Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Group Minds on Ringworld

In the year 3000, let's suppose, humanity completes its greatest construction project ever: Ringworld, a habitable surface as wide as a planet but spanning an entire planetary orbit -- a ring around a neighboring star with 10,000,000,000,000 square kilometers of living space. A big place!

Earthly nations send colonists. Once on Ringworld, the colonists form independent nations, free of Earthly control. These nations grow and spread. For sociological reasons, let's suppose, Ringworld nations function best with populations near 100,000,000. Once a nation grows much larger than that, it tends either to fission or to stagnate. Now, what type of nation will be well represented on the surface of Ringworld after ten thousand years?

Although it could play out in various ways, the most straightforward answer seems to be: nations that grow fast, then fission, then repeatedly grow again and fission again. Mobility to unpopulated parts of Ringworld, away from competitors, might also be favored. Also, we might expect the most evolutionarily successful nations to have intergenerationally stable developmental resources -- that is, to be such that their fission products tend to develop the same traits that the fissioning parent nations had, i.e., the very traits that made those parents evolutionarily successful. Otherwise, after a few generations, those nations' fission-produced offspring nations will be outcompeted. We might further imagine that the most successful nations employ eugenics: Their governments select a range of DNA strands containing especially desirable traits, which then serve as the genetic basis of the next generation of their citizens; and the governments that do so with the best eye to maximizing their nations' eventual descendant nations, and that do so stably over the generations, are eventually the nations that are best represented on the Ringworld surface.

We might imagine, too, that as the Ringworld surface becomes more crowded, aggression starts to pay. In response, the competing nations develop protective physical borders, grown using nanotechnology and difficult to penetrate without permission. Nations might also strictly limit immigration as contrary to their eugenic plans. If nations are somewhat mobile -- and we might imagine that gravity (or centrifugal inertia) is light and fusion power plentiful -- they might best compete with each other by moving toward opportunities and away from threats, bringing their citizenry and physical defensive borders along with them. Eventually, these defensive borders might gain appendage-like functionality -- e.g., offensive weaponry and the ability to harvest minerals and sources of power. Once this happens, the majority of individual citizens might become largely sedentary, communicating via radio and microwave signals. And once sedentary, size-reduction might be selected for, to reduce the energetic costs of nation-scale movement; and transmission of essential nutrients between citizens might be achieved by purely mechanical means. Furthermore, once free of the demands of individual mobility and individual-level reproduction, citizens might start to specialize ever more narrowly in tasks that serve the reproductive interests of the nation -- or at least the nations whose citizens develop in that direction might in the long run outcompete the nations whose citizens do not.

Over time, as individual citizens shrink and become increasingly specialized, and as the membrane around the nation becomes more functional and more effectively protective of the interior, the overall physical structure of the nation might start to look increasingly like that of what we would call an individual organism that reproduces by fission.

Nations -- at least the evolutionarily most successful ones -- will presumably engage in social intercourse among each other, both cooperatively and competitively. Possibly, some of these nations will evolve so that no single individual citizen is responsible for between-nation communication but rather the communicative efforts arise in a complex way from the citizenry as a whole. If individual citizens become sufficiently small and specialized, and if they learn to communicate with each other non-linguistically (e.g., by direct brain-to-brain stimulation), then it might eventually become the case that no individual citizen can even understand the linguistic communications emitted by her own nation.

A million years passes, during which Earth loses communication with Ringworld. Social pressures on Ringworld favor increasingly sophisticated forms of communication between nations, including the emergence of nation-level art, poetry, song, history, and philosophy -- none of which is comprehensible to the individual citizens of the species of nation that eventually conquers the rest. After these million years, visitors from Earth arrive, and they decide that conscious experience is primarily to be found at the level of nations, not at the level of individual citizens.

Question: At what point in this process did the nations first have nation-level conscious experience?

Might it have been from the very beginning?

32 comments:

Tony Lloyd said...

Is there necessarily a point?

Could consciousness not be a case of "is" or "is not" but of many, perhaps infinite, values?

