Blindsight

One of the QT3 and now Broken Forum regulars mentioned Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight in passing in the dualism / nature of consciousness thread I’d previously referenced. This was when the discussion turned to the subject of p-zombies and it turns out this novel has a thing or two to say on that particular topic. Since the book is available for free on the author’s website it was easy enough to check it out. It’s been such a riveting read that I’ve done little else save finish the book over the past few days. It was only after I’ve finished the book and looked up more info on the author that I realized he’s the same guy who briefly got famous on the Internet last year for being infected with necrotising fasciitis, complete with some very lurid photos on his blog.

Blindsight’s premise is a first contact scenario set in the near future. One day, over sixty-five thousand micro-satellites show up unannounced to presumably perform an exhaustive survey of Earth, destroying themselves in the process. Now if this were Star Trek, that would be the cue to break out the champagne bottles, sing kumbaya and welcome the aliens with open arms. But Watts comes from the Stephen Hawking school of extraterrestrial contact, not Gene Roddenberry. As a character in the novel states, technology exists only to tame nature and nature is basically everything that is not your own species. Therefore technology implies belligerence.

Scouring the heavens for some clue of the aliens, the humans locate what appears to be a signal transmitted from a comet in the Kuiper Belt and that signal is not directed towards Earth. The fact that aliens do not seem to want to be found adds credence to the theory that the aliens are less than friendly. Therefore a crack team of the best specialists Earth can muster is quickly assembled, trained and dispatched on a custom-designed starship to investigate. And since this is a hard science fiction book, not space opera, the eclectic nature of the crew is a surefire hint that Watts is using this book as a soapbox on which to ask some interesting questions about intelligence and the nature of consciousness.

Charles Stross describes this novel thusly, “Imagine a neurobiology-obsessed version of Greg Egan writing a first contact with aliens story from the point of view of a zombie posthuman crewman aboard a starship captained by a vampire, with not dying as the boobie prize.” And considering that this sentence gives nothing away about the nature of an alien species that makes even a zombie crewman and a vampire captain positively human, that’s just scratching the tip of the iceberg. It’s an amazing novel that hasn’t quite received the attention it deserves and therefore I urge everyone interested in science-fiction to read it. The end of the book includes a lengthy discussion of the various technologies and scientific theories referenced in the story, which is worth reading even as a standalone paper.

The rest of this post will be my own thoughts about the philosophical ideas presented in the novel and are by necessity full of spoilers. So stay away if you intend to read the book for yourself.

Philosophical Discussion and Spoilers follow:

The key claim in Blindsight is as follows: intelligence is distinct from sentience and it is possible to be intelligent without being sentient. Even worse, sentience is not only biologically expensive to maintain, it is actively deleterious to evolutionary fitness. Organisms who lose themselves in self-reflection and worry about the ethical consequences of their actions are less efficient at gathering resources and begetting progeny. In the universe of Blindsight, it is revealed that humans are alone in the entire vastness of the universe as being a self-aware and sentient species. That humanity has climbed to the top of the food chain on Earth is a mere fluke of fate that is remedied soon enough as most dominant life in the rest of universe either never evolved sentience or quickly lost it for being useless and wasteful.

The non-sentient intelligences here aren’t quite p-zombies. As Watts explains, they are capable of almost anything we can do but the one glaring exception is art. As loftily as we sentients value art, it can be thought of as a form of mental masturbation, a way to short circuit our biological reward systems. These systems were meant to reward behaviors that increase our evolutionary fitness, but sentients have learned to use art to attain the reward without achieving any actual increase in evolutionary fitness. Without self-awareness, the non-sentients in Blindsight couldn’t develop a sense of aesthetics and therefore never fell into this evolutionary trap.

But here is also where Watts and I part company, because I believe that the creativity required to create art is also the same sort of creativity that is used to create science. Science is always a work in progress, and while results can be tested empirically, you need to come up with theoretical models before you can design any experiments. This calls for creativity and I believe that this creativity necessarily entails self-awareness. In support of his idea, Watts does cite an article in New Scientist about an experiment that demonstrates how people could arrive at complex decisions that they later felt happier with if their conscious minds were preoccupied with puzzle solving than if the participants were allowed to ruminate over the decision to be made over the same period of time. The researchers interpreted this result to mean that when the conscious minds of the participants were preoccupied, it is their unconscious minds that were processing the information given and thus came up with the best answer when the participants were asked for a snap decision.

But as the comment on the online version article shows, it seems more likely that the participants who made better decisions did so only because some time had passed between the time that they were thinking about the problem and the time that they were asked to make a decision. This allowed them to gain some distance from the problem at hand so that they could make a more objective decision when the time came. The comment also points out that there is no evidence from brain imagery that the unconscious mind does any processing on complex problems. My own two cents on the subject is that since the brain, especially the unconscious brain, is properly thought of as a disparate collection of very specialized modules (facial recognition, language parsing, hand-eye coordination etc.) rather than as a single amorphous processing unit, it seems highly unlikely that the unconscious mind has the capability to process complex decisions that were never part of our ancestral environment.

Apart from the question of whether or not sentience is necessary for creativity, there is the more fundamental question of whether it is even possible to have any organism with some degree of intelligence and access to sensory input to have no sentience at all. As a physicalist who believes that consciousness arises from materialism and nothing else, I believe that even the lowliest organisms on Earth have a form of self-awareness, i.e. even earthworms reacting to physical damage experience qualia. And if you’re the type of person who likes to keep pets (Watts is a cat person and his blog is full of cat photos), can you honestly say that your pet cat or dog is completely non-sentient? This means that while the pets may act if they’re happy, or in pain, or depressed, they don’t actually feel those emotions at all. This seems like a very bitter pill to swallow.

On the whole, while I think Watts’ novel takes a somewhat naive view of philosophy, his science really is top-notch, and as the length of this post, indicates, the entire novel is excellent food for thought. Even if I think his conclusions are ultimately wrong, I learned many new ideas, both fictional and real, and had a great time thinking through things. This is surely the highest praise that any hard science-fiction book can aspire too.

4 thoughts on “Blindsight”

  1. Hi, I stumbled upon your blog while researching if there’s an equivalent S&P 500 index fund in Malaysia. I read Blindsight earlier this year, or rather had it read to me via audiobook, and I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your write-up and your rebuttal of the author’s take on sentience. I do have to disagree with your assertion that creativity is necessary to create science. When conducting experiments there is a lot of trial and error (based on assumptions arising from logical thought processes of course) but not much room for creativity. I guess in the days of alchemy there was a lot of room for creative application of materials, but I doubt it would have gotten alchemists much further than random experimentation would have. Regarding the pet thing: I personally think it’s a reasonable assumption that organisms can have differing levels of sentience, depending on the level of brain development/complexity. Great blog btw. Subscribed to your RSS feed. 

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. You may be interested in reading this thread that I started on a forum that I frequent that talks a lot more about different aspects of the novel:

    http://brokenforum.com/index.php?threads/blindsight-novel-spoiler-thread.993/

    In particular, one participant actually e-mailed Peter Watts with some questions and got back a response. In particular, he wondered how the non-sentient aliens possessed the capacity for imagination and how they could have ever developed technology without imagination.

    Watts’ answer seems to be that the aliens do possess imagination, and by extension creativity, but it is a non-sentient, impersonal form of imagination.

Leave a Reply