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Blindsight is a first-contact Sci-Fi novel based on a group of transhumans exploring an anomaly in space and discovers a species that has great intelligence but no self-awareness.

The author mentions that consciousness is a bottleneck and reduces the fitness of a species / renders a species noncompetitive in the long run compared to other unconscious space-faring species. "Intelligence and self-awareness stuck in counterproductive lock-step for half a million years"

I find such a conclusion disturbing as a major idea of being human is based on self-awareness.

Is there any empirical evidence or theory that unconsciousness is superior in terms of evolution and the evolution of being conscious is "wrong" for a species?

Can a highly intelligent organic species be unconscious? If so, then what is the difference between being dead and living your whole life unconsciously?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Dec 20 '19 at 7:30

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I'm not familiar with any empirical evidence on the topic, only the theoretical side. But the topic of an "unconscious" super-race is one that has been explored in a number of franchises. The Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri series, for example, has an environmental antagonist in the form of an extremely aggressive vegetation that produces hostile worms that consume all sources of nutrients they come across. In the story, the vegetation is the apex predator on the planet and the human colonists are constantly fighting it off to survive.

Having an "unconscious" race like this does give some advantages. No individual thought means everything/everyone reacts based on their genetic programming. Such a race would not shy away from hazards that offer greater reward, because individual beings could be expendable. Throw enough bodies at any problem and you'll eventually solve it. This would allow rapid advancement in areas that we might consider unethical, and use of tactics that would horrify free-thinking individuals. You basically can ignore psychology all together and just aggressively pursue optimizing the species for whatever environment is needed. Things like long space journeys would be irrelevant, as such a species would have no problem sending generation ships for even small tasks, because nobody would mind.

Ultimately the way I would envision such a species is that they would be very embedded in their environment and have developed numerous natural advantages. Without conscious thought and free will to get in the way, they're free to focus all their energy on improving the race as a whole. Think of a virus, but with decision-making capacity. Pure efficiency.

Does this mean that consciousness is ultimately a disadvantage? Not necessarily. It's probably more like two sides of the same coin. After all, insects are the dominant life form on earth, and they don't have anything close to what we consider "consciousness", but we're doing just fine living along side them.

As to your last question about the difference between unconscious life and just plain death, that's more subjective. We generally know what happens when you knock out the part of the brain that gives us our free will, there are plenty of brain damage studies out there about that. Is it the same as dying? That all depends on your point of view and possibly your religion.

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    $\begingroup$ I think Alpha Centauri's Planet the Fungus is a very nice example for an answer, +1. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Dec 16 '19 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ I think the author is trying to propose that consciousness once served as a purpose in evolution, but as a stepping stone to the refinement and improvement in unconscious process which will eventully render consciousness obsolete. Species that doesnt modify themselves to become unconscious will become "inefficient" and lose out in competition with space-faring species $\endgroup$ – Quartz2 Dec 16 '19 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ What we define as conscious and intelligent is basically the underlying premise of the Ender Saga (at least the first 4 books). The books heavily touch on the theme of how do we define what is an intelligent being and what are simply unconscious animals. This is why the aliens attacked in the first place, because their understanding lead them to believe humans were unintelligent animals. Then later on it id determined that a computer program that gradually became self-aware is technically an intelligent consciousness. The philosophy is strong with this series. $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Dec 16 '19 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ Good points and I enjoy the answer, though as an Alpha Centauri player I need to point out that the local life on the planet had a very low level of intelligence, not high as OP requests, and it had enough self-awareness to understand the difference between itself and humans and to desire to telepathically talk to some of the humans and desire to learn from us. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Dec 17 '19 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Your usage of "consciousness" seems more akin to "intelligence". Yes, it would be beneficial if individuals could take initiative outside of genetic programming. Why does having a self-concept/self-awareness help, beyond that? $\endgroup$ – John K Dec 17 '19 at 18:34
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You can't have a technological species that is not self aware.

There are many advantages to being self-aware, starting down with simple if/then reasoning, all the way up to using your own knowledge of your own decision making process to analyse and predict the decision making of others. The main disadvantage is caloric and material cost to build and maintain the larger brain, this is a relatively minor cost if your species is already evolving greater intelligence.

