Monday, May 28, 2012

Betelgeusian Beeheads

On the surface of a planet around Betelgeuse lives a species of animals who look like woolly mammoths but who act very much like human beings. I have gazed into my crystal ball and this is what I see: Tomorrow they visit Earth. They watch our television shows, learn our language, and politely ask permission to tour our lands. It turns out they are sanitary, friendly, excellent conversationalists, and well supplied with rare metals for trade, so they are welcomed across the globe.

The Betelgeusians are quirky in a few ways, however. For example, cognitive activity takes them, on average, about ten times longer to execute. This has no overall effect on their intelligence but it does test the patience of conversational partners unaccustomed to the Betelgeusians' slow pace. The Betelgeusians find some tasks cognitively easy that we find cognitively difficult and vice versa. They are baffled by our difficulty with simple logic problems like the Wason Selection Task, but they are impressed by our skill in integrating auditory and visual information.

Over time, Betelgeusians migrate down from their orbiting ship. Patchy accommodations are made for their size and speed, and they start to attend our schools and join our corporations. Later, they start to run for political office, displaying roughly the same range of political virtues and vices. Although Betelgeusians don't reproduce by coitus, they find some forms of physical contact arousing and have broadly human attitudes toward pair-bonding. Marriage equality is achieved. What a model of interplanetary harmony!

Everyone agrees that Betelgeusians are conscious, of course. In fact, the Betelgeusians have a long and impressive academic tradition in philosophy of mind and introspective psychology.

Why do I call them "beeheads", you're surely wondering? Well, it turns out that when you look inside their heads and humps, you find not neurons but rather tens of millions of squirming insects, each a fraction of a millimeter across. Each insect has a complete set of minute sensory organs and a nervous system of its own (compare mymaridae wasps on Earth). The beeheads' behavior arises from complex patterns of interaction among these individually dumb insects. These mammoth creatures are much-evolved descendants of Betelgeusian bees that evolved in symbiosis with a brainless, living hive. (The hive itself began as a simple, non-living physical structure that over evolutionary history slowly incorporated symbiotic organisms -- as Earthly ant hives sometimes do -- which then merged into a larger whole.) The Betelgeusians' giant heads and humps have, altogether, a hundred times as many neuron-like cells as the human brain has; and the insects' interactions are so informationally efficient that neighboring insects can respond differentially to the behavioral or chemical effects of other insects' individual efferent neural impulses. The process, still, is an order of magnitude slower than our own.

Maybe there are little spatial gaps between the bees. Does it matter? Maybe, in the privacy of their homes, the bees sometimes fly apart and back together, exiting and entering through the mouth. Does it matter? Maybe if the exterior body is too severely injured, the bees recruit a new body from nutrient tanks -- and when they fly off to do this, they do so without too much interruption of cognition, able to report thoughts mid-transfer. They reconvene and say, "Oh it's such a free and airy feeling to be without a body! And yet it's a fearful thing too. It's good to feel again the power of limbs and mouth. May this new body last long and well! Shall we dance, then, love?"

If you accept the consciousness of Betelgeusian beeheeds, you have accepted the first step in my argument that the United States is conscious.


clasqm said...

Cheating, Eric! You pre-empted the consciousness issue when you said "Everyone agrees that Betelgeusians are conscious, of course." Which implies that consciousness is identified functionally, by interacting with living, breathing (? Betelgeusians. A Turing test for meat computers, as it were.

Then, you turn around and try to base the determination of consciousness on an analysis of its putative subcomponents. But you've established its existence already, so this is a red herring.

So let's apply the same test to the United States as to the BetelGeusians, shall we? Enter into a conversation with it, explore the possibility of a pair-bond ... I think you'll find the relationship a little one-sided.

Anonymous said...

I went on a date with the US a few years back but she stopped returning my calls...

Seriously though you should write some sci fi!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Clasqm: Cheating? Maybe. But my intention is that the statement about people agreeing be understood as a claim about what would empirically, sociologically be the case in this hypothetical condition. Metaphysicians are of course welcome to say that the folk consensus would be wrong.

The U.S. doesn't pair bond, of course. And it doesn't answer my phone calls. But rabbits also don't answer my phone calls either and they're conscious. (Aren't they?) And pair-bonding seems optional. And the U.S. does all other kinds of cool stuff!

Todd said...

The better our physical descriptions of consciousness--or at least, what seems give rise to consciousness--the easier it is to see similar patterns in traditionally non-conscious systems. Like anthills or the United States.

For what it's worth, I think you're right. Heck, maybe down the road people will look back and say, "Of course the United States was conscious! Anything with traits XYZ is a conscious entity, and the U.S. had 'em".

For them, 'pushing the envelope' might entail arguing the same for the large-scale structure of the observable universe, or something spacey like that.

At the same time, I think that when we say something is 'conscious' we really just mean that we think we can understand (at least roughly) why it does whatever it does by introspecting ourselves.

We use 'conscious' as if it really meant 'like us'--and that's just a purely subjective relation. It doesn't hold in virtue of how something is organized, however much that organization might be analogous to our embodied minds, but just insofar as we recognize ourselves in that thing.

So...I feel like arguments for X being 'conscious' on the basis of how its parts relate to each other, or how it relates to its environment...that's really just a homonym for what I recognize as consciousness.

It's not the same thing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Todd: That's an interesting thought, that to consciousness attribution really involves a kind of implicit comparison to what we discover in ourselves through introspection. Would that rule out the possibility of completely alien consciousnesses altogether? How about bat echolocation or magnetic senses? I guess I'm inclined to be more realist and humanocentric....