بخش 04کتاب: هومو دئوس / فصل 4
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3 - The Human Spark
There is no doubt that Homo sapiens is the most powerful species in the world. Homo sapiens also likes to think that it enjoys a superior moral status, and that human life has much greater value than the lives of pigs, elephants or wolves. This is less obvious. Does might make right? Is human life more precious than porcine life simply because the human collective is more powerful than the pig collective? The United States is far mightier than Afghanistan; does this imply that American lives have greater intrinsic value than Afghan lives?
In practice, American lives are more valued. Far more money is invested in the education, health and safety of the average American than of the average Afghan. Killing an American citizen creates a far greater international outcry than killing an Afghan citizen. Yet it is generally accepted that this is no more than an unjust result of the geopolitical balance of power. Afghanistan may have far less clout than the USA, yet the life of a child in the mountains of Tora Bora is considered every bit as sacred as the life of a child in Beverly Hills.
In contrast, when we privilege human children over piglets, we want to believe that this reflects something deeper than the ecological balance of power. We want to believe that human lives really are superior in some fundamental way. We Sapiens love telling ourselves that we enjoy some magical quality that not only accounts for our immense power, but also gives moral justification for our privileged status. What is this unique human spark?
The traditional monotheist answer is that only Sapiens have eternal souls. Whereas the body decays and rots, the soul journeys on towards salvation or damnation, and will experience either everlasting joy in paradise or an eternity of misery in hell. Since pigs and other animals have no soul, they don’t take part in this cosmic drama. They live only for a few years, and then die and fade into nothingness. We should therefore care far more about eternal human souls than about ephemeral pigs.
This is no kindergarten fairy tale, but an extremely powerful myth that continues to shape the lives of billions of humans and animals in the early twenty-first century. The belief that humans have eternal souls whereas animals are just evanescent bodies is a central pillar of our legal, political and economic system. It explains why, for example, it is perfectly okay for humans to kill animals for food, or even just for the fun of it.
However, our latest scientific discoveries flatly contradict this monotheist myth. True, laboratory experiments confirm the accuracy of one part of the myth: just as monotheist religions say, animals have no souls. All the careful studies and painstaking examinations have failed to discover any trace of a soul in pigs, rats or rhesus monkeys. Alas, the same laboratory experiments undermine the second and far more important part of the monotheist myth, namely, that humans do have a soul. Scientists have subjected Homo sapiens to tens of thousands of bizarre experiments, and looked into every nook in our hearts and every cranny in our brains. But they have so far discovered no magical spark. There is zero scientific evidence that in contrast to pigs, Sapiens have souls.
If that were all, we could well argue that scientists just need to keep looking. If they haven’t found the soul yet, it is because they haven’t looked carefully enough. Yet the life sciences doubt the existence of soul not just due to lack of evidence, but rather because the very idea of soul contradicts the most fundamental principles of evolution. This contradiction is responsible for the unbridled hatred that the theory of evolution inspires among devout monotheists.
Who’s Afraid of Charles Darwin?
According to a 2012 Gallup survey, only 15 per cent of Americans think that Homo sapiens evolved through natural selection alone, free of all divine intervention; 32 per cent maintain that humans may have evolved from earlier life forms in a process lasting millions of years, but God orchestrated this entire show; 46 per cent believe that God created humans in their current form sometime during the last 10,000 years, just as the Bible says. Spending three years in college has absolutely no impact on these views. The same survey found that among BA graduates, 46 per cent believe in the biblical creation story, whereas only 14 per cent think that humans evolved without any divine supervision. Even among holders of MA and PhD degrees, 25 per cent believe the Bible, whereas only 29 per cent credit natural selection alone with the creation of our species.1 Though schools evidently do a very poor job teaching evolution, religious zealots still insist that it should not be taught at all. Alternatively, they demand that children must also be taught the theory of intelligent design, according to which all organisms were created by the design of some higher intelligence (aka God). ‘Teach them both theories,’ say the zealots, ‘and let the kids decide for themselves.’
Why does the theory of evolution provoke such objections, whereas nobody seems to care about the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics? How come politicians don’t ask that kids be exposed to alternative theories about matter, energy, space and time? After all, Darwin’s ideas seem at first sight far less threatening than the monstrosities of Einstein and Werner Heisenberg. The theory of evolution rests on the principle of the survival of the fittest, which is a clear and simple – not to say humdrum – idea. In contrast, the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics argue that you can twist time and space, that something can appear out of nothing, and that a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. This makes a mockery of our common sense, yet nobody seeks to protect innocent schoolchildren from these scandalous ideas. Why?
