Dec 05 2016

Westworld and Consciousness

westworld1The season finale of Westworld aired last night, a series based on a Michael Crichton book which was made into a 1973 film. I won’t give much away, so only very mild spoilers for those who haven’t seen it. I will say the last episode was probably the best of the season.

The basic premise of the book/film/series is that it takes place in a futuristic theme park in which guests can visit the old west populated by robots that are there solely for their pleasure.  They exist to lose gunfights, for sexual pleasure, to be victims or fill whatever role the guests want, and then be recycled to run through their plot loop all over again.

The HBO series uses the story line as an opportunity to explore the basic question of sentience. The robots are hyperrealistic. Unless you cut them open, you cannot tell them from a living human. They are extremely realistic in their behavior as well.

The robots clearly have a very advanced form of artificial intelligence, but are they self-aware? That is a central theme of the series. They have complex behavioral algorithms, they can reason, they express the full range of human emotions, and they have memory. They are kept under control largely by wiping their memory each time they are repaired, so that they don’t remember the horrible things that were done to them.

Some of the robots, however, start to break out of their confines. They “feel” as if they are trapped in a recurring nightmare, and have flashes of memory from their previous loops.

The show explores some interesting questions raised by this scenario. The first is, how can we tell if the robots are truly self-aware. Are they experiencing their own existence or are they the equivalent of Chalmers’ p-zombies, with no subjective experience. Chalmers’ position is that a machine can be made to do everything humans do without subjective experience, and therefore our current models of reality don’t explain why there is subjective experience.

I think Chalmers is wrong, and prefer Daniel Dennett’s approach. Consciousness is an endless internal circuit, the brain talking to itself and incorporating information derived through perception. Subjective experience, Dennett argues, is inseparable from the processing that our brains do. Behavior motivators, the basic reward and aversion circuits that are fundamental to central nervous systems, have to feel like something. Also, existing needs to feel like something or otherwise we would not be able to tell the difference between a memory and a live experience.

I found that one interesting tidbit in Westworld – the robots can sometimes immerse themselves in a memory and cannot tell the difference between a memory and a live experience. They can relive prior memories. This is actually a detriment, because it is confusing and they sometimes cannot tell if they are experiencing the current moment.

The designers of the robots in Westworld are struggling with the question of if their creations are sentient. Mild spoiler here – one programmer realizes at one point that the last critical ingredient to making the leap from software to sentience was having an inner voice, being able to talk to oneself. Other elements, like memory, perception, and behavior, were necessary but insufficient. They had to close the internal loop. That is probably not a bad metaphor for human sentience.

I also like that the show confronts another issue, the notion that the robots are completely programmable. How does that affect whether or not they are sentient. One of the robots that seems to have bridged the gap to full self-awareness is confronted with the fact that her behavior can be programmed. She resists the implications of this, that she has no real free-will, and insists that she is making her own decisions.

The show is just starting to confront that issue, but I think it has already delved pretty deeply into the question of sentience and free will. That question is beyond the scope of this article, but to quickly summarize, some philosophers feel that the deterministic aspect of how our brains work mean that they must follow the laws of physics, which means we don’t really have any free will. Our thoughts and behaviors and the inevitable outcomes of physical processes playing themselves out. This does not preclude making decisions, but those decisions follow the laws of physics.

The robots of Westworld are no different than humans. It is just a lot more obvious that they can be programmed, and you can do so directly if you have access to their software. In essence, they are machines. But humans are machines also, and we can be programmed. The only difference is that we don’t currently have the technology to fully access and control our “code.” There is no scientific reason, however, why we will not someday have access to that code. It is also very likely that we will merge our brain function with machine intelligence, but that is yet another topic of discussion.

Psychologists, in a way, study how to hack into the software shared by most people. It is clear that human behavior can be statistically influenced by external factors. In essence you can strongly influence the perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors of others if you know how how to hack the brain’s algorithms. This is essentially what magicians do, and there is increasing overlap between psychological experiments and magician performance. Mentalist Darren Brown has essentially built a career out of converting psychological experiments into magic tricks.

And yet people generally resist the notion that we are so easily manipulated. It does not feel like we are being manipulated. We feel like we are making a free choice, that we have reasons for what we do. But those feelings are just part of the brain’s algorithms, they are just another loop of the brain talking to itself and creating the illusion of free will. We are generally not aware of most of the things that influence our behavior. When asked to explain our behavior, we do not recognize even elements that were deliberately placed to influence our behavior, and instead will make up internal reasons.

The most dramatic examples of this are in the split brain experiments. If you cut the corpus collosum between the two hemispheres of a human brain, you end up with two separate brains each with their own consciousness, but sharing a body and still with some limited communication. If, say, you show one hemisphere an image and it then acts on that image, and then you ask the other hemisphere to explain the behavior, it does not know. It cannot know because it was not privy to the image. The person, however, still sees themselves as a single entity and is not aware of the duality in their split brain.

So, the left hemisphere must explain what the right hemisphere just did, when it cannot know. The person, however, does not say that they don’t know. They provide a plausible explanation for the behavior, one that we know is wrong, but the person believes it was their motivation. They were just as “programmed” as the robots on Westworld, and just as sure that they are making their own decisions.

