Friday, March 14, 2014

The Copernican Sweets of Not Looking Too Closely Inside an Alien's Head

I've been arguing that if materialism is true, the United States is probably conscious. My argument is essentially this: Materialists should accept that all kinds of weirdly-formed aliens would be conscious, if they act intelligently enough; and the U.S. is basically a weirdly-formed alien.

One objection is that if an alien is weirdly enough constructed, we should deny that it's conscious, or at least withhold judgment, regardless how similar it is to us in outward behavior. Consciousness requires not only intelligent behavior but also an internal organization similar to our own.

Now I grant that a certain amount of complex structural organization is necessary if a being is to exhibit sophisticated outward behavior; a hunk of balsa wood won't do it. But it's plausible that a vast array of wildly different structural organizations could give rise to complex human-like behavior -- parallel processing or fast serial processing, carbon or silicon, spatially compact entities or spatially distributed entities, mostly subsystem driven or mostly centrally driven, and at all sorts of time scales. I've explored a few weird examples in previous blog posts: Betelgeusian beeheads, Martian smartspiders, and group minds on Ringworld.

Suppose we grant, then, that there's a vast array of possible -- indeed in a large enough universe probably actual -- beings with behavior of human-like sophistication, emitting complex seemingly communicative structures, seeming to flexibly protect themselves and flexibly exploit resources to enhance their longevity and power, seeming to track their own interior states in complex ways, and seeming to produce long philosophical and psychological treatises about their mental lives, including their streams of conscious experience. Would it be reasonable to think that although we have phenomenal consciousness (qualia, subjective experience, what-it's-like-ness), they don't, if they're not enough like us on the inside?

Consider the Copernican Principle of cosmological method. According to the Copernican Principle, we should tend to assume that we are not in a specially favored position in the universe (such as the exact center). Our position in the universe is mediocre, not privileged, not especially lucky. My central thought for this post is: Denying consciousness to weirdly structured but behaviorally sophisticated aliens would be a violation of the Copernican Principle.

Suppose we thought human biological neurons were necessary for conscious experience and that no being made of silicon or magnets or beer cans and wire, and lacking human-like neurons, could be conscious, regardless how sophisticated its patterns of outward behavior. Then suppose we met these magnetic aliens and we learned to communicate in each other's languages (or seeming-languages). Perhaps they come to Earth, begin to utter sounds that we naturally interpret as English, interact with us, and -- because they are so delightfully similar in outward behavior -- become our friends, spouses, and business partners. On the un-Copernican view I reject, we human beings could justifiably say: Nyah, nyah, we're conscious and you aren't! We got neurons, you didn't. We're awesomely special in a way you're not! (Fortunately, the magnetic aliens' feelings won't be hurt, since they will have no real feelings -- though they sure might behave as though insulted.) Our functional organization would be importantly different from all other functional organizations of similar sophistication in that it alone would have phenomenal consciousness attached. This would seem to be a violation of mediocrity, a claim of special favor, weird humanocentric parochialism.

Similarly, of course, for distinctions based on parallel vs. fast serial processing or spatially compact vs. spatially distributed processing, or whatever.

Even if we confess substantial doubt, we might be guilty of anti-Copernican bias. Here's a possible argument: I know that creatures with neurons can be conscious because I am one and I know through introspection that I'm conscious; but I don't know that magnetic beings behaviorally indistinguishable from me can be genuinely phenomenomally conscious, because I have no direct introspective access to their mentality, and the structural differences are large enough that there's room for considerable doubt in inferring from my own case to theirs. In my more skeptical moods I'm quite tempted by this argument.

But I think the argument is probably un-Copernican. It's tantamount to thinking that we neuron-owners might be specially privileged. Maybe we are at the center of the universe! -- not physically, of course, but consciously. A map of the distribution of mentality in the universe might put dots for behavioral sophistication all over the place, but the big red dot for true phenomenal consciousness might go only on us!

