The attached PPT is from the first ever talk I did for the first ever Hmmm Squad group meeting.
Thought it’d be fun to throw up some far-out pictures and videos of ANTS and WIERD SEA CREATURES, because 1) They are hellish cool and 2) they’re so alien that they stretch our understanding of what living things are like - and so raise some profound, thought-provoking questions for the philosophically inclined...
I’ve rarely seen these creatures discussed in standard philosophy textbooks. But: When I was teaching philosophy of mind I found I kept using these examples when discussing certain ideas. This came out of that.
There’s not a massive amount of explanation in the PPT – was meant to be accompanied by me talking and that, so some stuff may not come across (and you’ve missed out on my gags). Ah, well. I’m sure you can do your own research on the things shown (check out honey pot ants - URGH!) – there’s this thing called the internets, you know. Seriously though, google siphonophores, or their real relevance will be lost - they are extremely hard to classify, with individual creatures tied together (some responsible for eating, some responsible for movement, like organs in a body) in a colony that acts like one organism.
But I should, at least, explain that China/Satellite/Robot diagram...
The China Brain:
The China Brain or China Mind* scenario is designed to explore the idea that consciousness arises out of complex information processing.
It’s related to the idea that if info processing just gets complex enough, then you start getting thoughts about thoughts – or rather information processing about the information processing you’re doing – ie higher level, second-tier processing - feedback, monitoring and reflection: This higher-order thinking is what “consciousness” is.
The neurons in the brain all carry out simple information processing functions, which on their own are just single mechanical actions, like chips in a computer – but when they are all put together, communicating with each other, could a “mind” arise? Is the whole “greater than the sum of its parts"?** Is that how consciousness happens?
To explore that question, the likes of Lawrence Davis and Ned Block came up with this analogy: Imagine everyone in China is asked to work together to control a big robot. Everyone is assigned one simple task to carry out, to act like neurons in the robot’s “brain”. Each individual performs their function and they communicate via walkie-talkies to co-ordinate their actions.
The results of everyone’s activity is sent up to a satellite. That processes the information and transmits the resulting commands to a MASSIVE ROBOT (awesome). That, simplified, is the China Brain scenario.
So – people are neurons, the satellite is the core hub of the brain processing their activity and bring it all together, and the robot is the body. Now the key question: Could we then say that that robot was conscious? Would an over-all CHINA MIND come into existence?
Common sense would appear to say NO, said Ned Block. No matter how well co-ordinated the Chinese people’s actions, there would still just be a lot of individuals working together. You could not say "China" had a single mind or self, that could experience things the way we do.
Yes, it would create a certain zeitgeist or culture amongst the Chinese people, and the robot would have characteristic responses and actions and ways of doing things – like any society working and living together does. But that is not the same as a fully CONSCIOUS identity and perspective. It is still a bunch of people moving as one, not a single unique being – the “China mind” remains a metaphor, no more – China doesn’t actually have a single mind, it just outwardly acts like something that does.
At least that’s how the China Brain idea is usually interpreted. In this PPT I speculate wildly about social insects and siphonores (ie colonies and "super-organisms") and hmmm about the idea of hive minds – and in the process realise I’m not so sure about the "common sense" pooh-poohing of the “China Mind”.
It seems to me the most essential question in this is what exactly is ONE thing and what is MANY things? – the clear division between fundamental concepts such as “single” and “multiple” here start to look more hazy and less defined – and I’m quite convinced this issue is at the heart of understanding consciousness, since consciousness has to be both – a complex communication between parts, and yet one single perspective, one whole thing. There is a paradox right at the centre of consciousness - and that's what makes it so tricksy. Tricksy, tricksy.
* (aka the Chinese Nation or Chinese Gym – variations on the idea have been used by many different philosophers.)
** (look up the term "Supervenience" if you want to explore that idea further.)