The bottom line of all this, in my opinion, is that the fact that the robots of Westworld can be completely programmed is not incompatible with the conclusion that they are fully sentient and self aware. They are sentient machines, and those machines can be hacked. Humans are sentient machines, and our machines can be hacked as well. Right now we mostly hack our brains through perception inputs. We also hack them chemically. When necessary we can hack them surgically. We are just starting to hack them electrically.

Eventually we will be able to hack them at a neuronal level, Matrix style, and we will truly be no different than the robots of Westworld.


60 responses so far

60 thoughts on “Westworld and Consciousness”

  1. SteveA says:

    …So…Does that mean I get to have a pony?

  2. Elapid says:

    A few minutes ago, I sent my web browser to this blog, and then walked out of the room to feed my toads, anxiously thinking, “I know Dr. Novella watches Westworld, he’s a neurologist, I wonder if he’s posted any thoughts on the finale?” I was absolutely delighted when I talked back into the room to see the title of the newest blog entry.

    Artificial intelligence is a topic that I find fascinating, and is sort of near and dear to me. When consuming works of science fiction, have always found myself empathizing with with the robots, androids, synthetics, what have you, being mistreated by whatever creator or being it is that has power over them (there is an allegory for human slavery in here, somewhere). Almost always, both in the work of fiction, and when discussing this with others, people insist that the robot can’t be a person, can’t be truly ‘alive’ or sentient, because it was programmed.

    Weird as it sounds, this is one of the things that helped me lose my religion. I find medicine fascinating. I took several psychology courses in college, even though it wasn’t part of my degree program (Wildlife Ecology and Conservation? General Psychology is a gen ed). I spend hours on sites like this one reading about human behavior, and, subsequently, all of the ways our behavior can be influenced, and our perceptions deceived. I really came to understand that we, too, are programmable. Our ‘CPU’ is just wetware, running on biochemical and electrical signals.

    When I first started bringing this up to others (and, though my own religion was very weak at this point at best, but, I live in the rural Midwest, it’s hard to find even fellow sci-fi junkies who aren’t some flavor of spiritual), I was met with resistance. A lot of fellow sci-fi fans would agree that such intelligent robots, if/when they come to be, shouldn’t be mistreated, but, they were still different from us.

    The difference they wanted to cling to wasn’t the possible very real difference of physical materials: composites, metals, silicone, wires, not even a CPU vs an organic brain. “We are different,” almost all of them have insisted. “We are special. We have something they can’t.”

    That ‘something special’ is something that, a few years ago, I realized didn’t exist. Thanks to studying medicine, getting into skepticism, and having these discussions about AI (especially with friends I’d made in much more secular countries – thank you, internet), I discovered the word describing this concept so many people believed (that I had believed at one point), and that it was unscientific and dangerous: Dualism.

    “A robot can’t have a soul.”

    That belief has become rather frightening to me. It wasn’t that long ago in human history that most Europeans believed that Africans, Native Americans, and Aboriginals didn’t have souls (some still believe this), and that belief has been used to justify all manner of atrocities.

    This very year, I had someone who is, “Not religious, but, spiritual,” tell me that the depression so bad that it scared me into inpatient mental health care in an ER in 2012, “Was because your soul was sad.”

    After a round of musical prescriptions, I found an antidepressant that works extremely well. I guess my soul’s kryptonite is Bupropion ER. Funny how a supernatural ‘soul’ or ‘mind’, completely exterior from the physical world, can be ‘healed’ with pharmaceuticals.

    I threw quite a bit of fury in this guy’s direction. He apologized, and said he hadn’t meant to hurt me. I had to explain, though he didn’t seem to grasp it, that he hadn’t hurt me. I was fine, because I knew now that mind-body dualism is nonsense. I was angry because I wondered how many other depressed or otherwise suffering people he’d foisted this rhetoric on. I was angry because he’s far from the only person that does it.

    It makes me sad, too. Mind-body dualism is a belief that makes people extra vulnerable to harm both when they hold it, and when it’s held by people more powerful than they are, and it’s utter nonsense.

    I wish more people could understand that you can accept that you are a natural, physical being, that our minds are a function of our brains, that there’s nothing special or supernatural at play, and that doesn’t make our emotions and experiences any less valid or real.

    The sentient robots in Westworld have a leg up on us, there.

    TL;DR: Westworld is amazing. It’s the robot/AI story I’ve waited for my whole life. I’m so, so very glad they are exploring consciousness while utterly rejecting the idea of mind-body dualism, which is dangerous nonsense.

  3. TheGorilla says:

    I have more to say later, but a really quick clarification – Chalmers doesn’t think it’s possible to have a machine that would do all that minus subjective experience, and he makes arguments to this effect (ie consciousness is organizationally invariant – any substrate would work with proper organization). He thinks it’s logically coherent to have the physical without the accompanying experience, but not possible in the actual world

  4. calladus says:

    So does this imply matrix-style learning? Because it would be great to have the knowledge of a Ph.D without all that coursework!

    Or will the data just sit there in your memory, undigested and indigestible? You’ll technically “know” how a brain surgery is performed, but it would be dangerous for you to actually try it? You could download the file on how to juggle, but can never actually “install” it onto your wetware.

