Science Friction

I've been reading Conversations on Consciousness, by Susan Blackmore. An excellent book, in which Blackmore interviews the leading thinkers in the consciousness movement - philosophers, neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists.

Reading it, you can't help but think that Philip K. Dick is, as I've said before, the great prophetic voice of the issues of technology and identity that are rushing to face humanity in the 21st century.

This is the philosopher Thomas Metzinger in conversation with Blackmore:

"There is the question of what I call 'consciousness ethics': as soon as we know more about the brain and the neural correlates of consciousness, we will at least in principle be able to selectively switch conscious experiences on and off with new molecules, or by using direct transcranial magnetic stimulation, to create new media environments in the global data-cloud, new forms of electronic entertainment that we have never dreamt of - cyberspace worlds, holographic cinema, etc. And then there is all the info-smog and increasing speed in the business world, which is already too much for many of us today.

And another thing, drugs: we're going to have terrific biological psychiatry, terrific medicines in 50-100 years time, to get rid of things that have plagued mankind for millennia. On the other hand, we will also probably have recreational drugs that mankind has never dreamt of. So if, for instance, we could have something that is non-addictive and no major side effects, and that puts a nice smile and a sexy flirt on our faces, and you can take it for three decades...And your doctor says to you 'you only have a common sub-clinical depression, you're not getting the drug', people will say, 'I'm a free citizen, this is my brain, why does the medical professional have the right to tell me how I design my conscious life?'

This looks back to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, with its touchy-feely cinemas and the mass narcotization of the population through Soma. It also looks back to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in which all citizens have neural machines, on which they can simply dial in whichever moods they want to feel throughout the day.

Often discussed in Blackmore's book is what the philosopher David Chalmers calls the 'hard problem' of consciousness. How can a physical system give rise to the experience of consciousness? Why did evolution create us with consciousness? Could we have evolved without consciousness? Is free will really an illusion, and we are neuro-chemical robots, or zombies? This is the philosopher Paul Churchland:

"I would be upset to learn I'm a completely programmed robot. It's conceivable. There have been stories written about this, like Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This fellow discovered that he was, in fact, a robot, and was somewhat distressed by this."

Some philosophers interviewed in the book, such as Daniel Dennett, dismisses those who believe consciousness is something mysterious and so far inexplicable as mere 'mysterians' or (even worse) as 'vitalists'. Dennett is certain that consciousness will eventually be explicable by neurological and chemical mechanisms and processes. So, in theory, we will eventually be able to build a computer that is conscious.

It's another of the great dreams, or nightmares, of science fiction - a computer becoming conscious. The moment Skynet becomes conscious, in The Terminator, it decides to exterminate humans, and causes a nuclear war. But then, when we meet the terminator himself, can we say he has consciousness at all? Doesn't he appear to be merely a computer programme, without any real inner life? Isn't he a zombie?

Robocop, by contrast, is a conscious being, rather than merely a set of programmed objectives. Why? Because he has a memory, charged with emotions, which infuses his dreams, which is his alone. So does that mean, if we gave a robot memory implants, in order to guide their emotional reactions in a personal narrative, then they would become more or less human?

This is what happens in Dick's great work. The androids have been made so successfully they don't always realize they are androids. They have plans, dreams, aspirations. And yet they are drones, built like Adam merely to toil, suffer and then die. And one of them rebels, and returns to kill his maker. And his final speech, in the film version of the book, is a great hymn to consciousness, to the android's unique subjective experience of the qualia of existence: