A couple of months ago, I had some great fun chatting with Richard Brown and Pete Mandik at SpaceTimeMind. Pete has now edited our conversation into two podcasts in their engaging, energetic style:
Part One: Death and Logic
Part Two: Alien and Machine Minds
The episodes are free-standing, so if the topic of Part Two interests you more, feel free to skip straight to it. There will be a few quick references back to our Part One discussion of modality and hypotheticals, but nothing essential.
Although I think Part Two is a very interesting conversation, I do have one regret about it: It took me so long to gather Richard's view about alien consciousness that I didn't manage to articulate very well my reasons for disagreeing. Something early in the conversation led me to think that Richard was allowing that probably there are (somewhere in the wide, wide universe) aliens constructed very differently from us, without brains, who have highly sophisticated behavior -- behavior as sophisticated as our own -- and that his view is that such beings have no conscious experience. By the end of the episode, it became clear to me that his view, instead, is that there probably aren't such beings (but if there were, we would have good reason to regard them as conscious). He offered empirical evidence for this conclusion: that all beings on Earth that are capable of highly sophisticated behavior have brains like ours.
If I had understood his view earlier in the conversation, I might have offered him something like this reply:
(1.) Another possible explanation for the fact that all (or most?) highly intelligent Earthlings have brains structured like ours is that we share ancestry. It remains open that in a very different evolutionary context, drawing upon different phylogenetic resources, a very different set of structures might be able to ground highly intelligent (e.g. sophisticated linguistic, technology-building) behavior.
(2.) Empirical evidence on Earth suggests that at least moderately complicated systems can be designed with very different material structures (e.g., gas vs. battery cars, magnetic tape drives vs. laser drives; insect locomotion vs. human locomotion). I see no reason not to extrapolate such potential diversity to more complex cognitive systems.
(3.) If the universe is vast enough -- maybe even infinite, as many cosmologists now think -- then even extremely low probability events and systems will be actualized somewhere.
Anyhow, Richard and Pete's podcasts have a great energy and humor, and they dive fearlessly into big-picture issues in philosophy of mind. I highly recommend their podcasts.
(For Splintered Mind readers more interested in moral psychology, I recommend the similarly fun and fearless Very Bad Wizards podcast with David Pizarro and (former Splintered Mind guest blogger) Tamler Sommers.)