Consciousness and pop stuff

Inception (2010)

Posted in Idealism-or-similar by Trevor on October 9, 2010

SPOILERS! All my posts contain spoilers but I’ve never warned anyone up til now because I haven’t written about anything recent enough to worry about. But this time beware: spoilers ahead.

Funny thing about getting older; you remember all the star actors when they were teenagers. In this film, Leonard DiCaprio leads a crack team of high-tech spies, which includes Juno and the geeky one from “Ten Things I Hate About You”.

Leonardo, Juno and geeky teen

Attack of the Children: The kid from ‘Growing Pains’ leads Juno and the geeky one from ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’ on a high-tech industrial espionage mission

But enough of that.

“Inception”, the movie. What happens? It’s set in the future. Using advanced technology, a team of industrial spies plug their brains into the brains of powerful people they want to spy on. They set up dream-world scenarios in which they all wander about together, having dream-like, symbol-laden adventures. By this method they can discover the industrial secrets of their target individuals. Shenanigans ensue.

So what’s the Consciousness Verdict? Well it’s kind of obvious what I’m going to say, I guess. The characters perceive a world around them which is not physical. In fact, they’re in danger of forgetting the fact that these worlds aren’t physically real. In the final shot of the movie, Leonardo’s “reality indicator” – the spinning top – continues to spin and we are left waiting for it to fall. That is, we are left with the possibility that Leo has never, in fact, woken up from a dream state, and nothing we’ve seen in the film is actually physically real. So there you go – that’s Idealism-or-similar.

Now, the movie doesn’t actually stake an Idealist-or-similar claim, as such. In the world of the movie, there is a “top-level” of reality, a physical world in which they all exist, and from which they dive into their dream-worlds. However it is also the case that the characters can’t tell the difference between a physical and a non-physical world. Observing a physical world is exactly like observing a phenomenalist world, i.e. perceptions consist of conscious experiences.

Given that that’s the case, how can a person then go on to say that they know these conscious experiences definitely correspond to a really existing physical world? All you can really claim is that you’re having a bunch of conscious experiences that you believe to be caused by an outside world of some kind. So, in effect, the movie illustrates the argument for Idealism-or-similar even though it doesn’t explicitly take on that worldview.

The movie also illustrates a point which I’ve repeatedly made in many lectures I’ve given on this topic in the shower: “The world we see is not like a big machine. It is more like a dream that we’re all having.” The world around you can be regarded as non-physical, but the people around you are still real. Their bodies are not physical but their consciousnesses still exist. That is, there are others in this non-physical universe who are having similar conscious experiences to your own.

The question arises: who else in this “dream” is having such experiences? Can we be sure that other people in the “dream” are doing so? What about other things like dogs, elephants, lizards, eels, ants and jellyfish? Within the “dream world”, can we answer this question using scientific methods?

I argued in my thesis that the answer to that is ‘No’. We only have the “Argument from Analogy” to answer this question, and this doesn’t provide us with testable scientific hypotheses. I’m not saying it’s not valid, but I am saying it’s not scientific. The beliefs are justified by philosophical rather than scientific means. Just like the belief in an external world beyond one’s own conscious experiences.

I’ve blathered about this more on my other blog  – – and also in my ten-pager, “What the hell my thesis was about?” (downloadable from this unmaterialism page)

Alrighty, I’ve gone on long enough and made hardly any jokes at all, sorry. Go see “Inception” though, I thought it was a jolly good show.

The Matrices (1999-2003)

Posted in Idealism-or-similar by Trevor on May 25, 2010

YOUNG BALD AUSTRALIAN: Don’t try to bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only realise the truth.

NEO: What truth is that?

YOUNG BALD AUSTRALIAN: There is no spoon.

NEO: Caaaaaaaaarn Strayaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

It will come as no surprise to know that I’m not the first to write about the philosophy in The Matrix movies. It’s already become a slightly-hackneyed example used by academic philosophers to illustrate assorted conundrums. There are even whole books about it. Which I’ve not read, I’m sorry.

