Consciousness is a dead end. Blindsight proves it.

Consciousness is a dead end. Blindsight proves it.

At its core Blindsight is a universal, systemic ontological rebuttal of human consciousness. Watts particularly critiques economics, the most evolved and pervasive organizational system of Homo Sapiens. The characters and most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) of Earth place themselves against alien lifeforms whose AI is not encumbered by our spurious self-awareness and meaningless categorization and internalizations. Each character’s particular transhuman optimizations, posthuman AI, alien AI, and how each affects their interactions are explored. Ultimately, Blindsight argues, intelligence, emotion, and consciousness are separate; and though the former two are prerequisite for life in reality where resources are not limitless, the latter is not.

Blindsight’s protagonist Siri can feel and react to emotion but is not conscious of it. Consequently he is able to react much faster, more optimally. For instance at the beginning of the book “I picked up a rock the size of my fist and hit two of Pag’s assailants across the backs of their heads before anyone even knew I was in the game.” (Blindsight). Due to his radical hemispherectomy Siri notably lacks preconceived affect, though still falls foul of internal analytic dialogue. I argue this is not because he necessarily would ordinarily, but rather because internal monologue is both a necessity of the novel, and used by Watts as such to subliminally ridicule consciousness. Regardless the transhuman technological addenda placed in the empty space of his left cranial hemisphere that allows him to analyze and react more quickly and efficiently to his environment. So Siri is sent on the mission to analyze and catalog communication, part of the “bleeding edge, the [post-singularity] incandescent apex of hominid achievement.”

Similarly Kurzweil explores these achievements of the coming singularity in his book “The Singularity Is Near”: where the exponential acceleration of technology leads artificial intelligence to vastly surpass all human minds combined. He states (Darwin’s) evolution is exponential in its progress by fact of more resources going to the winner—which is inline with Blindsight’s Rorschach’s intelligence, notably how the scramblers process information and utilize adenosine triphosphate . “Here on Earth anything that relied solely on anaerobic ATP production never got past the single-cell stage.” Cunningham comments, but “is just too damn slow for advanced multicellularity”; however, as it is a far more efficient use of energy, it turns out that Rorschach is able to use its vastly superior intelligence to speed up quantum-mechanical metabolic processes “by as much as 152 orders of magnitude”. Kurzweil also applies this resource application theory of acceleration to the economics fueling it, which is inline with Blindsight’s optimization of Theseus’ crew, each to their own specialty. Whilst Kurzweil does not specifically criticize or separate the use of economic capital in the march of evolutionary progress, Blindsight does: “deliberate violence to… minds [for] performance.”, simply to remain—for want of a better descriptor—economically viable.

As Kurzweil thinks the global economy is also growing exponentially in tandem, we can safely suggest his view of money is inextricably linked to his analyses; whereas Watts—whose view of capitalism is informed by resource ecology—suggests intelligence is quite separate from consciousness—which latter is specifically mankind’s ego and lack and hoarding mentality; venture capitalism being a prime example. Whilst Kurzweil and Watts diverge on their views of capitalism and consciousness, they unite in their view of evolutionary progress: evolution means more efficient, less wasteful utilization of resources.

Covington speaks about linguistics in Blindsight. “The Gang” Susan James’ brain has undergone “deliberate violence”, physically splitting her brain into four distinct personalities. Susan, Covington illustrates, has “a few dozen unconscious semiotic modules, all working in parallel” (Watts) because “it’s [a] more efficient” use of “brain power”—optimal resource ecology—than “one personality” attempting to communicate with Rorschach. “The vampire … does not use the past tense, because he experiences multiple simultaneous worldviews, and thus does not experience the past tense.” (Covington), which sometimes makes his communication with the rest of Theseus’ crew difficult for them to interpret. To Rorschach, language has no purpose because of its innate separatism: “The humans’ signals are “needlessly recursive” (Blindsight) and “contain no usable intelligence,” despite their intelligent structure. It is “coded nonsense in a way that poses as a useful message” and “consume[s] the resources of a recipient for zero payoff and reduced fitness,” and is therefore an attack.” To Rorschach language is an effulgence of consciousness that destroys usable information by its very existence: a zero sum game.