Now the Copernican Principle isn't inviolable. It could have turned out that we were at the geometric center of the universe. So maybe it could turn out Earth indeed is just the lucky spot where sophisticated behavioral responsiveness, self-monitoring, and linguistic-seeming communication is grounded in consciousness-supporting neurons rather than mere zombie-magnets (or zombie-hydraulics, or zombie-silicon, or whatever). But entertaining that view other than as a radically skeptical possibility is a parochialism that I doubt would justifiably survive real contact with an alien species -- or even a good, long immersion in well-constructed science fiction thought experiments.


jonathan weinberg said...

Very free-associated & un-reflected-upon-thought -- any connection between these ruminations of yours and Lewis's arguments about "Martian pain"?

jonathan weinberg said...

(Just to be clear: I'm saying that my question is the free-associated and un-reflected-upon thought, not that your post is!)

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, I like this. This isn't really an objection, but I think I might go at this point differently. To me it would be a clearer violation of the Copernican principle if we assumed we were unique in the universe possessing consciousness and intelligence but not if we hypothesized, on the basis of our knowledge of the unique properties of carbon chemistry that any such life is very likely to be chemically similar to us. Our functionalist stance on intelligence is largely the result of hopeful projections of so far primitive attempts to imitate human intelligence, and its not unreasonable to believe at this point that this project won't come to fruition until we learn some radically new stuff about how the brain works. But suppose we can make silicon based creatures who behave super intelligently, that means other civilizations can do, and its possible, perhaps even likely, that the ones we encounter are those creations rather than their biological creators.

Callan S. said...

I think things like some sort of massive Eliza program could be floating around like some sort of thing crowdsurfing across the tops of millions of people.

But I'm disinclined to think they even gets to dog levels of intelligence - they just don't have a fast enough feedback loop, if even much of a network feedback loop at all.

More a sort of mummer godling, a bunch of genre echoes condensing, flexing, roiling. Generally parasitic on predjudice to continue to live.

I'd say given how some of these prejudice fueled things can strongly manifest in various individuals (in a sort of feedback loop between followers minorly manifesting it and it creating a locus point individual to further reinforce its viral self), I'd say it's not just probably a good idea to investigate. Terrible things like those pictures of hangings you had on awhile ago, for example...perhaps sacrifices, in a way?

Hope I was supportive to some degree rather than just arguing! :)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry for the slightly slow replies, folks!

Jonathan: Yes! I think Lewis has it right about Martians -- not as sure about mad men. Lewis on Martians has definitely been an influence.

Randy: Right, I am assuming that a diverse range of organizations and materials could give rise to intelligent-seeming outward behavior. Maybe that's wrong, but it's hard for me to see what would justify thinking the possible forms for intelligence are highly limited. Even if it turns out you need carbon for complexity, there's lots of weird ways carbon can be arranged (e.g., into group minds or hydraulic minds). And even if it turns out to be far easier for intelligence to evolve in systems very much like us, if the universe is large enough difficult evolutionary paths will also be realized. I'm not sure what your point is about silicon, but I would extend my argument to artificially created beings as well as naturally evolved ones -- at least under the condition that they have far outlived their original creators and are doing their own thing now.

Callan: It's hard to know how to evaluate the intelligence of this "crowdsurfing" group entity -- maybe less than a dog in some ways, but also linguistically responsive too, it seems. I agree that one must be careful about the social consequences, esp. given the historical association of group mind views with fascism. One way to think of it: If it's a rabbit-level intelligence, that's not something we would sacrifice a single human life for.

clasqm said...

You say "a vast array of wildly different structural organizations could give rise to complex human-like behavior", which you later expand to "beings with behavior of human-like sophistication, emitting ..., including their streams of conscious experience."

Now I'm on the same page with you that I don't see that Homo-sapiens neurons are the only possible material form that might give rise to such "human-like" behaviour. No problem there. We could devise a Turing Test for aliens.

But here is the problem. We would still be testing for human-like behaviour. You may have thrown off the parochialism of neuronal determinism, but aren't you still applying human standards to an alien intelligence. That is, aren't you just trapped in a different kind of parochialism?