Also there’s a documentary called “Return to the Source: Philosophy and The Matrix” in which a bunch of academics and other crazy people talk about how it’s an allegory of scepticism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Christianity, post-modernism, Transcendental Idealism and anything else they happen to be a crank for. Pretty much, if you believe it, you can find an allegory for it in The Matrix movies. View the documentary online here.

One of the reasons I liked the first film is that I saw it when I lived in Sydney. And it was filmed in Sydney, it’s full of Sydney buildings and landmarks. Which means that when you step out of the cinema there, you step out into the Matrix. Which is a great wheeze if you’re philosophically inclined.


Come to Sydney! It doesn't really exist! (Yet property prices are high.)

Anyway, as discussed on the Consciousness Verdicts explained page, I am a crank for Idealism-or-similar. Therefore that’s what I see in The Matrices. Here’s why:

Let’s focus on the first movie. The philosophically interesting character here is not Neo the hero, but Agent Smith, the villain. He’s played by Hugo Weaving (Caaaaaaarn Strayaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!) and he talks in an unnatural, sing-song sort of voice that no real person has ever had, except of course for Carl Sagan. See Agent Smith doing Carl Sagan here.

Agent Smith wearing an outfit which the other agents complained about.

Agent Smith wearing an outfit which the other agents complained about.

Smith is entirely virtual, he’s just a computer program, one of the AIs that has enslaved the humans. Is he sentient? We have every reason to believe so, and Morpheus actually calls the agents “sentient programs” when he introduces them.

So within the world of the Matrix movies, conscious experiences can be generated by an underlying substratum which is very different from the experiences themselves. That is, Agent Smith experiences the world within The Matrix as if it’s an actual world, whereas in fact it’s all computer generated. And so is he.

His consciousness is not something which arises from the brain in his head – it arises from the computer system which executes the Matrix. When Agent Smith sees a spoon – just like the bald, Australian child – he can feel it, touch it, hear it, smell it and taste it. (Do spoons have a taste?) But it’s also the case that – in a very real sense – there is no spoon. That is what I call “Idealism-or-similar” (or Phenomenalistic Representationism to be more precise).

The spoon that isn't there. And Angry Anderson in the early days before the angry part took over.

The spoon that isn't there. And Angry Anderson in the early days before the angry part took over.

Now – I’m going to get a bit finicky here – when I say “there is no spoon”, I don’t mean that nothing but the perception of the spoon exists. Outside of the human/agent perceptions of the spoon, the spoon does also exist as a bit of code in the Matrix computer. All the humans could drop dead (or continue-to-lie-down dead) and this bit of computer code would still be there. The code holds all the information needed to create the “perception-of-spoon” but it is not itself a spoon. Hence “there is no spoon”.

To put it in terms of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, the spoon which Agent Smith perceives in the Matrix is “phenomenal” or a “thing-for-us”. Whereas the bit of code which determines this perception is “noumenal” or a “thing-in-itself”. There you go – that’s Kant’s Transcendental Idealism in 38 words. If you can do better, I’ll send you a Mars Bar.**

Righty. So the point is that the situation which Agent Smith is in is the same situation we are in. We have a set of conscious experiences and these are caused by some kind of external structure which we cannot perceive.

In fact, even outside the Matrix this appears to be the case. In the later movies Neo demonstrates an ability to access some other level of reality which underlies the real world and this gives him magical powers. This probably backs up the idea that these movies are even more Idealist. Maybe. Who cares? I gotta confess, once it started to get all magicky my interest started to wane.

In the last film a guy called The Architect who looks like Tom Wolfe’s suit with Donald Sutherland’s head stuck on it comes on and explains everything.

The Architect: Tom Wolfe's suit with Donald Sutherland's head stuck on it.

The Architect: Tom Wolfe's suit with Donald Sutherland's head stuck on it.

When I first saw the movie I had no idea what he was talking about. But, now that youtube has been invented, I can go back and listen again. Listen to The Architect explaining everything here.