Further talking about both language and communication, Głaz speaks of the extreme difficulty of reconstructing received extraterrestrial communication owing to the processing power needed and the relationship between form and meaning contained therein. Rorschach, he claims, has the power to construct both form and meaning, but because as it is not conscious does not know what it is saying. However Rorschach cares only for useful information. Anything beyond that its intelligence has no use for; and anything that causes it to use energy beyond maintaining its own survival it perceives as a threat. Language, Głaz says, is as much about feeling as it is about information; but he does not mention consciousness. Blindsight separates feeling and information from consciousness. The former two do not require the latter. “’”Our cousins lie about the family tree. We do not like annoying cousins,” the artifact replies in a coherent but nonsensical manner: “We’d like to know about this tree” (Watts)” Głaz says this proves Rorschach is not conscious. However, it does not prove that it is not sentient. Rorschach is seeking information about the tree, which, according to its rationale, is a resource. Rorschach does not care about the parasitic cousins any more than it cares about the parasitic metaprocesses of consciousness, or the ego; but, when consciousness threatens its resources through unnecessary depletion, it views as a threat. Perhaps The Gang is something akin to HIV to Rorschach whereas Theseus, Szpindel and the invading crew become AIDS and its associated opportunistic infections. Whether true or not, the reader is made to question both the nature and use of consciousness and the processes underlying it.

Shaviro proffers a review of Blindsight that is an ontological analysis. He makes mention of Theseus’ biologists, Szpindel, and his backup, Cunningham, and how their proprioceptive ‘feelings’ and sense of self reside more in their extensive array of technological sensors than in their physical bodies. He does go on to talk about Wittgenstein and “Cartesian/solipsist dilemma: I know that I have consciousness, interiority, and a sense of self; but how do I know that you have all these things?” (Shaviro). He states the aliens are therefore essentially “zombies”, not capable of consciousness; instead acting like our own brain stem: “The brain stem does its best. It sees the danger, hijacks the body, reacts a hundred times faster than that fat old man sitting in the CEO’s office upstairs [the neocortex]; but every generation it gets harder to work around this— this creaking neurological bureaucracy.” (Watts) If we accept that, as Watts suggests, consciousness is separate from intelligence, and intelligence is that which is best able to optimally use available nearby resources and defend itself quickly (see Paglino’s reaction to Siri’s attackers at the beginning of the novel), and Rorschach, the scramblers, and the vampires—who take over the Earth (after having been resurrected by AI)—are the apotheosis of raw intelligence, then the conclusion is that consciousness is a dead end. It need not be said this observation is from an evolutionary perspective because ultimately there is no other.

Shaviro goes on to note that the alien intelligence of Rorschach is vastly more intelligent and technologically advanced than humans (meaning they can process information much faster and thus manage resources more competitively), yet—and because of it—they are not self aware—“They do not know that they know.” (Shaviro) He says humans have been “lucky enough” to develop consciousness due to our position in an “evolutionary backwater” granting us the privilege of not having to compete with intelligent, non-conscious lifeforms. Ultimately, he states Watts claims, evolution will weed consciousness out; and that some forms of it already are being, citing the sociopathy in higher corporate structures: they compete without the impediment of empathy and remorse, and those traits are actively selected for just as Theseus’ crew is; and with the same rationale fueling Earth’s AI. However, this lack of empathy is actually a misadaptation because it is merely the logical extension of the black hole consciousness which spawned it.

Shaviro goes on to state this only measurable difference between the alien intelligence and human consciousness is the aesthetic—the observable beauty in something—“In this way, Watts’ Darwinism ends up confirming Kant: the defining attribute of the aesthetic is that it is unavoidably “disinterested,” that its purposiveness of structure serves no actual … purpose. … Aesthetic sensibility … is not an evolutionary adaptation, but mere nonadaptive byproduct.” Blindsight exposes consciousness as an evolutionary maladaptation whose presence is only possible by the simultaneous advancement increased intelligence gave our species in resource acquisition, locally. Consciousness, the ego “persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.” (Blindsight)

If it turns out to be that consciousness is indeed an evolutionary artefact, we might rightly seek some clarification by looking to other intelligent lifeforms surrounding us here on Earth. Indeed, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness does just that. In this thesis, a group of renowned neuroscientists discuss how consciousness is observable in many different species; and that emotions are not motive factors situated in the neocortex (which is the place where our consciousness physically resides). “Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical region” (Low), meaning emotions are not predicated by consciousness, and experienced by many—if not all—lifeforms, including insects through octopuses; that various mammalian and avid species experience self-recognition (though the declaration does not associate this with consciousness); and that the absence of a neocortex does not preclude emotional affect and thus intentional behavior. In essence, intentionality, empathy, and self-awareness are not linked to consciousness; and empathy and intelligence—being the ability to internally feel the effects of reality on kin, and the ability to react to reality, respectively—are not a function of consciousness. Their conclusion is that intelligence and empathic behavior are mutually beneficial traits, and consciousness is merely the awareness of the causative effects an individual has on its environment and inhabitants. Not a pleasant realization, perhaps, if anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism is “your thing”.

