Tuesday, December 29, 2020


 A few months ago, I read a book called Blindsight. It's a novel about first contact with aliens, but it was trying to make a point. The argument of the book was that consciousness is a useless thing for humans to have, that we'd all be better off if we blindly did things without being aware of them.

I don't feel it made its argument very well, in part because it fails to narrow consciousness down to a single thing, alternately defining it as self-awareness, empathy, and theory of mind. Those are all very different things!

So it made me want to talk about consciousness. What is it, is it useful, what consequences does it have?

Here are a few things the word "consciousness" is used to describe:

  • Taking in sensory data (awareness)
  • Being aware of oneself as a thinking person (self-concept)
  • Knowing that one's thoughts are one's thoughts and being able to inspect them (introspection)
  • Caring about other people (compassion)
  • Actually feeling what other people feel (empathy)
  • Being able to model what another person might know and feel (theory of mind)
In the book, the hero lacks empathy because of a brain surgery he had as a child, but is still able to model and predict other people's behavior through careful observation. We are told that he's actually better than everyone else, because without that inconvenient "consciousness" he can more clearly see what's going on. At the same time, he actually destroys his own life because he can't react with empathy to his suffering girlfriend.

Another character explains that humanity is the only intelligent species in the galaxy that has consciousness. Everyone else is just blindly doing things and better off for it.  Communication with aliens is like a "Chinese room"--a thought experiment where a person who doesn't know Chinese is able to communicate with Chinese notecards in a room full of them, but understands none of it. Nobody truly understands anything except humans, because we're the only ones with this useless self-awareness.

We're held back by our consciousness. In reality, sociopaths are the most successful and the only flaw is that some people aren't narcissists. We also can't communicate meaningfully with aliens, because only beings without consciousness can properly relate to one another.

This is a whole mess because it's not clear what he's talking about. Some of what he's talking about is self-concept, some is introspection, some is empathy. And all of these have a purpose, even on an evolutionary level! If we are introspective, if we can interrogate our thoughts and recognize them as separate from objective reality, we can arrive closer at a knowledge of reality than we could otherwise. Likewise, if we have empathy, we can cooperate with others and accomplish things we couldn't alone. One sociopath may be temporarily successful, but a species of all sociopaths wouldn't get very far, let alone invent space travel.

Personally, I don't think any of the things described as "consciousness" are true epiphenomena, useless to our practical survival ends. Sensory awareness is pretty vital for acquiring food. Self-concept seems like a necessary prerequisite to introspection, which is important for fine-tuning our perceptions and judgments. For instance, if you don't know that your thoughts are your thoughts, you'll never ask yourself if your thoughts are accurate and seek ways to make them more accurate.

Compassion, empathy, and theory of mind are all necessary for cooperation. Some people lack one or another of these. For instance, many autistic people have impaired theory of mind (they have trouble predicting what other people know or how they'll react), but they are still empathetic and capable of compassion. Conversely, in the TV series Sherlock, Holmes has no empathy but chooses to be compassionate. Still, cooperation works best when we have all of these abilities.

It seems to me that if "consciousness" were truly an epiphenomenon, an internal experience that doesn't help our survival in any way, we would never be able to know if an alien species had it or not. They would have all the capabilities we have, and we'd never know if they were experiencing it in the way we do.

But if consciousness is a thing we can test for, if it's empathy or awareness or introspection, then it's absolutely useful. It gives us abilities as a species that we couldn't have without it. And that's why I think aliens would be conscious too, if they made it into space at all.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...