C:\B\CONFER~1\Origins\www milano\p www zombie swamp milano.wpd December 2, 2000


Matjaž Potrč, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, matjaz.potrc@guest.arnes.si

This is a paper about world wide web (www) and about its relation to human performance. Www certainly processes information. In this www is similar to humans, who are information mongers, and as such they are target of cognitive science studies. Despite all their imperfections, humans are basically performing well, and sometimes they even succeed in establishing some viable relations to each others. Seen from this perspective, it is immediately clear that www will not be able to match all the subtleties of human performance. But if the comparison is tempted anyway, one important question about www will be wether it is capable to have consciousness and intentionality, and in what way it is supposed to have them, in order to be effective.

It seems that all the richness of conscious intentionality may be obtained through a description of a human duplicate with narrow content, which is completely detached from the world. There are similarities between narrow internalism and www in that they are both separated from the external. But their relation breaks in that, as it seems, www is at most capable to achieve the state of a conscious zombie, in counterdistinction to the rich intentional conscious life of humans. This is partially because in its beliefs (but not in reality) www shares mistakes of semantic externalism, tending to confuse intentionality and reference, and also separating (or better: clumsily assembling) intentionality and consciousness.

An alternative picture claims that conscious experiences are intrinsically intentional and intentional experiences are intrinsically conscious. Swamp brain in a swamp vat is able to embrace this appropriate picture of human performance. This is not possible however for some system such as www which in the best circumstances holds the place of a conscious zombie, a well functioning system that is blurred by confusing flashes of merely accompanying consciousness.

Some structure is necessary for www. It is not excluded that its better performance may be achieved by the singular place of the www city, whose role follows the trajectory of an internal margin to the www.

A needed distinction: www is not a www city

Is there a world wide web city of the internet? We seem to be approaching this stage, and many people will probably be arguing for it. But it would be interesting to ask what www city is able to achieve and what are the internal limits to the enterprise. This is a question for those working inside the city. And here is a job for a philosopher: Before going to the www city, it is methodologically better just to stay with the www for a while.

I think that the difference between www and www city is that the later may deliver the structure which the first one utterly lacks. Www extends all over the planet. And it is perhaps as confused and unorderly as is the planet itself. But there the mapping between the planet and between www may end. Www is a global enterprise, but it is actually not hooked to the world. Despite its possible confusing beliefs to the contrary (its proclaimed aim to deliver some stuff) it is an internalist undertaking. All the rich life of www and also of the www city is destinated to be utterly brain in a vatish. There is nothing bad in this. The lack of externalist boundedness may turn out to be an advantage for a system.

If we compare www to the rich conscious intentionality of the brain in a vat, we must admit that contrary to humans and their possible replicas, www neither has consciousness, nor does it have intentionality. As it does not have consciousness, it is zombie like. And because it does not have consciousness, it also cannot have intentionality, if the thesis holds that consciousness is intrinsic to intentionality as its precondition. As www is without intentionality but it is functioning -- perhaps not functioning well, but at least it is functioning to some extent -- is it a functional zombie? We should also not forget another zombie species: the conscious zombie.

Is www's intelligence conscious and intentional?

I. Starting to talk about www, an obvious and interesting question arises: What is the intelligence of such a system, and what is its performance?

It is not clear that our intelligence per se increases to the great extent if we use internet. Many people would be rather skeptical. Intellectuals at the beginning of the twentieth century were admirably superior to us in various aspects of their wide knowledge and in their capabilities. Snail mail bought them the time to think.

Despite being the main product of AI or of artificial intelligence, it is not clear wether www as a system has intelligence itself. Perhaps a comparison with humans as intelligent systems is welcome and helpful for asking such questions as: Is www intelligent? What is www's performance like?