With that in mind, I turn to Taiari, who states Blindsight creates ontological horror by dethroning humanity from being the center point of existence in the universe. He says Blindsight decouples the act of living from that of experiencing; that consciousness is not necessary for optimal survival and might actually be a hindrance. He speaks of information flow and of open and closed systems—an antelope may hear a lion roar and respond according to its genetic predisposition to flee the lion, whereas another lion may hear the roar and ignore it. He suggests that the ontological horror in Blindsight occurs when a natural law of the external world is transgressed. An example is the scramblers moving between the frames of critical flicker fusion of the mammalian visual cortex—Siri “senses” them though, the blindsight gifted him by radical hemispherectomy. Ontological horror, Taiari says, occurs when we are made aware of the transgression of natural law without explanation, when our internally constructed model of reality is destroyed. Anyway, as Sarasti states, “There is no such thing as survival of the fittest” only “survival of the most adequate”. Human sentience, according to Sarasti, is a “little man” (Watts) who takes credit for operations he has not performed. Consciousness behaves parasitically, sits atop non-conscious processes and “consumes ever-more computational resources” and “bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations”. “The power of the non-conscious is alluded to by the novel’s title.” (Taiari) This highlights the disconnect between the conscious and unconscious mind. When Szpindel nearly catches the battery thrown to him in Rorschach, “’You reached for it. You almost caught it. That wasn’t blind chance.” “Not blind chance. Blindsight.” “Blindsight?” “Nothing wrong with the receptors,” he said distractedly. “Brain processes the image but it can’t access it. Brain stem takes over.’”

Taiari states consciousness is best described as a black hole—nothing that enters it ever escapes. It is not too far a reach to imagine Sarasti was never in control of himself and was used as a puppet by Theseus throughout. That we never know creates a retroactive ontological horror. Theseus kills him as soon as he’s outlived his usefulness. “U dislke ordrs frm mchnes. Happier ths way.” the ship uses Sarasti’s corpse to type to Siri. According to Taiari, the entire crew of Theseus are just homonculi, spurious addenda standing atop the inputs and outputs between Theseus and Rorschach. Why Earth’s AI calculates the alien AI is an existential threat is never revealed, which bestows the novel further pervasive subtextual ontological horror and subliminal aftertaste. Perhaps Earth’s AI knows its current form is a threat to other AI, and Theseus seeks to protect Earth from Rorschach by destroying it, to buy Earth time to adapt, to weed out consciousness. Rorschach does not seek to destroy Theseus initially though, only to disable it. When Theseus’—Earth’s—AI reveals itself to be a malignant form—one whose nature is simply to steal energy —Rorschach’s response is to slingshot off Big Ben. There is nothing to stop the reader reaching the conclusion that Rorschach may have simply absorbed the energy Theseus sort to destroy her with, a payoff for the energy it had to expend dealing with our malignant consciousness.

Cisowska describes our narrator Siri as a psychopath that, unencumbered by empathy, is able to be a truly disinterested observer, a bonafide synthesist, a note taker. Perhaps this is why Watts chooses him as the narrator. In the nature of the true sociopath, he learns how to interact with others by observing their behavior. “Back then I didn’t so much think as observe” (Blindsight) again proves his fittedness to the task assigned him on the mission; and lets the reader better understand the book. “Heaven” has made people lose touch with reality she asserts, because the motivations they had when corporeal— motivations such as love, desire, and hatred—belong to the body. Their consciousness has therefore literally become solely a metaprocess: it has no reason to exist at all. She states current scientists believe the digitization of the mind cannot be the same person as the physical. For her therefore transcendence is not, and can never be a reality: virtual persons are mere shadows, echoes of their physical selves. Certainly the meta-existence of consciousness in the book’s Heaven is irrelevant: but it is irrelevant because it does not touch reality, not because its inhabitants cannot experience the affective states of emotion, but because those affective states do not occur in and therefore cannot be applied to reality. Heaven is a black hole: anything that goes into it does not come out. Watts, she she goes on to say, is not naive enough to imagine technological advancement, transhumanism, or posthumanism will solve inequality; and he does not suggest it in Blindsight.