The theory of relativity makes nobody angry, because it doesn’t contradict any of our cherished beliefs. Most people don’t care an iota whether space and time are absolute or relative. If you think it is possible to bend space and time, well, be my guest. Go ahead and bend them. What do I care? In contrast, Darwin has deprived us of our souls. If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul. This is a terrifying thought not only to devout Christians and Muslims, but also to many secular people who don’t hold any clear religious dogma, but nevertheless want to believe that each human possesses an eternal individual essence that remains unchanged throughout life, and can survive even death intact.
The literal meaning of the word ‘individual’ is ‘something that cannot be divided’. That I am an ‘in-dividual’ implies that my true self is a holistic entity rather than an assemblage of separate parts. This indivisible essence allegedly endures from one moment to the next without losing or absorbing anything. My body and brain undergo a constant process of change, as neurons fire, hormones flow and muscles contract. My personality, wishes and relationships never stand still, and may be completely transformed over years and decades. But underneath it all I remain the same person from birth to death – and hopefully beyond death as well.
Unfortunately, the theory of evolution rejects the idea that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. According to the theory of evolution, all biological entities – from elephants and oak trees to cells and DNA molecules – are composed of smaller and simpler parts that ceaselessly combine and separate. Elephants and cells have evolved gradually, as a result of new combinations and splits. Something that cannot be divided or changed cannot have come into existence through natural selection.
The human eye, for example, is an extremely complex system made of numerous smaller parts such as the lens, the cornea and the retina. The eye did not pop out of nowhere complete with all these components. Rather, it evolved step by tiny step through millions of years. Our eye is very similar to the eye of Homo erectus, who lived 1 million years ago. It is somewhat less similar to the eye of Australopithecus, who lived 5 million years ago. It is very different from the eye of Dryolestes, who lived 150 million years ago. And it seems to have nothing in common with the unicellular organisms that inhabited our planet hundreds of millions of years ago.
Yet even unicellular organisms have tiny organelles that enable the microorganism to distinguish light from darkness, and move towards one or the other. The path leading from such archaic sensors to the human eye is long and winding, but if you have hundreds of millions of years to spare, you can certainly cover the entire path, step by step. You can do that because the eye is composed of many different parts. If every few generations a small mutation slightly changes one of these parts – say, the cornea becomes a bit more curved – after millions of generations these changes can result in a human eye. If the eye were a holistic entity, devoid of any parts, it could never have evolved by natural selection.
That’s why the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by ‘soul’ we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution. Natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts. If the Sapiens soul evolved step by step from the Erectus soul, what exactly were these steps? Is there some part of the soul that is more developed in Sapiens than in Erectus? But the soul has no parts.
You might argue that human souls did not evolve, but appeared one bright day in the fullness of their glory. But when exactly was that bright day? When we look closely at the evolution of humankind, it is embarrassingly difficult to find it. Every human that ever existed came into being as a result of male sperm inseminating a female egg. Think of the first baby to possess a soul. That baby was very similar to her mother and father, except that she had a soul and they didn’t. Our biological knowledge can certainly explain the birth of a baby whose cornea was a bit more curved than her parents’ corneas. A slight mutation in a single gene can account for that. But biology cannot explain the birth of a baby possessing an eternal soul from parents who did not have even a shred of a soul. Is a single mutation, or even several mutations, enough to give an animal an essence secure against all changes, including even death?
Hence the existence of souls cannot be squared with the theory of evolution. Evolution means change, and is incapable of producing everlasting entities. From an evolutionary perspective, the closest thing we have to a human essence is our DNA, and the DNA molecule is the vehicle of mutation rather than the seat of eternity. This terrifies large numbers of people, who prefer to reject the theory of evolution rather than give up their souls.
Why the Stock Exchange Has No Consciousness
Another story employed to justify human superiority says that of all the animals on earth, only Homo sapiens has a conscious mind. Mind is something very different from soul. The mind isn’t some mystical eternal entity. Nor is it an organ such as the eye or the brain. Rather, the mind is a flow of subjective experiences, such as pain, pleasure, anger and love. These mental experiences are made of interlinked sensations, emotions and thoughts, which flash for a brief moment, and immediately disappear. Then other experiences flicker and vanish, arising for an instant and passing away. (When reflecting on it, we often try to sort the experiences into distinct categories such as sensations, emotions and thoughts, but in actuality they are all mingled together.) This frenzied collection of experiences constitutes the stream of consciousness. Unlike the everlasting soul, the mind has many parts, it constantly changes, and there is no reason to think it is eternal.