Being self-aware is prerequisite for a certain level of complexity of thought, of being able to model the world around you, basically when you start including yourself in such a model you are self aware. For instance being able to realize a novel threat, like crossing traffic, is dangerous without actually doing it, requires modeling yourself, thus self awareness. Or planning a hunt requires self-awareness, you do things like model "if the prey runs around the left side of the tree I can run around the right side and drive it back towards packmate X so I should wait here"

A creature that is not self aware is never going to develop civilization becasue it has very little ability to plan. Its ability to model the future is extremely limited, it can't invent tools because it can't plan itself doing a sequence of events necessary to make and use it. It can't logically assess a novel threat becasue it can't model how it would interact with itself. Their ability to learn is pure trial and error and not predictive and also thus can't be passed onto the next generation. the example of social insects is a poor one because their behavior is almost completely instinctual they are not capable of invention. Instinctual behavior can be very complex but it lacks the ability to produce novel and more importantly the progressive iterative behavior that denotes technological ability. Instinctual behavior changes at the speed of evolution which is breathtakingly slow and more importantly is not predictive. It cannot plan anew tool and build it.

The books author could use a basic course in ethology. Being a good writer doesn't mean your science is good.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer seems to conflate intelligence/sapience and self-awareness, whereas the whole point of the Blindsight example is a contemplation of hypothetical species that are highly intelligent but don't waste 'design resources' on self-awareness (such as Rorschach). $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Dec 17 '19 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ @vicky_molokh Consider that the "decisioning" and "self-awareness" parts of the brain are one of the parts that fail in Alzheimer's or Huntingdon's disease... Many of these people are still perfectly capable of "intelligent" thought, they just don't have the motivation or self-awareness to perform them without prompting - or, even, the basics such as dressing themselves or eating. A species without the self-awareness to determine when they are hungry would need to gather nutrition passively, like a plant. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Dec 17 '19 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal As far as we know, there seem to be lots of species that do make decisions in active but not necessarily self-aware ways, e.g. tardigrades for a primitive example. For an artificial example, all but the most primitive programmes are about making decisions, yet so far we haven't succeeded in making a truly self-aware one. Finally, for a piece-by-piece example, there are many things about an organism that require lots of decisioning (e.g. metabolism regulation), but are done by non-self-aware parts. To do them the aware way would require far more intelligence than an average human. $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Dec 17 '19 at 9:36
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @vicky_molokh that some of the examples here uses the term "self awareness" for behaviors which could be based solely on proprioception (e.g. biting ones tail), and that pack hunting could be based on instincts alone, and doesn't necessarily require planing or contemplation as suggested. That being said, I think the central point of this answer - consciousness is a prerequisite for technological advancement - is sound. John - maybe edit away the less relevant examples and add to the reasoning of no technological advancement? $\endgroup$ – G0BLiN Dec 17 '19 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @cowlinator yes lions are likely self aware, self-awareness in its simplest form, is not all that rare in mammals, I am not familiar with research showing contingent planning in jumping spiders, it is not just hunting but a particular form of hunting $\endgroup$ – John Dec 18 '19 at 3:21
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The question is actually a surprisingly muddled concept. The best description I have heard of the real story that goes on in our heads is that of the elephant and the rider. In theory, it is the rider that is in charge. But if you look deeper, you find the elephant is the one in power at all times.

Most of what we do is not conscious. I don't know if it can be put into percentages, but if the answer was 99.5% of our activity is not conscious, I would not bat an eye. Our senses are so unconscious that great artists like Apollo Robbins can misdirect us while drawing conscious attention to the fact that he is misdirecting us! (I highly recommend spending the 8 minutes on that video)

Now self-awarneess is a tricky term. It has many meanings to different people. But for this purpose, I find the best definition is that a self-aware individual can account for the effect of their own actions when deciding which action to undertake. For some mathematical reasons that can be rather tricky, but we can see it in the dance of death many of us partake in. This is where two people approach on a sidewalk on a collision course. One dodges one way, right as the other dodges the same. They go back and forth for a bit until a resolution comes forth, often with a lavish gesture and a great deal of laughter.

So what happened? Each person acted in a way which resolved the conundrum in front of them. But they failed to account for how the other individual will respond to their actions. Sure, they had a high level view, but the human sense of balance operates on the scale of tenths of seconds. So, if in the process of committing to an action, they telegraph a different action with their balance, they fail to account for the total effects of their actions, especially the fast ones.

