They Have a Plan: The Philosophy of Consciousness in Battlestar Galactica

They Have a Plan: The Philosophy of Consciousness in Battlestar Galactica

The first in a series on how Battlestar Galactica explores the nature of awareness.

[Hey all! Enjoy this guest post from Nathaniel Hanks! – Ed.]

Consciousness is both one of the most familiar things to all of us and one of the most mysterious.

Daniel Dennett

There’s hardly a better primer for consciousness studies than Battlestar Galactica. “What is consciousness?”, “How does the brain do it?”, “What do you need to have consciousness?” No one knows the answers. Philosophers have been puzzling over consciousness for centuries and, only recently, has science offered much help. The (2003) Battlestar Galactica catches viewers up on the philosophy of consciousness, the modern neuroscience of consciousness through Cylon technology, and the ethical implications of consciousness in non-human beings through the series’ Cylon/Human conflict.

If you haven’t seen BSG, this article will probably be a spoiler. Having watched the show isn’t necessary, since the series highlights real, ongoing philosophical and scientific questions of consciousness, but it may help detail some of the arguments.

Since consciousness will be the central topic, I want to make a clarification at the start. We’re not talking about ‘conscience’ in BSG but ‘consciousness’. John Searle describes consciousness this way:

“when you wake up in the morning you have it and you have it all day. And then it goes away when you go to sleep. And, sometimes, you have it in dreams.”

Consciousness is ‘what it’s like’ to be something. If there’s nothing that it’s like to be a tree, then a tree probably isn’t conscious. If, on the other hand, we reason that there is something it’s like to be a dog, then the dog probably is conscious.

But, knowing what it’s like to be something other than ourselves is problematic. People have to tell us how they’re feeling, or we have to imagine what they might be thinking, but we can never really glimpse their first-person, subjective experience except through our own (Daniel Dennett disagrees that another creature’s subjectivity is necessarily barred, but that’s an argument for the comments). This is the Problem of Other Minds and BSG introduces it with the first spoken lines of the series.

“Are you alive?” model-6 asks. “Prove it.”

In a torture scene, the Cylon model Leoben illustrates the problem for Kara Thrace (Starbuck) another way:

Starbuck: A smart Cylon would turn off the old pain software right about now.
Leoben: Maybe I’ll turn it off and you won’t even know.

“Flesh and Bone”

Subjective experiences are unique because they are not available to other subjects or, they cannot be objects. It’s a weird problem. For example, we could imagine two people looking at two colored cards. Amy sees card 1 as red, and Bob sees card 1 as green. With card 2 it is the opposite: Amy sees green and Bob sees red. Now when Amy and Bob are taught the names of colors, and say the teacher sees color like Amy, something interesting happens. The teacher holds up the first card (Amy-red/Bob-green) and says ‘Red’, with the second object she says ‘Green’ (Amy-green/Bob-red), and both Amy and Bob agree on names for two completely different experiences. Amy and Bob would consistently agree that a stop sign was ‘Red’ and that grass was ‘Green’ but each would have different subjective experiences for each. What’s more interesting is that Amy might like ‘Red’ and make fun of Bob because he likes ‘Green’, and they would really both enjoy the same experience of red. Neither could ever know the other’s difference in experience.

Philosophers call sensational experiences, like red and green, ‘qualia’. Qualia (the singular is ‘quale’) are those ineffably subjective moments of consciousness; the ‘what it’s like’ to taste an apple’s sweetness or feel a blanket’s softness.


Or a Cylon's vampiness.

Though qualia may be a sort of user-illusion, everyone knows what you’re talking about when you say that ice ‘feels cold’. Since we can’t know for sure we must take others on their word that they have subjective experience.

This is why Cylons are interesting. They’re not just apparent-human machines like the Terminator or mechanized humans like Robocop, Cylons are synthetic humans “like us [with] identical internal organs and lymphatic systems,” who also claim to have conscious experience.

Adama: How does that make you feel? If you can feel?
Leoben: Oh, I can feel more than you can conceive.

– “Pilot”

Cylons cry and get hungry. Some of them fall in love with humans and give birth. We may have to grant that Cylons are necessarily conscious because, as V.S. Ramachandran puts it, “there’s no such thing as free-floating qualia without a self experiencing them. Or, a self without qualia”. It seems that qualia necessarily entails an experiencing self and, if you have a self, you’re conscious.

But, couldn’t they just be pretending? Maybe there’s some advanced heuristic software figuring up context-appropriate emotional language. David Chalmers talks about this very possibility with the ‘Philosopher’s Zombie’ thought experiment.

