Peter Watts’ new book Blindsight is the best SF novel I have read in quite some time. It’s a space opera, and a First Contact novel, and a vampire novel — and also a philosophical novel about the nature of consciousness. [The usual warning applies: this review unavoidably contains SPOILERS).
Watts is a hardcore sociobiologist, in outlook. Which is often something that drives me up a wall. But he has enough conceptual audacity that he makes it work, chillingly and powerfully, in Blindsight.
To explain about sociobiology: I despise it when those “evolutionary psychology”‘ types tell us that women are “hardwired” to be attracted to older, wealthier men; or that “criminality” (a word or concept left carefully undefined) is significantly genetic, since children of “criminal” parents adopted into “non-criminal” families are (supposedly) much more likely to become “criminals” themselves than children of “non-criminal” parents adopted into “criminal” families. (Both these assertions come up, for instance, in Matt Ridley’s The Agile Gene, which I recently had my students read). Such blatant projections of contemporary social prejudice and unequal conditions into “nature” are beneath contempt, not even worthy of the energy it would take to refute them. On the other hand, I admire the audacity of Richard Dawkins, when he starts to sound a lot like William Burroughs, suggesting that we are lumbering robots struggling to escape the control of having been programmed by ruthlessly “selfish genes,” and that our most cherished ideas are viral infections that have taken over our bodies and minds (“memes”).
Now, Watts is sociobiological in this latter, audacious and scary, sense. He knows that we live in a “war universe” (as Burroughs would puts it) — all the more so in that this condition is the result, not of some active, Manichean malice (as it seems to be, for instance, for Cormac McCarthy), but simply of the blind forces of natural selection. For Watts, natural selection is no benevolent “invisible hand,” automatically producing “optimal” outcomes — which is how the current fashion for drawing parallels between Darwinian evolution and Adam Smith’s vision of “perfect competition” would have it. Rather, natural selection is nasty, brutish, and short — and it frequently leads to messed-up results, not only for those individuals and groups that “lose” out in Darwinian competition, but also for the “winners,” who may well have developed the way they did either because of random genetic drift, or because they were (temporarily) lucky enough to develop without encountering the changed conditions that, in the long run, will wipe them out. That’s what happened to the dinosaurs, and it’s also what may well happen to us sooner or later.
Watts’ sensibility is, not cynical exactly: since cynicism implies a kind of apologia for, or complicity with, things as they are, on the grounds that we can at least be certain of the worst, and anyone with illusions to the contrary is dismissed with a smirking “what did you expect?” That isn’t really Watts’ tone. Rather, he is downbeat and grim, looking into the abyss with the full consciousness that the abyss looks back at us. Reading Watts is always quite bracing, as was the case for his previous works of SF, the Rifters trilogy — which I wrote about here, here, and here. But I think that, in Blindsight, he has surpassed himself.
Start with the people we encounter in the novel. Watts’ characters are quite memorably drawn; they are nearly all sociopaths to one extent or another, as well as being thoroughly “posthuman.” In the year 2082, most human beings have become redundant, because — whatever skills they have — computers can perform their tasks better than they can. Lots of people have checked out entirely, putting their bodies in storage and letting their minds wander freely in Heaven, a virtual reality space of blandly narcissistic wish-fulfillment. The others have loads of genetic and neural tweaks, and prosthetic enhancements to their bodies and their senses; they tend to remain as much as possible in physical isolation, using VR for messy things like sex. It’s just safer (both physically and emotionally) than coming into actual physical contact. There’s always the danger of terrorism by the Realists, a faction that objects to this “posthuman” condition: they specialize in nasty retroviral attacks.
Blindsight takes place, however, among a small group of people who are stuck in close physical proximity on a spaceship that goes out to the Kuiper belt to make contact with, or at least to study, aliens who have apparently arrived from another solar system, and who may or may not pose a threat to humankind. The commander of the spaceship is a vampire (and Watts provides a brilliant account of vampires as a near-human subspecies, different from “baseline” Homo sapiens in a few crucial genetic and physiological respects). The crew includes a linguist with (technologically generated) multiple personality syndrome, a biologist who has had nearly all his senses overlain with extensive prosthetics so that his proprioceptive feelings — his feelings of self — reside much more in long-range mechanical extensions than they do in his own flesh; and a military officer whose sensorium similarly extends into a whole range of killing machines that she manipulates by remote control. And the (unreliable) narrator has had one of his two brain hemispheres removed and replaced by machinery; he is constitutionally incapable of any sort of empathy.
All that is the baseline condition the novel starts with. Things get seriously weird when we encounter the aliens, who turn out to be quite beyond human understanding. I will skip over their biophysiology, though Watts is amazingly inventive in this respect (he is helped by his background as a marine biologist, who is therefore with all sorts of weird invertebrates). What really distinguishes the aliens is that they are zombies: not in the George Romero, living dead sense, but in the sense that the term has been used by cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. A zombie is a being who acts just as you or I do, who shows clear signs of language, intelligence, and so on; but who is inwardly devoid of sentience or consciousness. It’s the old 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? For all I know — since all I really know (according to Descartes) comes from introspection, everyone else in the world may well be a machine, or an automoton, only simulating consciousness.