This is a non-trivial thing to learn. It takes us many years. But what would happen if we did not learn it? Well, one of two things would happen. One is we would fail to achieve any inner goals because we would fail to understand the consequences. For an excellent example of that consider the plight of the poor sound hardware at an event where a speaker is speaking too quietly and too far from the microphone. It's supposed to make the speaker audible. So the gain (volume) is increased, louder, and louder. Many of us can guess what happens next. The amplifier hears its own amplified sound and amplifies it in a squeal of feedback that completely decimates any hope of hearing the poor speaker.

The other is that we simply have no inner goals. All "target states" are external. And this makes them manipulable. We see this in Apollo Robbins when he convinces "Fred," our consciousness, to check out and just just let the unconsciousness roll. Many of us simply leave our goals and targets out where they can be reached and manipulated. Indeed, there are many training regimines which focus on how to avoid doing this (those that deal with combat and other aggressors).

Of course, the storyline of Blindsight makes the disadvantages of consciousness quite clear, so what gives? What is the resolution? This is a philosophical question, and one which many spend their entire lives trying to answer. Myself, I find several Asian concepts fascinating. The Japanese Zen Buddhists have mushin no shin(無心の心), and the Chinese Taoists have wei wu wei(爲無爲).* Both are paradoxes: "mind of no mind" and "action without action." Both are often shortened to just the negative portion of the phrasing ("no mind" and "without action"), choosing a phrasing suggestive of unconsciousness. But any teacher teaching these concepts will capture something far more nuanced than mere unconsciousness.

So Blindsight uses the phrasing "Intelligence and self-awareness stuck in counterproductive lock-step for half a million years." But perhaps that is only because they chose counterproductive paths. Perhaps there are other paths where intelligence and self-awareness smile at each other instead. Or perhaps both are merely illusions, figments of the progression of physics and time.

Perhaps those two extremes are not as opposed as they appear.

"Truths are illusions that we have forgotten are illusions." -Friedrich Nietzche

*To be fair, both cultures have an intermingling of ideas here which is very hard to tease apart. My introductions to both terms were from their corresponding cultures, so they remain tied to that language and culutre in my mind.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thats a very interesting take on conscious! $\endgroup$ – Quartz2 Dec 17 '19 at 5:07
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    $\begingroup$ One of the best and thorough "can't answer your question" that I've read. $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Dec 17 '19 at 13:19
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I doubt very much that self-awareness is a disadvantage. If it were it would have been selected against and disappeared long ago being out competed by the non-aware.

On theoretical grounds (depending on how intelligence is defined) it would also seem unlikely that a creature with a truly human level of intelligence would not be self-aware. In order to deal with the external environment effectively and efficiently it is necessary to plan a course of action and in order to do that it is necessary to hold some form of internal model of the external environment in the brain.

When those models increase in complexity, as they will do when having to plan for increasingly complex activities, part of the model will need to include a representation of the creature itself and the creatures own behaviours as the creature is also part of its own environment. This is the beginning of self-awareness and excluding it will damage the creatures understanding of the world.

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    $\begingroup$ Neutral and deleterious traits are hugely common across pretty much every species. Humans have no shortage of negative traits. There's no indication that self-awareness is actively disadvantageous in our current environment, but as there are no other complex and highly intelligent but non-self-aware species out there we can't be in any way sure. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 16 '19 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ And further to your final paragraph, there are a lot of complex human behaviours (starting with sleepwalking, and going up to more complex things) that people have been known to do without being obviously conscious... consciousness and self-awareness are not necessarily the same thing. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 16 '19 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ Addition to Starfish’s objections: the question is predicated on self-awareness being useful today but becoming useless in the future. This answer suggests it will be useful tomorrow simply because it is useful today, but there’s no attempt to answer the question’s main challenge to that thesis. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 16 '19 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime Sleepwalking (and dreeming) is conscious, though. It's just being conscious of the wrong things - things that don't correlate well with the outside world. That might be seen as an illustration of the role of consciousness in simulating the world (and our effect on the world); it's separate from "reality", but also obviously useful when connected to reality (while at the same time it's obvious you don't want it strictly tied to reality - how would you do the predictions then?). $\endgroup$ – Luaan Dec 18 '19 at 9:53
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Coincidentally, I just finished Blindsight several days ago so this question is fresh on my mind and I'm excited to discuss it. You've incentivized me to finally sign up for StackExchange after years of lurking. Bravo.

