bugs feels more rooted in several specific places and their corresponding emotions, the most striking being the dreary gray computer company. It’s working on nutty cybernetics, but in the spaces between plot points there’s a melancholy that seems more identifiable with a technical writing job in Minnesota (Sladek’s other profession) than anything else he wrote.

Fred Jones is an English writer who, possessed of little character except for literate decency, gets caught up in the usual antics, but Jones is sympathetic enough that Sladek sticks by him even more than he did with Roderick. There are scenes that don’t figure at all in the plot, as when he applies to a newspaper to write book reviews (“I’m Fred, and literate” is how he introduces himself) and is led into a backroom teeming with shelves of undifferentiated rack-sized fantasy books. “See, about ten years ago somebody made the mistake of reviewing one of these and the word got out. I mean, Christ, they print fifty of these fuckers a month!” says the editor, then the shelves collapse and bury him.

The robot soon goes berserk after Fred has it read Frankenstein and the pace picks up, but there is still a similarity between Sladek’s games of satire and the Oulipo’s reductionistic approach to character. It’s more noticeable in Bugs than it is in Sladek’s other work, or even, for example, The Day of the Locust, because the setting is intensely realistic and very contemporary. Fred remains the only real everyman character Sladek used, and his placement in the book amidst architected madness suggests an attempted escape from the specifics of his personality through a sort of super-detailed cartography of plot. Other characters get completely sucked into the machinery, but Fred remains psychologically present, and his own experiences, though carefully contrived, are more bitter.

The conclusion? That the structural, mathematical antics used by the Oulipo-ians are inspired by the same spirit that drives Sladek’s Rube Goldberg plot machines: it’s not an inherently avoidant technique, but it is one that moves away from what characters like Fred are supposed to represent. Bugs doesn’t resolve that tension, but neither does it fall apart.

(That same architectonic spirit is also what makes chapter 10 of Ulysses a diversion rather than a sequential component of the book. To me, the book holds unexplored answers to all these dilemmas.)

Sladek suggests in the article above that he was going to go further in his never-finished project Maps, where the novelistic structures would extend, Oulipo-style, into the metaphysics of the novel. It sounds like it might have been too fanciful and too arid for Sladek to manage, because his application of structure did not encourage perfect structure as much as it did satire.

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