What would we learn if we could merge parts of the human brain with those of other species? Might we hear the sounds of the past? Live in naked troops, swapping intimate experiences without words? Or build a new social network? Jeff Warren spoke to some experts.
I’ve spent years thinking about consciousness, and my current obsession is whether we humans can know anything about what it’s like to be a dog, a dolphin, a bat.
The standard response to this was articulated back in 1974 by American philosopher Thomas Nagel in his paper, ‘What it is like to be a Bat?’. Unlike some of the behaviorist thinkers of that time, who viewed animals as little more than stimulus-response automatons devoid of inner life, Nagel didn’t doubt that bats had some form of experience, that it was “like something” to be a nimble, echolocating mammal swooping through the night sky. But he did doubt our ability to say anything true about that experience that isn’t mere projection or imagination.
Nagel may be right, but I believe the human-to-animal mind question is simply an extreme form of the human-to-human mind question: we can never entirely know another person’s experience especially if they come from a wildly different culture, but there are deep points of overlap that can be expanded. So what are the points of overlap with animals – and how can they be expanded?
One answer may be to compare brains and compare environments. I decided to conduct some thought-experiments via Skype with two of the smartest people I know on the question of brains and non-human consciousness: Lori Marino, a comparative neuro-anatomist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and Ben Goertzel, author, mathematician, pioneering AI researcher, and former research director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence in San Francisco.
Here is the full conversation