Friday, May 04, 2012

Martian Rabbit Superorganisms, Yeah!

Most philosophers of mind (but not all) believe that rabbits have conscious experiences -- that rabbits are not, as it were, mere machines all dark inside but rather that there's "something it's like" to be a rabbit, that they can have sensory experiences, that they can experience pain, that they have (in contemporary jargon) "phenomenology". After all, rabbits are not so different from us, biologically.  Rabbits might lack language and higher forms of abstract and self-reflective cognition, but few philosophers think that such differences between us and them are sufficient to render rabbits nonconscious.

Most philosophers of mind (but not all) likewise believe that if we were visited by a highly intelligent naturally-evolved alien species -- let's call them "Martians" -- that alien species might possess a radically different biology from us and yet still have conscious experience.  Outwardly, let's suppose, Martians look rather like humans; and also they behave rather like humans, despite their independent evolutionary origins.  They visit us, learn English, and soon integrate into schools and corporations, maybe even marriages.  They write philosophical treatises about consciousness and psychological treatises about their emotions and visual experiences.  We will naturally, and it seems rightly, think of such Martians as genuinely conscious.  Inside, though, they have not human-style neurons but rather complicated hydraulics or optical networks or the like.  To think that such beings would necessarily be nonconscious zombies, simply because their biology is different from ours, seems weirdly chauvinistic in a vast universe in which complex systems, intelligently responsive to their environments, can and do presumably evolve myriad ways.

Okay, so how about Martian rabbits?  Martian rabbits would be both biologically and behaviorally very different from you and me.  But it seems hard to justify excluding them from the consciousness club, if we let in both Earthly rabbits and Martian schoolteachers.  Right?

Ready for a weirder case?  Martian Smartspiders, let's suppose, are just as intelligent and linguistically sophisticated as the Martian bipeds we love so well.  In fact, we couldn't distinguish the two in a Turing Test.  But the Smartspiders are morphologically very different from bipeds.  Smartspiders have a central body that contains basic biological functions, but most of their cognitive processing is distributed among their 1000 legs (which evolved from jellyfish-like propulsion and manipulation tentacles).  Information exchange among these thousand legs is fast, since in the Martian ecosystem peripheral nerves operate not by the slowish chemical-electrical processes we use but rather by shooting light through reflective capillaries (fiber optics), saving precious milliseconds of reaction time.  Thus the 1000 distributed centers of cognitive processing can be as quickly and tightly informationally integrated as are different regions of our own brains -- and the ultimate output is just as smart and linguistic as ours.  If there were such Turing-Test-passing Martian Smartspiders, it seems we ought to let them into the bounds of genuinely conscious organisms, if we're letting in the bipedal Martians and the Martian rabbits.

Suppose Martian Smartspiders evolve so that their legs become detachable, while still capable of movement and control by the organism as a whole.  The detachment can work because the nerve signals are light-based: The Martian just needs to replace directly connective fibers with transducers that can propagate the light signal across the gap from the surface of the limb to the portion of the central body where that limb had previously been attached.  One can see how detachable limbs might be advantageous in hunting and in reaching into narrow spaces.  Detaching a leg should have negligible impact on cognition speed as long as there are suitable transducers on the surface of the leg and on the surface of the main body where it normally attaches, since the information will cross the gap at lightspeed.  If we put the Martian Smartspider in a sensory deprivation room and disable its proprioceptive system, it might not even be able to tell if its legs are attached or not.

So here's the Smartspider.  Its thousand limbs venture out, all under the constant distributed control of the Smartspider -- just as much control and integration as if they were attached.  She's still a conscious organism, though spatially distributed, right?

Now imagine the Smartspider gets dumb.  As dumb as a rabbit.  Evolutionary pressures support a general specieswide reduction in intelligence.  Now we have a Notsosmartspider.  Is there any good reason to think it wouldn't be conscious if the rabbit is conscious?

