I’m pork, therefore I’m ham.

“I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis. Scramblers have no need of it, scramblers are more parsimonious. With simpler biochemistries, with smaller brains—deprived of tools, of their ship, even of parts of their own metabolism—they think rings around you. They hide their language in plain sight, even when you know what they’re saying. They turn your own cognition against itself. They travel between the stars. This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness” (p. 304).

Consciousness sucks. I totally buy it. After trudging through the thick, impassably dense fog that is Peter Watts’ thought experiment, I buy it. I buy it like the forcibly sleep-deprived inmate at Guantanamo buys whatever the interrogator is selling him. Well, actually, that’s too harsh a comparison. Although I am a tired and bleary eyed mess at the moment, I thoroughly enjoyed what little I’ve understood of Blindsight. Of the many fascinating ideas saturating its pages, the one that caught my attention comes from the line quoted above. It’s the idea that consciousness is costly and inefficient. What an idea. Consciousness or self-awareness is usually thought to be the crown-jewel of biological evolution. It’s thought to be a prerequisite for (or a byproduct of) higher-order intelligence. I think this is the paradigm that pretty much everyone has accepted.

Watts turns that paradigm on its head. He argues that consciousness isn’t particularly essential to survival. The more primitive parts of our brain detect and act on a threat before the highfalutin prefrontal cortex (or wherever the seat of consciousness happens to be) is still checking itself out in the mirror.  His argument isn’t perfect of course; he needs fictional aliens to do make his case. But Watts does raise interesting questions. What is the nature of consciousness? Is having consciousness worth the trouble of all this existential angst? Did I forget feed the fish? Wait, that last one…Oh you get the idea.

In short, consciousness is totally overrated.


One Response to “I’m pork, therefore I’m ham.”

  1. young wrote::

    A small note on Watts argument.

    Watts argues that there is no causal relationship between intelligence and consciousness. But we have yet to find a being more intelligent than us let alone one that is both more intelligent and not self-aware. So his thought experiment, while interesting, isn’t totally convincing. But I think he has turned me on to a new way of thinking about consciousness, which is that self-awareness is a huge burden and sometimes it sucks.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm #    Reply