    Or will a data to memory download just not work? Will it be like trying to install Windows 10 on a Commodore 128? Are some people just incapable of receiving all that data?

  5. Bill Openthalt says:

    calladus —

    It doesn’t. Wetware isn’t like software and hardware, and how information is stored depends on the previous experiences (learning and others) of the brain. You don’t represent the PhD knowledge in the same way as I would, so apart from my rendering of what I know using language (which is a protocol to represent information in our brains in a way all humans who know the specific language to understand it), there is no way you can acquire that PhD information.

    Learning is how we program our brains, and language (spoken and written) is how we represent information.

    If you ask me, there are no shortcuts.

  6. MosBen says:

    Westworld was an original screenplay writing by Chrichton because he wanted to direct a movie. It received a novelization later (I wasn’t aware of the novel until reading Wikipedia), but the movie came first. Funnily enough, my wife and I watched the 1973 movie on the same night that we watched the episode of the TV show that included an Easter Egg for the movie.

    I don’t have much to add on the analysis of the depiction of consciousness as presented by the show, but it’s precisely because the show has shown such an interest in a big, interesting question that I think that it’s already better than Game of Thrones, which it’s allegedly intended to replace as HBO’s premiere show as the former show winds down. I’m sure that I’m going to get lots of push back on Facebook for this, but it’s the big reason why I prefer scifi to fantasy: fantasy is often way too preoccupied with “world building” and plot while science fiction grapples with big political, social, or ethical issues much more often.

  7. hardnose says:

    “the fact that the robots of West World can be completely programmed is not incompatible with the conclusion that they are fully sentient and self aware.”

    This post is pure fantasy, the mythology of the materialist religion. Not the tiniest bit of scientific evidence to confirm any of it. But you think it’s science because you confuse the materialist religion with science.

  8. MosBen says:

    Someone needs to create a webpage with an automatic hardnose post generator.

  9. TheGorilla says:

    Elapid… why would you think the mind being affected by drugs is a problem for dualism? Where are these dualists who think there’s no interaction between mind and body?

    Also, dualism is not unscientific. What a weird thing to say. There are plenty of good reasons to reject materialism, if not accept dualism – people need to get over this idea that dualism = soul.

  10. ccbowers says:

    “Our thoughts and behaviors and the inevitable outcomes of physical processes playing themselves out. This does not preclude making decisions, but those decisions follow the laws of physics.”

    I find this common explanation a little wanting. When people think of the word “decision,” they think of a person coming to a conclusion after some consideration. But in most people’s minds, it implies they could have come to a different conclusion. Being constrained by physics does not seem to allow room for coming to anything but the particular conclusion that was decided. Using the same word for those very different concepts seems a bit misleading.

    At the same time, there does seem to be a difference between the thoughts/actions that are involved in a deliberative ‘decision’ and those that are even perceived truly outside of our control (e.g., a reflex or a sudden reaction to something). There does seem to be difference, even if post hoc rationalization can be used in all of those scenarios. Perhaps in ‘decisions’ the post hoc rationalizations show slightly greater insight into experiences that may be causally connected than those that are more reactionary.

  11. Elapid says:

    TheGorrilla – see here, all of Dr. Novella’s entries on this very website about dualism.

  12. steve12 says:

    Can you define materialism please Dr. The Troll?

    You use it a lot, and you clearly say it’s wrong, but would you mind defining please?

  13. ccbowers says:

    “I think Chalmers is wrong, and prefer Daniel Dennett’s approach”

    I agree, but I don’t think Dennett has is quite right either. This does seem like one of those topics that never really gets a truly satisfactory explanation.

  14. mumadadd says:

    This is well worth a listen:

    This guy’s broken down primary consciousness (subjective experience) into base components, which is something I’ve not seen done before.

  15. TheGorilla says:

    Elapid – that’s not an answer, and Dr Novella gets a lot of stuff wrong when talking about mind/body. Why should a dualist be surprised that physical and mental are linked?

  16. Kabbor says:

    The way I look at the decision making free will argument is simply this: under an exact set of circumstances a person will arrive at a decision. If you could copy the decision making instance a million times you would always get the same result. It isn’t saying much except that decisions are causal.

    I’m not sure how well that holds up because it is impossible to test. Fun to speculate about though.

  17. TheGorilla – they aren’t just linked. There is evidence that the arrow of causation goes from the brain to the mind. The mind is what the brain does. There is no evidence for and no need for anything else. Other interpretations of the link violate Occam’s razor and have no known mechanism.

  18. TheGorilla says:

    Dr Novella – it would only be a violation of the razor if the physicalist theory were capable of accounting for the phenomenon… but it has serious difficulties and no dualist is going to say it does. Taking for granted that you are right about the evidence, why does the direction of causation matter? Take the naive soul view – would it be less dualism if the body moved the soul as opposed to the other way around? You’d still have both.

  19. BillyJoe7 says:

    steve12, give it up, there is no point in responding to an automatic post generator.
    MosBen, don’t even give it that much air.
    BillyJoe, practise what you preach. 😀

  20. MosBen says:

    TheGorilla, why isn’t dualism just light switch fairies, that is, something which isn’t theoretically impossible, but for which there is no evidence and the things that we do know about explain the phenomena that we see sufficiently such that there’s not really a good positive reason to believe that the fairies are there?