The soul is a story that some people accept while others reject. The stream of consciousness, in contrast, is the concrete reality we directly witness every moment. It is the surest thing in the world. You cannot doubt its existence. Even when we are consumed by doubt and ask ourselves: ‘Do subjective experiences really exist?’ we can be certain that we are experiencing doubt.
What exactly are the conscious experiences that constitute the flow of the mind? Every subjective experience has two fundamental characteristics: sensation and desire. Robots and computers have no consciousness because despite their myriad abilities they feel nothing and crave nothing. A robot may have an energy sensor that signals to its central processing unit when the battery is about to run out. The robot may then move towards an electrical socket, plug itself in and recharge its battery. However, throughout this process the robot doesn’t experience anything. In contrast, a human being depleted of energy feels hunger and craves to stop this unpleasant sensation. That’s why we say that humans are conscious beings and robots aren’t, and why it is a crime to make people work until they collapse from hunger and exhaustion, whereas making robots work until their batteries run out carries no moral opprobrium.
And what about animals? Are they conscious? Do they have subjective experiences? Is it okay to force a horse to work until he collapses from exhaustion? As noted earlier, the life sciences currently argue that all mammals and birds, and at least some reptiles and fish, have sensations and emotions. However, the most up-to-date theories also maintain that sensations and emotions are biochemical data-processing algorithms. Since we know that robots and computers process data without having any subjective experiences, maybe it works the same with animals? Indeed, we know that even in humans many sensory and emotional brain circuits can process data and initiate actions completely unconsciously. So perhaps behind all the sensations and emotions we ascribe to animals – hunger, fear, love and loyalty – lurk only unconscious algorithms rather than subjective experiences? 2 This theory was upheld by the father of modern philosophy, René Descartes. In the seventeenth century Descartes maintained that only humans feel and crave, whereas all other animals are mindless automata, akin to a robot or a vending machine. When a man kicks a dog, the dog experiences nothing. The dog flinches and howls automatically, just like a humming vending machine that makes a cup of coffee without feeling or wanting anything.
This theory was widely accepted in Descartes’ day. Seventeenth-century doctors and scholars dissected live dogs and observed the working of their internal organs, without either anaesthetics or scruples. They didn’t see anything wrong with that, just as we don’t see anything wrong in opening the lid of a vending machine and observing its gears and conveyors. In the early twenty-first century there are still plenty of people who argue that animals have no consciousness, or at most, that they have a very different and inferior type of consciousness.
In order to decide whether animals have conscious minds similar to our own, we must first get a better understanding of how minds function, and what role they play. These are extremely difficult questions, but it is worthwhile to devote some time to them, because the mind will be the hero of several subsequent chapters. We won’t be able to grasp the full implications of novel technologies such as artificial intelligence if we don’t know what minds are. Hence let’s leave aside for a moment the particular question of animal minds, and examine what science knows about minds and consciousness in general. We will focus on examples taken from the study of human consciousness – which is more accessible to us – and later on return to animals and ask whether what’s true of humans is also true of our furry and feathery cousins.
To be frank, science knows surprisingly little about mind and consciousness. Current orthodoxy holds that consciousness is created by electrochemical reactions in the brain, and that mental experiences fulfil some essential data-processing function.3 However, nobody has any idea how a congeries of biochemical reactions and electrical currents in the brain creates the subjective experience of pain, anger or love. Perhaps we will have a solid explanation in ten or fifty years. But as of 2016, we have no such explanation, and we had better be clear about that.
Using fMRI scans, implanted electrodes and other sophisticated gadgets, scientists have certainly identified correlations and even causal links between electrical currents in the brain and various subjective experiences. Just by looking at brain activity, scientists can know whether you are awake, dreaming or in deep sleep. They can briefly flash an image in front of your eyes, just at the threshold of conscious perception, and determine (without asking you) whether you have become aware of the image or not. They have even managed to link individual brain neurons with specific mental content, discovering for example a ‘Bill Clinton’ neuron and a ‘Homer Simpson’ neuron. When the ‘Bill Clinton’ neuron is on, the person is thinking of the forty-second president of the USA; show the person an image of Homer Simpson, and the eponymous neuron is bound to ignite.
More broadly, scientists know that if an electric storm arises in a given brain area, you probably feel angry. If this storm subsides and a different area lights up – you are experiencing love. Indeed, scientists can even induce feelings of anger or love by electrically stimulating the right neurons. But how on earth does the movement of electrons from one place to the other translate into a subjective image of Bill Clinton, or a subjective feeling of anger or love?
