A review of Blindsight

Descartes’ cogito is probably the most famous phrase in all of philosophy: “I think, therefore I am.” Even those who doubt everything else seem to accept the existence of the self. Everyone except Nietzsche of course, who argued that the notion “there is thinking” does not imply “I am thinking” or even "there is a thinker." We say that "there is rain", but this does not imply that "there is a rainer." So why should "there is thinking" imply "there is a thinker?"

For most people, this seems like an argument that only a philosopher would consider. Of course thinking requires a thinker in a way that raining does not require a rainer. It's just obvious.

But to everyone’s shock, science seems to be proving Nietzsche right.

Surely an individual neuron cannot be said to “think”, at least by any standard definition of the term. Yet the collection of neurons which make up our brain do think. So thought must be an emergent process – “I” am not a single person, I am a “corporation”, to use Dennet’s term.

Hofstadter carries this to its logical conclusion in his "ant fugue": an ant is not capable of very complex behavior. Yet an ant colony is capable of extremely complex behavior. Does it not make sense to say that the colony is not just “conscious” but more conscious than an ant? (Can we say that America is more conscious than an American?)

Blindsight asks the question that this review has been leading up to: why does “intelligent life” imply “conscious life?” Why does an ant need consciousness as long as the colony itself is conscious? (Why does an ant need to think at all?)

As you can guess from the fact that this review needs a page-long introduction to contemporary philosophy of mind in order to introduce Blindsight’s leitmotif, this is not science fiction but science fiction. Watts is trained as a biologist, but he references everything from physics to philosophy. This is not the kind of book where aliens are like humans, except with green skin. This is the kind of book you need to read with reference materials on hand.

The frame is standard “first-contact” fare: something strange is detected at the edge of the solar system. Humans investigate. New things are discovered. But the content is terrifically new. Asimov appealed to L’homme Machine as evidence that robots could be created. Watts takes it to mean that humans are robots, we just don’t break down frequently enough to see it. So he calls upon his fictional universe to throw monkey wrenches into the gears of man-as-robot.

One of the most memorable monkey-wrenches gives the book its title: damage to the brain can cause people to lose their awareness of sight, without actually losing sight itself. If you throw them a ball, they can catch it. If you ask them how they knew where the ball was, they will have no idea. Hence, “blind” sight. This is, in essence, a short summary of the entire book: just because you can do something doesn’t imply that you are aware (or even that there is one who is aware). The book is sort of like a Russian doll of Searle's chinese room; each piece is an un-comprehending piece of a larger picture.

It is tempting to call Blindsight a horror novel, but that is misleading. The horror is not that aliens are coming to kill you. The horror is that you were never alive to begin with.

The conclusion is final yet unsatisfying, which is of course the moral; this book almost requires a new branch of philosophy, a post-structural existential angst: it is not that you live and die for no reason, it’s that there is no “you” at all.

I suspect that if you've read this far, you will know whether you will like Blindsight or not. If you enjoy Oliver Sacks’ investigations into mental curiosities, or Dennet’s investigations into the self, you will probably love it. If you like your fiction fictional and undemanding, you might want to look elsewhere.