First off, it bears to be said that Blindsight is a work of speculative fiction, meant to explore the idea that self-awareness is an evolutionary disadvantage - it is not meant to be a rigorous argument in that regard. (Watts explains this in his appendices: "Blindsight is a thought experiment, a game of Just suppose and What if. Nothing more.")

A trait can be an evolutionary advantage in one environment while being an indirect disadvantage (merely useless) or a direct disadvantage in another environment. For any given trait X, asking "Is X an evolutionary disadvantage" requires establishing - or making assumptions about - the environment. Breathing oxygen is fantastic in an oxygen-rich environment. It's not so great if you're living in a sulfur vent on the ocean floor. Watts went to great lengths to establish a hypothetical scenario that could result in the evolution of a non-self-aware species like Rorschach, and furthermore to imagine how such a species could be an apex predator in a environment that is extremely hostile to humans (extrasolar orbit around a hyperjovian body with intense magnetic fields).

This is a bit like imagining a chess variant where the house rules are "Rule 1: Any time you move a piece, punch yourself in the face. Rule 2: If you move diagonally, you're exempt from Rule 1" and then narrating a match-up where bishops are dominant.

Some of Watts's counterarguments are a bit weak. (I don't mean this to be a fatal criticism of the novel; again, it's meant to be speculative.) For example, he spends a little bit of time discussing how chimpanzees fail the Gallup Mirror Test more often than orangutans do. He implies that this could be a sign of regressive evolution, a phenomenon where a species loses a trait when it is no longer beneficial. The classic example is when a darkness-dwelling cave animal loses eyesight.

One of the problems with this argument is that the Gallup Mirror Test is not a perfect proxy for self-awareness. It has an unknown, but non-negligible, chance of a false negative: an organism may opt not to explore the mark they see in the mirror because they just don't have motivation to. (For example, children in Kenya are less likely to pass the Gallup Mirror Test. This isn't because Kenyan children are less self-aware; it's because they're culturally conditioned to consider that a mark that appears on the body may have been placed there by an adult for a good reason. Pigeons will fail the Gallup Mirror Test at first, but can be trained to pass it. While it's possible that this shows the pigeon developing self-awareness due to training, that intuitively seems unlikely. Other animals will fail the Mirror Test, but will otherwise display novel behaviors in front of the mirror. Wikipedia has an excellent description of these species-level variations.) Differences in eyesight, visual processing, and motor control are all confounds for the Gallup Mirror Test.

Watts also explores Benjamin Libet's cerebral readiness potential experiments. When Blindsight was published (2006), the most popular interpretation of the Libet free will experiments is that the brain "chooses" to make a decision before the participant is aware that a choice has been made. According to this interpretation, our decisions arise from deep in our unconscious brain. We do not have "free will" and our conscious selves are just spectators to our own behavior. Our feeling of agency is an illusion. However, in 2012, US-French neuroscientist Aaron Schurger ran experiments that support an alternative explanation of Libet's results. I won't go into too much detail, but you can read about the classic interpretation of Libet here and the Schurger interpretation here. (Note: I'm not a believer in free will and I'm not arguing for the concept. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms.)

Benjamin Libet also had an interesting perspective on human volition that speaks directly to one of the exchanges in the novel. Libet hypothesized that our volition serves an inhibitory function. Perhaps our choices truly are made deep in our unconscious brain, however, our conscious minds filter out unnecessary behaviors. This is conveniently consistent with some observations of humans with traumatic brain injury, where damage to the frontal lobes can cause behavioral disinhibition. The glib formulation of this is: maybe we don't have free will. Maybe we have free won't.

How is this interpretation relevant to Blindsight? Late in the novel (spoilers ahead)...

the Gang of Four has a conversation with the second biologist, Robert Cunningham, about how the brain is an extremely expensive organ in biological terms: Gang of Four: "Brain's a big glucose hog. Everything it does costs through the nose... So sentience has gotta be good for something, then. Because it's expensive, and if it sucks up energy without doing anything useful then evolution's gonna weed it out just like that." Cunningham: "Maybe it did... Chimpanzees are smarter than Orangutans, did you know that? Higher encephalisation quotient. Yet they can't always recognize themselves in a mirror. Orangs can."

Imagine for the sake of argument that Libet's hypothesis is correct. That complicated expensive brain then prevents us from engaging in behaviors that are also expensive (running away from imaginary predators in the shadows), or high-risk (running away from imaginary predators in the shadows right into the jaws of a real tiger in the bush).

