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.