The most common explanation points out that the brain is a highly complex system, with more than 80 billion neurons connected into numerous intricate webs. When billions of neurons send billions of electric signals back and forth, subjective experiences emerge. Even though the sending and receiving of each electric signal is a simple biochemical phenomenon, the interaction among all these signals creates something far more complex – the stream of consciousness. We observe the same dynamic in many other fields. The movement of a single car is a simple action, but when millions of cars move and interact simultaneously, traffic jams emerge. The buying and selling of a single share is simple enough, but when millions of traders buy and sell millions of shares it can lead to economic crises that dumbfound even the experts.
Yet this explanation explains nothing. It merely affirms that the problem is very complicated. It does not offer any insight into how one kind of phenomenon (billions of electric signals moving from here to there) creates a very different kind of phenomenon (subjective experiences of anger or love). The analogy to other complex processes such as traffic jams and economic crises is flawed. What creates a traffic jam? If you follow a single car, you will never understand it. The jam results from the interactions among many cars. Car A influences the movement of car B, which blocks the path of car C, and so on. Yet if you map the movements of all the relevant cars, and how each impacts the other, you will get a complete account of the traffic jam. It would be pointless to ask, ‘But how do all these movements create the traffic jam?’ For ‘traffic jam’ is simply the abstract term we humans decided to use for this particular collection of events.
In contrast, ‘anger’ isn’t an abstract term we have decided to use as a shorthand for billions of electric brain signals. Anger is an extremely concrete experience which people were familiar with long before they knew anything about electricity. When I say, ‘I am angry!’ I am pointing to a very tangible feeling. If you describe how a chemical reaction in a neuron results in an electric signal, and how billions of similar reactions result in billions of additional signals, it is still worthwhile to ask, ‘But how do these billions of events come together to create my concrete feeling of anger?’ When thousands of cars slowly edge their way through London, we call that a traffic jam, but it doesn’t create some great Londonian consciousness that hovers high above Piccadilly and says to itself, ‘Blimey, I feel jammed!’ When millions of people sell billions of shares, we call that an economic crisis, but no great Wall Street spirit grumbles, ‘sh@t, I feel I am in crisis.’ When trillions of water molecules coalesce in the sky we call that a cloud, but no cloud consciousness emerges to announce, ‘I feel rainy.’ How is it, then, that when billions of electric signals move around in my brain, a mind emerges that feels ‘I am furious!’? As of 2016, we have absolutely no idea.
Hence if this discussion has left you confused and perplexed, you are in very good company. The best scientists too are a long way from deciphering the enigma of mind and consciousness. One of the wonderful things about science is that when scientists don’t know something, they can try out all kinds of theories and conjunctures, but in the end they can just admit their ignorance.
The Equation of Life
Scientists don’t know how a collection of electric brain signals creates subjective experiences. Even more crucially, they don’t know what could be the evolutionary benefit of such a phenomenon. It is the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life. Humans have feet, because for millions of generations feet enabled our ancestors to chase rabbits and escape lions. Humans have eyes, because for countless millennia eyes enabled our forebears to see whither the rabbit was heading and whence the lion was coming. But why do humans have subjective experiences of hunger and fear?
Not long ago, biologists gave a very simple answer. Subjective experiences are essential for our survival, because if we didn’t feel hunger or fear we would not have bothered to chase rabbits and flee lions. Upon seeing a lion, why did a man flee? Well, he was frightened, so he ran away. Subjective experiences explained human actions. Yet today scientists provide a much more detailed explanation. When a man sees a lion, electric signals move from the eye to the brain. The incoming signals stimulate certain neurons, which react by firing off more signals. These stimulate other neurons down the line, which fire in their turn. If enough of the right neurons fire at a sufficiently rapid rate, commands are sent to the adrenal glands to flood the body with adrenaline, the heart is instructed to beat faster, while neurons in the motor centre send signals down to the leg muscles, which begin to stretch and contract, and the man runs away from the lion.
Ironically, the better we map this process, the harder it becomes to explain conscious feelings. The better we understand the brain, the more redundant the mind seems. If the entire system works by electric signals passing from here to there, why the hell do we also need to feel fear? If a chain of electrochemical reactions leads all the way from the nerve cells in the eye to the movements of leg muscles, why add subjective experiences to this chain? What do they do? Countless domino pieces can fall one after the other without any need of subjective experiences. Why do neurons need feelings in order to stimulate one another, or in order to tell the adrenal gland to start pumping? Indeed, 99 per cent of bodily activities, including muscle movement and hormonal secretions, take place without any need of conscious feelings. So why do the neurons, muscles and glands need such feelings in the remaining 1 per cent of cases?
