For anyone who is unaware of what a nintendog is, it is a virtual pet or a kind of dog simulation video game for the Nintendo DS. My girlfriend's nintendog is called George and she has got very good at teaching it tricks, winning frisbee competitions and generally petting, feeding and walking it. She has already invested over 6 hours of her life playing with this virtual dog and interacts with it, almost as if it were real.
In my last post, I argued that people look at animals and assume they have a mental experience akin to human consciousness. With the nintendog (or any sophisticated virtual pet, like Sony's no longer produced Aibo) people interact with them as though they were alive or real dogs, despite being programmed by humans to merely act like a real dog. We have a kind a basic Turing test, where programming and technology can convince a person that what they are playing with is to some extent alive, despite just being lines of code and engaging graphics. The nintendog is not alive. It is a set of programming routines which react to stimuli from the user. It is designed to elicit reactions and can learn, with basic training. None of that requires any kind of conscious experience. It is a computer program.
But hold on a second, what if we could take a real dog and replace his brain with a programmed nintendog brain. Would you really be able to tell the difference? Perhaps a dog is too complicated, but what if I replaced a fly's brain with a computer version? Would you be able to tell then? And what about swotting the nintendofly? If I delete George, am I murdering a sentient being or merely erasing a simulation?
And so, the more I think about animal consciousness, the more I think that it is almost wholly illusion. That we see instinct and reflex as evidence that animals are mini-humans. Many of the animals we interact with on very close levels have also been selectively bred. Traits such as being less aggressive and bonding with humans have produced domestic animals which can seem very aware, but this is just like tinkering with the programming, it adds to the illusion.Go Top