Self Awareness

So I read a book. I know. Sur­prise! This book is called Blindsight, it’s by Peter Watts, and you can read it here. This is an inter­est­ing book. It’s a piece of hard sci­ence fic­tion, which means it focuses on the explo­ration of sci­en­tific the­ory and main­tains strong fidelity to sci­en­tific accu­ra­cy. Blindsight also heav­ily fea­tures vam­pires. Weird, yet this isn’t the most inter­est­ing thing about this book. What is the most inter­est­ing thing is what this book is attempt­ing to say about the human condition: That human con­scious­ness is a super­flu­ous, and prob­a­bly tem­po­rary aber­ra­tion of the nat­ural progress of evolution.

Think about that. Our self aware­ness is what defines us. I don’t mean that in the sense that our eth­nic­ity or reli­gion defines us. I mean it defines us in the sense that it is us. We are it. That is, when peo­ple use worlds like I or myself they are refer­ring to their own con­scious­ness. So to say that human­ity is an inessen­tial aspect of man is rather rad­i­cal thing to say. Rather. It’s still inter­est­ing through, when some­one has a point and makes it clear­ly.

The premise of Blindsight is a first-­con­tact sce­nario with an alien race which has no self­-aware­ness nor con­scious­ness. It is intel­li­gent, but its intel­li­gence con­sists of rad­i­cally effi­cient pat­tern match­ing abil­i­ties com­bined with a purely ratio­nal­ist drive to per­pet­u­ate its own exis­tence. Because this being has no self which must medi­ate its actions, it can react and think much more quickly than human beings and for related rea­sons, it is also much smarter than human beings. It can under­stand human lan­guage, but it finds expres­sions like “hel­lo” and “how are you” con­fus­ing and threat­en­ing.

Huh. Inter­est­ing, right? Human intel­li­gence, as far as sci­ence can under­stand it, con­sists largely of pat­tern match­ing skills. Not only this, but a lot of our deci­sion mak­ing is done sub­con­sciously with­out our directly will­ing it, through habits and reflex­es. The rea­son is that our con­scious deci­sion mak­ing is too slow and inef­fi­cient to be but in charge of every action we make. If we had to will every time we took a breath, we’d die the first time we got dis­tract­ed. But of course, it goes deep­er. Not only are basic sur­vival func­tions and habit­ual actions taken care of auto­mat­i­cally by the uncon­scious mind, but so are many higher level func­tions such rea­son­ing and prob­lem solv­ing. It’s long been known that the sub­con­scious mind plays a role in these activ­i­ties and inven­tors solv­ing hard prob­lems in their sleep after think­ing about them all day with­out suc­cess is a doc­u­mented phe­nom­enon.

So it would seem that human con­scious­ness might actu­ally be super­flu­ous. When we make deci­sions sec­onds before we are even con­sciously aware of them, it’s hard to say whether con­scious­ness even has a role at all in cog­ni­tion save as an after the fact proces­sor of expe­ri­ence. Yet, con­scious­ness is expensive; much of our brain is ded­i­cated to per­son­al­ity and emo­tion and when these inter­fere with our deci­sion mak­ing, they slow us down and make us less reli­able. So much of our soci­ety is ded­i­cated to things such as aes­thet­ics which make sense for a con­scious being but pro­vide not sur­vival advan­tage. So is it pos­si­ble that a brain ded­i­cated entirely to pat­tern match­ing and hard-wired logic skills would be more effi­cient and supe­rior to our cur­rent sta­tus quo? That would be the the­sis of Blindsight where a race of can­ni­bal­is­tic, hyper­-in­tel­li­gent super-hu­mans (vam­pires) have an advan­tage over humans pre­cisely because they are less, shall we say, human.

Now I could ham­mer this idea home all day but I won’t because Watts’ book already does a good job, but what I will do is offer an objec­tion. I’m pretty cer­tain that Peter Watts’ char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of con­scious­ness is a mis­take. Most of what Watts describes as a result of self­-aware­ness is actu­ally the result of the fact that humans are social ani­mals. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion about feel­ings and art help to estab­lish the com­plex social struc­tures and mix of coop­er­a­tion and com­pe­ti­tion which drives human­ity for­ward and makes it stronger. Human beings are social, not in the sim­ple sense of social insects and spi­ders which form soci­eties with highly spe­cial­ized sur­vival strate­gies but in a more par­tic­u­lar, mam­malian sense, which indi­vid­u­als and sub­groups both con­tribut­ing to the whole and look­ing to get an edge against it.

It’s this dynamic which com­pels mankind to invent and learn, to build and inno­vate, and to achieve what is loosely called “Pro­gress.” Our urge to com­pete com­pels us to inno­vate and improve, but our urge to coop­er­ate allows us to share and improve on the works of oth­ers. It allows tech­no­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific progress to be cumu­la­tive rather than cycli­cal. Anthro­pol­ogy stud­ies con­firm that tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment and civ­i­liza­tion are cor­re­lat­ed, that among early humans, the higher the con­cen­tra­tion of pop­u­la­tions, the greater the rate of advance­ment of tech­nol­o­gy. If mankind were more like Wat­t’s vam­pires, soli­tary, socio­pathic, we’d still be a race of prim­i­tives, genius prim­i­tives capa­ble of intu­itively under­stand­ing quan­tum dynam­ics may­be, but prim­i­tives nonethe­less.

In order for man to com­pete and coop­er­ate in this fash­ion he needs to be self­-aware. It’s hard to intel­li­gently com­pete for sta­tus when one is unaware of one’s own sta­tus. In this sense, what Peter Watts calls con­scious­ness is actu­ally one of its strengths. It’s what cre­ates human progress and so I think Watts’ the­sis is a mis­take, albeit a very inter­est­ing one.

    Last update: 27/12/2011

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