Consciousness and Personhood

The fugitive talks about Morel’s illusions as a kind of immortality in which the soul relives that one segment of their life. There’s an assumption here that the images have souls and count as life, and I’m not sure that I buy that assumption. The fugitive gives Morel’s argument for the souls of the images on page 71 saying: “If we grant consciousness, and all that distinguishes us from objects, to the persons who surround us, we shall have no valid reason to deny it to the persons created by my machinery. When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges” (Casares 71). The latter part of that explanation is very similar to one of the class definitions of reality that we came up with at the beginning of the semester (reality is what you perceive with your senses according to this definition). For Morel the soul seems to be composed of one’s sensory perceptions. (This potentially runs into issues when talking about people who don’t experience all of the sense such as blind or deaf people, but that’s not what I’m looking at right here). The first part connects consciousness to personhood, and establishes consciousness as something that one attributes to other people. On the one hand one can never truly know what other people think and feel, or to put it more extremely whether or not other people really exist and have thoughts and feelings. This problem comes up a lot in discussions of artificial intelligence. How can you tell if a robot can think? Morel does not attribute any importance to this question. For him, the robot just needs to experience the senses to be a person. If a robot or illusion is life-like enough that people think it’s a real person, then for Morel it is a real person. But I disagree with the idea that consciousness is something one grants to other people. If a person sees someone else and thinks they are awake and conscious when they are really asleep, that person’s perception will not change the reality of the sleeper. If the recorded actions of Morel’s illusions make them real people who think and feel, then why would characters on film be real? Because they are two-dimensional? Considering AI as people is fine with me, but I do not think the illusions fall into this category.

The issue then becomes how one defines personhood and consciousness. I do not believe that one grants other people consciousness, though one’s perception of consciousness will affect how they go about in the world. For me, I think personhood lies more in the mind, in the thoughts and feelings. I also think it has to do with interaction with other people. Although I’m not sure how to explain that in a way that excludes the illusions even though I do not think they should be included. They do interact with each other, and there are real people who will never interact with each other even though those people all exist simultaneously. Perhaps a better definition with would have to do with creativity. The illusions are incapable of new reactions, experiences, or active interactions. Perhaps life is the potential for a future. If anyone else has thoughts on how this could be better defined, I’d love to hear your takes on this.

2 thoughts on “Consciousness and Personhood

  1. You raise a very interesting question, one I’m not sure that I have an answer to.  I agree that, while I accept that true AI could be considered a person with a “soul” so to speak, I don’t think Morel’s illusions have a consciousness or personhood.  To me, the defining characteristic of consciousness is the ability to have independent thought and exercise free will.  These are things that an artificially intelligent machine could do, but not the illusions. They are thoughtless beings stuck in a loop that they cannot change.

    I would argue, however, that consciousness can be something that one gives to another.  Theoretically, everyone and everything that you experience could be a lie.  I’m not talking about virtual reality; I’m talking about the theory that there is no way to prove that the world you live in isn’t just happening in your “head” and the only real consciousness is your own.  Sure, you can touch things, but touch is just a signal that your brain sends to your nerves, one which could be fired regardless of actually touching anything.  People are real to you because you allow yourself to believe that they are.  We all have a universe inside our heads that, if tampered with, would change the fabric of that universe (one which I believe is as real and valid as “the real” universe that “exists” outside of our heads).  If everyone stops believing that one person exists, in a way they cease to exist.  If everyone started believing that mailboxes were people, they’d be treated as humans and therefore become them (seeing as human-ness is sort of a social construct).  If you went crazy and stopped believing that people were real, they’d cease to exist to you and people would disappear from the universe, as you perceive it.  This is all super theoretical and, admittedly, borderline nonsense.  However, I don’t think that we can discount the power that people’s thoughts and beliefs have.

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