Maybe Libet is wrong. However, despite Watts's familiarity with Libet's experiments, Watts didn't engage with Libet's interpretation of consciousness. It might be interesting to read what Robert Cunningham thinks of free won't.

Finally, the lynchpin is that the evidence for the evolutionary fitness of the human brain is all around us. Our technology, culture, and language has allowed us to become, for better or worse, the dominant species on our planet. (This doesn't mean that the human brain is perfect, or even particularly good at what it does. Just that it's better than the competition so far.) It's hard to imagine how we might have done that without all of our cognitive abilities, including self-awareness. (That's part of what makes Blindsight such a stimulating work of speculative fiction - it skillfully challenges a ubquitous aspect of our lives.) For regressive evolution to occur, there would have to be a dire alteration in our environment.

Once in a while, a science fiction story posits a predator that feeds on, or is hostile to, consciousness. For a couple of video game examples - undoubtedly inspired by Blindsight - I'm thinking of Mass Effect and 2017's Prey, respectively. I'm sure there are other science fiction novels with similar themes. In the face of an overwhelming adversary that attacks consciousness, then perhaps regression to a simpler state of cognition might allow us to carve out a niche and continue to breed.

But at the moment, such monsters, much like Blindsight's Rorschach, remain imaginary.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hopefully, being conscious is beneficial in the long run rather than obsolete in the book $\endgroup$ – Quartz2 Dec 18 '19 at 5:01
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Not for social creatures

Consciousness (as defined by Blindsight) is the idea that "I am" - having a part of the brain that describes the me in relation to things that are not me, as opposed to simply solving problems for personal survival. The concept of the I likely evolved as a mechanism for understanding the you - relating to others on a personal level. This is a major function in making empathy and altruism natural human behaviors, and is probably linked to us becoming more social creatures.

(This is not the universal definition of "consciousness"; to be fair, consciousness is one of those terms that has many varied definitions ranging from the practical to the vague and philosophical. Since this is the definition used by the author, this is the definition I am using.)

As evidence for the idea that this kind of consciousness is an evolutionary disadvantage, the author describes an "ideal sociopath" - a person that is entirely selfish, simply using their brain to acquire a personal advantage. They can pretend to be empathetic if it benefits them, but are not programmed to be. This kind of sociopath, he argues, is disproportionally represented among the upper echelons of humanity - politicians, CEOs, and so on. He uses the idea of "vampires" to explore the concept a human subspecies that is fundamentally non-conscious; i.e. completely selfish and dispassionate problem-solving machines (but that at least understand consciousness enough to manipulate normal humans), as well as Rorschach, an alien entity that doesn't even have the frame of reference necessary to understand what consciousness is.

There is one major thing he fails to recognize, however: Sociopaths (and vampires) only have an advantage in a world where there are hordes of gullible, trusting non-sociopaths to manipulate. It is an individual advantage, but not a species advantage - which means that as these non-conscious, non-empathetic genes spread through a population, or as the vampire-to-human ratio increases, these genes will grow less advantageous, since people will become less trusting. A world in which everyone is "looking out for number one" is ultimately going to break down on a societal level, since society is ultimately built upon the ability to trust that others will "play by the rules", at least most of the time.

Ah, but each individual might voluntarily decide to play by social rules anyway, since it benefits them in the long run? True, given enough time, experience, and intelligence, some might come to this conclusion eventually - but they will have a disadvantage against groups of humans where most individuals already have the necessary mechanics for empathy and altruism hard-coded into their DNA.

Social species - those with hard-coded self-awareness, and the other-awareness that comes with it - have numerous advantages over their solitary counterparts, especially in the long run, including the ability to share information and technology, pass on knowledge, and team up against enemies without having to constantly be watching their backs for attacks by their own teammates. In fact, the main advantage of being solitary - the ability to survive without sharing while resources are scarce - is likely to become less advantageous as a species advances technologically and resources become plentiful.