You might argue that we need a mind because the mind stores memories, makes plans and autonomously sparks completely new images and ideas. It doesn’t just respond to outside stimuli. For example, when a man sees a lion, he doesn’t react automatically to the sight of the predator. He remembers that a year ago a lion ate his aunt. He imagines how he would feel if a lion tore him to pieces. He contemplates the fate of his orphaned children. That’s why he flees. Indeed, many chain reactions begin with the mind’s own initiative rather than with any immediate external stimulus. Thus a memory of some prior lion attack might spontaneously pop up in a man’s mind, setting him thinking about the danger posed by lions. He then gets all the tribespeople together and they brainstorm novel methods for scaring lions away.
But wait a moment. What are all these memories, imaginations and thoughts? Where do they exist? According to current biological theories, our memories, imaginations and thoughts don’t exist in some higher immaterial field. Rather, they too are avalanches of electric signals fired by billions of neurons. Hence even when we figure in memories, imaginations and thoughts, we are still left with a series of electrochemical reactions that pass through billions of neurons, ending with the activity of adrenal glands and leg muscles.
Is there even a single step on this long and twisting journey where, between the action of one neuron and the reaction of the next, the mind intervenes and decides whether the second neuron should fire or not? Is there any material movement, of even a single electron, that is caused by the subjective experience of fear rather than by the prior movement of some other particle? If there is no such movement – and if every electron moves because another electron moved earlier – why do we need to experience fear? We have no clue.
Philosophers have encapsulated this riddle in a trick question: what happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain? If nothing happens in the mind except what happens in our massive network of neurons – then why do we need the mind? If something does indeed happen in the mind over and above what happens in the neural network – where the hell does it happen? Suppose I ask you what Homer Simpson thought about Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. You have probably never thought about this before, so your mind now needs to fuse two previously unrelated memories, perhaps conjuring up an image of Homer drinking beer while watching the president give his ‘I did not have s@xual relations with that woman’ speech. Where does this fusion take place?
Some brain scientists argue that it happens in the ‘global workspace’ created by the interaction of many neurons.4 Yet the word ‘workspace’ is just a metaphor. What is the reality behind the metaphor? Where do the different pieces of information actually meet and fuse? According to current theories, it certainly doesn’t take place in some Platonic fifth dimension. Rather, it takes place, say, where two previously unconnected neurons suddenly start firing signals to one another. A new synapse is formed between the Bill Clinton neuron and the Homer Simpson neuron. But if so, why do we need the conscious experience of memory over and above the physical event of the two neurons connecting?
We can pose the same riddle in mathematical terms. Present-day dogma holds that organisms are algorithms, and that algorithms can be represented in mathematical formulas. You can use numbers and mathematical symbols to write the series of steps a vending machine takes to prepare a cup of tea, and the series of steps a brain takes when it is alarmed by the approach of a lion. If so, and if conscious experiences fulfil some important function, they must have a mathematical representation. For they are an essential part of the algorithm. When we write the fear algorithm, and break ‘fear’ down into a series of precise calculations, we should be able to point out: ‘Here, step number ninety-three in the calculation process – this is the subjective experience of fear!’ But is there any algorithm in the huge realm of mathematics that contains a subjective experience? So far, we don’t know of any such algorithm. Despite the vast knowledge we have gained in the fields of mathematics and computer science, none of the data-processing systems we have created needs subjective experiences in order to function, and none feels pain, pleasure, anger or love.
Maybe we need subjective experiences in order to think about ourselves? An animal wandering the savannah and calculating its chances of survival and reproduction must represent its own actions and decisions to itself, and sometimes communicate them to other animals as well. As the brain tries to create a model of its own decisions, it gets trapped in an infinite digression, and abracadabra! Out of this loop, consciousness pops out.
Fifty years ago this might have sounded plausible, but not in 2016. Several corporations, such as Google and Tesla, are engineering autonomous cars that already cruise our roads. The algorithms controlling the autonomous car make millions of calculations each second concerning other cars, pedestrians, traffic lights and potholes. The autonomous car successfully stops at red lights, bypasses obstacles and keeps a safe distance from other vehicles – without feeling any fear. The car also needs to take itself into account and to communicate its plans and desires to the surrounding vehicles, because if it decides to swerve to the right, doing so will impact on their behaviour. The car does all that without any problem – but without any consciousness either. The autonomous car isn’t special. Many other computer programs make allowances for their own actions, yet none of them has developed consciousness, and none feels or desires anything.6 If we cannot explain the mind, and if we don’t know what function it fulfils, why not just discard it? The history of science is replete with abandoned concepts and theories. For instance, early modern scientists who tried to account for the movement of light postulated the existence of a substance called ether, which supposedly fills the entire universe. Light was thought to be waves of ether. However, scientists failed to find any empirical evidence for the existence of ether, whereas they did come up with alternative and better theories of light. Consequently, they threw ether into the dustbin of science.
