In the land of the sleeping, the man awake is king…

(this post dedicated to John  C Wright and William M. Briggs – I’ve probably ripped them off or unconsciously quoted them a time or two in this post)

I can’t remember the exact sequence that led me to it, but somewhere along the internet I stumbled onto the story Blindsight by one Peter Watts.

Now I haven’t read the story extensively as it’s not of interest to me right now, but I did skim and do congratulate Mr Watts on excellent world building.  I was especially interested in what he did with his vampires (a very excellent scientific touch, I highly recommend the video on the linked page).

However…  Well there’s a saying: “An idea so foolish only an intellectual can believe it.”  While some point to this as a sign of America’s brand of anti-intellectualism*, like many proverbs, there is a bit of truth to it.  Such foolishness I found when I was going through the end notes to Blindsight.

It was this chestnut that set me off on this blog post (or rather, planning for it, which – among other things – is why my output’s been diminished recently).

Put all this together with the fact that the body begins to act before the brain even “decides” to move31 (but see32, 33), and the whole concept of free will—despite the undeniable subjective feeling that it’s real—begins to look a teeny bit silly, even outside the influence of alien artefacts.

Well that and wanting to make you extra paranoid that Dollhouse is coming…

While electromagnetic stimulation is currently the most trendy approach to hacking the brain, it’s hardly the only one.

The latest tool in this arsenal is ultrasound: less invasive than electromagnetics, more precise than charismatic revival, it can be used to boot up brain activity39 without any of those pesky electrodes or magnetic hairnets.

Back to topic, one wonders that, if there’s no such thing as free will, how did the meat construct designated “Peter Watts” write a book?  And if anyone wants to point out that’s not what the experiment proved, I’ll simply repeat what Vox Day said and admit that you’re right: the experiments don’t prove or disprove free will.  And less you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, I’ll let the author speak for himself:

This is the heart of the whole damn exercise. … But beneath the unthreatening, superficial question of what consciousness is floats the more functional question of what it’s good for. Blindsight plays with that issue at length, and I won’t reiterate points already made.

Blindsight is a thought experiment, a game of Just suppose and What if. Nothing more.

I’m not sure I have to bother rebutting the author any further as he’ll do quite a good job of it himself, but I do feel a slight obligation to remind people of what they’ve apparently forgotten from their childhood – the simple knowledge that these learned men (quite probably smarter and more intelligent than me) have forgotten.


First, let’s back up a moment to something the author said in the section titled “Sleight of Mind”.

Sony has been renewing an annual patent for a machine which uses ultrasonics to implant “sensory experiences” directly into the brain40. They’re calling it an entertainment device with massive applications for online gaming. Uh huh. And if you can implant sights and sounds into someone’s head from a distance, why not implant political beliefs and the irresistable desire for a certain brand of beer while you’re at it?

One must ask: So what?  Please correct me if I’m mistaken, but it does appear from the above that the author dreads such an outcome.  Why?  I mean, I agree that the above is wrong and dread it, but then, I believe in free will.  If you don’t, why dread the above?  Do you protest when Microsoft or Apple (or whomever) sends updates to your personal computer?  Is it a moral wrong?  If we are but meat computers, how is it wrong for one meat comp to send an upgrade or update to another meat comp?  Does one hold gravity accountable for pulling to earth the coconut that strikes the containment unit of a bipedal meat comp and cease it’s operation?  Then why hold a blind meat machine accountable for causing a blunt object to strike another meat comp’s containment unit?  Why even make laws for how the meat machines interact with each other?  If there is no free will, then a governmental ordinance will no more stop a meat machine from striking another than it will keep coconuts from obeying gravity.

But let us return to the endnotes and resume in the Sentience/Intellect section.

While a number of people have pointed out the various costs and drawbacks of sentience, few if any have taken the next step and wondered out loud if the whole damn thing isn’t more trouble than it’s worth. Of course it is, people assume; otherwise natural selection would have weeded it out long ago. And they’re probably right. I hope they are.

What… good is sentience?  What do you mean, ‘what good is it’?  What does the author say?

If you squint, facts like these suggest that sentience might almost be a phase, something that orangutans haven’t yet grown out of but which their more-advanced chimpanzee cousins are beginning to. (Gorillas don’t self-recognise in mirrors. Perhaps they’ve already grown out of sentience, or perhaps they never grew into it.)

Of course, Humans don’t fit this pattern. If it even is a pattern.  We’re outliers: that’s one of the points I’m making.

I bet vampires would fit it, though. That’s the other one.

Let’s take that a moment.  Per the above, sentience appears to be a useless phase, one which vampires apparently “grew out of” and makes them superior to us (hence the close of the book where vampires take over earth).  But… hang on.  What does the author’s own world-building power point on vampires say?  Well I have a pdf on it here.

…these creatures have pattern-matching skills far in excess of the human norm.

