[Enjoy this post from guest author Nathaniel Hanks - part two in a continuing series! (Part 1)]
“You’re nothing but a pack of neurons”
Lots of science must go into making a self-aware Cylon, more than we have at the start of the 21st century. Sure, Cylons only exist in the BSG universe. But the technology which allows for synthetic self-awareness extends from our modern neuroscience of consciousness. Once scientists understood that consciousness ‘sits’ in the brain, they began looking to the brain’s structure and neural functioning for answers. While certainly playing the ‘Trust Me It’s Complicated’ card, BSG does let us peek under the ‘toaster’ to see how consciousness might be working.
Go back 3.5 billion years and consciousness is nowhere on the planet. Somewhere between the early replicating cells and now, consciousness emerged, and neuroscience is trying to figure out how. There is not even nearly as complete a theory of consciousness as there is of germs, planetary rotation or atoms. Cylon technology is fictional because no one yet understands the causal relationship between the brain and consciousness.
However, it’s clear that the brain and consciousness are causally linked. Damaging the brain can disrupt a person’s facial recognition and language use, it can alter their perception of time or change their preferences for food and people, and it can cause visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as diminish morality, memories and freewill. But what changes in the brain?
“All of our conscious experience is caused by neuronal processes in the brain, which functions causally.”
Neurons are the basic component of the brain and the average human has around 100 billion packed into their head. Yet, as Richard Feyman pointed out, of all the 100 billion neuronal cells, not a single one knows anything. Each neuron connects to other neurons between 500-20,000 different ways (roughly 100 billion times 10,000 connections) and it is that vast neuronal network that, somehow, communicates the contents of consciousness. “Consciousness,” Feynman says, “is like a dance”. While the individual neurons will shift and die, the ‘dance’ continues throughout the brain and consciousness persists. Understanding that communication, or dance, would reveal a lot about how neurons are ‘doing’ consciousness.
Neurobiologist Christof Koch suggests that gaining a functional understanding of neurons may be all that’s necessary for reproducing consciousness. For example, Koch suggests that replacing biological neurons with functionally identical silicon neurons could generate consciousness. This ‘Functional’ hypothetical gets us back to BSG, because Cylons are the functional equivalent of humans. Cylons have hair, skin, “blood, internal organs, lymphatic systems” (Pilot 2) and, most importantly, silicon-based brains.
Adama: What you got is silica-pathways to the brain, or whatever it is you call that thing you pretend to think with. (Pilot 2)
Along with consciousness, Cylons also have something like a functional understanding of the brain which allows them a deep level of conscious control. They can ‘implant’ memories, ‘download’ their experiences to new bodies, and experience alternate realities via ‘projection’.
In order to ‘download’ an experience, Cylons must be able to ‘read’ the information in a brain and ‘write’ that back to another brain. For a Cylon to ‘project’ a different experience, they must know how to change the mind between, using the example above, conscious-state Hallway to conscious-state Forest. If the relationship between neuronal connections are responsible for consciousness, then changing conscious states in the brain means changing the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCCs).
NCCs are the “particular coalition of neurons responsible for a specific experience” and there should then be an NCC for every possible experience and memory. When looking at a blue bicycle there should be a precise neural array corresponding to that image and another one for red bicycles. So, when Cylons ‘download’ or ‘project’ their consciousness, they are re-writing or changing their NCCs. Though scientists are not yet able to find NCCs, Cylons create them during every resurrection.
What’s also interesting about Cylon consciosness is that, like ours, it was an accident. Once reaching a sufficient level of complexity, both humans and Cylons developed consciousness. Where our cellular ancestors “stumbled” on consciousness as a better means of replication, so the humans in BSG stumbled on Cylons as a better means of technology.
Yet even with an understanding of the complexity which allows for consciousness, the Colonial Fleet refuses to acknowledge that Cylons are conscious. By denying consciousness, humans are also denying Cylons’ the equal consideration given to beings with the capacity to suffer.
Since it’s reasonable to suppose that other sufficiently complex organisms, namely vertebrates, have consciousness and with it the capacity for experiences, like joy and suffering, should we change our ethics? Once we discover that objects are subjects, how do we engage them? What would a morality of consciousness look like?
Stay logged on for more thoughts on BSG and the morality of consciousness as this series unfolds! And sound off in the comments.