Similarly, for thousands of years humans used God to explain numerous natural phenomena. What causes lightning to strike? God. What makes the rain fall? God. How did life on earth begin? God did it. Over the last few centuries scientists have not discovered any empirical evidence for God’s existence, while they did find much more detailed explanations for lightning strikes, rain and the origins of life. Consequently, with the exception of a few subfields of philosophy, no article in any peer-review scientific journal takes God’s existence seriously. Historians don’t argue that the Allies won the Second World War because God was on their side; economists don’t blame God for the 1929 economic crisis; and geologists don’t invoke His will to explain tectonic plate movements.
The same fate has befallen the soul. For thousands of years people believed that all our actions and decisions emanate from our souls. Yet in the absence of any supporting evidence, and given the existence of much more detailed alternative theories, the life sciences have ditched the soul. As private individuals, many biologists and doctors may go on believing in souls. Yet they never write about them in serious scientific journals.
Maybe the mind should join the soul, God and ether in the dustbin of science? After all, no one has ever seen experiences of pain or love through a microscope, and we have a very detailed biochemical explanation for pain and love that leaves no room for subjective experiences. However, there is a crucial difference between mind and soul (as well as between mind and God). Whereas the existence of eternal souls is pure conjecture, the experience of pain is a direct and very tangible reality. When I step on a nail, I can be 100 per cent certain that I feel pain (even if I so far lack a scientific explanation for it). In contrast, I cannot be certain that if the wound becomes infected and I die of gangrene, my soul will continue to exist. It’s a very interesting and comforting story which I would be happy to believe, but I have no direct evidence for its veracity. Since all scientists constantly experience subjective feelings such as pain and doubt, they cannot deny their existence.
Another way to dismiss mind and consciousness is to deny their relevance rather than their existence. Some scientists – such as Daniel Dennett and Stanislas Dehaene – argue that all relevant questions can be answered by studying brain activities, without any recourse to subjective experiences. So scientists can safely delete ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘subjective experiences’ from their vocabulary and articles. However, as we shall see in the following chapters, the whole edifice of modern politics and ethics is built upon subjective experiences, and few ethical dilemmas can be solved by referring strictly to brain activities. For example, what’s wrong with torture or rape? From a purely neurological perspective, when a human is tortured or raped certain biochemical reactions happen in the brain, and various electrical signals move from one bunch of neurons to another. What could possibly be wrong with that? Most modern people have ethical qualms about torture and rape because of the subjective experiences involved. If any scientist wants to argue that subjective experiences are irrelevant, their challenge is to explain why torture or rape are wrong without reference to any subjective experience.
Finally, some scientists concede that consciousness is real and may actually have great moral and political value, but that it fulfils no biological function whatsoever. Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes. Jet engines roar loudly, but the noise doesn’t propel the aeroplane forward. Humans don’t need carbon dioxide, but each and every breath fills the air with more of the stuff. Similarly, consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks. It doesn’t do anything. It is just there. If this is true, it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution. This is certainly a thought worth thinking, even if it isn’t true. But it is quite amazing to realise that as of 2016, this is the best theory of consciousness that contemporary science has to offer us.
Maybe the life sciences view the problem from the wrong angle. They believe that life is all about data processing, and that organisms are machines for making calculations and taking decisions. However, this analogy between organisms and algorithms might mislead us. In the nineteenth century, scientists described brains and minds as if they were steam engines. Why steam engines? Because that was the leading technology of the day, which powered trains, ships and factories, so when humans tried to explain life, they assumed it must work according to analogous principles. Mind and body are made of pipes, cylinders, valves and pistons that build and release pressure, thereby producing movements and actions. Such thinking had a deep influence even on Freudian psychology, which is why much of our psychological jargon is still replete with concepts borrowed from mechanical engineering.
Consider, for example, the following Freudian argument: ‘Armies harness the s@x drive to fuel military aggression. The army recruits young men just when their s@xual drive is at its peak. The army limits the soldiers’ opportunities of actually having s@x and releasing all that pressure, which consequently accumulates inside them. The army then redirects this pent-up pressure and allows it to be released in the form of military aggression.’ This is exactly how a steam engine works. You trap boiling steam inside a closed container. The steam builds up more and more pressure, until suddenly you open a valve, and release the pressure in a predetermined direction, harnessing it to propel a train or a loom. Not only in armies, but in all fields of activity, we often complain about the pressure building up inside us, and we fear that unless we ‘let off some steam’, we might explode.
