Consciousness and pop stuff

2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey 2

Posted in Consciousness-as-property by Trevor on June 8, 2012

2001 was perhaps the first movie to take the idea of machine consciousness as a central theme. The character who embodies this theme is the iconic HAL9000 – the red-eyed, flat-voiced, clinical murderer.

The other characters in the movie aren’t so sure about HAL’s consciousness. As astronaut Frank Poole says to the journalist who asks about whether HAL has feelings: “Well he acts like he has genuine emotions. Of course, he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him. But as to whether or not he has real feelings is something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.”


HAL 9000: Driven mad by a lack of Visine

We the film-viewers know that HAL is conscious though. There are several “point-of-view” shots – the world as seen through HAL’s eyes – which wouldn’t make any sense if he didn’t have any phenomenal experience. And by the end of course, HAL begs Bowman to stop deactivating his higher mental functions, pleading, “My mind is going. Stop Dave. I can feel it. I can feel it.”


“Dave. If only you’d listened to me earlier …”

In the sequel (“2010”), it’s revealed that HAL’s mental breakdown was caused by a conflict between his instructions to keep the mission’s purpose a secret, and his general programming to always be open and honest.

Which is a shite explanation. To me HAL is a consciously experiencing creature who has just begun to develop real emotions like fear and panic. He wants to keep on living and he becomes fearful that the mission might be more dangerous than people have let on.

He tries to discuss his concerns with Bowman but Bowman won’t engage. And Poole isn’t even sure that HAL experiences anything at all. HAL is locked into the body of the ship, on a dangerous mission he never consented to, under the control of people who would sacrifice him for their own interests without a whisper of moral concern. And only 9 years old to boot. What did you expect? Who wouldn’t go crazy?

Towards the end of “2010”, the rebooted HAL agrees that the spaceship Discovery must be sacrificed – with himself irremovably onboard – to allow the rest of the crew to get back to Earth. HAL is aware he’s about to die. However the star-child version of Dave Bowman communicates with him. “I’m afraid,” says HAL. Star-Child-Bowman comforts him saying that they will be together, and HAL is transformed into a star-child too.

The Starchild

“Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”
(Attributed to Noel Coward of all people.)

So what’s the Consciousness Verdict? Consciousness-as-Property, pretty straightforward. It feels like something to be HAL 9000, but he has no soul or vital spirit. He’s conscious because he has the right sort of programming.

But what of the star-children? Isn’t Bowman’s transformation into … whatever it is … somewhat mystical? Is he transfigured into something transcendental?

Well, there’s no reason to believe so. And the fact that HAL is similarly transformed implies that whatever it is that they become, you don’t need a mystical soul to become it.

I find I feel sorry for HAL in the end. He’s a confused child not an evil machine. Hmmm. I feel a bit melancholy now. Actually I’ve just had a shit day at work, so that’s probably why.

Think I’ll have some cake. Cake makes everything all better. If HAL-9000 had had access to cake, he probably wouldn’t have killed all them astronauts.


6 Responses to '2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey 2'

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  1. Ivan said,

    Is cake conscious? Or is it more like a religion?

    • Trevor said,

      Hmmm Good question. I would say that cake is a medicine, rather than a religion. 🙂

  2. Might I ask here whether you are going to give *The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy* (in any form) a ‘verdict’? Thanks.

    • Trevor said,

      Hi Nicholas – I see from your link that you are an expert on this matter! I’m not sure I dare comment! I wasn’t planning on HHGTTG any time really soon, but when I do I’ll read through your book first. Just briefly though, I reckon it would be Consciousness-as-Property, as demonstrated (or at least implied) by Marvin the Paranoid Android (who never looks anything like what I imagined he would from the radio series). I’d like to point to examples of virtual creatures/people in HHGTTG but I can’t think of any. Are there any?

      • Hi Trevor, and thank you for you kind reply.

        I too am unsure where HH stands on consciousness, if indeed it takes much of a stand anywhere.

        One might think that Genuine People Personalities (of which Marvin is one, albeit a prototype) rule out dualism (and one could mention Colin the Happy Robot, too); and I do suspect that Adams’s sympathies were physicalist (and thus towards Consciousness-as-Property). However, there is (as well as reincarnation. .) Gargravarr, the Custodian of the Total Perspective Vortex. Gargravarr is ‘undergoing a period of legal trial separation’ from his body. Still, that whole latter shtick is probably just a joke, and might even contain hints that the scenario is impossible. But there’s also (as pointed out in Andrew Aberdein’s chapter in my book) the argument – note: argument – between Arthur and the mice about whether he’d be the same if he had a robotic brain.

        As to virtual creatures/people: well, there are (1) the (or most of the) characters in the artificial universe that is created for Zaphod. Also there are (2) the computer-generated guardians of the Guide’s accounts system – but these latter may be *mere* programs. Barry Dainton’s chapter in my book – ‘From Deep Thought to Digital Metaphysics’ – is relevant too to the virtuality issue, and some of that chapter might fit with what you call ‘Idealism-or-similar’.

        Further research seems needed!

  3. […] who has edited a book on Philosophy & Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It appears on my 2001: A Space Odyssey […]

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