I’ve started having an email conversation with a friend about consciousness, and whether we gain anything from having it. I think it might be fun to post some of it here.
This has come about from both of us having read Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight, which is available for you to legally download free here, but which I strongly recommend you actually purchase with real money.
A good, and entertaining, introduction to this can also be had at the mere cost of 20 minutes or so of your time viewing this excellent mock pharmaceutical research presentation:
The Vampire Domestication Slide Show
View it, and then come back and read…
Back already? Then here we go:
The book raises the question, which my friend has explicitly asked:
“Did you come away with any thoughts about what consciousness *is* for, anyway?”
What’s it for? I think Watts suspects it isn’t for anything, but is something like a non-adaptive mutation that got fixed in the population somehow. By non-adaptive I don’t mean maladaptive… you know?
I don’t know if I’d go that far, though. Seems like it must bestow some evolutionary advantage in order to permeate the species, as it does.
One of the things I was trying to imagine after having read the book was, what would a fully non-conscious human really be like… one who’s behavior was dictated primarily by biological efficiency. I don’t think such an animal could actually pass for conscious, or prevail in competition with conscious beings.
On a crude level, if you’re talking about superior biological efficiency, simply voiding your bladder when the impulse begins is far more efficient than holding it in to avoid social awkwardness. I rather think the Watts Reconstituted Vampires would be more likely to appear infantile in this and other respects, despite their superior hunting skills.
Slightly less crude, I’m not sure a fully biologically efficient non-conscious being could adapt to the intricities of contemporary civilization, no mater how omni-autistic they were. In Watts’ premise, these animals evolved as predators of humans, all their non-conscious pattern recognition and predictive brilliance centered around hunting human prey. I doubt such a thing could be made to function among a complex population as depicted in the novel… it has no stake nor ability to appreciate any advantages to civilization. It has no fellow feeling for others of it’s kind, as it has no self awareness. As far as it is concerned, eating and processing nutrition to fulfill biological impulses would be the utter height of purposefulness.
I doubt that any degree of omni-autisitic brilliance could overcome such a narrow scale of ambition when confronted with mass organization that has the advantage of input by reflective consciousness.
I think it seems to me that, although consciousness does seem to be something of a deluded observer of the organism, rather than the pilot, these observations do eventually inform behavior after the fact. I don’t know if this is what really goes on in there, but it seems like the observer experiences action, judges it, imagines consequences or alternatives, which it then may come to strongly desire. This strong desire has some influence on the non-conscious actor in there, maybe by seeping into the connections the actor uses to receive stimulus from the senses, so that this consciously arrived at desire may have a tendency to tilt action in some general way.
Accumulated over a lifetime, this tilt manifests as things like which foreign language you took up in High School, what movie you decide to see next week, or even simple things like successful potty training.
In some way I think the conscious observer realizes it isn’t fully in control of its meatwagon. Tool use seems to me to be the first step down a long road toward replacing these grudgingly cooperative but independent non-conscious steeds with something that pays closer attention to the conscious commands of the rider.
What do you think?