Finally, let's take these thoughts home to Earth.  The most sophisticated ant colonies (e.g., large leaf cutter colonies) are as intelligent and sophisticated in their behavior as rabbits.  If we're going to reject biological chauvinism and continguism (prejudice against discontiguous entities) on behalf of the Martians, why not reject those prejudices on behalf of Earthly superorganisms too?  Maybe the colony as a whole has a distinctive, unified stream of conscious experience, of roughly mammal-level intelligence, above and beyond the consciousness of the individual ants (if individual ants even do have individual consciousness).

There are potentially important differences between the Notsosmartspider and an ant colony.  Individual ants might not be as tightly informationally integrated as are the pieces of the Notsosmartspider as I've imagined it, and the rules governing their interaction might be fairly simple, despite leading to sophisticated emergent behavior.  But should we regard such differences as decisive?  As a thought experiment, imagine those differences first in the brain of a single Martian biped.

And if ant colonies are conscious, might the United States be conscious too?

[Revised May 5]


Larry Franz said...

It doesn't seem that the ants, or similar groups of organisms, have the degree of integration that the Superspiders would have. It's true that the ants are physically separated and they perform complex tasks, but they don't seem to be connected to each other as closely as our neurons or a Superspider's legs.

How closely integrated do some entities have to be before they become a single organism rather than a set of organisms? I'd say the ants could have individual consciousness, or individual qualia, but a whole lot of little minds do not necessarily add up to one big mind in terms of consciousness or qualia, even if the set of little minds can work together to do very complex things.

D said...

What worries me most about discussions like this is, what happens to ethics? Fundamentally, ethics must depend on the conscious experience of positive and negative sensations. But if many other systems are experiencing such sensations (are phenomenally conscious) do these also deserve moral consideration?

Anonymous said...


Smartspiders are cool. I want one. Since they are shooting their legs off to capture prey in tight spaces, I assume that their legs are getting stuck in various holes and crevasses frequently. If I were a Martian arachnologist, could you please tell me, how many spider legs must I collect in order to claim to have captured a Martian Smartspider?

The way you've set up the argument, I totally agree that the smartspider seems conscious. But what I wonder about is if you run into a kind of mereological problem. What happens when the spider's wondering limb is eaten by a Martian spider-eater-thingie? Or if a leg slips through a wormhole traveling through space and is outside of the light-cone of the rest of the spider? If the spider endures (unchanged) after one leg has been eaten, or if the leg outside of the light-cone is conscious without its buddies, then surely the consciousness is not spatially distributed. If you think it can endure with the loss of a single leg, then you have a vagueness problem - one that might result in some odd conditions for spatially distributed consciousness.

Some of the above might bear on your analogy to ants. While what seems like complex behavior is observed, usually such behaviors are reproducible through very small numbers of simple rules in agent based simulations. Secondly, there is nothing like the kind of control you hypothesize with the spider. For example, ant scouts lay down "a scent" so that others may follow them to the food source. Yet, cut this while some ants are at the food and others are in the colony, and the ants on both sides are perplexed at what to do. Yet, both sides can operate while displaying complex behaviors. One side, cut off from the colony, may in rare instances even go and join another colony. Is this a mind meld?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

D: Yes, I agree those issues do arise. I'm not sure what to do with them, though.

Larry and Anon: Yes, the leap from Notsosmartspiders to ant colonies is fast, and you've expressed what might be very important differences. Yet I'm not sure we should be compelled by those differences.

The ants might be more integrated within and less between, but it seems we can imagine an alien brain working the same way -- and if that brain were inside a single skull, we would probably still be inclined to regard the alien as having a single consciousness.

Likewise, the rules governing ant colony behavior might be simple, resulting in complex emergent outputs only at the group level, but it's not clear why that should be decisive if the overall behavior is still sophisticated and intelligent. Maybe parts of our brains or parts of an alien brain might work the same way, and if it was inside a single body, we might still be inclined to attribute a stream of consciousness to the alien as a whole.

