Bots and Bodies
Perhaps the issue here is that people only attribute phenomenal consciousness to creatures that have the right sort of bodies. To test this hypothesis, we can look to other kinds of entities that might have mental states but do not have bodies that look anything like the bodies that human beings have.
One promising approach here would be to look at people’s intuitions about the mental states of robots. Robots look very different from human beings from a physical perspective, but we can easily imagine a robot that acts very much like a human being. Experimental studies could then determine what sorts of mental states people were willing to attribute to a robot under these conditions. This approach was taken up in experimental work by Justin Sytsma, a graduate student, and experimental philosopher Edouard Machery at the University of Pittsburgh and in work by Larry (Bryce) Huebner, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and all of the experiments arrived at the same basic answer.
In one of Huebner’s studies, for example, subjects were told about a robot who acted exactly like a human being and asked what mental states that robot might be capable of having. Strikingly, the study revealed exactly the same asymmetry we saw above in the case of corporations. Subjects were willing to say:
• It believes that triangles have three sides.
But they were not willing to say:
• It feels happy when it gets what it wants.
Here again, we see a willingness to ascribe certain kinds of mental states, but not to ascribe states that require phenomenal consciousness. Interestingly enough, this tendency does not seem to be due entirely to the fact that a CPU, instead of an ordinary human brain, controls the robot. Even controlling in the experiment for whether the creature had a CPU or a brain, subjects were more likely to ascribe phenomenal consciousness when the creature had a body that made it look like a human being.
God in the Machine
What if something has no body? How does that change our conceptions of what conscious experience might be possible? We can turn to the ultimate disembodied creature: God. A recent study by Harvard University psychologists Heather Gray, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner looked at people’s intuitions about which kinds of mental states God could have. By now, you have probably guessed the result. People were content to say that God could have psychological properties such as:
But they did not think God could have states that involved feelings or experiences, such as:
In subsequent work, the researchers directly compared attributions of mental states to God with attributions of mental states to Google Corporation. These two entities—different though they are in so many respects—elicited exactly the same pattern of responses.
Looking at the results from these various studies, it is hard to avoid having the sense that one should be able to construct a single unified theory that explains the whole pattern of people’s intuitions. Such a theory would describe the underlying cognitive processes that lead people to think that certain entities are capable of a wide range of psychological states but are not capable of truly feeling or experiencing anything. Unfortunately, no such theory has been proposed thus far. Further theoretical work here is badly needed.