We're conditioned by our experiences (awake: conscious. asleep: unconscious) to think consciousness is binary. But even we can occasionally experience intermediate states (after hitting the "snooze" button, after drinking a lot of Real Ale etc.)

With degrees of consciousness your story can fit our intuitions: the populations start off with negligible near-as-dammit-zero consciousness and smoothly acquire more and more until they get to about-the-same-amount as us.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree that's a possibility. I didn't mean to exclude it by the word "point".

Still: I have trouble getting my mind around a non-binary sense of consciousness. If one has even a smidgen of consciousness isn't one conscious? I find it more intuitive to think of consciousness as like having money than like being red. You might have more or less money in your pocket, but to have even a penny is to have some money. In contrast, something can be kind-of red or in the indeterminate zone between red and not-red. I have trouble conceptualizing consciousness in the latter way, though perhaps that's my own cognitive weakness.

Russ Hurlburt and I discuss this a bit in one of our Journal of Consciousness Studies papers from 2011.

Callan S. said...

What if your penny is multilated - so a store owner wont accept it...but another store owner will? Do you have money?

Do animals have a smidge of this conciousness?

clasqm said...

Well, at what point does a single human being become conscious? Or is that not a question one should ask an American in an election year?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan & Clasqm: Right! I'm one of the least likely philosophers on earth to deny that there are in-between cases just about everywhere. The money case was meant as an idealization to convey the idea of off vs. on-with-degrees. And I'm quite serious about the thought that it might really just be a weakness in my own conceptualization of consciousness that I can't conceptualize in-between cases of consciousness but rather only off vs. on-with-degrees. So if the point of clasqm's question is to suggest that it's also hard to know when a human being becomes conscious and it seems very likely to involve vague matters of degree... I agree that that's very much how it seems like nature would have to be. And yet, I want to be honest about the fact that that doesn't fit easily with the off vs. on-with-degrees conceptualization of consciousness that I can't seem to shake.

UserGoogol said...

I suppose an intuition might be that the phenomenal aspects of consciousness take place in a sort of field of consciousness (or Cartesian theater I guess, although that might be more specific) and even though experience itself would seem to be something which can exist on a gradual spectrum, having a "field" of experience would seem binary. The difference between a blank canvas and no canvas.

That is an intuition which can be rejected and perhaps should be, but to the extent that it is an intuition, that might be where the difficulty arises.

UserGoogol said...

Of course, Eric has written quite a bit about the field of consciousness, although more from the perspective of it not being as we think it is.

Callan S. said...

Possibly conciousness has certain structural elements, perhaps a bio feedback loop which essentially occurs in the brain only (not a feedback loop that goes out of the body (physical actions) and then back in through a sense). Such a thing is either present (and at what size) or not.

By that measure the intuition might have merit. Not sure how to test it though.

Arnold Trehub said...

In my view, consciousness *must* have a particular kind of structure, namely a perspectival representation of the space around the conscious entity. This what determines subjectivity, the hall-mark of consciousness.

clasqm said...

@Arnold Trehub: but that reinforces Eric's point. Any reasonably developed country these days is bristling with surveillance cameras around its borders. Not to mention spy satellites etc. the US probably has a better grasp on its surroundings than I do.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

A few things I have to mention.

First, Charles Stross wrote an excellent short story called "Missile Gap" which is more than passingly reminiscent of this thought experiment.

Second, your thought experiment describes evolution, playing out in what I might call "reverse Dawkins" where pressures acting on higher-level entities (the nations) cause progressive changes on lower-level entities (genes inside people). Although it doesn't invalidate the PHILOSOPHICAL point you are trying to make, the costs to the individual (in survival and sexual fitness) undergoing the mutations you describe might be sufficient to prevent social evolution of the kind you describe.

Lastly, you sold me on the potential consciousness of the US a long time ago. No, really. You can now claim that at least one person "actually believes" something really bizarre thanks to you. Extending the logic to the emergence of consciousness of the individual, I don't really have more to add other than I think there is a VERY deep link between phenomenal consciousness (if there is such a thing) and memory (something Dennett has already shown in various though-experiments). My first memory was from about the age of 2 or 3, so if I had to pinpoint a time when I was 'ensouled' so to speak, that would be it. While consciousness may have shades of gray, I'm much more likely to believe that there is a threshold value that must crossed in neural information integration complexity and memory (in Tononi's sense) before one truly 'is'.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, User, Callan, Arnold, and Clasqm -- interesting points all!

