Blade Runner, Consciousness, and Self-Understanding

When I used to teach philosophy and religious studies (an endowed chair, no less), we would spend a week or so on Blade Runner, consciousness and philosophical anthropology (what does it mean to be human?).

In the movie, Blade Runner, the lead character of Decker (played by Harrison Ford) has the job of tracking down and killing escaped murderous robots, known as replicants. They look like us, act like us, and seem to have desires just like us. In fact, these new models are barely indistinguishable from humans at all. They can only be identified through a special test, instruments, and series of questions. The first few generations of replicants could be found out after a few test questions but the latest replicants, those that Decker now is assigned to kill, are a bit different. Here he is learning about the replicants from their creator (Dr. Tyrell) as Tyrell’s assistant, Rachael, walks close-by around the office they are all occupying during their conversation:

Deckard: She’s a replicant, isn’t she?

Tyrell: I’m impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?

Deckard: I don’t get it, Tyrell.

Tyrell: How many questions?

Deckard: Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.

Tyrell: It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn’t it?

Deckard: [realizing Rachael believes she’s human] She doesn’t know.

Tyrell: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.

Deckard: Suspect? How can it not know what it is?

Oh boy.

If you know the book and the extended version of the movie then you know there is an awful lot to unpack here. For now, it just points out that the replicants don’t know they are replicants and without some special testing, it is extremely difficult for the rest of us to tell that they aren’t human. I can hear you asking, “Why not just open them up and see if they are a robot?” The problem is that if you “opened up” a replicant using surgical tools, their insides would look just like ours.

Let’s take one more example using today’s technology. Cleverbot is a website powered by artificial intelligence. Looking much like the Google landing page, you type questions into the search bar and proceed to have a conversation with the web page. It is indeed clever and can easily convince you that you are speaking with a real human being. In fact, it is so realistic that there is a warning on the page to parents that use of the site should be supervised and a promise that their kids are only talking to a robot, not a real human being.

So, what is different from Cleverbots, replicants, artificial intelligences and us? Unlike us, any technology today is actually pretty simple. Think of your cell phone. It takes in information (like which button on the screen you just pressed), it processes or does something with this information (like kicking off your favorite app), and then outputs a result – in this case by opening up the app on your screen. This is like any machine – press on the accelerator in your car, a bunch of things happen under the hood, and your vehicle speeds up. Pretty simple if viewed like this – this isn’t rocket science. For that matter, even rocket science is simple. Inject accelerant into a chamber, ignite it, and up you go. Input, processing, and output in every case.

We seem to be different from the robots. But how? This boils down to consciousness. We believe that we are conscious and those machines are not. Another way of putting it is that we are unique because we have a notion of ourselves. To understand this, let’s go back to the very first moments of your day and assume that it’s pretty much a day like any other. It probably went something like this: You were fast asleep and there was some inclination of waking up. I don’t say that “you” had some inclination of waking up because if you think about it, that wasn’t really your sensation. Instead, maybe some light or sound showed up and started to be recognized. For a few brief moments, there was slight confusion and acclimation to where you were as sensations poured in. It was pretty basic – light, sound, warmth, blanket. Then, over the next several seconds or so, you started to come to your senses. First there was something about “you” actually waking up and recognizing that you were in your bed. Then some thoughts started to come in and you started to realize that you were you. From there maybe you checked the clock and memories started to come as well as plans about the upcoming day. Becoming less groggy, you remembered that need to go into work or the store, feed the dog, use the bathroom, etc. After those immediate ideas, you remembered your mood from the night before or started to feel your unique way. You became you for the day – just like you had every other morning. This is when you morphed into true waking consciousness. You were now ready for the day. Welcome!

Unlike you, Cleverbot and other robots don’t have this notion of the self when they boot up. Replicants might, which is the reason why it is a good movie, but your car, phone and laptop don’t have consciousness. As the contemporary philosopher David Chalmers explains in his TED Talk, you have a movie playing in your head with sights, sounds, smells, and a voice-over narrative. That is you. That is your consciousness. It is the thing closest to us but we know very little about it. Cleverbot just answers things based on scripts and decisions but you have this other piece in you, this narrative of your life. It is so close to you but you can’t hold it in your hand or take a bite out of it – it isn’t something you learn or practice, it just is. It was there this morning when you woke up. Even though tens of thousands of papers have been published on consciousness, we still don’t even have an agreed upon definition of what it is. Importantly, though, it feels to us like it is the most important part of ourselves.

So, let’s work with this idea that our consciousness is this high definition movie inside our heads as well as our hopes, memories, and aspirations. It is our sense of self and our perceptions of the world. It isn’t a great definition but it is good enough. Now, things start to get interesting. Where does it come from?

Of course, for a such a mysterious phenomenon that doesn’t even have an agreed upon definition it won’t be easy to start talking about its origins. But a few ideas about the origins of consciousness bubble to the top. The first is probably the most simplistic and has a strong following among hardcore scientists. This is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. It emerges or grows out of a complex environment. It goes like this: If you put enough cars in a small area at the same time into a limited number of freeways, you will get a traffic jam. The traffic jam is a thing that emerges under the right conditions. The traffic jam is something more complex and different from just a bunch of cars but would not exist until all the right circumstances are met – too many cars and too few roadways. Highly organized ant colonies, the way in which starlings flock together (“swarming”), and even economic stock markets are all frequently classified as emergent phenomena. It could just be that consciousness is one more example of this. Get enough neurons together in a small space (your skull) and over time consciousness shows up.

While that makes some sense, there are actually a few problems with that theory that makes it a bit of a non-starter for many philosophers and linguists . For one thing, the statement that states something “emerges” from something else doesn’t really say anything. Borrowing an argument from the philosopher Thomas Nagel here: To say that something is an emergent phenomenon is not an explanation at all. You’re basically saying: Under certain conditions, consciousness will emerge from matter, but there is no natural law that links those two things. We cannot reduce consciousness to the qualities of matter and then state some laws to explain how consciousness results from these qualities, it just emerges. That’s a complex way of saying it’s a miracle. This is a very brief review of a very complex topic but the idea that “consciousness”: just happens doesn’t really move the discussion along. The emergence explanation just looks like this cartoon:

Or, as Rupert Sheldrake has recently mentioned, the Sun is a highly complex system (more complex than our brains), does that make the Sun conscious? Perhaps.