The Philosopher’s Zombie isn’t like Romero’s crazed undead. In addition to looking perfectly human, the zombies go about their day in a human way. They have coffee and read books. They even write about the problems of consciousness for other zombies. But, the crucial difference, is that they have no first-person, subjective experience: they are not conscious.

Chalmers argues that such a creature could exist in theory but that here, on non-hypothetical Earth, we are conscious. Other philosophers, like Paul Churchland, disagree with Chalmers about Zombies. Just because a zombie is imaginable (says Churchland) doesn’t mean it’s possible. There is also the interesting suggestion that a Philosopher’s Zombie, like a Cylon, that could behave as if it were conscious would be conscious. A sort of Turing test for a self.

Anyway, the thought experiment is meant to highlight an odd point. If consciousness is only about nerve reflexes, preferencing, intelligence or decision making, then there is nothing that can’t be explained away with heuristic complexes or genetic algorithms running in the brain exactly like computer software. Chalmers puts it another way, “why is all that complex processing also accompanied by experience?”

In The Astonishing Hypothesis, Francis Crick expands the point with the problem-solving capabilities of bees. Bees are capable of finding their way to food based on color cues and can learn to solve problems more quickly by remembering past color cues which led to food. Crick notes that if a potentially comatose patient could perform any of the tasks done by the bee, we would not hesitate to declare the patient conscious. But then is the bee also conscious? If not, why? More to the point, computers are outperforming their conscious designers all the time but, we never assume they’re conscious.

Since we can’t somehow look and see consciousness, we have to either accept the Cylon’s claims to a subjective self, because they describe qualia, or re-evaluate how we determine the existence of consciousness in others. If this isn’t problematic enough, it may be that the act of questioning consciousness is more difficult. After all, it’s dizzying to imagine how the self could find itself.

[Is there anything else in “Battlestar Galactica” that suggests Cylons are conscious? Or that proves they aren’t? Sound off in the comments! – Ed.]

When he’s not watching Battlestar Galactica or playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Nathaniel Hanks writes about consciousness – particularly the mind-body problem – and evolution at his own blog. Stay logged on for further Overthinking It posts about Battlestar Galactica and the philosophy of consciousness.

10 Comments on “They Have a Plan: The Philosophy of Consciousness in Battlestar Galactica”

  1. Tulse #

    What an excellent primer on the philosophical “hard problem” of consciousness. (Now if we could just get an explanation of how Cylons have USB ports in their arms…)


  2. Qwil man #

    All this seems very very dependant on an organism reporting its qualia. The article seems very focused on a non-concious object behaving as though it has conciousness and ignored the idea of a conious object that isn’t percieved as such by others (though I realize that may simply be due to the size of the article).

    The easiest example to use is a perfectly paralyzed man. I assume that someone who is for some reason incapable of moving any muscle in his body, yet retains a provable fully functioning brain would still be acknowledged as concious (though if you disagree, please say why!). However, most of these people would not agree that the palm tree out the window I’m in front of is concious, but why?

    It seems to have it’s own sensations, given that it responds to changes in temperature by shedding its leaves and to the presence of water and nutrients by distributing them among its body. If the lack of a nervous system or brain is our argument, then we’re assuming that humanity (or at least the animal kingdom) has a monopoly on conciousness, and we can throw the entire Cylon discussion out the window and go about exterminating them — which by the way is a Starship Troopers solution to a Star Trek problem.

    However, if we allow any report of experience and not just ones that animals perform, then we’re not only forced to assume a tree is concious, but NEARLY ALL THINGS THAT EXIST.

    Here’s where I expect to start losing people, but please stay with me.

    If a tree is unwittingly reporting on its conciousness by taking actions in response to stimuli, then any one of its cells seems to be doing the same thing (or any one of ours, for that matter). Taking it even further, my phone is composing a record of keystrokes right now specific to the sensation it recieves when I press specific keys. Conciousness? My Xbox at home is probably showing a series of images and sounds consitant with it’s sensation of receiving a series of impulses through it’s network port. Is my girlfriend watching an episode of Law and Order giving my 360 — and by extension my TV — an opportunity to report on it’s sensations and prove it has a conciousness?

    Please excuse my horrible spelling and grammar, I just wrote way the fuck too many words on a timy little phone.


    • stokes #

      I think there’s a little hole, here… If the man’s brain is provably fully functional, then he is capable of reporting on qualia. The doctor would say “Hello, Mr. Hypothetical Paralytic, think about practicing the piano if you don’t mind please,” and lo and behold all the neural circuitry associated with piano playing would light up on the MRI. “If you think ice cream is delicious, please think about piano playing!” And so on.


