Tuesday, October 23, 2018

New Essay in Draft: Is There Something It's Like to Be a Garden Snail?


The question "are garden snails phenomenally conscious?" or equivalently "is there something it’s like to be a garden snail?" admits of three possible answers: yes, no, and denial that the question admits of a yes-or-no answer. All three answers have some antecedent plausibility, prior to the application of theories of consciousness. All three answers retain their plausibility also after the application of theories of consciousness. This is because theories of consciousness, when applied to such a different species, are inevitably question-begging and rely partly on dubious extrapolation from the introspections and verbal reports of a single species.

Full draft here.

As always, comments warmly welcomed, either as comments on this post or by email to my usual address.


  1. Somewhat related question:

    Would a superintelligent being with sufficient computational power and sensory bandwidth to do accurate real-time modeling of the world at the atomic level even be aware of garden snails or humans?

    i.e., would such a being only be aware of microscopic quantum field fluctuations, and never "see" the macroscopic objects like garden snails and humans that supervene on those quantum fluctuations?

  2. Further thoughts - also relating to some of your other posts:

    I think the original question is kind of a version of the "Mary, the color blind scientist" scenario. If an intelligent superbeing knew literally everything about us at a subatomic level, do they learn anything really new by stepping back and viewing us at a more coarse-grained macroscopic level?

    Call the superbeing "Allen's Demon" - a cousin of "Laplace's Demon"...

    Is it possible that sentient beings are everywhere but we can't "see" them because we are looking "too closely" and missing the bigger picture? Are ant colonies sentient? Countries??? Galactic super clusters?????

  3. Tough and important questions!

    I'm inclined to think that Allen's Demon, if it is smart and capable of calculation, would see coarse-grained patterns as well as fine details, and thus recognize garden snails and people as stable loci of organization. As for whether consciousness would be knowable simply in virtue of knowing all that... I'm inclined to think so, but I'm not sure. Basically a version of Jackson's Mary and Chalmers's Hard Problem, I agree.

  4. Maybe "Mary's Demon" would be a better name? Seems catchy.

    I would not think that the Demon would bother with coarse grained details or have any interest in stable loci of organization. Those would only be of interest to beings with limited computational/observational powers, who therefore have no choice to but to rely on calculational approximations, simplifications, and shortcuts.

    It would be like brute-force computer chess vs human chess!

    A powerful enough computer that used a simple brute force algorithm could beat (or draw) any human (or any current chess program) - by just calculating all possible moves and picking the winning path.

    The brute-force computer would not track or represent any information about strong or weak board positions, material, elegance, tricks, traps, or surprises - nothing. It would just do simple calculations, incredibly fast, and win.

    A human watching the game might see strong and weak board positions, material, elegance, tricks, traps, surprises, etc. But really, the computer would just be doing simple brute-force calculation - which is all it needs to guarantee victory.

    A human interacting with Mary's Demon would be the same. The human might attribute various human characteristics to the Demon's actions, but the Demon would be totally uninterested in seeing the human as anything other than fundamental particles.

    Because that's all it needs to do in order to "win". Whatever "winning" might mean to such an entity.

    The ultimate point being...? Not sure. Mainly just the same points as the original Mary thought experiment, but reframed with a dash of mereological nihilism. But also pondering the possibility that a sufficiently advanced being would not even be aware of humans as humans...?

  5. Scientific results can be surprising. Had I lived in the 17th century, I never would have imagined that heat and cold had any deeper structure. In hunter gatherer times, we probably had no way to measure temperature other than subjective sensations. Until a breakthrough is made, it is almost impossible to anticipate.

    Most scientific inquiry begins with a list of putative cases, with some uncertainty. Fred has hepatitis, Mary doesn't, we're not sure about Chris. It remains impossible to say about Chris ... until it becomes possible.

    Eventually neuroscience may reach a limit where we can expect no further major insights from it. But until then I'd be extremely wary of calling any such question unanswerable.