What if we encountered intelligent, alien beings with consciousness, but they didn’t recognize us for what they are, and what we view ourselves, as intelligent beings with consciousness? In other words, what if we met these alien beings, but they viewed us the way we would view encountering a cow? If we were searching the cosmos far and wide, and came upon a cow in a space ship, we would be disappointed in the sense of recognizing it as an animal, but not a being to “our” level. Thus, we, inasmuch as “we” constitutes something of a higher plane of existence owing to our consciousness, would consider ourselves still alone in the universe. Don’t get me wrong, though, if we found a cow floating in the cosmos, that would be quite fascinating!
David John Baker, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, wrote a short story titled, “The Hunter Captain,” that is a blend of speculative science fiction and philosophy exploring the aforementioned problem of consciousness in intelligent beings. I can’t remember why I came across his fiction short story — I believe I heard it on a podcast, and then had it pulled up on a Chrome tab ages ago to where I can’t recall the podcast or context — but it got my gears rolling.
In the short story, Sra, the hunter captain, is part of an intelligent, conscious race known as the Nampranths, who have been searching hte cosmos for beings like them. One day, they come across Alexandra Seppi, a human. They examine her brain, optimistic at first about the human brain’s two hemispheres, and perhaps that they would find something between the hemispheres to indicate higher sentience. Sra even questions Alexandra.
But as it turns out, what is between the two hemispheres is only the the corpus callosum, a mechanism for the two hemispheres to communicate with each other. Thus, the Nampranths conclude, the human is just another animal like ones they have in their world. Animals, Sra said, who do not have an organ in the brain capable of generating conscious sensations. That is what they are looking for to prove they aren’t alone in the universe.
Alexandra pushes back against this, though, especially when Sra begins to torture one of the lower animals (by Nampranth standards) to get Alexandra to share the code to unlocking the AI on her space ship, and Alexandra tries to convince him that the lower being feels pain. Sra argues that his neuroscientists did the tests, and the beings don’t feel or experience pain in the way Nampranths do because they don’t have that central organ for consciousness. She retorts that perhaps their science might have developed to justify what they already thought. She thus created a seed of doubt in his mind.
She is also able to trick the Nampranths and allow the lower beings to escape on her ship while she keeps up the fight.
Baker’s fun, interesting short story is a metaphor for the hard problem of consciousness in philosophy: Why did consciousness manifest from a combination of cells and neurons in our brain in the way in which it did?
As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “There seems to be an unbridgeable explanatory gap between the physical world and consciousness. All these factors make the hard problem hard.”
This explanatory gap, and Sra’s stubbornness and myopic view of consciousness, means he not only overlooks a like being right in front of him in Alexandra, but others within his own world. In this way, Baker’s short story also feels like something of an animal rights allegory. In other words, returning to our cow, what gives the cow moral standing, if any? There are a number of factors that perhaps could grant it moral standing, like if it feels pain in the way we consider ourselves to feel pain. What then, are we to say about eating a cow, as the Nampranths also eat beings who are sentient?
By extrapolation then, to the Nampranths, owing to our lack of what they consider a physical explanation for consciousness that gives them, or would give us, requisite moral standing, we would be considered akin to the food they eat on their home planet.