Eric Thomson has some interesting thoughts about aliens, cats, and consciousness, contained in four posts on Brains. In part 1 he proposes a race of aliens who are philosophical zombies – that is, they lack subjective experience; their brains work fine but there is, as it were, no-one home; no qualia. (I have to say that it’s not fully clear to me that cats actually have full consciousness in the human sense rather than being fairly single-minded robots seeking food, warmth, etc: but let’s not quibble.)
These aliens come to earth and decide, for their own good reasons, to set about quietly studying the brains of cats. They are pretty good at this; they are able to analyse the workings of the cat brain comprehensively and in doing so they discover that feline brains have a special mode of operation. The aliens name this ‘smonsciousness’; most of the cats’ brain activity is unsmonscious, but certain important functions take place smonsciously. The aliens are able to work out the operation of smonsciousness in some detail and get an understanding of it which is comprehensive except for the minor detail that unbeknownst to them, they don’t really get what it actually is. How could they? They have nothing similar themselves.
Part 2 points out that this is a bit of a problem for materialists. The aliens have put together what seems to be a compete materialist account. In one way this seems like a crowning achievement. But it leaves out what it is like for the cats to have experiences. Thomson acknowledges that materialists can claim that this is simply a matter of two different perspectives on the same phenomenon, rather in the way that temperature and mean kinetic energy turn out to be the same thing viewed in different ways. It’s a conceptual difference, not an ontological one. But it would be unprecedented to understand something from the lower level without being aware of its higher level version; and in any case, ex hypothesi the aliens know all there is to know about every level of operation of the cat brain. Isn’t this an embarrassment for monist materialism?
Part 3 proposes that all might be well if we could wall off phenomenal experience by arguing it needs a special, separate set of concepts which you can only acquire by having phenomenal experience. No amount of playing around with neural concepts will ever get you to phenomenal concepts (rather in the way that Colin McGinn suggests that consciousness is subject to cognitive closure). Neuroscience suffers from semantic poverty in respect of phenomenal experience.
Thomson rightly suggests that this isn’t a very comfortable place for the materialist case to rest in and that it would be better for materialists if the semantic poverty idea could be done away with.
So in Part 4 he suggests a cunning manoeuvre. He has actually set the bar for the aliens fairly low: they don’t need to have a full grasp of phenomenal experience, hey merely need to become aware that in smonsciousnes something extra is going on (it could be argued that the bar is too low here, but I think it’s OK: if we demand much more we come perilously close to demanding that the aliens actually have phenomenal experience, which is surely too much?).
Now again for their own good reasons the aliens build a simulation of their own consciousness with an additional model which adds smonsciousness when powered up; they call this entity Keanu. Keanu functions fine in alien mode, and when they switch onm his smonsciousness he tells them something is going on which is totally inexpressible, other than by ‘Whoa…’ Now that may not seem satisfactory, but we can refine it further by supposing the aliens have powerful brain in which they can run the entire simulation. Keanu them is an internal thought experiment: an alien works it through mentally and ends up exclaiming “Dudes! We totally missed phenomenal experience!” Hence the aliens become aware that something is missing and semantic poverty is vanquished.
What do we make of that? There are a lot of angles here; myself I’m suspicious of that interesting concept smonsciousness. It allows the aliens to understand consciousness perfectly in functional terms without knowing what it’s really about. Is this plausible? It means that when they consider the following:
O my Luve's like a red, red rose, That's newly sprung in June: O my Luve's like the melodie, That's sweetly play'd in tune.
….they know exactly and in full what caused Burns to use these words about red things and melodies as he did, but they have no idea at all what the essential significance of the words to Burns was. This is odd. If pressed sufficiently I think we are forced one of two ways. If we cling to the idea that smonsciousness gives a full explanation we are obliged to say that the actual experience of consciousness contributes nothing, and is in fact an epiphenomenon. That’s completely tenable, but I would not want to go that way. Alternatively, we have to concede that the aliens don’t really have a full understanding, and that smonsciousness isn’t really viable. In short, we are more or less back with the dilemma as before.
What about Keanu? Let’s consider the internalised version. It’s important to remember that running Keanu in your brain does not confer phenomenal experience, it makes you aware that another person of a certain kind would claim phenomenal experience. So what the alien says is not “Dudes! We totally missed phenomenal experience!” , but “Dudes! These cats have a really wild kind of delusion that makes them totally convinced that they’re having some kind of special experience – but they can’t describe it or what’s special about it in any way! What a crazy illusion!”. Now Thomson has set the bar low, but surely becoming aware that creatures with smonsciousness claim to be conscious is not quite high enough?