In the twenty-first century it sounds childish to compare the human psyche to a steam engine. Today we know of a far more sophisticated technology – the computer – so we explain the human psyche as if it were a computer processing data rather than a steam engine regulating pressure. But this new analogy may turn out to be just as naïve. After all, computers have no minds. They don’t crave anything even when they have a bug, and the Internet doesn’t feel pain even when authoritarian regimes sever entire countries from the Web. So why use computers as a model for understanding the mind?
Well, are we really sure that computers have no sensations or desires? And even if they haven’t got any at present, perhaps once they become complex enough they might develop consciousness? If that were to happen, how could we ascertain it? When computers replace our bus driver, our teacher and our shrink, how could we determine whether they have feelings or whether they are just a collection of mindless algorithms?
When it comes to humans, we are today capable of differentiating between conscious mental experiences and non-conscious brain activities. Though we are far from understanding consciousness, scientists have succeeded in identifying some of its electrochemical signatures. To do so the scientists started with the assumption that whenever humans report that they are conscious of something, they can be believed. Based on this assumption the scientists could then isolate specific brain patterns that appear every time humans report being conscious, but that never appear during unconscious states.
This has allowed the scientists to determine, for example, whether a seemingly vegetative stroke victim has completely lost consciousness, or has merely lost control of his body and speech. If the patient’s brain displays the telltale signatures of consciousness, he is probably conscious, even though he cannot move or speak. Indeed, doctors have recently managed to communicate with such patients using fMRI imaging. They ask the patients yes/no questions, telling them to imagine themselves playing tennis if the answer is yes, and to visualise the location of their home if the answer is no. The doctors can then observe how the motor cortex lights up when patients imagine playing tennis (meaning ‘yes’), whereas ‘no’ is indicated by the activation of brain areas responsible for spatial memory.7 This is all very well for humans, but what about computers? Since silicon-based computers have very different structures to carbon-based human neural networks, the human signatures of consciousness may not be relevant to them. We seem to be trapped in a vicious circle. Starting with the assumption that we can believe humans when they report that they are conscious, we can identify the signatures of human consciousness, and then use these signatures to ‘prove’ that humans are indeed conscious. But if an artificial intelligence self-reports that it is conscious, should we just believe it?
So far, we have no good answer to this problem. Already thousands of years ago philosophers realised that there is no way to prove conclusively that anyone other than oneself has a mind. Indeed, even in the case of other humans, we just assume they have consciousness – we cannot know that for certain. Perhaps I am the only being in the entire universe who feels anything, and all other humans and animals are just mindless robots? Perhaps I am dreaming, and everyone I meet is just a character in my dream? Perhaps I am trapped inside a virtual world, and all the beings I see are merely simulations?
According to current scientific dogma, everything I experience is the result of electrical activity in my brain, and it should therefore be theoretically feasible to simulate an entire virtual world that I could not possibly distinguish from the ‘real’ world. Some brain scientists believe that in the not too distant future, we shall actually do such things. Well, maybe it has already been done – to you? For all you know, the year might be 2216 and you are a bored teenager immersed inside a ‘virtual world’ game that simulates the primitive and exciting world of the early twenty-first century. Once you acknowledge the mere feasibility of this scenario, mathematics leads you to a very scary conclusion: since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.
None of our scientific breakthroughs has managed to overcome this notorious Problem of Other Minds. The best test that scholars have so far come up with is called the Turing Test, but it examines only social conventions. According to the Turing Test, in order to determine whether a computer has a mind, you should communicate simultaneously both with that computer and with a real person, without knowing which is which. You can ask whatever questions you want, you can play games, argue, and even flirt with them. Take as much time as you like. Then you need to decide which is the computer, and which is the human. If you cannot make up your mind, or if you make a mistake, the computer has passed the Turing Test, and we should treat it as if it really has a mind. However, that won’t really be a proof, of course. Acknowledging the existence of other minds is merely a social and legal convention.
The Turing Test was invented in 1950 by the British mathematician Alan Turing, one of the fathers of the computer age. Turing was also a gay man in a period when homos@xuality was illegal in Britain. In 1952 he was convicted of committing homos@xual acts and forced to undergo chemical castration. Two years later he committed suicide. The Turing Test is simply a replication of a mundane test every gay man had to undergo in 1950 Britain: can you pass for a straight man? Turing knew from personal experience that it didn’t matter who you really were – it mattered only what others thought about you. According to Turing, in the future computers would be just like gay men in the 1950s. It won’t matter whether computers will actually be conscious or not. It will matter only what people think about it.
