Reading in Context: Cultural Backdrop for Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006)

Cover of Blindsight by Peter Watts, with Richard Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype, Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind, and Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in the background, next to the title of the blog post.

A few weeks ago, a Twitter conversation about Ray Nayler’s new series of author-chats launched a surprising confluence of SF&F-community excitement around Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006). This book, which explores a first-contact scenario that asks serious questions about human consciousness and its relative cosmic value, won a handful of nominations when it was published — but it wasn’t one I got around to reading at the time. It was so adored and strenuously recommended by folks involved in the aforementioned conversation, though, that I downloaded a sample immediately, and was hooked by the craft: the clever ways in which Watts establishes an engaging tone for a book packed with scientific and related philosophical discourse.

Today on Twitter, we’re hosting a “book club” around this piece: two fresh readers of the work (me, and one other published SF&F writer), and folks who read Blindsight closer to when it came out.

Here, I’d like to jot down a few peripheral observations, because my reading of Blindsight sits at a remove from the experiences of many who engaged with the text in its original cultural moment. This fact by itself is a pretty nifty reminder that we as writers are in an ongoing conversation. To go back and read older canon can be a bit mystifying for this reason, because a lot of a text’s power lies in its publishing climate — especially when a given book happens to be among the first of its kind. “Golden Era” classics, for instance, will sometimes seem simplistic on a conceptual level to SF writers today, but that’s only because the former were laying broad-strokes imaginative foundations on untried land. Now the rest of us are building skyscrapers upon their work.

This doesn’t mean that earlier works can’t still pack a wallop, of course (again, I quite enjoyed Blindsight‘s craft, and hope to focus on those aspects during the conversation on Twitter), but it does mean that a wildly acclaimed work can underwhelm precisely because it already did its work: it moved the needle in cultural consciousness. It paved the way for other work to follow, building upon and otherwise normalizing its revolutionary ideas.

Watts was plainly inspired by a wealth of works come before him, too. This is evident in both the wide range of chapter-starting quotes and in the main text’s ideas. When I started reading Blindsight, I didn’t know there’d be a full appendix at the end, but I kept encountering concepts that reminded me of a wide range of non-fiction I’d been exposed to, growing up surrounded by computer science and empirical discourse. Aspects of the text quite plainly invoked, for instance, Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind (1989), Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype (1982) and to a lesser extent The Selfish Gene (1976), Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993), and Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works (1997), plus a host of surrounding complexity discourse. I was quite chuffed to see that three of these recalled texts even made it explicitly to Watts’ reference section. I was even more pleased to have a few things fleshed out for me in some related subfields (for instance, I knew about Alan Turing’s work with emergent complexity, but not about Kolmogorov’s computational complexity).

But alongside these invocations of major 70s and 80s scientific paradigm shifts, which so clearly formed a discursive foundation for Watts’ sci-fi, another distinct cultural moment came to mind while reading this book: the thriving, heated discourse of New Atheism in the first years of the 21st Century — and in particular, some of its argumentation around “free will”.

Now, “free will” was always a ridiculous concept to me, but bear with me during this walk down memory lane, because the surrounding debate has a lot to do with Blindsight‘s protagonist.

I was and remain a firm believer in its non-existence, but at the turn of the century I was surprised to discover how many people not only disagreed with me, but were also quite disturbed by the idea that we didn’t have free will. It was one of those odd moments when one finds oneself more closely allied with the Calvinists than with most fellow atheists — and it took me longer than it should have to realize why many folks in New Atheism were reluctant to cede free will entirely.

As a teen thrown into the thrill of university philosophizing, I used to outline whole bodies of research supporting the view that our supposedly conscious choices are biochemical responses probabilistically shaped by habit and environment. In subsequent years, studies continued to illustrate the ease with which someone could influence neuronal activity to shape another’s “decisions” — but I also knew my history, and work like T.H. Huxley’s “On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and its History” (1874), an essay illustrating that even complex activities could be performed unconsciously, shows that we’ve known our mechanicality for a while.

As far as I was concerned, then, we in the early 21st Century were reinventing the wheel with this debate about the role and value of supposed consciousness. So why did we keep having it?

We don’t anymore, not really, because such debates tend to be resolved quickly and quietly when science tips the scale. To this end, Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) is easily the most accessible and comprehensive account we now have of how much our consciousness is a bit player in all the activities underpinning individual “choice”. Starting with the moment of a given “decision”, Sapolsky works backward to identify the factors minutes, days, years, and lifetimes past that invariably inform the actions of an instant. And it’s a positive and joyous account, too — perfectly illustrating that the world doesn’t become an awful place just because our consciousness isn’t the central and most important driver of our actions.

But back in the throes of the New Atheism movement — around when Watts’ book would have been conceptualized and written — “free will” was huge, and I saw quite a bit of resistance among many prominent atheists to the idea that it didn’t exist. When Daniel Dennett claimed that admitting we had no free will would consign us to the worst moral outcomes, his argument seemed as poor as the whole “If there is no god, one must invent one” spiel. So why did he advance it?

For me, the idea that I have no free will is itself an input that informs the system, meaning that simply knowing I’m the sum total of biochemical routines acting probabilistically on a given environment is enough to change my outcomes. I don’t choose to keep my biochemistry in mind when trying to improve my outcomes; the knowledge that biochemistry informs outcome has simply become part of the internal algorithm shaping my probabilistic response to new events.

