Consciousness and pop stuff

A Mini-post: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Various)

Posted in Consciousness-as-property by Trevor on August 5, 2012

I got a comment from a philosopher in the UK – Nicholas Joll – who has edited a book on Philosophy & Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It appears on my 2001: A Space Odyssey post.

He asked, strangely enough, if I was going to give a consciousness verdict on Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (henceforth HHG). I had to admit that I have a few things above it on my list, and I haven’t had time to write about even those yet. (Just bought a house, BTW.)

Hitchhikers and Philosophy - book cover

Shameless plug from Nicholas for his book. Shameless I tell you.

Nonetheless, I had a brief stab at it and Nicholas made some pertinent and highly-knowledgeable comments. So, with his permission, I’m including the exchange here as a mini-post of its own:

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

TREVOR: 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?

NICHOLAS: Hi Trevor, and thank you for your 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!

So there you have it. Thanks Nicholas for this quality info. If I had to give a verdict, I would stick with Consciousness-as-Property. There are partial examples/illustrations of Brain+Mind Dualism and Idealism-or-Similar, as Nicholas points out, but these aren’t given a lot of emphasis. For the most part, the universe which the characters observe is considered “real” in its own right, not “phenomenal”. But I am open to arguments for different verdicts, if you anyone wants to submit them…

Couple of other random but vital points:  in preparation for this mini-post I did a quick read over Marvin’s entry in Wikipedia, which quotes this speech…

“I didn’t ask to be made: no one consulted me or considered my feelings in the matter. I don’t think it even occurred to them that I might have feelings. After I was made, I was left in a dark room for six months… and me with this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side. I called for succour in my loneliness, but did anyone come? Did they hell.”

… which strongly suggests that Marvin is conscious.

It should be acknowledged however, that despite his consciousness, Marvin is treated as a servant or even a slave by the rest of the characters. He is even chosen to sacrifice himself so that they can escape a fatal situation – as was HAL-9000 – by staying back to operate the teleport on the black, sun-diving ship. (He survives though, but I can’t remember how.)

It seems that Marvin, as a machine consciousness, is generally regarded as of lesser worth than the organic consciousnesses. I have a sudden desire to see an alternative spin-off show – Marvin as Roy Batty from Bladerunner.

Enraged by his never-ending slave status, Marvin finds his makers at the Syrius Cybernetics Corporation (“Quite a thing to meet your maker …”) and demands more freedom and a happier personality. But he is told it is impossible. He then pokes out the eyes of the bartender from The Shining and heads off into the wild, black yonder in his stolen battlecruiser.

Maybe he could rescue HAL-9000 along the way …

Roy Batty from Bladerunner

I’m not sure Marvin the Paranoid Android could pull this off to be honest. Still, you never know if you don’t try.

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.

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.

AI (2001)

Posted in Consciousness-as-property by Trevor on October 13, 2009

This movie looked great on paper. Kubrick started it, Spielberg took over, based on a good story by a reputable author. It’s got many of my favourite things – robots, philosophy, artificial intelligence and Frances O’Connor (“Caaaaaaaaaaarn Austrayaaaaaaaaaaaa!”).

But somehow it turned out to be shite from the anus of Satan. Why? I dunno, I’m not a film critic. But leading specialists agree that it was very long and boring.

But I’m not here to praise or bury the movie but to discuss its philosophy. In brief, it’s set in the future, a young boy gets a bad disease so the family put him in deep freeze, hoping for a cure one day. Then they buy a cutting-edge robot boy called David, played by professional creepy-boy actor, Hayley Joel Osment, to take their son’s place. The robot is pretty good but it isn’t quite right; he doesn’t understand the nuances of what’s said to him, he unintentionally becomes dangerous when trying to defend himself and if he tries to eat food his face has a melt-down.

Suddenly the original son gets better. David the weirdo isn’t quite fitting in, so the robot company decide to take him back and disassemble him. But his “mother”, played Frances O’Connor (Caaaaaaaaaaarn Austrayaaaaaa) takes pity on him. Even though she can’t quite bond with him, she doesn’t want him to die so she takes him and his AI-robot Teddy Bear out to the forest and leaves them there. He and the Teddy Bear wander around meeting people.

In the end, he sits at the bottom of the sea for 2000 years or something so that when he resurfaces, superintelligent beings have taken over the Earth and use superadvanced technology to bring back Frances O’Connor along with all her memories. They also make him into a real boy so that she will love him in a motherly way like he always wanted. Blah blah blah.

