July 1, 2008

God, Insects, Robots: Are They Aware?

This nifty little article at Scientific American is something that piqued my interest in it's discussion of how people tend to impute conscious intentions and feelings to "entities" that resemble human bodies. The headline is a little misleading though: The article discusses people's intuitions rather than whether insects and robots actually experience "awareness". After first discussing the application of psychological concepts to organisations, the study's authors found that their results indicated that people were more willing to attribute certaian types of psychological concepts to corporations than actual phenomenal consciousness.

Isn't this a little obvious, though? As an example, people are more likely to say thing like: "Microsoft intends to implement a new sales strategy" rather than "Microsoft believes Google will eventually fail". These are instances of where certain psychological concepts may be applied to amorphous and faceless corporations. The study found certain things; It may be acceptable to use sentences such as:

- Acme Corporation believes that its profit margin will soon increase.
- Acme Corporation intends to release a new product this January.
- Acme Corporation wants to change its corporate image.

But they balked at all of the sentences that attributed feelings or subjective experiences to corporations:

- Acme Corporation is now experiencing great joy.
- Acme Corporation is getting depressed.
- Acme Corporation is experiencing a sudden urge to pursue Internet advertising.

So, clearly, people aren't inclined to attribute corporations with thoughts and feelings in quite the same way as they would do for humans. Again, isn't this obvious? You'd have to be quite a stupid fellow to come out with things like "Google's heart will break if it's new project fails"! Although the sentiment can be appreciated, I'm sure.

Other studies test the hypothesis that that phenomenal consciousness is likely to be attributed to things that may resemble physical bodies? Enter the robots; studies revealed that people are reasonably aware that robots are capable of some pretty cool things and so they wouldn't have a problem describing a robot that can "tell that a triangle has three sides" but, conversely, would have a problem saying something such as "the robot feels unhappy when it doesn't get what it wants." In this instance, certain kinds of mental states are attributed to the robot (awareness of shapes) but not those states that require phenomenal consciousness.

Now here's the thing: What about ascribing phenomenal consciousness to things that have no body? Enter the Big Boss (God). A Harvard study (with Daniel M. Wegner as an author) analysed people's intuitions about conscious states that could be experienced by God, and the results were surprisingly similar:

People were content to say that God could have psychological properties such as:

- Thought
- Memory
- Planning
But they did not think God could have states that involved feelings or experiences, such as:
- Pleasure
- Pain
- Fear

The article goes on to mention that attributions of mental states to God were comparable to mental states attributed to Google Corporation, and that further research is necessary to go some way in describing the underlying cognitive processes that lead people to selectively attribute consciousness to certain entities. No kidding! Given that all things should be standardised, how does this work for those religious and theological systems that don't have a conception of God as an amorphous and faceless entity? I'm not big on religion but even I know that religions such as Islam and Sikhism tend to portray a formless God who supposedly takes an active role in affording salvation to believers and granting prayers/desires. The Advaita Vedanta tradition in Hinduism is given to the "uninvolved" conception of a Deity so that might bring about similar results to this study if adherents of that tradition were studied.

It might be interesting to study the attitudes of those who advocate the notion of a formless deity but who differ on the exact nature of that deity's involvement in the workings of the world and believers' lives. What to speak of studying those who believe in a corporeal or transcorporeal deity. What knock-on effects this may have for consciousness studies and schizophrenia research is anyone's guess.

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