whswhs (whswhs) wrote,

a literature of bad ideas

On a visit to the city library, I spotted Robert Sawyer's Quantum Night on the shelves. I had been running across references to Penrose's theories of consciousness lately, and Sawyer was taking off from them, so I decided to have a look.

As far as basic narrative is concerned, the writing in this book is competent. Sawyer keeps the plot moving, and pulls off at least one large surprise a bit past halfway through. And he managed to get me to remain interested in the fate of a protagonist whose beliefs I largely detested. The problems I have with this book are almost entirely with the ideas.

One of the big sources of ideas, as I mentioned, is Penrose. Penrose is most widely known for his theory that consciousness is a product of quantum level processes within the brain, in molecular structures called "microtubules," which enable the brain to make use of quantum indeterminacy in its computational processes, in a way not possible to systems controlled by classical mechanics and thermodynamics. Now, this is more or less a revival Descartes' ideas about the pineal gland as the locus of mind/body interaction, with updated and more sophisticated science, but it looks just as handwavy as Descartes—but handwaviness as such isn't fatal to science fiction; a lot of classic stories are equally speculative. But Sawyer's fictionalization manages to land squarely on some problematic implications of the theory.

In the first place, "consciousness" here seems to mean human consciousness, or linguistically mediated consciousness, and only that. But the idea that human brains have microtubules, and the brains of other primates, or other mammals, or other vertebrates do not, simply makes no sense. Indeed, Sawyer's hero believes in Singer's ideas about animal rights (though not very rigorously; he's willing not only to have dinner with a woman who eats meat, but to buy a meat and cheese pizza for the woman and her daughter), which turn on the belief that animals have consciousness and can suffer. But at the same time, the plot turns on the idea that most human beings are not conscious, but go through their lives as automata. And that ought to apply all the more to animals, which certainly do not often show the reflective self-awareness that Sawyer seems to make definitive of "consciousness." That way lie the Cartesians who vivisected dogs and dismissed their cries as a purely mechanical process that gave no evidence of actual pain—because, they thought, anything that couldn't form the verbal proposition "I suffer" couldn't really be suffering. Sawyer doesn't seem to have chosen a side in this dichotomy; he seems to take conclusions from both sides.

In the second place, Sawyer imagines a quantum state in the brain that can take on different values, ranging from 0 to 3: 0 is true cessation of consciousness, as under surgical anesthesia; 1 is robotic automatism; 2 is sociopathy, with awareness of self but not of others; 3 is empathic awareness and moral responsibility. But he imagines that this quantum state is inherently persistent and unlikely to change, but can be reset from outside by a quantum mechanical device. That is, he sets aside any thought of free will: If you are a ruthlessly predatory sociopath, you bear no responsibility and cannot be expected to change; but equally, if you are a total altruist, you bear no responsibility and cannot deserve any credit. The whole normal language of "morality" simply becomes meaningless on these terms, because morality assumes agency, or self-direction. Penrose is taking off from the idea in some versions of quantum mechanics that human consciousness brings about the change from indeterminism to a determinate observed outcome; but Sawyer has reversed this and made human consciousness itself a determinate process, one controlled by quantum states that normal human thought and will cannot influence.

And that leads us up to the other point where I have problems: Sawyer's use of Singer's ideas and more broadly of utilitarianism. I said that I largely detested his protagonist's beliefs; what I mean specifically is that I detest utilitarianism as a moral philosophy. John Stuart Mill, its most famous advocate (though not its first; it was formulated originally by Jeremy Bentham), was a lifelong friend of Auguste Comte, the French philosopher who popularized (and perhaps coined) the word "altruism." But what Comte meant by "altruism" was not kindness or compassion or generosity; its flavor is best conveyed by his statement that Jesus was an unsound moral teacher because he said, "Love your neighbor as yourself," but morality required that you have no love at all for yourself and care only for the good of other people. Mill thought that was excessive—and in fact his discussion of it started English usage down the path to using "altruism" to mean "good will" or any action that benefited another person in any way—but Mill's own formal ethics called for weighting everyone's happiness equally; that is, it allowed you to love yourself, but with 7 billion people in the world, only one 7 billionth of your love could go to yourself—a quantity effectively no different from zero. (In terms of time, if you lived to 120, you could justly spend 4 seconds thinking of yourself!) Sawyer's hero quotes "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one," without a moment's thought for how fascistic that idea is.

Now, certainly, it's possible to tell a good story about an evil person; or even to tell a good story about an evil person one thinks is virtuous. Novelists aren't all moral philosophers, and storytelling doesn't depend on sound moral judgment. But it did make reading this persistently creepy.

But I'd also note that Sawyer falls into a conceptual trap that ties back to his scientific premise. He offers a model of society in which most people are simply automata, responding mindlessly to the impulse of the moment or the trend of the crowd; a smaller group are sociopaths, out solely for themselves and having purely exploitative relationships with others; and a still smaller group are morally aware. But in his view, the morally aware people are utilitarians, or at least are Canadian-style liberals; and all the conservatives are sociopaths with no moral sensitivity. He cannot credit the idea that people of other views may be honestly conscientious and trying to make the best decisions from premises different from his; rather, he dismisses them as beings less than fully human, with whom no dialogue is possible. And this leads up to his protagonist choosing to make decisions that change the moral character of other people, without their consent or their knowledge, as if he were rebooting a bunch of computers. That undermines the whole claim that his protagonist is empathic or ethically sensitive—except perhaps as he might be ethically senstive to animals: He won't kill them, or eat them, or use products of their bodies, but he doesn't see them as able to make their own choices. Sawyer cites Singer's Animal Rights, but in his treatment of morality, neither animals nor humans has anything that could accurately be called "rights."

In a way, this is really a rather brilliant novel: It takes the concept that human agency is all an illusion, and explores its implications. But it also shows an impressive lack of consciousness of what those implications are. There is, for example, no recognition that there are moral traditions other than utilitarianism. We're shown the protagonist acting from utilitarian premises, and doing some things that other people find creepy; but there's never any attempt to explore why they might do so. And on the novel's own premise about the grounding of morality in empathy, it ought to be making that attempt.
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