Blindsight by Peter Watts: notes and references (part IV)

This is part IV of a series of posts on longform quotes from Peter Watts’ Blindsight (in particular the notes and references section), available in its entirety online; you can see the first part here, the second part here and the third part here.

Here Watts gets to the meat of the whole book, the reason I consider it one of the best books I’ve read in a long time (if you’re addicted, like me, to viewquakes a la Hanson). It’s on sentience/intelligence, and particularly interestingly, why sentience hinders intelligence:

“This is the heart of the whole damn exercise. Let’s get the biggies out of the way first. Metzinger’s Being No One20 is the toughest book I’ve ever read (and there are still significant chunks of it I haven’t), but it also contains some of the most mindblowing ideas I’ve encountered in fact or fiction. Most authors are shameless bait-and-switchers when it comes to the nature of consciousness. Pinker calls his book How the Mind Works98, then admits on page one that “We don’t understand how the mind works”. Koch (the guy who coined the term “zombie agents”) writes The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach99, in which he sheepishly sidesteps the whole issue of why neural activity should result in any kind of subjective awareness whatsoever.

Towering above such pussies, Metzinger takes the bull by the balls. His “World-zero” hypothesis not only explains the subjective sense of self, but also why such an illusory first-person narrator would be an emergent property of certain cognitive systems in the first place. I have no idea whether he’s right— the man’s way beyond me— but at least he addressed the real question that keeps us staring at the ceiling at three a.m., long after the last roach is spent. Many of the syndromes and maladies dropped into Blindsight I first encountered in Metzinger’s book. Any uncited claims or statements in this subsection probably hail from that source.

If they don’t, then maybe they hail from Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will21 instead. Less ambitious, far more accessible, Wegner’s book doesn’t so much deal with the nature of consciousness as it does with the nature of free will, which Wegner thumbnails as “our mind’s way of estimating what it thinks it did.”. Wegner presents his own list of syndromes and maladies, all of which reinforce the mind-boggling sense of what fragile and subvertible machines we are. And of course, Oliver Saks22 was sending us memos from the edge of consciousness long before consciousness even had a bandwagon to jump on.

It might be easier to list the people who haven’t taken a stab at “explaining” consciousness. Theories run the gamut from diffuse electrical fields to quantum puppet-shows; consciousness has been “located” in the frontoinsular cortex and the hypothalamus and a hundred dynamic cores in between100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110. (At least one theory111 suggests that while great apes and adult Humans are sentient, young Human children are not. I admit to a certain fondness for this conclusion; if childen aren’t nonsentient, they’re certainly psychopathic).

But beneath the unthreatening, superficial question of what consciousness is floats the more functional question of what it’s good for. Blindsight plays with that issue at length, and I won’t reiterate points already made. Suffice to say that, at least under routine conditions, consciousness does little beyond taking memos from the vastly richer subconcious environment, rubber-stamping them, and taking the credit for itself. In fact, the nonconscious mind usually works so well on its own that it actually employs a gatekeeper in the anterious cingulate cortex to do nothing but prevent the conscious self from interfering in daily operations112, 113, 114. (If the rest of your brain were conscious, it would probably regard you as the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert.)

Sentience isn’t even necessary to develop a “theory of mind”. That might seem completely counterintuitive: how could you learn to recognise that other individuals are autonomous agents, with their own interests and agendas, if you weren’t even aware of your own? But there’s no contradiction, and no call for consciousness. It is entirely possible to track the intentions of others without being the slightest bit self-reflective107. Norretranders declared outright that “Consciousness is a fraud”115.

Art might be a bit of an exception. Aesthetics seem to require some level of self-awareness—in fact, the evolution of aethestics might even be what got the whole sentience ball rolling in the first place. When music is so beautiful if makes you shiver, that’s the reward circuitry in your limbic system kicking in: the same circuitry that rewards you for fucking an attractive partner or gorging on sucrose116. It’s a hack, in other words; your brain has learned how to get the reward without actually earning it through increased fitness98. It feels good, and it fulfills us, and it makes life worth living. But it also turns us inward and distracts us. Those rats back in the sixties, the ones that learned to stimulate their own pleasure centers by pressing a lever: remember them? They pressed those levers with such addictive zeal that they forgot to eat. They starved to death. I’ve no doubt they died happy, but they died. Without issue. Their fitness went to Zero.