What is the rest of “me” doing? What function does consciousness serve? I had a line from The Expanse as my Twitter handle for a while, because it so perfectly summed up the nuisance of consciousness amid all this deeper functional processing: we’re all just “whistling in the dark”, filling the void with chatter that we come to convince ourselves signifies more than sound and fury.

So here’s where Blindsight comes into play: In it, we have a figure who is very much like a certain stereotypical atheist from the turn of the century. Siri Keeton is supposedly the perfect rationalist, an observer who can see systems and create compelling impressions of all other players within them without actually being a part of any of them. Mimicry and synthesis without empathy, without true understanding. That’s what he claims, at least, and even though his speech patterns routinely suggest far more reactivity to his circumstances than one would expect from such a figure, most everyone around him accepts his (John Searle’s) “Chinese Room” analogy for how he processes symbols without truly understanding or being a part of them.

Everyone, that is, except for Jukka Sasastri, Homo sapiens vampiris: a fabricated apex predator in this universe, and a being whose view of Homo sapiens sapiens as prey allows it greater insight into human behaviour — and in particular, into the lies we tell ourselves to keep ourselves going.

Without spoiling the book, then — this chewy scientific and philosophical jaunt into a first-contact scenario with a truly alien alien, and a motley crew of Terran lifeforms with widely different neurologies — Keeton’s central discovery relates to how incredibly wrong he was to think that he’s in that Chinese Room. That he can even imagine what it’s like to be in that Chinese Room.

The rationalist, the outsider, the supposedly superior thinker when it comes to seeing how humans and their systems intertwine… is biased. Is complicit. Is part of the system he’s spent most of his life convinced he stands apart from. Is human, for better and in this case probably for worse.

Do you see now how perfectly situated Watts’ Blindsight would have been in 2006?

The biggest reason I fell away from New Atheism, despite how enamoured I was with its debate circuits and the rhetoric of compelling argumentation, was the realization that its major actors had convinced themselves of an antiquated view of rationalism — needed that view, even, in order to see everything they said and did and observed as equally informed and insightful. They had seen past the illusion of religion and god-belief by virtue of their greater, more abstracted reasoning and intellect, and by golly, this meant that they were more resistant to bias in other fields of discourse, too. Airport security profiling? Western versus Islamic civilization? What qualifies as torture? No problem for these chaps. Just more ideas that they could reason over from a higher plateau.

Meanwhile, we know that reason and emotion are intertwined on a neurological level. We know that there is no communicative processing fully removed from our sense of “self”, with all its biochemically and environmentally moored biases. And so, the more I bore witness to New Atheists overconfident in their rationalism, the less I felt that its form of discourse was the most rigorous in its application of empiricism — full empiricism — to our world’s most pressing problems.

It wasn’t just New Atheism, though: There are many fields in which we still toss around this illusion of perfect, superior rationalism… and in so doing, delude ourselves most of all.

In Blindsight, another domain for this kind of processing error emerges in Keeton’s reflections on past behaviour, and especially on his relationship with Chelsea. There, he tries to insist that she’s the one not being honest, by not admitting that all romantic interactions between men and women are adversarial by evolutionary design. He even claims that he doesn’t understand why their relationship didn’t work, despite his refusal to go along with the ways in which she was trying to “manipulate” him into sexual congress and meeting the family and sharing his feelings. Shouldn’t she have appreciated that he recognized the intrinsic combat of male-female dynamics, and was open with her about it? Why wasn’t that enough to ensure relational success?

Keeton’s ideas here are part of a dangerously active school of thought that again claims superior rationalism while blatantly overlooking how unfit this strategy is for social thriving (let alone for successful genetic propagation). If Keeton really believed that the intrinsic state of male-female relations was one of relentless contest — and if he truly wanted to be part of that contest, to connect, as he admits that he did — then why hadn’t he optimized himself to be a better contestant? To manipulate as good as he perceived that he was being manipulated, instead of driving her away?

In both domains — heteronormative relationships and New Atheism — the answer is simple: because asserting and maintaining the illusion of superior rationalism is the real objective. Because the singular SELF must be secured against encroachment, that it may be elevated above all others.

And yet, Blindsight blows both the feasibility and the value of that objective clear out of the water.

Suffice it to say, then, arguments about the relative/non-existent value of consciousness in Watts’ Blindsight were not at all new to me — but novelty is overrated anyway. What I found far more interesting is the fact that the book so powerfully synthesizes a body of research from one exceptionally formative period of 20th-Century scientific philosophy, and wields it against a pressingly relevant vein of narrow-minded intellectualism ascendant at the time of its publication.

And now? Now I’m looking forward to seeing what others have to say about this book’s contents, its craft, and its cultural context — because I don’t doubt that everyone who takes part will have a different set of resonance points when it comes to the impact of Watts’ work. That’s pretty much a given, frankly, considering we’re all semi-discrete, slightly yet significantly varied biochemical organisms that have been differently habituated by a wide range of environmental exposure sets.

I think we’ll all whistle pretty well together, though, in the dark.

M L Clark looks at the context informing Peter Watts’ Blindsight, as a precursor to online discourse about its themes, style, and impact

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