Real vampires were omnisavantes; their groove extended to pretty much every logical and pattern matching dimension known to man, and more besides. These creatures are insanely smart by human standards—and this leads to some very intriguing commercial appplications which I’ll mention a bit further on.

Competition for prey evidently ensured that vampires were solitary, very territorial, and mutually antagonistic. Our marketting people had entertained thoughts of teams of vampires working together to solve the world’s ills, but apparently natural selection never taught them to play nicely together. This picture was taken after an early attempt at marketing the cooperative angle, an avenue that we abandoned shortly afterwards

Shouldn’t natural selection have weeded it out sooner? The answer is surprisingly simple: the trait wasn’t lethal, not at first. An aversion to crosses is no disadvantage in a world where crosses don’t exist, and you don’t find many right angles in nature….right up until the point that their prey discovered geometry.

They were much smarter than us, smart enough to figure out the virtues of resource conservation (a concept that baseline humans seem to have a hard time grasping even now).

(sorry for the long quote)  So, as we can see (over and over again), vampires were supposed to be much smarter than us, though they had an unfortunate genetic drift into a weakness.  So far so good.  These guys were also so smart that they could figure out the need to conserve food.  Again, ok.

Where then, was their pattern matching skillz and intellect when the prey started developing geometry?  LETHAL geometry?  Why, during human development, did vampires not unite as forces, and take to viciously razing and looting human populations that were developing geometry?  Why did they make no effort to “domesticate” humans especially away from a lethal development?  If cows suddenly started developing cyanide meat, do you think humans would stand by and let it happen to our extinction?

In the middle of all the above, the author ends up answering his own question on “why sentience”:

It doesn’t matter whether a given adaptation is the best possible solution; all that matters is whether it works better than the competition.

As pointed out above, vampires can’t work together.  Humans – can.  In fact, sentience allows us to “override” many natural instincts.  Humans can starve themselves, work together, go against self-interest, and many other features.  What does the end of the power point on vampires say?

In fact, the only way we were able to keep them from going into convulsions at the drop of a hat—and I’m revealling a bit of a trade secret here, but we’ve already patented the molecule—was by keeping them on a strict regimen of what we call antiEuclidean Neurotropes. We have developed a drug that suppresses the seizures resulting from the crucifix glitch, a drug which allows vampires to function normally in metropolitan settings; and without this drug they will die.

One wonders, if vampires are so much smarter than us, why they didn’t create the “antiEuclidean Neurotropes” but we (the dumb prey) did.  Sentience cured them of their own handicap – so one must really ask, are they really “smarter” than us?

But that’s just in the fictional world.  What about the real one?  Again, the author’s own endnotes ends up answering his own quandary:

In fact, the nonconscious mind usually works so well on its own that it actually employs a gatekeeper in the anterious cingulate cortex to do nothing but prevent the conscious self from interfering in daily operations112, 113, 114. (If the rest of your brain were conscious, it would probably regard you as the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert.)

Compared to nonconscious processing, self-awareness is slow and expensive112.

Finally, some very timely experimental support for this unpleasant premise came out just as Blindsight was being copy edited: it turns out that the unconscious mind is better at making complex decisions than is the conscious mind125. The conscious mind just can’t handle as many variables, apparently. Quoth one of the researchers: “At some point in our evolution, we started to make decisions consciously, and we’re not very good at it.”126

Oh, well then.  I guess that’s why every emergency training has said “make sure you panic”.  Of course, many will probably point this bit from another cracked article:

When you first learn a skill, you learn it explicitly, which means you learn the technique of what you’re attempting in a methodical, mechanical way. Like a robot.

But after a few thousands lay-ups or bat swings or alligator throat punches or whatever, the process becomes implicit, meaning you can do it without even thinking. If you’re doing it in the realm of high-level athletics, that’s absolutely essential because every move is done with split-second timing. Kobe Bryant often has to decide how he’s going to approach the basket while in mid-air. There’s no time to think, so how well you perform depends entirely on how well you’ve trained the instinctual part of your brain.

Yes, for first responders, fighters, sport players, the unconscious seems to have an advantage over the conscious, but there is one key component missing: where it all begins.  Babies or ordinary people don’t have the ability for their unconsciousness to do whatever needs to be done, that’s where t-r-a-i-n-i-n-g comes in.  And when does training begin?  When the conscious mind decides to.

Thus, we come to the answer.  The unconscious mind might be powerful, but how much powerful it is when it can be self-programmed to cover various functions?  One might ask why we still have rockets when atomic bombs are so much more destructive.  While true, the power and use of the a-bombs grows much more when you stick a rocket to its ass.  Vampires couldn’t reprogram themselves – humans, can.


Lastly, as almost a side note, I want to address one more thing.