Basically what he says is that The Matrix was built to contain humans, however humans have this thing called free will which defies mathematical modelling, and because of this the Matrix never really lasts forever. Instead, the freewillness builds up in the system and sooner or later a figure like Neo comes forward who has to be let out. This person then goes and starts a new human settlement as soon as the AIs have destroyed the existing one. This has happened five times before. (This time however, Neo really is The One and he beats the AIs instead.)

So here’s an interesting point: the writers of The Matrix draw a strong distinction between human intelligence and machine intelligence. That is, machine intelligence is algorithmic while humans have unsimulatable free will. But free will isn’t bound up with consciousness. The AIs are conscious but they don’t have free will. Which must feel a bit shit I would imagine. Doesn’t seem to bother them though. I guess they’re programmed not to worry about it.

Alright. That’s all. Carry on simulating.

** No I won’t.

Star Trek in general

Posted in Idealism-or-similar by Trevor on November 8, 2009

So. Star Trek then. With its army of computer-savvy fans, can anything original be written about this show? I would say the answer is “No”. (Barring mad things like the USS Enterprise is made of marscapone.)

But that doesn’t matter because the point of this blog isn’t to say original things; it’s to classify pop culture things according to their assumptions on consciousness. But rest assured, everything I talk about here has probably been discussed in detail by someone out there in internet-land.

The Star Trek universe is, on the face of it, a Consciousness-as-Property universe. However it also contains a few tantalising tendencies (if you find this sort of thing tantalising, which I do) towards the Idealism-or-Similar camp.

First up, let’s talk Consciousness-as-Property. The big, ol’ example right there in the middle of the show, the one everyone talks about, is of course Mr Data.

Mr Data: A big, ol' example.

Mr Data: A big ol' example right in the middle of the show.

Now I won’t blather on about this too much because it’s kind of obvious. Mr Data is the android who is a member of the Star Trek crew. He looks and acts like he’s human (mainly) but he’s entirely artificial. He usually doesn’t have emotions but in some episodes and movies, he gains them by having the relevant chip inserted in his head. Read all about Mr Data here.

So the obvious question is: is Mr Data sentient? In fact, the same question occurred to the writers who, in the second episode of the Next Generation series, addressed this very question. In the episode (“The Measure of a Man”), Mr Data is scheduled for dismantling but he goes to court to prove he is a fully-experiencing person, despite his physical difference, and so deserves legal rights. The court rules against him and he is destroyed at the end of the episode, never to appear again. No, of course that’s not true, you can guess how it really ended.

So generally speaking, Star Trek writers and viewers are pretty comfortable with the idea that an artificial copy of a person is also a conscious, sentient, experiencing person. He doesn’t need a soul, he doesn’t need to have some special organic life-essence. His consciousness just arises as a property of his physical, positronic brain. That’s Consciousness-as-Property, bang to rights.

The second example everyone talks about is the Doctor from the Voyager series. The Doctor doesn’t physically exist in the normal sense. It is a 3-D moving hologram of a simulated person that is projected into the medical bay by the ship’s computer. He can also grasp and lift things – he has a sort of “physical presence” because the computer also projects a sort of human-shaped force-field into the space he appears to occupy.

Star Trek Doctor - arbitrarily bald

The Doctor in Star Trek Voyager. Cruel hologram programmers made him bald. But it's okay, they also programmed him to like it.

So is the Doctor sentient? Generally speaking, the characters within the show accept that he is, as do the fans. Someone on a Star Trek discussion forum posted this very question – “Are Mr Data and the Doctor sentient?” It generated 5 pages of discussion, and generally the response was in the affirmative, Captain. Though some people were more willing to attribute sentience to Data than to the Doctor. Read the forum here.

Let’s say the Doctor is sentient then. This isn’t just a straightforward case of Consciousness-as-Property. The Doctor isn’t a clever robot; he’s more like a virtual creature in a computer game. This will lead us towards the Idealism-or-Similar view. More on this later.

Before that, this: the character of Moriarty from The Next Generation series doesn’t get as much press as Data and the Doctor, but he’s more interesting. In the show, Moriarty is a character from a computer-generated holographic world, which the crew can experience in their entertainment machine called the holodeck. Read about the holodeck here.