The Depressing Lives of Laboratory Rats
Having acquainted ourselves with the mind – and with how little we really know about it – we can return to the question of whether other animals have minds. Some animals, such as dogs, certainly pass a modified version of the Turing Test. When humans try to determine whether an entity is conscious, what we usually look for is not mathematical aptitude or good memory, but rather the ability to create emotional relationships with us. People sometimes develop deep emotional attachments to fetishes like weapons, cars and even underwear, but these attachments are one-sided and never develop into relationships. The fact that dogs can be party to emotional relationships with humans convinces most dog owners that dogs are not mindless automata.
This, however, won’t satisfy sceptics, who point out that emotions are algorithms, and that no known algorithm requires consciousness in order to function. Whenever an animal displays complex emotional behaviour, we cannot prove that this is not the result of some very sophisticated but non-conscious algorithm. This argument, of course, can be applied to humans too. Everything a human does – including reporting on allegedly conscious states – might in theory be the work of non-conscious algorithms.
In the case of humans, we nevertheless assume that whenever someone reports that he or she is conscious, we can take their word for it. Based on this minimal assumption, we can today identify the brain signatures of consciousness, which can then be used systematically to differentiate conscious from non-conscious states in humans. Yet since animal brains share many features with human brains, as our understanding of the signatures of consciousness deepens, we might be able to use them to determine if and when other animals are conscious. If a canine brain shows similar patterns to those of a conscious human brain, this will provide strong evidence that dogs are conscious.
Initial tests on monkeys and mice indicate that at least monkey and mice brains indeed display the signatures of consciousness.8 However, given the differences between animal brains and human brains, and given that we are still far from deciphering all the secrets of consciousness, developing decisive tests that will satisfy the sceptics might take decades. Who should carry the burden of proof in the meantime? Do we consider dogs to be mindless machines until proven otherwise, or do we treat dogs as conscious beings as long as nobody comes up with some convincing counter-evidence?
On 7 July 2012 leading experts in neurobiology and the cognitive sciences gathered at the University of Cambridge, and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which says that ‘Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.’9 This declaration stops short of saying that other animals are conscious, because we still lack the smoking gun. But it does shift the burden of proof to those who think otherwise.
Responding to the shifting winds of the scientific community, in May 2015 New Zealand became the first country in the world to legally recognise animals as sentient beings, when the New Zealand parliament passed the Animal Welfare Amendment Act. The Act stipulates that it is now obligatory to recognise animals as sentient, and hence attend properly to their welfare in contexts such as animal husbandry. In a country with far more sheep than humans (30 million vs 4.5 million), that is a very significant statement. The Canadian province of Quebec has since passed a similar Act, and other countries are likely to follow suit.
Many business corporations also recognise animals as sentient beings, though paradoxically, this often exposes the animals to rather unpleasant laboratory tests. For example, pharmaceutical companies routinely use rats as experimental subjects in the development of antidepressants. According to one widely used protocol, you take a hundred rats (for statistical reliability) and place each rat inside a glass tube filled with water. The rats struggle again and again to climb out of the tubes, without success. After fifteen minutes most give up and stop moving. They just float in the tube, apathetic to their surroundings.
You now take another hundred rats, throw them in, but fish them out of the tube after fourteen minutes, just before they are about to despair. You dry them, feed them, give them a little rest – and then throw them back in. The second time, most rats struggle for twenty minutes before calling it quits. Why the extra six minutes? Because the memory of past success triggers the release of some biochemical in the brain that gives the rats hope and delays the advent of despair. If we could only isolate this biochemical, we might use it as an antidepressant for humans. But numerous chemicals flood a rat’s brain at any given moment. How can we pinpoint the right one?
For this you take more groups of rats, who have never participated in the test before. You inject each group with a particular chemical, which you suspect to be the hoped-for antidepressant. You throw the rats into the water. If rats injected with chemical A struggle for only fifteen minutes before becoming depressed, you can cross out A on your list. If rats injected with chemical B go on thrashing for twenty minutes, you can tell the CEO and the shareholders that you might have just hit the jackpot.
Sceptics could object that this entire description needlessly humanises rats. Rats experience neither hope nor despair. Sometimes rats move quickly and sometimes they stand still, but they never feel anything. They are driven only by non-conscious algorithms. Yet if so, what’s the point of all these experiments? Psychiatric drugs are aimed to induce changes not just in human behaviour, but above all in human feeling. When customers go to a psychiatrist and say, ‘Doctor, give me something that will lift me out of this depression,’ they don’t want a mechanical stimulant that will cause them to flail about while still feeling blue. They want to feel cheerful. Conducting experiments on rats can help corporations develop such a magic pill only if they presuppose that rat behaviour is accompanied by human-like emotions. And indeed, this is a common presupposition in psychiatric laboratories.
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