  21. tmac57 says:

    MosBen- I too went down that rabbit hole about Westworld becoming a book after the fact, when a friend of mind, who is an avid Crichton fan, swore that he had never seen a copy of it, and wasn’t even aware that Crichton had written the movie.
    There’s a good reason why he had never seen the book, since it apparently has been out of print so long that it now is worth about $300 on Amazon as a collectible. Also, it appears that it is actually just the screen play with other supporting materials rather than an actual novelization according to the Amazon reviews. Seems like I read somewhere that Crichton didn’t think it was worthy of a proper novelization.

  22. TheGorilla says:

    MosBen – a) because physicalism doens’t explain the phenomenon sufficiently? and b) I would say subjective experience is, uh, pretty good evidence of consciousness.

  23. MosBen says:

    Of the available evidence that we have, which of it tends to imply the existence of dualism? Steve’s claim in this and other writings is that the evidence we have points exclusively and reliably towards monism. In the light switch fairy example, the theory that the light switch controls the light does not have so much evidence that it eliminates the possibility of the fairies, but there is enough information that it can be considered reliably likely that no such fairies exist. It’s not enough to say that physicalism doesn’t explain everything. You need to either show either that it is impossible for it to explain some of what we see, or that there is compelling evidence for dualism.

    I don’t follow your second point. I think that both monists and dualists agree that we are conscious.

  24. TheGorilla says:

    MosBen – How familiar are you with philosophy of mind? The problem is not that physicalism ‘doesn’t explain evertyhing’ (technically it is, but I think you’re using it more akin to ‘current scentific knowledge’) but that physicalism *cannot* accommodate the phenomenon *in principle.*

    The second point is that if physicalism cannot accommodate subjective experience, yet we have subjective experience, then physicalism cannot be true.

  25. hardnose says:

    “There is evidence that the arrow of causation goes from the brain to the mind.”

    No there isn’t. If there were, you should have linked it. But you can’t because it does not exist.

  26. Steve Cross says:


    How familiar are you with philosophy of mind? The problem is not that physicalism ‘doesn’t explain evertyhing’ (technically it is, but I think you’re using it more akin to ‘current scentific knowledge’) but that physicalism *cannot* accommodate the phenomenon *in principle.*

    Explain please. Or if you don’t have time, could you suggest a reasonably brief, layman level summary of the reason’s you feel it is impossible.

    As far as I can tell, no matter how complicated or improbable it may seem, monism still seems to be the simplest and least unlikely explanation.

  27. CKava says:

    It’s Derren Brown not Darren Brown.

  28. bachfiend says:


    “‘There is evidence that the arrow of causation goes from the brain to the mind.’

    ‘No there isn’t. If there were, you should have linked it. But you can’t because it doesn’t exist.'”

    You did read the discussion of the split brain phenomenon, didn’t you? Did you understand it? Steve Novella referred to the two halves of the split brain having separate consciousness, but that’s just another way of stating that they have separate minds.

    It’s also evidence that the arrow of causation is from the brain to the mind, as Steve states. Evidence you claim doesn’t exist. The brain is physically split, and the individual acquires separate minds, not vice versa.

  29. Steve Cross says:

    As I recall, there are also some pretty convincing MRI experiments which conclusively show the brain activity associated with “decisions” BEFORE the person is consciously aware of the choice made.

    I have to find a link, but I’ve seen articles about it in quite a few sources.

  30. Joe vandenEnden says:

    Mr Gorilla,

    You said: “Dr Novella gets a lot of stuff wrong when talking about mind/body. Why should a dualist be surprised that physical and mental are linked?”

    Can you cite 2 examples of how Dr Novella is wrong about mind/body? Not “a lot,” just 2. I’m sincerely interested in how a layman feels superior to a neuroscientist on the subject of neuroscience.

    Eagerly awaiting your response.

  31. TheGorilla says:

    Man how do you quote?

    Steve Cross:

    Physicalism is (roughly) the thesis that any world with the same physical facts will be identical to the actual world. For our purposes, what this would mean is that, if physicalism were true, it would be impossible for a world to exist in which the physical facts were the same *but* the phenomenal (the subjective, experiential aspect of consciousness) facts were different. IE every creature in a physically duplicate world would be having the same experiences as their counterparts in the original world.

    The relationship between the physical and phenomenal facts is that of a necessary connection – there is no possible world with the same physical and different phenomenal. What this means, however, is that if there IS a possible world with the same physical facts and different phenomenal facts… that would show there is NOT a necessary connection between the two and physicalism, being the thesis that there is such a connection, would be false.

    It helps to illuminate here what we mean by “possible.” There are two types of possibility we can think about: nomological and metaphysical. Something is nomologically possible if it’s possible in within our world. Something is metaphysically possible if it’s logically coherent. For an example, a skydiver falling faster than terminal velocity would be nomologically impossible – it would violate natural laws – but metaphysically possible – it’s a completely coherent idea.

