Consciousness and pop stuff

Intro: What’s this blog about then?

Posted in Introduction by Trevor on April 15, 2011

Do you think a computer can be programmed to feel pain? Do lobsters have their own experiences? What about spiders? Or beetles?

Does a creature need to have a soul to be conscious? Or is it something that just arises from brain matter? And if it is, can it arise from computer matter also?

These are the sort of questions that the current science of consciousness is grappling with. I’ve written a PhD on the topic. But I’m also interested on what non-philosophers think about these things. So this blog looks at pop-culture things like movies to see what assumptions they make. Are robots portrayed as conscious, for instance? Or is it implied that a thing must have a metaphysical soul to be sentient?

For a fuller explanation, go to this page: What’s this about?

And this one explains the categories I use: Consciousness verdicts explained

Alrighty. On with the show. Huzzah.

Robot Love movie poster

Well, at least he is tall.

Trons (1982, 2010)

Posted in Consciousness-as-property by Trevor on April 14, 2011

The thing about the original Tron (1982) is that it doesn’t make any metaphysical sense. It isn’t supposed to though, it’s a kids’ film and has to be remembered as such. In the movie, games programmer Kevin Flynn sneaks into his old employers’ research building and starts hacking into the system, looking for evidence that his old colleague stole his best games.

"These outfits are SO cool!"

“These outfits are SO cool!”

Unfortunately for him, some other researchers have been researching matter teleportation using lasers in the same building. The computer system, in an act of self-defence that would make Symantec proud, powers up the teleportation laser and disintegrates Flynn with it.

This presents us with a number of practical scientific research questions. For instance, it is probably not a good idea to point your high-powered disintegration laser right at a chair where someone will be sitting when using a computer terminal. This probably breaks any number of Occupational Health and Safety laws. And I’m surprised there wasn’t more of an outcry from the OH&S community when the film came out.

Of course as we know, the computer didn’t only disintegrate Flynn; it also identified the position of every particle of his physical self, so that he could be reconstituted later, like a big orange juice, as part of the teleportation process.

So all this digitized data about Flynn goes into the big computer and his physical self disappears for the moment, presumably in a cloud of meat-gas which isn’t a happy thought for whoever is coming into the room next.

Watch Flynn being lasered by bad OH&S practices here.

Flynn wakes up as a computer program, a digitized app of himself, inside the big computer. Strange to say, the plot up til now has actually been the more believable part of the movie. When Flynn wakes up as a program, he finds himself in a world of other programs who know they’re programs and who are walking around “inside” the computer doing their program things. They’re not “simulated people”, they’re just accounting programs, word-processing programs, graphics-editing programs wandering around in the computer. Of course this doesn’t make any sense, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a kids’ film.

Shenanigans ensue. Eventually the wrongs are righted and Flynn is returned to the real world, his meaty molecules sucked back out of the air and returned into Jeff Bridges shape. What a relief for the next person to enter the room.


You remember these guys. Everyone does, yeah?

The sequel, Tron Legacy, came out 28 years later and is aimed at the same audience; literally the same people who were children in 1982 and have now grown up. Just as in the old Tron, the protagonist – Sam, son of Kevin – gets zapped by a laser (thus making him a lasee) which digitizes him and loads him into the computer system.


Oooh, yeah, baby, yeah!

Sam wakes up in “Programland” and further shenanigans undergo ensuement. This time the writers have altered it a bit. Programland is no longer some weird place where programs walk around doing their word processing functions but a virtual, simulated world which Old Flynn and his buddies have built over time. The people there are artificially-intelligent simulated people. So this makes a bit more sense now.

Anyway, the plot happens, wrongs are righted, Michael Sheen impersonates David Bowie, and Old Flynn learns the true meaning of Christmas or something.   SPOILERS HERE >>   Sam gets re-lasered back into the real world, only this time he brings with him Quorra – a young woman of almost childlike innocence who has an intellectual love of Jules Verne and who nonetheless gets around in black latex most of the time.


Oooh, yeah, baby, yeah!

She is a purely digital creature, one of a race of people who evolved spontaneously from the digital undergrowth of Programland. She is also reconstituted via magic laser into the physical world so that Sam can become romantically involved with her and also learn the true meaning of Christmas and black latex.

So. The Consciousness Verdict.

Tron Legacy is basically not a very philosophical film. It’s really just a long advertisement for motorbikes that don’t exist and you can’t buy. The startling idea that a purely digital creature could have its own consciousness, and that this reflects on our own metaphysical situation, tends to take a back seat to the breathless “Cor-wouldn’t-be-cool-to-have-a-computer-like-that-where-you-could-ride-motorbikes-and-get-a-hot-girlfriend-who-reads-books” aspect.

On the other hand, it’s taken for granted that all the digital characters (eg. digital Sam, digital Flynn, Clu, and Quorra) all have their own subjective experiences. Nobody ever says, “Ah this is just a simulation, none of you really feel anything”. And this suggests that the audience are okay with the idea. Thus the film does demonstrate the Idealism-or-Similar principle. However the film, like current philosophical academia IMSO, undervalues the importance of this idea.

(To reiterate the Idealism-or-similar principle ad nauseum, we infer the existence of an external world from our conscious experiences, but the “virtual person” possibility means we cannot infer anything more than an informational correspondence between our subjective experiences and the external world which causes them. For more on this see Unmaterialism 4.0)

Once they’re back in the “real” world, Sam and Quorra forget the philosophical implications of what they’ve just seen and just head off to look at sunsets, and ride motorbikes and generally explore the world of black latex. Which, now I put it that way, sounds like a pretty good idea.


Its not just about hot chicks in black leather. Theres also this person.

In the end, it’s a Consciousness-as-Property film really. Though in this world, consciousness isn’t a property of matter as such, it’s a property of information processing.***  Nonetheless, there’s no magical spirit that has to go into the computers to make the simulated people “come alive”, so it’s not a dualist world. In summary, if you want to see a brain-twisty, philosophical film, then go see Inception. If you want  black latex and loud music by Daft Punk – and who doesn’t from time to time – see Tron Legacy.

*** That is, the thing that is conscious doesn’t have to be a physical thing, it can be a digital representation or model of a thing. Although, because information can’t exist in the absence of a physical thing to encode it, you could say that it is ultimately a property of matter. I don’t know and I don’t have to care because I am a (sort of) Idealist and we don’t have to worry about all that. What a relief.