Unknown:

(1.) Thanks for the tip on Stross. I've enjoyed some of his other work, but I hadn't seen that story.

(2.) Yes, I'm aware of those group selection issues. I was hoping the eugenics aspect of the scenario would sidestep that. Do you think otherwise?

(3.) Very cool that you're sold on the US consciousness idea! I've been somewhat surprised, actually, that a non-trivial minority of people I chat with about it (15%?) seem to be at least somewhat sympathetic.

Callan S. said...

Arnold, I'm not sure such a representation exists to be used as a measure, as much as if I have a toy robot that follows a line, there is any representation of the line to be found in the unit.

Anonymous said...

eric,
Re (3) sounds like you may be on to somthign good then....
I mean... "an idea that has found its time" in the context in which you would write about it...

It would be interesting to see the sort of objections you face from the other 85% and what are the best arguments you have seen from them....

GNZ

Arnold Trehub said...

Callan, the toy robot that follows a line has a simple edge detector hooked up to a motor system. This has nothing to do with consciousness. But you, as a conscious creature, do have a perspectival representation of the space around you in your brain. This is your first-person perspective -- subjectivity/consciousness. For more about this, see here:

http://people.umass.edu/trehub/YCCOG828%20copy.pdf

and

http://theassc.org/documents/where_am_i_redux

and


http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/trehub01.htm

Arnold Trehub said...

clasqm: "Any reasonably developed country these days is bristling with surveillance cameras around its borders. Not to mention spy satellites etc. the US probably has a better grasp on its surroundings than I do."

No matter how many cameras in the US are imaging its borders and other countries, the fact remains that there is not a single perspectival origin within a global representation of the space within which the US exists. Absent such a unitary perspectival locus within its volumetric surround, no country can be said to have subjectivity/consciousness according to my working definition of consciousness. For argument and empirical evidence in support of this view see the links I gave to Callan above.

Anonymous said...

Arnold,
I suggest if you take your analysis of the brain to a low enough level there is no single perspectival origin there either. (yes i did have a quick read of the papers)

Imagine if the structure on which your conciousness occurs in your brain was seperated in two, both still performing the required tasks for conciousness. Now you have 2 perspectives.. but allow a little data exchange between the two and suddenly .. one again...

Of course what you may be doing here, is just setting a high standard for the definition of conciousness - ie "meaningful conciousness". In the way that one might argue an insect isn't really concious and debatably other creatures up the evolutionary tree.

So maybe to ensure people are on he same page one should start with - "Where in the evolutionary tree do you think conciousness begins?"

GNZ

Unknown said...

If the eugenics program were under the complete control of "the nation", then yes, it would bypass group selection issues. However, if groups had differential access to the technology, or ways to ignore the eugenics program then lower level selection would still prevent the scenario you describe.

As for the number of people that buy the idea, it boils down to this: if you are a monist materialist, and not a neural chauvinist, you pretty much have to bite this bullet. Oh well, I believe something weird. That's pretty standard for H. sapiens.

Callan S. said...

Arnold,
But you, as a conscious creature, do have a perspectival representation of the space around you in your brain.
Where is this physically present? Is there a sliver somewhere in the brain somewhat like a TV screen, that is this perspectival representation?

I genuinely suggested something and you've said that's nothing to do with conciousness, but then you pitch me an argument. By my thinking, you shouldn't pitch an argument unless you can atleast humour the idea (however faintly) that this does have something to do with conciousness. You can't state a conclusion but also argue the conclusion. Can't be case closed but also case open.

Anonymous said...

anyone remember a short story which is about aliens coming to earth.

It has a guy talking to some sort of simulation (i think) who ios explaining to him about the aliens arriving on earth and pretty much walking all over the USA because it saw the US like a bunch of cells with no intelligence and then discovering islam which it saw as being a organism to negotiate and deal with.