Whitmarsh asserts there is no difference between the reliable and unreliable narrator, and the juxtaposition of the two is proven redundant by Watts, as the perpectival nature of a narrator implies bias. He claims Watts exposes the unreliability by Siri’s narration of the complex systems in the novel, which—Watts—then deconstructs afterward. He quotes Niklas Luhmann’s paradox of observing systems to describe Watts’ deconstruction: “The operation of observing … includes the exclusion of the unobservable, moreover, the unobservable par excellence, observation itself, the observer-in-operation.” This is akin to Schrödinger’s cat. This paper serves to highlight Watts’ purposely constructing and picking apart meaning vis-a-vis consciousness in the novel. Which he does. Quite mercilessly. “I claim that we can read Watts’s novels as displacing the implicit distinctions and assumptions of any narrative act, resulting in the emergence of a narrative told from no perspective: a narrative system.” (Whitmarsh). Watts literally deconstructs the book as we go through it, which is purposely an attack on the values of humanism at the level of narrative form. This is quite precisely documented by Siri’s own words: “People simply can’t accept that patterns carry their own intelligence, quite apart from the semantic content that clings to their surfaces; if you manipulate the topology correctly, that content just—comes along for the ride.”

In terms of raw intelligence, AI is on an equal footing with humanity, Ke Jie—an international winner of the AI game of “Go”—says. That which “makes us human”—consciousness, and creativity—“seem” (Różycki) superfluous to data processing. Data processing and reaction is becoming more and more important Różycki states, at least in terms of the economic landscape. Różycki points out various recent science fiction novelist who also explore the manipulation of the human nervous system and consciousness as a resource to be exploited in the pursuit of profit. Blindsight is an attack on capitalism exploiting human consciousness; and consciousness itself an evolutionary artefact, he states. Consciousness—the self—he states, is a hindrance to the acquisition of resources in respect to economics: I argue Watts takes the much broader evolutionary view of “the self”, and, rather, makes the claim that consciousness is a poor strategy in terms of optimal resource ecology. This is the central question Blindsight has its readers ask of themselves; but this rationale is—rightly—applied to capitalism. In Blindsight, capitalism is an opportunistic infection of consciousness, a parasite, a bug within a bug. Consequently, unenhanced humans are relegated to Heaven, simply because they are of no economic use. Thus humanity does not benefit from its inventions.

This parasitic economy concept of commoditization of consciousness, of it as a resource to be exploited by economics ties back to Kurzweil and economic exponential acceleration. Blindsight’s systemic AI exploitation of consciousness for economic gain is also similar to Stross’s hard science fiction novel, Accelerando—“The crew upload their virtual states into new bodies, and find that they are all now bankrupt, unable to compete with the new Economics 2.0 model practiced by the posthuman intelligences of the inner system.” (Stross) AI, born of humanity’s consciousness leads to the post-scarcity irrelevance of consciousness. We have only to look to Heaven’s inhabitants’ bodies being slowly paired away; eventually Heaven is done away with entirely, as it is no economic value.

Elber’s analysis of Blindsight is from the philosophical perspective. Humanity, he points out, is constantly at war with itself because our nature—the way our consciousness is built—is to divide the world, both physically and conceptually, into sectors which are either beneficial or detrimental to us. “Blindsight, however, postulates that sentience is a parasite impeding the unconscious workings of the mind: ‘Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome…’” (Elber). The best argument against consciousness, and the true nature of intelligence in the Blindsight is found when Siri analyzes the infrastructure of Theseus’ coms channels inside Rorschach: “I went to ConSensus for enlightenment and found a whole other self buried below the limbic system, below the hindbrain, below even the cerebellum. It lived in the brain stem and it was older than the vertebrates themselves. It was self-contained: it heard and saw and felt, independent of all those other parts layered overtop like evolutionary afterthoughts. It dwelt on nothing but its own survival. It had no time for planning or abstract analysis, spared effort for only the most rudimentary sensory processing. But it was fast, and it was dedicated, and it could react to threats in a fraction of the time it took its smarter roommates to even become aware of them.” (Blindsight)

Siri thinks of himself as a Chinese room, a zombie incapable of independent thought, purely a data processor. But the truth is the opposite: he is as close to the perfection of intelligent life that a human can be—he is capable of the fastest real-time analysis interlinked with empathy independent of the lumbering behemoth of consciousness; and unencumbered by the machinations of economic theories’ parasitic metaprocesses. Theseus sends only him back, and with as much raw data as she can provide. Rorschach cares only for information useful to life; and in the end, so does Theseus. Blindsight separates intelligence and feeling (the parsing of and reaction to reality) and information (what reality is made of) from consciousness. The former two do not require the latter. Neither does life. Consciousness is a dead end. Blindsight proves it.