So, no, for human-like species, the author of Blindsight is wrong. Humans beat vampires, in the long run. Consciousness is here to stay.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oddly, the closest that I can think of that approaches the question posed is eusocial creatures. A beehive or termite mound is more intelligent than any bee or termite in it. Might one arrive at a vastly distributed intelligence that is self-aware, but so far removed in size (vast) and speed (slow, long-term) from humans, that they think they are dealing with individual organisms that are intelligent but not self-aware? $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Dec 18 '19 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ @nigel222 Unlikely, if self-awareness is a social function, it makes very little sense for the colony itself to possess it, since insect colonies do not typically interact positively with other colonies (and when they do, such as in the case of Argentine ants, it is because their component units do not view each other as outsiders - meaning that it is really more like a single colony than two colonies socializing). It is far more likely for the individual units, which are extremely altruistic, to possess a sense of self-awareness (and others-awareness) than the colony itself. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Dec 18 '19 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking of a single distributed intelligence with no other to interact with. Like "Ender's Game", but without the embodiment of will and consciousness in one hive queen. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Dec 18 '19 at 13:42
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When an author writes a novel they pour on it what they belive because they are the God of their world and everything will occur the way they think it is right. Ex.: Tolkien and his reactionary, christian views. Or Ayn Rand and her hatred of anything collective.

So, the author, in this case, says a lot about what he thinks is self-awerness and very little about what self-awerness is. He didn't gave a science-based answer and we can't give a science-based answer because science doesn't know what is self-awerness. The best half-answer that can be given is that, whatever this thing is, it gave those that had it an evolutionary advantage in a given environment and they left descendents (us).

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    $\begingroup$ Why the downvote? This guy is right. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Dec 16 '19 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ It isn't clear that self-awareness is an advantage though. All we can say is that we've seen one example where it appears to have arisen, which also happens to be the most successful species on the planet. To assume it was advantageous and the root of our success is quite a bold leap. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 16 '19 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ (I wasn't the downvoter though, FWIW) $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 16 '19 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ Looking at the massive appendix of Blindsight (the online version is even longer) and its sequel, there is an awful lot of science the story is based on. (Not my downvote, though.) $\endgroup$ – user24582 Dec 17 '19 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it's fair to say that Watts really believes the premise of the story. I think he merely wanted to explore the implications. $\endgroup$ – Lawnmower Man Dec 18 '19 at 23:14
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Artificial Intelligence (AI)

This is a practical example answering your question:

Can a highly intelligent organic species be unconscious?

Since AI may be created through organic entities:

Is Artificial Intelligence restricted to electrical based technology?

Constructing highly intelligent organic beings which would constantly attempt to maximize the success rate of their (initially proggammed) goals may be possible. They would not need to be self-aware or even aware of the surroundings that do not relate to accomplishing those goals.

Building up on a previous example: genetically engineered vegetation could be "programmed" for terraforming a planet if the required resources were present for accomplishing that goal. Those entities would detect those resources and discover/implement new ways to use them more efficiently but would not be aware of the consequences of their own development (e.g. climate change and impact on aboriginal species) or even other entities cohabiting with them.

Then what is the difference between being dead and living your whole life unconsciously?

As long as those entities are able to propagate and accomplish the goals they were designed to achieve, one could say they are alive.

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  • $\begingroup$ But will such AI become conscious (by emergence, not design)? How do we tell? $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 18 '19 at 6:28
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec I raise you one higher - will we even notice when we explicitly design for consciousness? You don't really even need emergence - plenty of humans seem to think consciousness is something unique to humans (or at least our close cousins, or mammals). It's very much possible that those people might design a system that is conscious, by design, but wouldn't be recognised as such because the designer holds the meme of "conscious == human". Our brains seem to work that way - creating contradictory categories all the time. Philosophical zombies are a great example that refuses to die :) $\endgroup$ – Luaan Dec 18 '19 at 9:57
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Empirical Evidence:

For all their benefits (which are a lot, but mainly in prediction and ability to adapt to changes in between self and environment), Consciousness and Self-Awareness burn a lot more calories. Thinking hard can burn up to 1 third of the calories of heavy activity. As a result, if species are bottlenecked by available energy, this means Consciousness and Self-Awareness, once their benefits are addressed by other methods, might become redundant and lose their edge (this is highly unlikely, but hypothetically possible.)

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Blindsight is based on an awful lot of science, but also on philosophy - see the appendix, which had to be shortened for the print editions.

Peter Watts, the author, wrote in a Q&A sesssion:

Have you kept up much with academic philosophy of mind since publishing Blindsight? Have your views on the "hard problem" changed at all in that time?

Hell, I was barely keeping up with that while I was writing it. Even now, I've only read a handful of paper by Dennett, for example.