Our sense organs acquire such fragmentary, imperfect input that the brain has to interpret their data using rules of probability rather than direct perception14.  It doesn’t so much see the world as make an educated guess about it. As a result, “improbable” stimuli tends to go unprocessed at the conscious level, no matter how strong the input. We tend to simply ignore sights and sound that don’t fit with our worldview.

(I tired looking at the research for the above in all the listed sources but hit several pay and registration walls.  So I’m making an educated guess here and welcome anyone will original sources and info to correct me.)  However, one wonders if the above research about the brain has heard or addressed the “urban overload” effect.  What’s that?  Why let’s turn again to cracked:

It’s because of “urban overload,” the incredibly large amount of information that those in urban environments must process. In one experiment testing the theory, a man wearing a cast pretended to drop some boxes of books while hidden observers counted how many strangers would offer to help. What determined the number of people who stopped to help wasn’t whether passersby were wearing business suits or Stetsons, but whether a noisy piece of machinery was audible in the background. More than five times as many people stopped to help in a quiet environment than in a noisy one.

According to science, it works like this: Modern city dwellers must wade through thousands of potential social interactions every day. In order to deal with this, they must be selective about what they focus on. This leads them to unconsciously ignore “unimportant” information, whether it’s a flashing strip club advertisement or an injured kitten.

Did these researchers compensate or try and weed out the overload effect when determining that brains use probability?  Considering where most research takes place (big cities, universities, etc), I doubt it.  Was there any effort to try and keep the testing itself from causing an overload effect?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, the farmers and hunters of where I grew up (which didn’t have much in the way of urban overload) did tend to process “improbable stimuli”.  But then, one would have to if they were tracking an animal or making sure a crop grew properly.  I’d love to see these awareness tests performed on some Amish.

Of course, this blindsight/sensory gap would probably exist in the world the author constructed as the people selected would undoubtedly be as overloaded as urbanites are today – but one should take care when making larger claims about the human species as a whole.  Especially when it comes to research that might be a little flawed.




*That America has a culture of “anti-Intellectualism” is an old accusation.  Here it is cropping up in a review of 2011:

That was Republican candidate for president Rick Perry proving that the GOP has fully embraced not even trying to sound smart anymore. Don’t take this for a biased “All Republicans are imbeciles” partisan attack — the Democratic Party hasn’t always thrust forth the most intellectual candidates of the day. There’s plenty of evidence, for example, that JFK was an academic idiot. We’ve had stupid candidates and presidents from both parties. But before, they always tried to hide the fact that they weren’t smart.

For all his common-man mannerisms and Texas charm, George W. Bush was a big fan of books and making sure you knew he read them. The new Republicans are different. It’s one thing for Sarah Palin to believe common sense and values are important for running a country — it’s hard to argue with that. It’s something else to believe they’re all you need, and that putting additional information in your brain somehow kills off the values part. She actually used the fact that she only had an ordinary education as a selling point.

What some don’t seem to understand that Americans aren’t so much anti-intellectual as they are anti-meddling (kind of one of the things that got our whole rebellion deal kicked off).  See Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed for further details on why many Americans don’t have high opinions of intellectuals.

6 thoughts on “In the land of the sleeping, the man awake is king…

  1. One of the things that tipped me off early about the free will debate was the fact that one side of it can’t make any damn sense. I don’t know if you’ve seen that guy on Wright’s blog who tries to reconcile the ordinary operation of human existence and the biological/Neo-Darwinistic theory of the mind. I’m not the smartest guy around, but I can follow people like Aquinas pretty well. Theories like his are incredibly complicated, but if you follow close enough they have an internal logic that works. This guy – I swear, I cannot get him to make any sense. It’s just word-noise being spewed out all over the place. So I ignore it. 😀

    Nice article. The poll seems not to be working properly.

  2. Dropping back in to mention that Blindsight is indeed a fantastic story. It’s a shame that any Hard SF with that telling background in astrophysics and genetics these days is infected with such fatalism and despair.

  3. *watches/listens to video*

    Wow… No question where that guy falls politically, is there?


    I’m noticing a trend of folks who hold those who disagree with them in contempt being big fans of the “nobody really thinks” type ideas.

    Know the first thing that comes to mind when scientists announce that we act before “the brain” decides to act? They mislabeled the signal they thought was the decision.
    It’s kind of like looking at the history of the Catholic Church, and someone arguing that something that was adopted at this or that convocation was a new idea– they’ve got the signal wrong. The adopted ideas aren’t “new,” they just hadn’t been questioned and official pronounced on.

    Kinda like a lot of other things where interpretation comes into play….

  4. Did these researchers compensate or try and weed out the overload effect when determining that brains use probability? Considering where most research takes place (big cities, universities, etc), I doubt it. Was there any effort to try and keep the testing itself from causing an overload effect?

    Of course not– they got the answer they wanted, and nobody was poking them to be harder on themselves.

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