On vagueness and weird conditions: I agree that these issues arise, but I don't see them as problematic for my present purposes. Rather, I'd say, they're problematic for views on which consciousness and personhood are discrete yes/no phenomena, rather than phenomena admitting of vagueness and weirdness. Some of the same problems can arise for human cases, if one gets creative enough in thinking about weird possible scenarios.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

PS Larry and Anon: I hope you'll forgive me, but I've updated the post to anticipate a couple of the points you raise (which might have the result of making your comments look like they've ignored that aspect of the post). In writing the original post, I had thought of addressing broadly the sort of issues you raise, but had decided against in interests of space. Your comments have convinced me, though, that it would have been wiser at least to briefly gesture. So thanks again!

Larry Franz said...

Eric - Regarding “vagueness and weird conditions”, it would be extraordinarily odd if functioning as a political entity created a group consciousness in any non-metaphorical sense. Would NATO have a group consciousness? Would California? San Bernardino County? What is it like to be the city of Riverside? Would every group of people who function as a business, family or team generate a group consciousness? How closely involved with a group do you have to be before you add to the group's consciousness? Is the US more conscious at 3pm on Wednesday than at 3am on Sunday?

As you say, we can raise questions about the identity conditions or vague boundaries of other sorts of things, but it seems that such questions are not just problematic, they are especially problematic when discussing group-consciousness. That's only one reason why the question whether the US or an ant colony might be conscious seems crazy (to me anyway).

clasqm said...

May I add a wrinkle here? The smartspiders have a deplorable habit of losing their legs. With the loss of each leg, they become a little dumber.

Naturally, this situation is a challenge to be overcome by any self-respecting conscious entity. An artificial leg was developed. The first model was only a tenth as efficient as a natural one, but this was simply overcome by running ten of them for every lost leg.

Eventually, the more long-lived smartspiders were running around with 10 000 cyberlegs rather than the regulation 1000 natural ones. This number was gradually brought down as the cyberlegs were improved. The question is this: given that we have progressively replaced the smartspider's entire "brain", do we still regard it as conscious? I believe we would. However, what would be the case if a smartspider lost all its legs in one go? Could it have a complete replacement and function as anything other than a newly-hatched smartspiderling?

Another issue: since the legs are detachable, how is it ensured that the leg returns to its rightful owner? Or are legs sometimes swopped around, thereby also swopping a piece of identity?

"Joe, haven't seen you for years, What have you been up to?"

"Here, have a leg."

"Wow, that's some adventure you had there. Nice leg, by the way, can I keep it?"

OK, let me stop there, before I take over Eric's entire leg, I mean blog ...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Larry: I agree it all kind of implodes. In a way, that's the point. If we head off down this road, we end of in a web of bizarreness -- but not heading down the road involves making some bizarre-seeming choices too. Something crazy must be true, and if we jettison continguism and neurochauvinism, I think we have to consider USA consciousness among the live metaphysical possibilities.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Clasqm: I love it!

Larry Franz said...

Eric: Ok, but maybe there are degrees of craziness, you know, crazy and Crazy (criteria to be named later).

Marshall said...

I don't see that consciousness has been adequately defined that it may be tested for. In the "United States" post, you proposed something like, directed environmental sensing with memory of past experiences, leading to deliberate activity towards internally-defined goals. The entities you discuss or propose would seem to meet this case. The present conundrum seems to really revolve around *self*-consciousness, which is harder to define and detect since it is purely internal.

Psychology has a number of theories of Ego Formation, or how self-consciousness develops in humans, which see a progression from mere reflexive activity ("unconscious" in the psychological sense) to saintly empathy for all living beings. That seems to me a reasonable view; we are dealing with a continuum. The ant colonies we know exists at a "low" level, but there isn't any particular reason that they could not evolve a "higher" level.