    So one of the more famous arguments against physicalism goes along these lines: (1) we can conceive of a physically duplicate world with no consciousness (2) conceivability —> metaphysical possibility (3) physicalism is false. It gets tricky here, so just take my word on it that reasonable people can disagree on whether or not to accept/reject (1), (2), or both. But at the very least I hope that it makes sense how we could think the ability to conceive of something would mean it is logically coherent (you can’t conceive of a square circle).

    Some reasons to find it conceivable for there to be no consciousness despite the same physical facts have to do with the properties that consciousness has. I’m just going to take a specific property — conciousness is *about* something; consciousness is always *consciousness of.* The technical term for this ‘aboutness’ is intentionality.

    Consider that property of consciousness… we can be conscious of things that are not present and things that *don’t even exist.* It doesn’t make sense to talk about atoms, sticks, rocks, etc being ‘about’ anything. (A certain arrangement of sticks might have meaning to us (ie arranged in the shape of the letter A), but that meaning is not intrinsic to the sticks – it’s derived from our own consciousness; they are literally meaningless to not just any other creature, but any human being who doesn’t have the background to see it as a symbol). I think it’s pretty accepted that this property of consciousness is something that emerges, but it also has (apparently) absolutely no presence in the constituent parts. We can describe the behavior of a liquid in terms of its atoms without losing anything – we get a full picture, but if we describe “thinking about consciousness” in terms of atoms, or even neurons, our description 100% loses the ‘aboutness.’ And if an objective, third-person scientific description (function, structure, etc) cannot capture the whole picture, doesn’t it seem possible that the ‘aboutness’ never had to be there in the first place?

    I’m not sure how clear this is. I remember it was tricky for me the first time I encountered it, and it also seems like semantic BS until you understand it (if you think it’s blah blah philosophy babble it’s because you haven’t understood it! I promise!). I probably should have used my brain and just linked this in the first place, but this IEP entry explains it better than I could:

    Anyways I’m not a dualist, but they get very unfairly beat upon because their position is only ever presented as the religious soul sort (which is fucking stupid and indefensible for many, many reasons) when the real question is just about the fundamental makeup of the world. IMO the best argument against that type of dualism is not to talk about science or chemicals but point out the degree to which bodily activity *constitutes* consciousness and cognition – any mind absent of a body would be… well, definitely not what religious people want it to be.


  32. edamame says:

    Steve cross read any intro article by chalmers….at his web site. Or his 1996 book. Pretty much req’d reading by now.

  33. edamame says:

    Yes cross the libet expts are good against naive substance dualism. Chalmers is not that.

  34. edamame says:

    West world is great but totally conflates issues of free will and consciousness. No big deal, just 309 more times I’ll have to clear it up at dinner parties….

  35. cozying says:

    Steven Novella,

    I always thought that all Chalmers did was reword and modernize the famous problem of other minds.

    “I think Chalmers is wrong, and prefer Daniel Dennett’s approach.”

    I think so too. Chalmers writes in a way that heavily relies on truth by definition, and endless self referential tautologies. It’s hard to definitively prove he is wrong. After reading his book on consciousness I was still left with this feeling that it didn’t matter, “so what?” I would tell myself. It doesn’t fundamentally actually matter if a zombie looks, speaks and acts exactly like a human. And we can’t tell the two apart. Does it really matter if the two can perform incredible feats of creativity? Maybe we will just have to slightly shift the definition of artificial consciousness to “indistinguishable in every measurable way from human consciousness.” Again so what? Impressive feat all in of itself.


    “West world is great but totally conflates issues of free will and consciousness.”

    Umm so no spoilers, but the her Steven was referring to clearly struggled with her own consciousness and freewill. She gained all that intelligence and still struggled and denied that she was on a set path, even when presented with the code.

  36. ccbowers says:

    MosBen – a) because physicalism doens’t explain the phenomenon sufficiently? and b) I would say subjective experience is, uh, pretty good evidence of consciousness.”

    This argument (a) is little more than an argument from incredulity. Many (most) philosphers identify as physicalists (although there is a significant portion that do not identify as such), so it is not just a matter of not spending time thinking about the issue.

    To put a finer point on your position, what piece(s) of evidence are missing that would satisfy your standard for sufficient explanation? Do you need 2 identical physical worlds with different consciousnesses (or lack thereof). Surely this is not a reasonable standard, and falls under pure incredulity if adhered to as the standard. It is not like we have no data to shed light on this issue. Steve has covered this a great deal in past blog posts.

    “I think it’s pretty accepted that this property of consciousness is something that emerges, but it also has (apparently) absolutely no presence in the constituent parts. We can describe the behavior of a liquid in terms of its atoms without losing anything – we get a full picture, but if we describe “thinking about consciousness” in terms of atoms, or even neurons, our description 100% loses the ‘aboutness.’ And if an objective, third-person scientific description (function, structure, etc) cannot capture the whole picture, doesn’t it seem possible that the ‘aboutness’ never had to be there in the first place?”