Moriarty is only a virtual person, a character in a complex computer game. In the episode called “Elementary, Dear Data”, someone says they want the holodeck game to include a character who’s smart enough to be a real challenge. The computer creates the character of Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories (not The Goon Show). But this Moriarty is so clever that he realises that the world he inhabits is not the real world, and that he himself is not a real person. He immediately loses interest in being a character in someone else’s game (well you would, wouldn’t you), and wants to take part in the world outside. This can’t be allowed so he is put back in the databanks. In a later episode however, he reappears and, by being very clever, manages to get control of the Enterprise itself. Shenanigans ensue.

In the end, he is tricked into thinking he has left the holodeck when in fact he has just stepped into another virtual world inside another computer. This new virtual world includes a huge amount of exciting, spacey things to discover, so Moriarty and his lady companion can live on indefinitely, exploring their computer-generated universe, having a great time and generally not causing such trouble for the Star Trek crew. It’s a groovy story. Moriarty should’ve got his own spin-off series. Instead he went on to be the butler in “The Nanny”. Life sucks arse.

The conscious computer-generated hologram, Moriarty.

The conscious computer-generated hologram, Moriarty, the Criminal Genius who went on to become a butler in 'The Nanny'. Bummer

So. What’s the Consciousness Verdict? Here’s where the “Idealism-or-Similar” view comes into play. Moriarty is certainly presented as sentient, that’s why the Captain decides not to switch him off a second time. However, the world which he perceives (e.g. space, time, physical things) doesn’t really exist as such. It exists only as computer chip pulses which encode the information. The brain which Moriarty has “in his head” is not what causes his conscious experience. It’s the computer that generates him that does this. The reason he perceives any world at all is because the computer generates it for him. This is the Idealism-or-Similar approach.

Furthermore, at the end of the episode the crew all stand around looking at the computer box which houses Moriarty and his universe, spying on him a bit via a monitor. And the Captain says something like, “Who knows? Maybe we’re all just in a box on someone’s table, with a bunch of people watching us too.” Ha ha ha. Very droll. Of course, yes, it’s a reference to the fact that, yes, they themselves are only characters in a TV show and we, out in the world, are watching them on a little box. Hilarious.

But … within the world of the show, the Captain is also musing on the possibility that the world that they experience is just “virtual” and they are just “virtual people” of a sort. In other words, he’s pondering on the possibilities of Idealism-or-Similar. Hmmm.

One final bit of blather, just for fun. This isn’t particularly relevant but bugger it, it’s my blog. In one of the earlier Next Generation episodes, the crew receive a visit from a Mysterious Being called The Traveler. He has a funny shaped head. Don’t they all? And he can move very big things around, like the whole ship, just by thinking about it in a Special Way. Young whippersnapper, Wesley Crusher, the Ship’s Teenager and identification-figure for the adolescent audience, learns new things from The Traveller and for a brief time, is able to perform the same spaceship-moving feat. When asked how it is possible, they simply reply: “Because time and space and thought are one”. Now I don’t think the writers intended this to be a statement of Idealism, I think they meant it as a bit of quantummey-sounding bullshit, of the type that Deepak Chopra sells. But it can certainly be read as a statement of Idealism if we want to – “Time and space and thought are one” – George Berkeley could’ve said that, the most famous idealist of all time.

The Traveler from Next Generation

The Traveler: Like Deepak Chopra. But with real powers.

So. In the light of all this forensic evidence, I’m going to put Star Trek into the Idealism-or-Similar camp. The show acknowledges the possibility that the world we perceive is really just our own “conscious experience manifold”; and the real world is beyond our ken. The characters sometimes wonder if this is, in fact, the case. And it’s also manifestly demonstrated – by the action of successful spaceship movement – that time and space and thought are one. It’s a sort of Idealism (or more technically, phenomenalistic representationalism). Defy me if you can! Shit, this is way too long. I’ll stop now.