      • Qwil man #

        I feel like the question speaks more to my bad phrasing. I should have signified that in the hypothetical this man would also lack the means for input. That actually makes me ask another question. Imagine a human brain kept in a mad scientist jar from birth. After say ten years, a point when a normal brain would be fully functioning and coherent, the crazed genius turns on his thought reader and finds that the brain is thinking.

        Would we define that brain as concious? Would a device that can seemingly be defined as a conciousness engine cut off from any sensation and denied the ability to act outwardly according to its status still be concious? Off the top of my head, I feel like the formation of thought would be evidence enough, but I also can’t prove that such a formation would occur without input so I might just be spinning my wheels in hypothetical snow here.


  3. Tulse #

    we can throw the entire Cylon discussion out the window and go about exterminating them — which by the way is a Starship Troopers solution to a Star Trek problem

    Nice callback.

    Qwil man, one way to address your concerns is the way Dennett does, by simply saying that we are free to take the “stance” that such things are conscious, which is to say that it will sometimes be useful pragmatically to do so, without making any claims as to the actual truth of that stance. (This view, and his position in Consciousness Explained [Away] makes me think that Dennett feels consciousness is nothing more than a useful fiction — although presumably there is therefore no truth to whether he actually “feels” that…).

    And many of those of a functionalist bent would be happy to say that your Xbox has some sort of rudimentary consciousness, or at least intentionality — the cognitive scientist John McCarthy famously said that thermostats have beliefs (“it’s too hot”, “it’s too cold”, “it’s just right”). No, really.


    • Qwil man #

      Thanks for the names, I’m totally into doing a big reading push into this once I’m off work. Do you know offhand any authors who hold contrary opinions? I’ve been thinking about these sort of things for a while and I want to see if my half-baked unresearched ideas hold up to scrutiny.


      • Tulse #

        Contrary to what views? Chalmers holds very different views from Dennett, and John Searle is another contrarian (although I don’t know how coherent his views actually are).


  4. David #

    Cool topic. I’m just chiming in to express my pleasure at this series. I’m interested in how you address a particular quirk of Cylon consciousness and their experience of qualia: their evident ability to modify their own sensational experiences to create voluntary hallucinations.


  5. Nathan Hanks #

    These comments are great and I just want to say thanks for the conversation. Most of the stuff I planned for the second article is cropping up here but I want to quickly get to a few good points.

    @Qwil I didn’t mean to suggest that Cylons are “non-conscious objects behaving as though [they have] consciousness”. I think those “toasters” *are* conscious by any reasonable definition. To your main point, you talked about objects, like palm trees, that we may not ordinarily consider conscious but that *may* be conscious. You likened responding to stimuli, like “shedding leaves” in cold, to reporting subjective experience and suggested that a nervous system is not necessary for consciousness.

    I guess I am suggesting that the “animal kingdom has a monopoly on consciousness” because of their nervous systems [and brains], but for good reason(Cylons too have a nervous system [and brains] so I don’t know about sicking Johnny Rico on ’em just yet). If we take an aenesthetized person and prick them, their blood will clot and the wound will heal as a biological response to the stimulus of the cut. But she won’t feel it. That’s the major point of consciousness: it’s in addition to biological mechanics. Consciousness is ‘what it’s like’ to feel those reactions. Our bodies can go on experiencing without lots of body parts but the brain isn’t one of them. That’s why we assume the brain “does” consciousness. Also the latency of response is another thing unique to ‘brainy’ organisms without which we couldn’t have Free Will, a key[ish] feature of consciousness.

    @Stokes “The neural circuitry associated with piano playing,” is a perfect example of a Neural Correlate of Consciousness (NCC). Unfortunately no one has found this kind of relationship between neurons and thoughts. MRIs, EEGs and PET scans are all capable of imaging the brain but none actually capture the functions between neuronal connections. Even if they could, neuroscientists don’t know how neurons communicate information-complexes, like thoughts. There’s a really cool neural network project called NETtalk but the units don’t function exactly like biological neurons.

    @Tulse I’m getting to the Functionalism argument in the next article and was excited to see it here already. Who did you read on that?

    @David The Cylon ability to “Project” was so cool and hugely underplayed in the series. I really hadn’t thought about writing on it but do you have any ideas yourself?

    @Qwil (again) Susan Blackmore’s ‘Conversations on Consciousness’ is a great read and even has charicatures of the people she interviews. It introduces the basic ideas held by 21 philosophers, neuroscientists and those in the A.I. field and it turned me on to all this consciousness business.


  6. richies^ghost #

    Great article – well written and insightful. If you’re done with BSG, try Ghost in the Shell (if you haven’t already).


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