    This seems to be an argument about essentialism, but I’m not sure how this directly impacts the issue at hand the way you describe it. The very existence of higher level properties or ‘concepts’ does not really say anything about physicalism. Concepts are human constructs that help us make sense of the world. They don’t really ‘exist’ within the objects, but so what? These are representations that our brains make as part of our understanding of the world. The argument you made is just not convincing because it requires the agreement of many steps (which some people will veer off at various points) and even if you make it through the assumptions, the end result does not necessarily follow. It just creates room for credulity or incredulity to take over.

    You are not in a good position to argue from if, when arguing for a position, you are resorting to trying to show that the position is possibly coherent and conceivable.

  37. ccbowers says:

    Woops, I missed the initial quotation mark, so that last comment wasn’t towards MosBen, but quoting TheGorilla that began with “MosBen.”

  38. cozying says:

    I don’t know if anyone else saw this, but westworld reminded me a lot of the test in Ex Machina. In that movie Ava had to use all her abilities to manipulate, seduce and persuade her captor’s assistant to let her out.

  39. TheGorilla says:

    Ccbowers, I think you missed the point. Physicalism is a metaphysical position, and Chalmers (and other arguments) represent a problem for it — conceivability would render it false by definition (and I’m not sure how people disagreeing about premises is a problem?). And yes, if you accept the assumptions the conclusion follows necessarily. That’s just how valid arguments work. Literally undebatable.

    Saying this is just an argument from incredulity is to simply not understand it. Maybe find someone else to explain it better.

  40. Thegorilla – I don’t find that line of reasoning persuasive. I don’t see what difference it makes that an identical universe can be devoid of consciousness. The emergence of consciousness is contingent on history, and not intrinsic to our universe. Seems like a non sequitur.

    I also disagree with the argument about physicalism. Consciousness is not a property of matter. It is a process that matter can undergo. So in the end I think all such arguments are semantic BS – they are playing on the fact that our language has technical holes that allow for misunderstanding.

    Consciousness is a process, so it does not have the properties of stuff, and you can have stuff without consciousness.

    I know Chalmers is a property dualist, and does not believe in spirits. He thinks there is some purely materialist aspect of the universe we are just missing from our models. I don’t think he has made a persuasive argument and I think Dennett has demolished his position.

    I also think that neuroscientists can and do safely ignore the entire philosophical debate. This is not to say that philosophy is unimportant, just that neuroscientists assume consciousness is a non-dualist material phenomenon, and that assumption continues to serve them well – I think because it’s valid.

  41. Suraky says:

    I don’t watch the show… But the obvious thing that jumps out at me, is why aren’t the memories of the robots timestamped?

  42. Suraky – That is clearly deliberate. The robots have zero sense of the passage of time. They are deliberately in a loop that they play over and over with no sense of the passage of time. The park itself is a world without time.

  43. ccbowers says:

    “I don’t know if anyone else saw this, but westworld reminded me a lot of the test in Ex Machina.”

    Yes, Ex Machina is what I thought of when I read this post, but I have not seen West world, so I don’t know how similar it is.

    “Saying this is just an argument from incredulity is to simply not understand it. Maybe find someone else to explain it better.”

    Keep in mind, I was responding to what I understood you to mean. I did not intend to argue against the broader arguments against physicalism. Perhaps I misunderstood, or your words did not convey what you meant. I think it has to do with the word “conceive.” I think I was interpreting that word loosely. The more restrictive definition that you could be using actually doesn’t forward the argument very much, because it depends on your perspective on physicalism. It is a bit of a circular reasoning. That is, unless I am misunderstanding your words again.

  44. ccbowers says:

    “I don’t see what difference it makes that an identical universe can be devoid of consciousness. The emergence of consciousness is contingent on history, and not intrinsic to our universe. Seems like a non sequitur.”

    In what way could it be identical and not have developed consciousness? Certainly what we mean by history is part of what would make that universe otherwise identical, therefore it should have the same consciousnesses our universe has (or at least identical copies). That is to the extent that even imagining such a thing can be coherent.

  45. I was interpreting “physically duplicate” as having the same laws of physics. If by that he means an identical universe in detail, then premise 1 is false. If there are identical people in this identical universe, those people are conscious. It becomes meaningless, unless I am missing something.

    Otherwise you are just getting back to Chalmers’ p-zombies, which I reject.

  46. MosBen says:

    My wife and I watched Chappie just before the Westworld season finale. I had seen Chappie, but she hadn’t. While Bloomkamp’s movies aren’t perfect, I do enjoy them, and it made for a fun consciousness-themed evening.

  47. edamame says:

    cozying yes we could argue about this but I want to avoid giving spoilers, as you do, so maybe we would have to take it to reddit 🙂 I think you are right it is a bit more complex than I said, but Ford often seems to conflate them (I should have said).

    Gorilla Nice try but I think you got too deep in the thickets there with the modal distinctions. I think the basic claim is enough: if materialism is true, then the physical facts should fix the phenomenal facts. (People can replace physical/material with ‘neuronal’ or whatever the materialism du jour is). Equivalently, if it is possible for the phenomenal facts to vary while the physical state of the world remains the same, then materialism is false. The logical possibility of zombies would be a radical case of this….

    There are all sorts of problems with Chalmers’ technical philosophical argument. For instance, it logically implies that neuronal instantiation of consciousness is literally inconceivable. I find this ridiculous, because I actually do positively conceive of consciousness instantiated by brain states! (I’m not entirely sure, but I believe this is shown in a paper Access Denied to Zombies by Gualtiero Piccinini).

