I’m reading a book from 1991 called Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett. (I’m not sure I’ll read the whole thing, as I have a habit of reading the first third or fourth of a book and then having my interests shift to other interesting-looking books.) These are just my thoughts / reactions to some things I read in the book.
In the first few pages, the author talks about the “brain in the vat” thought experiment, the thought being that your brain might actually be in a vat with a bunch of wires providing your complete neural stimulation. Basically, The Matrix. The question is: is there anyway to realize you are actually in a vat? (In short, I can’t see how. If we’re in a matrix, we’re stuck here. Even if we got woken up, what’s to say we wouldn’t just wake up in another matrix? A question never considered in the Matrix films, I think (I only saw the first one).)
Anyway, the author spends some time talking about how technologically sophisticated such a vat-brain-machine would have to be. And I was thinking, well wait a sec, what’s to say we even have to be a brain at all? If consciousness can be broken down to just a number of physical atoms moving (A LOT of them of course, but keep in mind that “a lot” just means too much for our minds to comprehend; it is not an objective term, it stems from what we are able to fathom, there is no “a lot” in the universe, only in our minds), then couldn’t we really be anything? An air conditioning system? Pebbles on a shoreline? Quocks in a billver? (I made those words up, it might as well be something we can’t fathom.) Or what if consciousness can’t be broken down to just a number of physical movements? What does that leave? I have no idea. My point is, our consciousness doesn’t have to be a brain in a vat having its senses tricked, it could be just about anything. And we can only judge how technologically complex such a system must be by comparing it to the technology we have available in this world. What if, in the world that our consciousness really sits, things our unfathomably more complex? And our world, to whatever conscious beings are out there, is an extremely simple simulation? I mean, isn’t complexity itself a rather subjective thing, determined by our own mental powers? Not new thoughts at all, I’m sure.
Also, there’s the subject of free will. It’s probably natural to think that the wires hooked up to our brain in the vat would also have to read our thoughts to determine our decisions, such as us deciding to move a finger, so that the wires can determine what sort of sensual feedback we should receive. But couldn’t the wires just tell us to move a finger, and also tell us to think that it was our own decision? I mean, aren’t our own thoughts, decisions, beliefs, memories, etc., all senses? Senses from one part of the brain to another? Couldn’t that all therefore be controlled by the wires as well? (The author does mention this line of thought later on. Aren’t I smart?)
Consciousness doesn’t have to be a feedback loop, does it? Couldn’t it be completely feedfoward?
Another idea that interests me is the idea of a meta-consciousness. What if we are all part of some other conscious being that we can barely fathom, and everytime we talk to each other, it’s like neurons sending messages to each other?
Anyway, the author ends up saying by page 7:
One conclusion we can draw from this is that we are not brains in vats–in case you were worried.
What?! Seems a rather large assumption. Both religiously and scientifically, I don’t think we have any way of knowing what we truly are, nor do we have any way of finding out. Maybe it will be revealed to us through we call death?
Overall, though, of the 23 pages I’ve read so far, this is a pretty interesting book, it’s giving me lots to think about.