I've kept track as best I'm able, given that I'm an outsider to the field and can't afford the time to do anything more than keep my toes damp. I was intrigued by Rosenthal's paper which concluded that consciousness itself was a side-effect of no adaptive value; elsewhere here I've mentioned Morsella's PRISM model, which also came out subsequently and which posits a functional origin for consciousness. I've kept a small list of studies showing that cognition seems to work better when consciousness isn't involved. Hell, you've seen the footnotes in Echopraxia.

The hard problem hasn't gone away. No matter what purpose anyone posits for consciousness, whenever I ask the litmus question "Yeah, but is it possible for a nonconscious agent to perform the same role?", the answer continues to be yes. And I don't think anyone has even come close to explaining how certain types of computation, running in certain kinds of meat in certain ways, can wake up. There is nothing in the physics or the neurology or the chemistry that would lead one to expect the emergence of self-awareness. I mean, sure, you've got you neural correlates and your global workspace models. We know that consciousn requires a cross-brain latency of <400 msec, we know what structures are involved, we know the pieces. We know that those pieces, arranged just so, wake up; but we're no closer to understanding why that should be. (Metzinger makesa good case that we never will, if outer-layer transparency is an essential part of the process.)

I know that lot of people consider Penrose's ideas on consciousness to be kind of flakey, but he may be on to something when he says that the only hope we have of understanding consciousness is to reinvent physics. Because the physics we have isn't getting us anywhere.

and:

What problem do you think "consciousness" solved that can be "side-stepped" by a more intelligent entity?

I like Morsella's PRISM model, which suggests that consciousness evolved as a means of reconciling conflicting motor commands to the skeletal muscles; but even he admits that it's perfectly possible to imagine a nonconscious agent doing the same thing.

Personally, I think that the metaphor of the elephant and the rider (see Cort Ammon's answer) is flawed.

As we learn, we commit more and more tasks to unconscious processes. E.g., we have learned to drive a car for hours and do completely unrelated things in our conscious mind in the meantime. We might not even remember much about the way, until something unexpected happens that requires our conscious attention.

At least in humans, consciousness is necessary to handle new things, to discover, to learn, and to decide what to learn.

To advance a civilisation, individuals must be free to follow their own interests and work on new ideas and technologies. Some intelligence might be encoded in process and structure (like a Chinese Room), but that tends to be inflexible, not creative.

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Whether it's possible for a technological, tool-using lifeform to lack self-awareness is another question, but consider that bacteria have been around for billions of years, survived multiple extinction events which decimated life on the planet, and colonised virtually every environment imaginable. Their lack of self-awareness has certainly not been an evolutionary disadvantage. If anything it is the opposite.

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  • $\begingroup$ Humans are just a collection of cells none of which are individually self aware (that we know of) but they complete amazingly coordinated tasks, produce specialised workers and will even kill themselves for the greater good of the overall collective. in many ways bacteria and cells making up the human body are a excellent example of the evolutionary benefits of not being self aware $\endgroup$ – J.Doe Dec 17 '19 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ Even in normal human life, Its not hard to think of situations Where self-awareness is not actually helpful. Dancing, for example. $\endgroup$ – Batperson Dec 17 '19 at 19:24
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Neither intelligence, self awareness or abstract complex thought are necessarily an advantage evolutionary. On a purely empirical level we have troglodytes, cockroaches and amphibians etc, who've outlived humanity by hundreds of millions of years by now. And they have brains the size of chickpea! Whilst humanity has come close several times to wiping itself out. All that matters is reproduction and survival of the species.

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  • $\begingroup$ Let's revert this logic: an animal with no fangs, no claws, no fur, slow and flimsy like homo sapiens has been able to extinguish or almost extinguish larger species like the cave bear, the mammoth, the elephant, the blue whale and so on and so forth only thanks to its intelligence. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Dec 17 '19 at 15:59
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Does consciousness matter?

There is this philosophical Zombie hypothesis: what if you were all zombies who don't actually experience consciousness, but occasionally talk about it nevertheless so I don't feel special? The idea sounds absurd to most of us (except some? psychopaths, who are confident they are special anyway) and we believe all humans are conscious, but there does not seem to be any way to actually falsify that hypothesis.