If the United States is conscious, then I would submit that it is not necessarily the case that we can place its consciousness on a scale developed for carbon-based organisms and compare its consciousness to that of a dog, as someone did above. The United states does not feel hunger, it does not get bored, it does not wish to mate with Brazil and produce little United Statelets. (But think of the pay-per-view ratings if they did). It does not have the three billion years of evolution behind it that ingrains these things into our consciousness.

What does the United States feel, what does it think about? We don't know and I'm not sure we ever can know. If the US is conscious, its consciousness is qualitatively, not just quantitatively, so different from ours that even to use the words "feel" and "think" is to stretch metaphor to its limits.

A Betelgeusian Beetlehead is an easier case. It would be possible to apply a Turing test there. BUT ... the beetlehead might object that he/she/it/they felt no obligation to be measured on a scale devised for and by humans, that determined the level of consciousness according to how closely they approached the human norm. In fact, they might feel deeply affronted by it (in which case they instantly pass the test). They might also argue that human-level consciousness was something they surpassed aeons ago, and invite us to take a little test of their own ...

Scott Bakker said...

Michel has kindly anticipated my first misgiving.

My second turns on the strength of the analogy. I'm not convinced that, What are the chances of finding ourselves in the centre of the universe? is anymore analogous to, What are the chances that consciousness requires neuro-similar information processing? than, What are the chances that only worlds with liquid water can evolve life? The degree to which given functions (life, consciousness) can be realized in different material structures is empirical in every way. 'Parochialism,' in this sense, strikes me as what makes science, science. Who knows where the needle lies in the haystack? The odds of it lying in the centre are infinitesimal, but we do know it lies somewhere. Neurons are the most obvious place to begin looking, nations less so.

The applicability of the Copernican Principle depends on numerous considerations. According to Darwin, I'm supposed to believe that I'm the lucky winner of innumerable past acts of reproduction... Pluh-ease, Darwin, baby. I've never won anything in my life!

'Specially favoured position' is simply a matter of interpretation. What makes geocentrism wildly implausible is that it isolates one location out of innumerable others *arbitrarily.* Otherwise specificity (as opposed to 'specialness') just belongs to nature. Even the earth has to find itself somewhere.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful, interesting comments, Michel and Scott!

Michel: I'm inclined to accept all that. What really matters is overall sophistication of theoretical reasoning and sophisticated means-end flexibility (or something like that), and we shouldn't insist on human-like behavior. However, I worry somewhat that this is a thread that can be pulled on to unravel the whole business, if there's no non-humanocentric way to characterize such things.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott: One of the tricky things about the Copernican Principle is how to determine what counts as specially favored. Having exactly this-shaped-oak-leaf-down-the-the-last-molecule shouldn't count as being especially favored, whereas being at the precise center should. The former is too trivial, not special enough, to matter to the application of the principle. I'm inclined to think that being the one phenomenally conscious species among a huge range of equally behaviorally sophisticated species would be special in a problematic sense.

Your Darwin case, I would argue, is a case where the Anthropic Principle meets the Copernican. It's no coincidence that anyone who makes the observation that you just made is alive because one must be alive to make an observation. Likewise, it's no coincidence that we find ourselves in a position in the universe that is hospitable to life -- which from a certain perspective might seem very lucky! There's at least one way to wiggle out of my argument here: If to be an "observer" requires being phenomenally conscious, then we can use the Anthropic Principle to justify the seeming violation of the Copernican Principle. I think that's cheating, and so I want to allow "observers" in the relevant sense to include any being with highly sophisticated environmental responsiveness.

On science: I agree that science needs to work from Earthly examples. None of this is intended to be critical of scientific theories that confine themselves to Earthly as opposed to Universal claims about consciousness. What it is meant to be critical of is *philosophers* (or scientists in philosophical mode) who elevate Earthly necessities to Universal ones. (There is, of course, also a science of group-level behavior....)

psychemulation said...

