Thursday, June 25, 2009

Of Anti-minds and the Swarm

Does it take a mind to detect a mind? If there could be a principled answer to this question the implications would be huge for the philosophy and science of mind.

Consider that so much of science depends on the unintelligent detection of unintelligents. Hydrogen samples are not particularly intelligent. Further, mechanisms capable of detecting the presence of hydrogen need not themselves be intelligent.

Maybe part of being a natural kind is that the unintelligent detection of instances of that kind is possible. Jerry Fodor has suggested that non-natural kinds like crumpled shirts or doorknobs can only be detected by minds. You have to be the sort of thing that knows a bunch of stuff in order to "light up" in the presence of a door knob.

In the Sterling short story "Swarm" (excerpts here), the Nest is this asteroid that is mostly just a big super-organism that wanders the universe and whenever it is "invaded" it assimilates the invaders. Most of the various diverse species in the asteroid were once representatives of vast space-faring technological cultures that, when they encountered the Nest, got taken over and reduced to unintelligent animals and integrated into the Nest ecology inside of the asteroid. Swarm is an intelligent organism activated under certain instances for the protection of the Nest. Swarm explains how ultimately useless intelligence and consciousness is and suggests that the Nest is entirely unintelligent, and that the Nest grows a new Swarm whenever an intelligent invader needs to be dealt with. Once the intelligent invader is dealt with (rendered into a dumb slave animal) then Swarm self-destructs being no longer needed.

It occured to me that Swarm was to minds what antibodies are to germs, so I coined "anti-mind". It also occurred to me that if Swarm was right that prior to the activation of Swarm, the Nest group organism was truly non-cognitive, then whatever mechanism that activates the growth of a new Swarm must itself be an unintelligent mechanism. So, the idea of an anti-mind is the idea of a thing that is not a mind but is capable of detecting minds. But this leads to what strikes me as some pretty interesting philosophical questions: Is there any way a dumb mechanism can detect the presence of intelligence? Can an unconscious mechanism detect the presence of consciousness?

If Dennett is right, intentional systems are detectable only from the intentional stance, which I take to entail that only minds can detect minds. If a lot of qualia-freaks are right, the only way to detect the presence of qualia is to have some yourself, and thus only consciousness can detect consciousness.

If these remarks are correct, the implications for science fiction are obvious: the "anti-mind" in the Sterling story is impossible. But enough about fiction: what about science? If the impossibility of unintelligent detection entails that the kinds that are intelligently detected are non-natural, then is a full-blown science of such kinds thereby doomed?


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