Rather than the United States, permit me to think about a "corporate person" which these days has something of the legal status of a "human person". The CP has a corporate memory, internally defined goals and so on. It even has ego awareness and a "theory of mind" with respect to other CPs. The sticking point seems to be whether it "has a stream of conscious experience distinct from the streams of conscious experience of the people who compose it." I don't see that this is necessary to satisfy the definition above.

So the Corporate Person has a stream of consciousness which is *composed of* segments of the streams of consciousness of a time-varying set of Human Persons. The HPs donate a segment of their consciousness to the CP. That is, from time to time the directors and the workers lay aside their personal motivations and act according to the goals of the CP. In a sense they cease to be HPs, becoming "merely" elements of the CP.

Of course people don't really cease from acting according to their private interest against the corporate interest. Workers steal supplies or product, board members award themselves bonuses. That is a function of the weak binding among HPs within a CP. As up-level organisms develop, they evolve mechanisms to prevent this kind of "cheating", ways of enforcing identification of the individual's self-interest with the corporate interest. Compare free-living cells with the very similar cells of a "higher" organism, which have gained in value to the organism but lost the ability to function independently.

It is interesting to note that in human anthropology ethnic interests can strongly dominate individual concerns, and "group selection" can operate. Village life is notoriously restrictive. In the Western world group interests like this are largely breaking down, and the individual's needs are seen as equal or superior to the group's, Should we regard this as a step forwards, or backwards? For the "United States" organism, the result seems to be the loss of coherent intentional behavior.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Larry: Admittedly, yes!

Marshall: Well, consciousness is a notoriously mushy term, I agree! I'm not sure "self-consciousness" is quite what I want either. The point about composition is interesting. If the group consciousness is just composed of all the individual consciousnesses, that's less interesting in a way if one is liberal about composition. If one is liberal about composition, there's an object composed of my right shoe, the rings of Saturn, and the Eiffel Tower -- just not a very useful object to think about.

Marshall said...

I don't mean that just any old composition will be interesting, but sometimes if the right set of stuff gets composed, you get structure/behavior that can't be identified with the individual pieces. I thought my comment was too long already so I cut out this paragraph:

Following Maturana, the corporation exhibits a distinct, persistent boundary and self-organizing behavior, and thus qualifies as an "organism". Maturana didn't have any problem with hierarchies of organisms, in fact he asserted that this is the natural mode of biology ... a usual way of progressing to increased complexity by assembling a set of originally independent organisms into a society, eg eukaryotic cells, "multi-cellular" organisms, et all.

"Emergent" is often taken to mean "illusory", but I think that's wrong. So corporations can have a "personality" ... it's been remarked that they are by nature psychopathic regardless of whether the humans involved are, worse luck for us. (I don't know whether the United States entity has a sufficiently well-defined boundary, and self-organizing behavior is notably lacking at the moment.)

...Can you define "conscious" in a way that distinguishes it from "alive"?

Riz said...

I would agree with Larry. Ants, nor any other species, have the degree of integration as super spiders would. Ants are born with certain duties right from the start, and together, they all function to be a successful colony-just like bees. A mass of minds do not equal one big mind.

While reading the article, I zoned out into thinking of a crab situation I saw at the market the other day. If any of these crabs had any form of consciousness, shouldn't they easily be able to escape the basket just by connecting their pincers?

Unknown said...

What I would say to this argument is that we just do not have enough information to answer the question that rabbits and super aliens rabbits for sure have consciousness. But for sure we cannot take the thought they "do have consciousness" out of the picture.

Eric has raised many good points, such because other animals or space creatures don't have the same biological settings as human does not mean they are not conscious.

To makes matter worse our forms of testing intelligence. They are flawed such as the turing test and even if we create a certain device/test that proofs for sure there's intelligence, some great "genius" can come along and proof it wrong even though it really isn't.

This would make our whole facts into a debacle and all this would be in an argument of finding consciousness. Hopefully into the future we can invent some sort of device that is precise and on to the point.

Or maybe aliens can stop by to earth and just tell us how they feel which finally would end this long debate!