I think the US rescued itself by creating a sort of musical cultural meme...

GNZ

Arnold Trehub said...

Anonymous: "Imagine if the structure on which your conciousness occurs in your brain was seperated in two, both still performing the required tasks for conciousness. Now you have 2 perspectives.. but allow a little data exchange between the two and suddenly .. one again..."

In my theoretical model of consciousness, the brain structure that constitutes consciousness is the 3-D retinoid mechanism (see *Space, self, and the theater of consciiousness*, Fig. 8). If retinoid space were split into two different parts, as your thought experiment proposes, there would be two different subjects within one brain, each with a different 1st-person perspective on the world -- each experiencing a different part of the world. If there were data exchange between subject-1 and subject-2 there would NOT be one subject again; there would simply be an exchange of information in the same sense as there is an exchange of information between you and me.

Anonymous: ""Where in the evolutionary tree do you think conciousness begins?"

In retinoid theory, consciousness begins with the first creature that is born with a brain containing a retinoid system. My guess is that all warm-blooded animals are conscious. The exact cut-off is an empirical question that remains to be answered.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting discussion!

GNZ: Incredulous stare + further pushing on the seemingly absurd consequences ("would corporations then be conscious?", "does this mean the US has rights"?) are the standard reaction of the remaining 85%. Some people, like Arnold, advance a theory that would exclude USA consciousness. Which brings me to...

Arnold/GNZ: I don't deny that some theories -- including perhaps yours, Arnold -- would have the appealing result of including the consciousness of human beings and other mammals but excluding USA consciousness. But you'll forgive me, I hope, for being skeptical about the confidence with which such theories are generally advanced, in a field with many competing theories, all in my view dubiously supported and laden with contentious presuppositions.

Arnold Trehub said...

Eric: "Arnold/GNZ: I don't deny that some theories -- including perhaps yours, Arnold -- would have the appealing result of including the consciousness of human beings and other mammals but excluding USA consciousness. But you'll forgive me, I hope, for being skeptical about the confidence with which such theories are generally advanced, in a field with many competing theories, all in my view dubiously supported and laden with contentious presuppositions."

Eric, we should always be skeptical. That's why we want relevant evidence! If you think that the evidence that supports the retinoid theory is dubious, then you should point to the evidence in question and tell us why it is dubious. For example, why are size constancy and the results of the SMTT experiment that provide very strong evidence supporting the retinoid model of consciousness dubious? See Size constancy, p.318-320, and Two decisive phenomena, p.323-325, here:

http://people.umass.edu/trehub/YCCOG828%20copy.pdf

More empirical evidence is given here:

http://theassc.org/documents/where_am_i_redux

Eric, i'd be very much interested in your take on the strength of evidence that supports those theories of consciousness that compete with retinoid theory.




Anonymous said...

Arnold..
im reading your paper but I'm not 'getting' the argument.

Maybe you can break it down a bit more to a simple logic argument.

To show i did read the refered parts..... for the moon illusion or size consistancy -> i think the better explination is that it seems larger because it in our experience it is similar to those things that are larger. (note how all sorts of illusions like the Ebbinghaus illusion can trick our minds). that is simple logic that could exist anywhere and could produce contrary results even if we went with your retinal space model.

But regardless - I am still a world away from seeing how this all ties together for you.

GNZ

Arnold Trehub said...

GNZ: "..... for the moon illusion or size consistancy - i think the better explination is that it seems larger because it in our experience it is similar to those things that are larger. (note how all sorts of illusions like the Ebbinghaus illusion can trick our minds). that is simple logic that could exist anywhere ..."

How can simple logic explain the fact that you see the moon at the horizon as much larger than the moon seen overhead when, in fact, the retinal size of the moon is ~.5 degrees in both cases. Even when one understands that the projected retinal image of the moon is the same size at the horizon and overhead the moon is still seen as larger at the horizon. Illusions do trick our minds, but you can't explain an illusion like the moon illusion by appealing to another unexplained illusion like the Ebbinghaus illusion. The retinoid model, however, can explain both illusions on the basis of the neuronal structure and dynamics of the brain's retinoid mechanisms.