    Ultimately there is a battle of intuitions. On one hand, the amazing weight of evidence that we are evolved organisms and that our brains are evolved organs used to guide complex behavior, and that consciousness is just another feature of this organ, with no special ingredient needed to explain its operation.

    On the other hand, the seeming raw experience of qualia and its intransigent unwillingness to fit neatly into mechanistic explanation, as has been described by folks like TH Huxely–“How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the djinn when Aladdin rubbed his lamp in the story.”

    So far many great minds like Koch come away as property dualists or panpsychists. Others, like Crick end up taking the first line, seeing the second as little better than vitalists who prematurely threw up their hands in defeat, before the big discovery came in…

    I oscillate every few years, frankly, and am sympathetic to both camps, am basically agnostic. There is no need to be ultraconfident. It is only 2016. 🙂

  48. cozying says:

    Chalmers started off in mathematics in his younger days and then went to study with Douglas Hofstadter. I always thought his work was pretty much just smoke and mirrors. This might be the perfect place to ask this, does anyone here have a good skeptical perspective/criticism of Hofstadter? Or maybe a link or suggestion of a book to read.

  49. TheGorilla says:

    Dr novella,

    Neuroscientists cannot ignore philosophy even when you restrict it to doing research (as opposed to saying moronic things about free will) – the embodied theory of mind is a philosophical position that directly influences research programs. I’m very surprised to see you take that position. You don’t need to use philosophy to do science within a certain framework, but that framework is founded on (often unexamined) philosophical positions.

    When a physically duplicate world could be devoid of consciousness , physicalism is false — literally by definition. I went through this already and even dropped a link to make up for my presentation.

    Saying consciousness is a process doesn’t change anything about the issue of strong emergence. Unless you are just Defining consciousness as certain patterns of brain activity? But that sort of identity is plain false, in addition to question begging.

    You do realize that Dennett is an extreme minority position, right? I think the skeptical attitude about fields you (proudly?) don’t have expertise in should not be confidence that a minority position devastates the others. According to Dennett, saying “I’m in pain” doesn’t refer to anything. ANYTHING. Not that we’re confused and pain is actually not a thing but a certain pattern of brain activity – it doesn’t refer to literally anything at all. Accepting his solution commits you to that position.

  50. chikoppi says:

    [TheGorilla] When a physically duplicate world could be devoid of consciousness , physicalism is false — literally by definition.

    Am I missing something (or is the above phrase perhaps mis-worded)? That a world could be devoid of X doesn’t preclude that it is not sufficient for X.

    In other words, the premise (P) could be sufficient for but not necessitate the conclusion (Q).

  51. edamame says:

    chikoppi two physical duplicates should have the same experiences. If neither has any experiences, then we can’t conclude anything. But if one has experiences and the other doesn’t, or if they have different sets of experiences, then we have a problem for materialism.

    Gorilla it’s fine for them to ignore philosophy while doing the science. Not sure what you would protest to. Methodological naturalism is a time-honored tradition in science. Getting all caught up in the philosophical underpinnings is a waste of time. Similarly with consciousness, going on the hypothesis that consciousness is a brain state has been really fruitful for people who don’t want to actively explore that particular thesis at a philosophical level and spend 8 years reading the modal arguments and whether conceivability implies logical possibility (there are actually many papers written on this, by people who think it bears importantly on consciousness), when they could be using that time doing experiments.

    You are starting to give a pretty uncharitable reading of Dr Novella, for instance shooting way past his casual claims about Dennett, and overstating things (e.g., identity theory is patently false–really?). And you haven’t actually shown much familiarity with the well known problems with the armchair semantic, conceptual arguments for dualism you are espousing. You are acting as if these are good arguments. The zombie logical possibility arguments, for instance, are not.

    It is easy to come in here half cocked after taking an undergrad philosophy course or two, and act like you know more than the people here (because most of the people here are scientists). But you frankly aren’t showing much nuance, and are not being very charitable.

    Not very impressive.

  52. RickK says:


    You started with a false premise. “When a physically duplicate world could be devoid of consciousness…”

    If it is physically duplicate in every atom, every energy state, every quantum fluctuation, then any consciousness will also be duplicate. You can’t prove a point by assuming an impossibility.

  53. chikoppi says:

    I read “duplicate world” as meaning a parallel universe with the same (meta)physical laws but no instances of consciousness. I think I see now what you mean is a duplicate brain in the same universe, one version having consciousness and the other not (indicating a functioning brain alone would not be sufficient for consciousness).

    Whether or not a functioning brain is sufficient for consciousness all indications are that it is necessary. In other words, we have no indication of consciousness in absence of a functioning brain. Damage to a brain seems to impair the capacity for consciousness.

    Also, I’m not sure it makes sense to refer to consciousness as “a thing.” Ontologically speaking, there are “things” and there are concepts that describe those things. “Hot” is an example. Hot is not a thing that exists in itself, I can’t give you “a hot.” Hot describes the thermodynamic state of a thing (or system).

    In the same sense, “consciousness” may best describe a state of a system, akin to a state change.