Aesthetics. Sentience. Extinction.

And that brings us to the final question, lurking way down in the anoxic zone: the question of what consciousness costs. Compared to nonconscious processing, self-awareness is slow and expensive112. (The premise of a separate, faster entity lurking at the base of our brains to take over in emergencies is based on studies by, among others, Joe LeDoux of New York University117­, 118). By way of comparison, consider the complex, lightning-fast calculations of savantes; those abilities are noncognitive119, and there is evidence that they owe their superfunctionality not to any overarching integration of mental processes but due to relative neurological fragmentation4. Even if sentient and nonsentient processes were equally efficient, the conscious awareness of visceral stimuli—by its very nature— distracts the individual from other threats and opportunities in its environment. (I was quite proud of myself for that insight. You’ll understand how peeved I was to discover that Wegner had already made a similar point back in 1994120.) The cost of high intelligence has even been demonstrated by experiments in which smart fruit flies lose out to dumb ones when competing for food121, possibly because the metabolic demands of learning and memory leave less energy for foraging. No, I haven’t forgotten that I’ve just spent a whole book arguing that intelligence and sentience are different things. But this is still a relevant experiment, because one thing both attributes do have in common is that they are metabolically expensive. (The difference is, in at least some cases intelligence is worth the price. What’s the survival value of obsessing on a sunset?)

While a number of people have pointed out the various costs and drawbacks of sentience, few if any have taken the next step and wondered out loud if the whole damn thing isn’t more trouble than it’s worth. Of course it is, people assume; otherwise natural selection would have weeded it out long ago. And they’re probably right. I hope they are. Blindsight is a thought experiment, a game of Just supposeand What if. Nothing more.

On the other hand, the dodos and the Steller sea cows could have used exactly the same argument to prove their own superiority, a thousand years ago: if we’re so unfit, why haven’t we gone extinct? Why? Because natural selection takes time, and luck plays a role. The biggest boys on the block at any given time aren’t necessarily the fittest, or the most efficient, and the game isn’t over. The game is neverover; there’s no finish line this side of heat death. And so, neither can there be any winners. There are only those who haven’t yet lost.

Cunningham’s stats about self-recognition in primates: those too are real. Chimpanzees have a higher brain-to-body ratio than orangutans122, yet orangs consistently recognise themselves in mirrors while chimps do so only half the time123. Similarly, those nonhuman species with the most sophisticated language skills are a variety of birds and monkeys—not the presumably “more sentient” great apes who are our closest relatives81, 124. If you squint, facts like these suggest that sentience might almost be a phase, something that orangutans haven’t yet grown out of but which their more-advanced chimpanzee cousins are beginning to. (Gorillas don’t self-recognise in mirrors. Perhaps they’ve already grown out of sentience, or perhaps they never grew into it.)

Of course, Humans don’t fit this pattern. If it even is a pattern. We’re outliers: that’s one of the points I’m making.

I bet vampires would fit it, though. That’s the other one.

Finally, some very timely experimental support for this unpleasant premise came out just as Blindsight was being copy edited: it turns out that the unconscious mind is better at making complex decisions than is the conscious mind125. The conscious mind just can’t handle as many variables, apparently. Quoth one of the researchers: “At some point in our evolution, we started to make decisions consciously, and we’re not very good at it.”126

The argument is laid out more comprehensively (and reads even better, since it’s in narrative form) in the book itself, longform quotes of which I’ll be sure to post in the future just because they’re too awesome not to. That said, of course not everyone agrees with Watts’ conclusion (despite the backing of countless references to publications above); I’ll give an example of the typical view in next Monday’s post.


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