"The degree to which given functions (life, consciousness) can be realized in different material structures is empirical in every way. 'Parochialism,' in this sense, strikes me as what makes science, science. Who knows where the needle lies in the haystack?"
Metaphor, apothegm, and theories of the direct introspective class, which this seems to be, leads me to a degradation of belief into patterns of electromagnetic desires and that's this telluric cognition that can be intelligently referred to in a way of consciousness. "Fear" being the most primordial of these, along with other affects, this is taken into consideration somewhat blindly.
Consider if there was a spring of unusually quick mutation rate in a period long ago here on earth and it produced something like humans in organization. Over millions of years these beings migrated underground and got in tune with the magnetic fields. Fleeing earth with their advanced technology they hold the heliosphere in chech and build a colony on the dark side of the moon. The mate with both humans and alien-magnet beings... but the hybrids are indistinguishable to each other.
They begin to call each other Youloombies, as they are integral to the social networking sites of the Humans on earth. The radical skepticism i propose is not a parochial matter as these YouLoombies are good enoughto disrupt your blog and monitor your consciousness. Like in Monsters Inc. there is one assigned to all the major heads if conscious state - especially Dennett - just kidding!
It's "if" and "ought" - which sounds like a Churchland to me. For this and a myriad of fhese possibilities that I ask a probability:
Some percentage of elites and heads of state are possible hybrids and control all ISPs and internet access - say 20%
Some percentage of servers are run by hybrids say 20%.
Some possibility of a hybrid-human-hybrid results in a viably reproductive being - and this is more like a mule out of a horse and a donkey. They got them in Asia but I wouldn't try to screw with any Zebras - they don't domesticate.
The small possiibility we may set at 2% but the but the affect on Humans and YouLoomnies has had its disruptive force at a greater denomination -say 20%. (Yes, he Einsteins and Newtons, as well as the Epileptics and fossil fuel...etc. But, out of these even more possibilities and possitive stuff to be rendered. I think we can leave that for a later date.)
Here and now, we face the problem of bright inferrences to the dark side of the moon. Is it better to err on the side of intentionality? Is hope for a state of consciousness depending on belief in right behavior (Sartre's Nausea aside) conscious if and only in so far as it it's conscientious? I think that the assumption of intentional decency as much as you or I is a good assumption to make.
There is a 10% chance that 80% of the time all acts I make on-line and perhaps elsewhere are dissonant/derided somehow (unintentional or not) on my analysis. The rest is history, though I believe in enough of it that for the moment it could be true? Even if I made up between 6 and 8 am the 20th of March, 2014.
*This stuff happens all the time!* But what does it all mean, to believe in identifiable credence and desire telluric intelligence? One is faced in both occasions with, in affect, doing what is right? Right? I will say that the "Dude Abides" (and that's my former Prof., Dr. Fosl).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm wondering if a Yooloombie wrote this, Matthew! I worry a bit about what happens if we tangle the issues of the post up with radically skeptical possibilities about what's happening on Earth. My inclination is to think it complicated without much helping....

Callan S. said...

Eric, I would think it's linguistically responsive, like my liver is responsive! Words are it's life blood! I'd just like to leave some ambiguity as to the intellect level.

Though on rabbits and sacrifice - well quite some efforts during various wars was made on getting art out of cities. Possibly more so than on getting people out. What if it's a very beutiful rabbit?

Callan S. said...


The United states does not feel hunger, it does not get bored, it does not wish to mate with Brazil and produce little United Statelets.

What's Russia doing with Ukraine right now?

Though I'd think of it more like one amoeba swollowing another amoeba than a mating.

Do amoeba feel hunger or get bored?

Yet I think there was some research once about it being possible to train them, to a certain extent.

David said...

Hello Eric. Thanks for your blog.
I enjoyed your thought experiments in the paper "if materialism is true..."
I noticed Heylighen was conspicuously absent in your references. I would have thought, for example, his 2007 paper would have been an influence. (see below)
Also, will you be doing more work related to the notion of national or global organisms?

F Heylighen
Social Evolution & History 6 (1), 58-119

F Heylighen, J Bollen
Cybernetics and Systems' 96. R. Trappl (Ed.). Austrian Society For Cybernetics