And that's humans. Now given how similar we are to apes, are bonobos conscious? And where do we stop? Are cats? Or roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans)? There is no clear boundary anywhere between. There is no clear boundary even to amoebas. But then, if amoebas are conscious, they are just cells, and we are also composed of cells, so are our cells individually conscious too? And since we are composed of smaller elements, what about other entities composed of smaller elements like bee swarms. Or the planet Earth, which can also be considered alive (see Gaia theory).

To some people it seems obvious that even things may be conscious. Compare all the religious disputes what does and does not have soul. Or Buddha nature. It's kind of the same thing except we are not talking about immortality, just first-person experience.

So we can't really prove some entity does or does not have consciousness. It might even “not matter” in a sense that nothing on the observable universe depends on it.

Intelligence without desires

Ok, so lets shift from first-person to desires. We tend to consider someone or something worthy of respects because they want something and fear something, that is, have desires.

And the thing is that desires are a necessary ingredient of intelligence. Reason can only solve how to achieve goals, but it cannot set those goals. Desires set goals. So an “intelligent” entity without desires wouldn't actually do anything.

Specifically, entity that does not want to preserve itself, or some higher entity it is part of, is unlikely to persist. And note that humans can under various conditions give preference to preservation of their family or community over their own.

Except evolution makes it a sort of circular argument. Because what “wants” to preserve itself will preserve itself, and we still can't tell whether it was “conscious”.

What is evolving anyway

Also don't forget it is not really the species as a whole that is evolving. There is competition inside it between the elements that actually replicate, which is the genes. The gene that is passed down the heritage is the good one, even if it may not ultimately be in the best interest of the species.

Except the gene still needs the species in context of which it exists, so ultimately genes that prevent the species to sacrifice some members for sake of collective survival will be stopped when such situation comes up.

Or sometimes it is just the relationships between the entities—worker bees are more closely related to the queen than they are to each other, so while they would like to become queens (they are still females and can become fertile when the queen dies or disappears), they will still guard the queen against any other worker who would like to throw her over.

But it is, again, unrelated to consciousness. We still have nothing to tell us whether the queen, the workers, the swarm, or all of them, have consciousness.

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Your questions don't make much sense to me: Any creature can be intelligent and unconscious. Being dead is like sleeping. -I assume you came up with them because of this statement here:

I find such a conclusion disturbing as a major idea of being human is based on self-awareness.

I won't fill in the gaps you left by not explaining what that author thinks of as 'intelligence' or 'self-consciosness' and just try ot explain what I can: Self-awareness starts, when an intelligence tries to imagine what another entity might think. From there on the intelligence might start to use the same function it has trained, for trying to predict what its own thoughts might mean. These predictions aren't worth much, considering that we can't consciously read, write, create or delete parts of our memory. If we could, and this may very well be possible when have replaced our brains, we'd obviously be much more adaptable than beings that aren't self-aware.

The example of these autistic Blindsight-vampires is probably based on the myth that highly functional autistic people have no or a different kind of self-awarenes whilst also being much more intellligent than the average human. This myth is based on their lack of communication and empathy in certain situations and has nothing to do with self-awareness. The writer may want to write hard scifi, but he also wants to follow his themes. That's why he'll mostly use his personal experience to speculate about things he has no time to put a lot of research in.

Conclusion:

  • The concept of self-awareness has no downsides, if you use it the right way.
  • There's no empirical evidence that self-awareness is an issue when you're trying to process data.
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At first, I must note that confusing consciousness with self-awareness is a big flaw to start with this discussion. Second, I would like to direct your attention to the fact that ego-dissolution, a common term in spiritual and alternative circles today, is a goal to achieve for many thousands of people that: seek to let go of the chains of the ego to live a better life. So, in a way, if you become unconscious of the ego, achieving ego-loss, you are letting go of "some" of your consciousness. That level of "unconsciousness" could be enough to allow for the intelligence to flourish unimpeded. However, this looks a lot like mass/group-consciousness. The only way I have seen intelligence efficiently applied has mostly been in groups. So evolution may yet have some incredible surprises for us in store and turn us into group creatures without ego, working together for a better world. I wonder about the form... coral and medusae do live in colonies as so many others. On another note: Maybe you can even have self-awareness without intelligence at all. Oh, wait... We surely have empirical proof for that ;)

Cheers

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice redefinition of some of the terms in a badly-asked question. Tough that it didn't actually answer the question. Welcome to the site, take the tour and when you have a moment read-up in the help center about how we work. Again, welcome. $\endgroup$ – A Rogue Ant. Dec 19 '19 at 0:20

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