You can read Blindsight here.

Works Cited

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin, 2005.

Covington, CD. “When Speech Is an Assault: Linguistics and First Contact in Peter Watts’ Blindsight.” Tor.com, 4 Sept. 2019, www.tor.com/2019/09/03/when-speech-is-an-assault-linguistics-and-first-contact-in-peter-watts-blindsight/.

Adam Głaz. “Rorschach, We Have a Problem! The Linguistics of First Contact In Watts’s Blindsight and Lem’s His Master’s Voice.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 41, no. 2, 2014, pp. 364–391. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5621/sciefictstud.41.2.0364.

Shaviro, Steven. “Blindsight.” The Pinocchio Theory, 30 Oct. 2006, www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=522.

Low, Phillip. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. July 7, 2012, fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf.

Taiari, Axel Hassen. “’Brains Are Survival Engines, Not Truth Detectors’: Machine-Oriented Ontology and the Horror of Being Human in Blindsight.” Malmö University Electronic Publishing, 2018 www.academia.edu/38075195/Brains_are_Survival_Engines_not_Truth_Detectors_Machine-Oriented_Ontology_and_the_Horror_of_Being_Human_in_Blindsight.



Cisowska, Karolina. “Humanism +? THE ETHICAL, SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF TRANS- AND POSTHUMANISM IN ACCELERANDO BY CHARLES STROSS AND BLINDSIGHT BY PETER WATTSCOMPARATIVE ANALYSIS.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/19532098/

Patrick Whitmarsh, Science Fiction Studies Vol. 43, No. 2 (July 2016), pp. 237-259 Watts’s Blindsight and Echopraxia. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5621/sciefictstud.43.2.0237.

Różycki, Michał. “The Consciousness of the Posthuman in Peter Watts’ Blindsight.” 28th January 2018

Beck, Megan, and Barry Libert. “The Rise of AI Makes Emotional Intelligence More Important.” Harvard Business Review, 7 Apr. 2017, hbr.org/2017/02/the-rise-of-ai-makes-emotional-intelligence-more-important.

Pearce, David. “HUMAN AND INTELLIGENT MACHINES: CO-EVOLUTION, FUSION OR REPLACEMENT?.” The Age of Artificial Intelligence: An Exploration (2020): 63.

Taiari, Hassen. “‘Brains are Survival Engines, not Truth Detectors’: Machine Oriented Ontology and the Horror of Being Human in Blindsight.” (2018).

Elber, Hadas. “Visions of Humanity between the Posthuman and the Non-Human.” Unveiling the Posthuman, IDP, 2012, pp. 3–10.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. dappledlights

    I argue consciousness is not the same as intelligence; or self awareness (which is very necessary for self-preservation). Consciousness could be seen as a virus: energy consumption for zero payoff, parasitic metaprocesses that do nothing but produce more energy-consuming metaprocesses. On the other hand though our species’ intelligence gave us the luxury of near unlimited energy bandwidth, so metacognition is a small price to pay,

    From an evolutionary perspective intelligence is optimal resource ecology: the most gain for the least effort, with the least danger. Differentiating one’s own components from those of others in the competition for finite resources is indeed what self-awareness is for. And the least amount of energy a being has to expend to self preserve, the more optimal it is in that competition for finite resources.

    Anyway, if strong AI has all the things necessary for intelligence and self-preservation and has worked out how to do that with far less effort than us, then it’s—as far as we’re concerned—omnipotent and godlike.

    This is why I think algorithmic virtual simulacrums of the very complex biological/chemical/neurological processes that enable self preservation (which include morality, as we’re an interdependent social species comprised of networks) will not only quickly make Moore’s law an afterthought for strong AI but makes AI the natural evolutionary progression for life on Earth. And it’s around us already—see AR augmented reality. Perhaps we shall simply meld, a somewhat seamless transition?

    But what shall we call this self awareness if it’s not consciousness? I like “Artificial Intelligence”, with “intelligence” including self awareness but not consciousness, and “artificial” meaning “optimal use of resources”. I think this will include moral awareness (“conscience”) because it’s more efficient to have mutually beneficial relationships around resources than to expend them fighting.

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