Now, most philosophers don’t take this paranoid fantasy very seriously. Turing, Wittgenstein, and Dennett all suggest, pretty much, that if something (someone?) acts intelligent and conscious, we should assume that he/she/it is intelligent and conscious. The hypothesis that zombies could exist is –even when just floated as a possibility, and not pushed to the point of solipsist paranoia — is predicated on the idea that some precious internal essence of consciousness is not captured by behavioral criteria, so a zombie who behaved like a conscious person is at least conceivable. But if you reject this sense of transcendent interiority as a mystifcation — as Turing, Wittgenstein, and Dennett all do — then you will reject the zombie hypothesis as well. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc…
It nonetheless seems to be true that people who are usually conscious can nonetheless perform cognitively complex acts while in a state of unconsciousness: this is what happens, presumably, when people sleepwalk or when they are under deep hypnosis. There’s also the phenomenon of blindsight — which is the title of Watts’ novel because it is his main conceptual metaphor throughout the book — where people claim to be blind — they cannot consciously see — and yet, when asked (or forced in situations when a quick reaction is necessary) to guess where something is in the visual field, do so with a high degree of accuracy. This suggests that they in fact can see, at least on a certain level — even though they do not know that they can see.
Zombies would then be possessed of blindsight, not only where vision is concerned, but for all sensory and cognitive modalities. And this turns out to be the case with the aliens in Blindsight. By any possible measure they are vastly more intelligent, and more technologically advanced, than human beings (and even than prosthetically enhanced human beings). Yet they are entirely devoid of consciousness or sentience. They simply do not know that they know; they know not what they do; yet their knowing and doing is all the more effective and efficient for all that. Indeed, the novel suggests that consciousness is an evolutionary accident. We’ve developed conscious minds because we have been lucky enough (for a while) to develop in a sort of evolutionary backwater, without meeting competition from intelligent, non-conscious organisms. But consciousness is an ultimate disadvantage in the struggle for survival, and Watts suggests that it could well be weeded out, even in the future course of our own development. Sociopaths are already half the way to zombiehood; and sociopathy — which allows for competitiveness without the hindrances of empathy, remorse, or self-consciousness — is (as Watts acerbically notes) already being actively selected for, today, in the higher realms of corporate culture. Blindsight is a brilliant, and chilling, thought experiement about the possibilities of non-sentient intelligence, a prospect that is likely to come up for us in the future as a consequence of robotics (and of corporate culture), even if we never actually enounter non-sentient intelligent aliens.
Dennett argues that the possibility of zombies is self-contradictory and incoherent, because its proponents are simultaneously positing a difference (we are conscious, they are not) and positing that this difference is empirically undetectable (in every possible respect, zombies appear to be exactly like us). But then, Dennett doesn’t think much of the existence of interiority and consciousness in the first place. (In this respect, Dennett lines up with Rorty; though I would argue that both of them are misreading Wittgenstein. But that is a matter for a different post). However, Watts is approaching the question from a somewhat different angle. If we take it for granted that consciousness does exist, at least in us — Watts asks — then what evolutionary purpose could it serve, that makes up for its (pragmatic and cognitive) inefficiency? What is our consciousness good for? In suggesting that “we” are conscious, whereas the aliens, vampires, and CEOs of Blindsight are not, Watts poses that the difference between conscious beings and zombies matters, in some sense, and that therefore it is empirically detectable. The difference is extremely subtle, yet it is ultimately apprehensible (at least, it is by we who are conscious).
By the end of the novel, the difference between conscious beings and zombies seems to be that only conscious beings possess aesthetics. The aliens in the novel are a bit like logical positivists: they have no aesthetic sensibility, and find aesthetic and affective statements to be, strictly speaking, meaningless. They can carry on complex conversations, despite not “understanding” what the words mean; but they can only regard non-functional expressions as a sort of spam. 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 (empirical or utilitarian) purpose. In other words, an aesthetic sensibility — which at this point we can pretty much equate with consciousness tout court — is not an evolutionary adaptation, but mere nonadaptive byproduct.
And this brings us back to the arguments about sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. The opponents of the sociobiological approach, like Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould, argued that many important features of our existence are in fact not in themselves adaptive, and only arose as byproducts of other processes. This is why cultural variability matters, and why not all aspects of human existence are biologically fixed, “hardwired,” and “in our genes.” To the contrary, hardcore sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists — like Steven Pinker — argue that nearly every feature of human existence and human nature, to an extremely high degree of specificity, is biologically universal and not culturally variable, because it is directly adaptive (if not for us, then at least for our ancestors in the Pleistocene). Indeed, nearly the only aspect of human life that Pinker will concede to be a mere, nonadaptive byproduct, rather than a “hardwired” trait of evolutionary significance, is precisely… art and aesthetics. Of course, this is just Pinker’s way of saying that art and aesthetics are trivial and of no worth or importance whatsoever. However, I’m inclined to think that Pinker thus expresses, unbeknownst to himself and in inverted form, the Kantian insight that aesthetics is non-utilitarian, non-cognitive, and hence disinterested; which is why aesthetic judgment is the key to any sensibility whatsoever. By equating an aesthetic sensibility with sentience itself, and relegating both to evolutionary dysfunctionality, Watts pushes this line of thought in a startling direction. It sounds fatuous to claim that aesthetics is what makes us “human”; doubtless Watts would reject my turning this assertion into the “theme” of his novel. Nonetheless, this seems to me to be the unavoidable correlate of his radical dystopianism. Consciousness is little more than a fugitive, wavering doubling of what happens (cognitively and affectively) in the depths of our bodies. But in this way, consciousness, aesthetics, and unadaptiveness or dysfunctionality go hand in hand in our species — and this, rather than any supposed goodness or nobility, is what distinguishes and defines human life…