    Once consciousness is no longer a thing it changes the metaphysical question, as we are no longer considering consciousness as a conceptual object but rather as a property.

    To return to your exercise above, I can imagine a universe without “heat.” That doesn’t preclude heat being a potential descriptive property of physical systems.

  54. Sylak says:

    Definitely have to watch that. Ex machina is now one of me favorite movies because of the really great way they address the question of self-awareness. This series seem to be something I would like. Also, my girlfriend saying she interested in sci-fi tv series is also rare, that’s also a thing making it a must to watch hehe. Unfortunately I don’t have HBO. I guess I have to find the episode somewhere else. The whole question of it we really have free will or are really self aware fascinates me. I have nothing meaningful to had and I hope this comment thread won’t be steered, again, by creationists troll.

  55. cozying says:

    One of the people who heavily influenced David Chalmers was Douglas Hofstadter. Chalmers specifically credits the book: godel escher bach, as one of the greatest inspirations of his life.

    He would later get his PhD under Hofstadter.

    I’ve noticed that these books have a cult following among cognitive scientists and people working on AI. I don’t find them particularly relevant, considering the numerous failed predictions Hofstadter made, and how no significant breakthroughs were made by following his self-referential/ infinite recursion loop theory of consciousness. I also find his treatment of godel to be way out of context, both in terms of historical significance and his impact on math.

    Anyways, I was just wondering if there are any skeptics out there with an interesting perspective/criticism of hofstadter. Or suggestions related articles and books to read on the topic.

  56. TheGorilla says:


    That’s question begging. The only reason to accept that is if materialism is true, but that’s the thing at issue.


    If I’m being uncharitable to Dr Novell hopefully he will correct me. I’m doing most posts on my phone and there’s a real room for mistake in interpreting short sentences while not being able to see them.

    But I’m pretty sure I explicitly stated that scientists can do their work without paying attention to philosophy. Nobody has time to deal with the hassle of research, grants, teaching, etc and keep up with a separate professional field. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. That however does not mean their work is removed from substantial philosophical underpinnings and it’s important to interact with philosophers. And not to mistake methodological assumptions with metaphysics.

    Which is it, BTW? Do I need to be more nuanced or am I talking to non philosophers? I’m not exactly intending to do more than point out that physicalism has problems and shouldn’t be taken as default. Which should be the automatic reaction when told that is the state of the academic literature. Saying that the conceivability argument fails or that Dennett destroys/synonyms the issue of the hard problem isn’t a good reaction. And perhaps the rampant anti philosophy attitude in skeptic and atheist communities colored my response tone.

    I have to go, if I didn’t address anything important ill come back for it.

  57. edamame says:

    Gorilla. He isn’t taking on Dennett’s Quining Qualia viewpoint, but a separate Dennettian line. It’s at best uncharitable to saddle him with the weird and (admittedly) preposterous parts of Dennett, just because he said one good thing about Dennett.

    I actually gave a good argument against Chalmers’ conceivability arguments: they fail because they imply that it is inconceivable that consciousness is a brain state. I said this above, and you did not reply. I gave the reference (I think I got it right: I am mainly sure that I wasn’t the first to notice that implication). I also gave what I think is a more reasonable diagnosis of the state of the dualism/materialism debate. I’m not a hard-line materialist. The arguments for each side have serious weaknesses.

    In your second-to-last post you just started throwing out one liners, uncharitable stuff, and…sort of went off the rails.

    Based on previous posts, I thought you were different. :O

    That said, I do think that materialism is actually a reasonable default, I would disagree with you that it isn’t. Without some prior reason to think otherwise, I take physicalism/materialism or whatever as reasonable about photosynthesis, DNA replication, and other features of biological systems.

    Consciousness is clearly a feature of biological systems with certain types of nervous systems, so it is perfectly reasonable to adopt a methodological naturalistic approach to it. Without additional evidence there would be no reason to think it is different from respiration or photosynthesis. Of course, there are arguments, reasons to think that it is different from respiration, which is enough to knock it off the default track and generate thousands of pages of arguments. Hence the TH Huxely quote.

  58. starskeptic says:

    A quibble – Westworld was novelized from Crichton’s script for the film, not the reverse.

  59. BillyJoe7 says:

    ^Someone’s late to the party. 😀

  60. TheGorilla says:

    Edamame, I must have missed that part of your post. I don’t really think we have anything to disagree with outside of the *degree* to which I was being uncharitable 😛

    But I do think that Dr novella is committed to Dennett on qualia if he wants to contrast his position against Chalmers re: dualism as a whole, not as a response to p-zombies. Chalmers and Dennett are much more alike than different on other matters, and Dennett only works as a solution to the hard problem with full commitment. I think Searle is more accurate to the average skeptic’s starting position.

    I actually think Dennett is more or less right (on qualia, beliefs, self) anyway. I think it’s not the hardest bullet to bite considering language issues and introspection limitations.

    But yeah, I get emotional on the internet. It’s usually fine on computer, but on phone I can’t really read what I’m replying to and make assumptions based on the bottom half of the community. Luckily other people are more consistently pleasant. All I want is respect for respect deserving views. While not respecting respect deserving people as much as I should 😀

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