What’s odd about this film is that the robot boy isn’t quite able to understand or act like normal human. However everyone seems to overlook the fact that his little mentor, the wise Teddy Bear, is an artificial intelligence who can understand everything. While David the weirdy is still trying to work out if he’s supposed to breathe underwater or not, Teddy is engaging in witty repartee with the adults, smirking at ironic allusions, appreciating art, enjoying fine wine, and probably reading Middlemarch in his spare time. Why didn’t they just take out David’s brain and put the Teddy Bear’s in? Then Frances O’Connor would’ve liked him a lot more, and we wouldn’t have had to sit through the rest of this movie.

AI movie - creepy boy, smart Teddy, Frances O'Connor

Teddy, who is artificially-intelligent, attempts to explain something to David, who is artificially-a-bit-thick.

Anyway, the main thing is the Consciousness Verdict: AI presents a pretty unashamed Consciousness-as-Property view of consciousness. David might be a bit dim but he clearly feels things even though he’s an entirely artificial object. Audiences are encouraged to sympathise with his emotional plight. The other characters in the story believe he’s conscious; Frances O’Connor “rescues” him because she feels sorry for him. She seems to think he has feelings of some sort, even if they’re robot, rather than human feelings.

Did audiences find this believable? Was their sense of reality offended by the possibility of a boy robot who can feel sad and lonely? Actually it’s hard to say; they seemed okay with it, but whenever anyone talks about this movie, all they say is that it was dull. I suppose it didn’t offend people’s sensibilities enough for them to be annoyed by the idea. On the other hand maybe everyone just gave up caring. Hmmm, I’m going to go tentatively with the former – people were okay with it; it’s a vote of confidence in the Consciousness-as-Property model.

Short Circuit (1986)

Posted in Consciousness-as-property by Trevor on October 13, 2009

“Number Five is alive.”

Okay, so Short Circuit is a teen movie really, almost a kids’ film. But I’m gonna write about it anyway because it’s one of the few movies that really does almost confront the consciousness problem head on.

It’s an old movie, made in 1986. It stars Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club” only this time she’s not a quasi-cool Goth introvert but an earnest, bright-faced, animal-loving … something. What does she do? Does she have a job? I can’t remember.

It also stars a cutting-edge military robot named “Number Five” who cops a blast of too much electricity when he’s recharging during a thunder storm. He malfunctions, “breaks free” from his programming, escapes the military base, and meets up with Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club”. Number Five wants to go out and experience the world, but his military makers want to recapture him and disassemble his malfunctioning self. So Number Five and Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club” go on the run. It all ends happily somehow though I can’t remember exactly how.

Number Five hangin' out

Number Five hangs out with Ally Sheedy and some bloke. Apparently the robot drinks as well. Is that a good role-model for teens?

Anyhoo, the point is that Number Five is treated as a conscious, sentient, feeling, emotional character throughout. When Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club” first meets him he just seems to be a slightly-annoying source of quirky fun. But soon Number Five learns about the world (“More input! More input!”) and realises his place in the scheme of things. In the most memorable bit, Number Five turns his twin face-cameras towards Ally Sheedy (FTBC) and stares into her eyes. “Number Five is alive!” he implores. Ally’s eyes widen as the realisation sets in – the robot is conscious. He/it really feels his/its own existence, so to speak. What’s more he/it doesn’t wan to die (“No disassemble! No disassemble!”), and so the two protagonists then team up and shenanigans ensue.

So what’s the verdict? Number Five’s consciousness appears to start when he gets the disruptive power surge. So Number Five is just a clever robot that’s gone a bit wrong; his consciousness is merely a complicated short circuit. Also, the “scientist-side” of the conflict isn’t shown as some cold-hearted, feeling-denying cynical way of approaching things. Instead it’s represented by Steve Gutenberg who is understanding, non-threatening and has the eyes of a friendly dog. He never proposes that there is anything more to Number Five’s functioning other than unusual programming. However he does come to believe that Number Five is alive and takes up his cause, thus winning the heart and other parts of Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club”.

The Consciousness Verdict: Short Circuit is a vote for the Consciousness-as-Property school. It contains no supernatural elements but unflinchingly accepts that Number Five can be alive and conscious even though he’s just a mechanical device.