By George Berger
Peter Watts’ Blindsight is one of the most interesting ‘hard’ SF books that I have ever read. For me its main virtue is its largely science-driven nature. It’s a tense first-contact story based on cutting-edge technical psychology and philosophy. So much so that at my advice a noted Hungarian psychologist, Istvan Winkler, used it successfully as one of the texts for a course in psychology and SF. Since most plots in hard SF do not interest me as much as the concepts, I shall describe Bindsight’s main notions as best I can.
What is thinking? What is rational, effective behaviour? Does the latter always, often, sometimes, or never, require the former? These are philosophical and psychological questions that have recently been sharply formulated in at least four ways: neuroscientific theories about the physical bases of thought and (more generally) consciousness, comparisons between computer and human processing of language, the need for or uselessness of consciousness, and detailed studies of personality disorders. Blindsight fictionalises these so well that I learned more from it than from the many inconclusive philosophical papers that I have read.
Philosophical zombies are SF-like beings whose speech and action are exactly like ours but who lack consciousness. They neither sense nor think, yet get along as well as we do. So what function does consciousness serve in humans (perhaps some species lack it)? Can medical deviations from normal thought, action, and the thought that we are conscious illuminate these issues? The humans and aliens in Peter Watts’ book illustrate aspects of zombie thought experiments. I shall mention two of these and allude to others.
The philosopher John Searle does not think that linguistic thought and understanding is computational. His Chinese Room thought experiment attempts to support his idea. It’s a room with a being in it that accepts linguistic inputs and provides translations as outputs. Assuming that language and translation are syntactical and that translation follows fixed, algorithmic rules, the being can do this without thought or consciousness, i.e. with no understanding of linguistic meaning. Searle thinks this is absurd. Blindsight’s character Siri’s job is to transmit information accurately from the spaceship Theseus, to whose crew he belongs. He calls himself a Chinese Room, since his reconstructed brain can do this quite well, with little understanding of, and emotional interference with, the meaning of his linguistic data. Siri is not a complete philosophical zombie, but his conscious understanding of language is all but non-existent.
Theseus encounters space-traveling beings. Its crew calls them ‘scramblers,’ since they can act quickly to great effect. Indeed, they easily overcome the crew by the coordinated brute force of their violent movements. Study shows that their nervous systems are modular and highly distributed: they have no central brain, neural functions are distributed throughout their bodies, but some body-parts, e.g. joints, seem to work as modules, with neural structures that are largely segregated from other systems.
The scramblers challenge our ideas that thought and other types of consciousness are ‘located’ in the brain, and that in highly developed organisms a brain is needed to rationally (thoughtfully) control bodily action. Let’s go further. Are they conscious? Given that they act effectively and might be conscious (and reflecting on what they are doing), why do they need such mental states? Evidence suggests that they are not conscious. They are, perhaps, true philosophical zombies. Are we? Are our occasional thoughts that we are thinking selves, illusions that serve no purpose? Are they superfluous products of evolution?
Blindsight doesn’t resolve Searle’s problem, and does not tell us if the scramblers are conscious. Hence it cannot tell us what if any advantage being conscious can have to any living being. But by illustrating real scientific and philosophical quandries in a good story, Peter Watts’ book should interest many readers who wonder about human nature, especially in our time of easy acceptance of SF notions about AI, human singularities, and virtual existence.
George Berger moved to Uppsala, and became part of Uppsala fandom, a couple of years ago. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University.