What are we looking for? What are we worried about?

William Peña

The concerns that arise from films like Ghost in the Shell and Bladerunner throw analysts into fits of self-analytical angst over whether they're status as humans is lost when our precious definition of individuality through consciousness is eroded by the simulation of consciousness in other animals or in cyborgs. The usual argument goes something like, "If a computer can exhibit all the signs of what we know as being conscious, of thinking, then can we say that it is really thinking? Do we give it the same status and consideration as we give human beings?"

To resolve this dilemma, we have to take a step back to see what the concerns are really about. What does "consciousness" signify? What does it mean for humanity to think that some other entity is capable of consciousness? Finally, if these fears are realized, what effect does it truly have on us, be it effectively, psychologically, or socioculturally?

To take on the first question: what do we mean by consciousness? To often these debates over the cyborg consciousness go on without a clear recognition of what the debate is about, and leave themselves open to amorphous difficulties, so we need to clarify our terms. Consciousness, for the sake of this essay, is defined as the ability to be self-aware, sentient (to "feel"), and capable of abstract/rational conceptual thinking. Under this definition, human beings are conscious because they can say "I am," "I feel," and "I will be/feel..." and understand what these things mean. There is yet no claim made in this definition that consciousness is unique to humanity, but considering that human beings have come up with the term, and the term is used to describe part of human experience, it is obvious that human beings will always have the most investment in consciousness.

Now on to the fears surrounding consciousness existing outside Homo Sapiens: modern Western theories on people's universal niche relies on thinking that we are unique, "chosen," a particular high point in the evolution of the time, and through this construct a self-concept that keeps us happy. Whether it is constructing a polar opposition between animals and human like Descartes did, or considering that we are machines + "soul," or that we are filled with Divine grace from God and have been given a mission on earth, philosophers and theologians have relied on differentiation of humanity and everything else to arrogantly position our place as special among all things. Most of the time, what gets heralded as our big asset is our consciousness. If not for our consciousness (as Descartes "thinking being," or as a Chrisitian "soul," for example), we are lead to believe that the hierarchy that we've created would be leveled, and we would find our self-image destroyed and our reason to live eroded.

Is consciousness really what makes us unique? In it's component forms, self-awareness, sentience and reason, it might be found to exist in other beings. Replicants in Blade Runner make Deckard fall in love. Cyborgs in Ghost in the Shell ponder their own existence. So, in effect, we can find that these beings possess some of the trappings of consciousness. This is when most philosophical fits begin.

But even is we were to grant that consciousness is not particular to human beings, that perhaps dolphins and apes are capable of language and feelings, or that machines are capable of abstract reasoning and potential self-awareness and self-reliance, does that make human beings lose their identities. No. Not by a long-shot. We have nothing to be afraid of, and here's why.

Consciousness is a synchronic function of the mind in human beings. If we break this idea down, we'll see how much of what it is to be human is elided by the concept of consciousness. First, it is synchronic, meaning it is based on a particular thought/feeling at a particular time in a particular human being; it is a causally-connected chain of events. Second, it is a function, meaning that is it something we do, perhaps something we possess; consciousness is not what a human being is, but a component of what a particular human being can do and contain. Third, it is a function of the mind, an organ of the human body that cotrols many functions but is in itself higly interwoven with and connected to the rest of the body's functions; the mind cannot be separated from the body without creating an extremely reductive thesis of what the mind is.

What is left? Well, first of all, we have history. Human history shapes and informs every part of our lives, and effects what sorts of flows our consciousness involved itself in. We also have culture and society, which presently creates a network of relationships and actions that guide our live, and we have other personal relationships, like lovers, families, and friends, which have the highest imnpact on our priorities. And lastly, we have the rest of the body, which in illness or wellness, meditation, moods, hormones, environments, diet, etc. defines the parameters with which the mind and the consciousness can work.

So what if a cyborg can think like I can think? Is the cyborg Hispanic like me? Does the cyborg have bipolar mood disorder? Did the cyborg grow up in a household that encouraged school and the arts? Does the cyborg care that wars are happening all over the world? All of these things are essential to my identity, and yet none of these (probably) could the cyborg ever touch. And yet other human beings could have empathy and share in my experiences. So am I scared that a cyborg might be conscious? No, I'm all for diversity. We could even have a new office at the TWC, with Deckard as the chair. I'll be the first to invite him to dinner.

[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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