Breathe deeply. Can you feel your lungs fill with air? Now look at your hand. Can you see your five fingers with their articulated joints?
With each of these experiences, you are not only aware of what you are going through, you are also aware that you are going through it. You are aware of the experience, and that implies that you are aware to begin with. But here is a question for you: what is this consciousness for? What does it do? Is it even necessary?
These questions are at the heart of the incredible sci-fi novel blind vision by Peter Watts. I just finished the book. Because my daily job sometimes involves thinking about extraterrestrials and how they might evolve, it hit me hard.
blind vision is a first contact novel – a story about humanity’s first encounter with an intelligent alien species. There are, of course, a million first contact stories. But blind vision stands out from other entries in the genre, because what the book really offers is a deep meditation on the nature of intelligence, and on consciousness in general.
Before returning to this point, allow me to give you an overview of the plot. There are a few spoilers to follow, but you’ll still want to read the book for yourself. It’s that good.
In the not-too-distant future, a ship crewed by a few heavily modified humans is sent to the far reaches of the solar system after Earth is scanned by devices of obviously extraterrestrial origin. There, beyond Pluto’s orbit, they find a massive craft that engages them in long conversations while warning them not to approach.
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After a while, humans realize that what’s on the other end of the dialogue really doesn’t understand anything. It simply knows the rules of human language and provides appropriately structured responses to any communication sent by humans. Nope meaning happens on their side. (As the book notes, the extraterrestrials exemplify philosopher John Searle’s famous Chinese AI thought experiment).
The humans eventually break through the alien craft and capture some of its inhabitants. Upon examining the specimens, it soon becomes clear that the creatures lack the necessary neural architecture to support the consciousness that occurs in the human brain. Eventually, the crew comes to the startling conclusion that even though the aliens are much smarter than us, they are completely lacking in consciousness. They process information, innovate and solve problems, but they are unaware of what they are doing.
Challenging centuries of philosophical assumptions
Throughout the long history of debates about the evolution of the human mind, there has always been a fundamental assumption that intelligence and self-awareness go hand in hand. This was made explicit in Descartes’ famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am.” It’s the interiority of our inner voice that validates our experiences as real and confirms that they belong to us. This high intelligence exists because we possess these selves, with their ability to reflect on the data that our senses send to us.
But in recent decades, some cognitive scientists and philosophers have begun asking new questions about what actually constitutes consciousness. David Chalmers, for example, asked about what he called philosophical zombies. They are creatures that resemble us in all their outward behavior, but they lack any inward experience. They have no interiority. For zombies, the response follows the stimulus without experience or meaning. When he posed the problem of philosophical zombies, what Chalmers was really trying to point out was what makes consciousness, and us, special.
blind vision overthrows Chalmers Point.
Consciousness as the dead weight of evolution
What the book posits is that there may be nothing special about consciousness. In fact, it may be an evolutionary dead end.
The real phenomenon of “blindsight” occurs when the visual processing machinery in someone’s brain is destroyed. They can no longer react to visual stimuli. Under certain circumstances, however, their body will still respond appropriately to visual information, as if a lower part of the nervous system is doing the job of seeing.
Using this sight seeing as a metaphor, Watts asks whether the self-awareness we associate with consciousness might simply be an energy-draining addition to brain function that isn’t necessary for intelligence. From this point of view, the Self that is so dear to us is an evolutionary development that has occurred in line with the intelligent creatures of the Earth – us – but which is not necessary. Going even further, the book implies that evolution will not continue to select consciousness in the long run. Our self-aware minds are, as one character implies, a kind of parasite that rides on our body’s nervous system. It is not necessary and would be best to throw it away as soon as possible. The universe of blind vision is packed with advanced extraterrestrial technology developed by advanced extraterrestrial intelligence. But none of them carry the additional evolutionary weight of self-awareness.
It’s a pretty remarkable idea. I will note that other writers have played with it before, notably Alastair Reynolds in Poseidon’s Awakening. Indeed, it is an idea well anchored in the scientific and philosophical literature. But what makes blind vision so powerful is the weaving of these dense ideas into a compelling story that fully fleshes out their significance.
I will end by noting that I think the idea of intelligence without consciousness is wrong. It is based on the use of machine metaphors for life and the mind (in short, the idea that you are nothing but a meat computer). The machine metaphors for life and mind are, I think, deeply flawed. But I could also be wrong about that, and that’s why blind vision and his ideas such a good read.