GNZ: "But regardless - I am still a world away from seeing how this all ties together for you."

Maybe "Evolution's Gift: Subjectivity and the Phenomenal World" will help you see how this ties together. See here:

http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/trehub01.htm

Anonymous said...

Arnold,
I can learn to relate a lot of things.. like a slaming door might make me feel fear or a doll mouthing words might look like it was talking, which it might or might not be doing. I imagine connecting the part of my brain assiciated with one sort of experience with the part associated with one sort of judgement and that being what i reference when queried. so if you ask me what i judged from the experience I tell you the associated judgement.

i am finding that last article an easier read though. I take it you are not in favour of higher order theory of conciousness?
----

Maybe taking it back to one of Erics questions would be good...

At what point do we see conciousness?

what is the absolute minimum level of complexity of an image of reality in the retinal space coresponds to conciousness?

To do this i'd want to dig into the absolute mimimum for "perspectival representation", the connection to reality and the medium it must be in.

I see there must be a scale here as none of this can be perfect.

GNZ

Arnold Trehub said...

GNZ: "I can learn to relate a lot of things.."

But you cannot learn your immediate conscious experience of being at the center/origin of a surrounding space -- your phenomenal world.
This primitive experience is an innate property of your brain, and everything that you learn depends on your first having this egocentric representation of the world that you relate to and learn about.

GNZ: "what is the absolute minimum level of complexity of an image of reality in the retinal space coresponds to conciousness?"

1. First I must correct you here. The image of reality that corresponds to consciousness is not "retinal space"; it is RETINOID SPACE. We do not have a conscious experience of the image on our retinas. It is only after excitatory patterns on our sensory receptors have been transformed into autaptic-cell patterns in retinoid space that we consciously experience them as part of our world.

2. The minimal level of complexity for consciousness to exist is simple activation of retinoid space without other sensory or memorial input. The innate neuronal representation of your core self within an empty volumetric surround is your minimal personal phenomenal world, to be filled up with all kinds of objects, events, plans, emotions, recollections, etc. And this particular kind of brain activity constitutes your ordinary subjectivity/consciousness -- your rich ongoing experience of the world from your own privileged perspective.





Anonymous said...

1) I cant see why not. add one new neuron connection (or make that neuron conduct a bit better) between the part of my brain activated by seeing a moon and the and the part that means "big" and i may immediatly "have the exerience" that the moon is bigger. i could even have the experience that it smells of fruit...

Although "the moon high in the sky is bigger than the moon low in the sky" doesnt seem like an immedite experience - that sounds like some sort of secondary analysis that occurs after the fact.

2) so to try to spell this out. As long as the part of the brain is "retinoid space" then even if the person has very minimal experience (like a baby) and the content of the image of the world is very simple (maybe a binary variable) that constitutes conciousness?

Would this be true if the same pattern of mixing of information occured in a space that was, lets say, inside a computer?

GNZ

Anonymous said...

"This primitive experience is an innate property of your brain, and everything that you learn depends on your first having this egocentric representation of the world that you relate to and learn about."

My body comes from a cell which clearly does not have that and develops by interaction (learning) from the environment, and now i guess i do. So i think I probably can learn that...

GNZ

Arnold Trehub said...

GNZ: "Although "the moon high in the sky is bigger than the moon low in the sky" doesnt seem like an immedite experience - that sounds like some sort of secondary analysis that occurs after the fact."

You have it backwards. The moon high in the sky is seen as *smaller* than the moon seen on the horizon. And ALL analysis and description of conscious experience occurs after the fact of the experience.

Anonymous said...

ahh yes..
my explination is simply moon appears to have a certain size, objects that meet certain rules tend to have large sizes. (for example are close to the horizon, amongst other rules) therefore moon on horizon looks larger. this general explination seems to explain almost every visual illusion I have seen.

Can't say ive ever noticed it on the moon myself though. I suspect you could teach yourself not to see the moon illusion, and that there are peopel who dont see it implies somthing does it not?

GNZ