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Alien Scientist: Alien Matters Of Mind

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: December 2005, Topic: Alien Scientist

Sentient Earthlings are in the habit of distinguishing the duality of mind and body. But while we are used to our bodies being made of ordinary matter - our tears just like the salty seas, the twinkle in our eyes just recycled starlight - we are less used to thinking of our minds in terms of physics and chemistry. Is a mind indeed something made of matter (like a brain), a real but possibly mysterious presence (like a kind of force or energy); or is the mind itself just an illusion?

If the mind doesn't physically exist, if consciousness is just an illusion, then surely our view of ourselves as sentient beings would be altered. We would find ourselves in a rather mechanistic existence where we were not much more than robots - cogs and circuits, actions and reactions - with the mental machinations just part of the built-in software, that happens to work better if we believe we have minds of our own.

Nevertheless, our perception of consciousness - and the belief that we do have a mind that we can 'make up' or 'change' - is probably too useful to discard altogether. In theory, a philosopher might insist 'I don't have a mind, I am just a bundle of molecules that thinks it thinks'. But in practice it is handy to assume that philosophers do have thinking minds, just as we tend to assume for ourselves. It is rather like all those useful working assumptions - that the Earth is flat, the sea is level, or time flows constantly everywhere - that have proved handy for most practical purposes for most of the history of humanity.

With the assumption that we do have minds, we are accustomed to believing that the mind, if it has any physical presence, is located somewhere inside our bodies - most often, literally inside our heads.

When I look, things appear in front of me, as if my mind is right there behind my eyes, with a great ringside view of the action. My mind's cosy image of being snugly situated inside my head is reinforced by having nice stereo sound coming in directly from left and right via the ears.

This perception makes one feel as if one's mind is like being on the command deck of a starship, surveying and sensing outer space from a comfortable interior environment. The difference is that a starship commander is also able to see the physical contents of this interior world: herself or himself, the rocket-thrust controls and the office furniture. However, our minds cannot see the inside of our own heads. From our mind's point of view, our bodies are 'out there' - out in space with the asteroids, not inside the ship.

Now I can survey the physical landscape out there, and recognise in it things identifiable as 'you' and 'me' and 'my office furniture'; but this is not necessarily a universally occurring state of mind.

Imagine somewhere there is a just-coalesced alien consciousness, newly formed from galactic-mind-matter. It finds itself gazing out across the universe as if through an out-of-focus telescope. At first it perceives only blurry incoherent images, but cannot yet really 'see' or make sense of anything. It doesn't yet know what it is looking at; it only gradually learns to divide up the universe into 'me' and 'not-me'.

What counts as being 'me' is not so much what is physically connected to the rest of me (a circular argument) but is effectively those parts of 'what's out there' that are directly controlled by my thoughts alone. If I can waggle a toe or tentacle just by thinking, then it's mine.

(This basic distinction between what is me and not-me is, of course, one of the first crucial hypotheses we test when first entering the world.)

This still assumes a one-to-one relationship between a mind and a body. But there could be more curious kinds of alien consciousness. Imagine, for example, a planetoid life-form which has a single brain at its core, but multiple personalities... or the reverse, a single intelligence distributed through a series of physical objects. These ideas are perhaps not so alien if we consider them not as analogues of humans as individual creatures, but as analogues of human societies.

An alien mind analogous to a human society might well appear to have a collective will, certain moods and behaviours, acting as a single being. But even if some alien higher level mind existed - made up of our minds - we couldn't be sure if it was aware of us, if it was self-aware, or what it was thinking...

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