II. Www's performance should be thus perhaps compared to the performance of humans. What distinguishes the performance of humans, indeed? Philosophy of mind seems to be an appropriate place where to look for an answer at such a question. A closer inspection will reveal though that this branch delivers a mistaken picture of the human performance. This picture being mistaken does not prevent it -- as it is usual for such cases -- to be quite widespread. The contemporary philosophy of mind argues something like that: There are intentional states, and they are functionally efficacious. There is also consciousness around, and it accompanies intentional states, without actually being administered any real important task in the cognitive system. Eventually it comes to be recognized in the philosophy of mind that consciousness is a rather hard problem as compared to the functional organizational story about intentional states. The hardness of the problem is then dealt with in one of the following ways. First, the study of consciousness need appeal to and introduction of some kind of fundamental laws, naturalistic in their spirit but distinguished from the laws of physics which however continue to be in power for all the rest of the worldly areas (Chalmers). Or perhaps consciousness is simply recognized as a kind of mystery, to the understanding and explanation of which we are ultimately cognitively closed (McGinn). This may be called the overall picture of separation, for it separates intentionality and consciousness in an description of human performance. Despite that the picture recognizes both intentionality and consciousness to be inherent to human systems.

III. Here is a different picture concerning performance of humans. This view recognizes the same basic ingredients as the former, intentionality and consciousness. But it tries to sell them as an intertwined package deal from the very start. Because of this, this picture seems to be right. Here it comes in some brief sketchy brushes:

Conscious states are intrinsically intentional, i.e., they have directedness build up into them. Just imagine possibility of perceiving color red without some surface intervening in the process, and/or not being located in relation to yourself as the zero-point. Upon reflection, this surely will strike you as quite impossible. Intentional states, on the other hand, are intrinsically conscious, i.e. each intentional state must be accompanied by consciousness or with what it is like qualitative feeling in order to have its directedness at all. So intentional states have qualitative or what it is like feels as their substantial part. If I am thinking at a cat, there is some specific what it is like as an integral part of my thought that I possess. This seems to have been forgotten by the tradition modeling intentionality and thought by an appeal to the basic tools with their provenance from mathematical logic.

IV. Now the reasons may be sketched why the traditional mistaken picture is wrong.

The traditional picture concerning the relation of intentionality and consciousness is thus wrong on both counts. It does not recognize consciousness to be intrinsically intentional, and neither does it recognize intentionality as being intrinsically conscious.

The roots of this mistreatment may be found in a confusion of intentionality with reference. The externalist stories began in a rather cautious manner. In the seventies, the thesis of externalism was restricted just to natural kinds (Burge). It was then thought sufficient to demonstrate that there is a hookup to the world in the case of natural kinds in order to prove the externalist thesis. The landscape has changed since then. The world hookup stories became general theses about the nature of intentionality. Now, the very directedness of an intentional act seems to be assured either through teleological (Millikan) or through informational (Dretske) external hookup links.

Why is this a mistake? Because the generalized externalist move in the explanation of intentionality tends to reduce all the richness of intentional relation as recognized by the people at the beginning of the twentieth century (Brentano) just to a species of causal hookup with the external world. Of course there is no right place for consciousness then in such a picture.

Externalists suppose their strength in an account of the intentional to reside in their proclaimed external relation. The sad truth though is that a creature assembled by the engineer Dretske according to his own manuals (if he would return to this empirical job by strictly following his theoretical proposals in the area) would be incapable of properly behaving in the world. In the first place, it would be incapable to behave in the world at all. The reason is that it would not really be intentional, for intentionality needs internal consciousness as its precondition.

Now someone may even embrace an internalist practice, all in believing in the external hookup. In this case, such a being or virtual being would still be wrong in his explanation of the phenomenon of intentionality. Another possible problem is that the internalism itself would be mostly, predominantly or exclusively functional in his case, and so it would lack the conscious dimension and thereby intentionality. Such may be the matters with the www.

V. How to get out of these mistakes and how to get a more adequate picture of human cognitive performance? The answer is that we should abandon externalist story and that we should embrace the story of narrow content.

Given that separation of intentionality and of consciousness is a mistaken path to undertake in order to account for intelligence and performance of a system, and given that such a picture is an outcome of externalist beliefs, it seems then a natural way out of this to embrace internalism as closer in its capacity to deliver an adequate picture of human cognitive performance.

In the philosophy of mind, this will then lead us towards embracing the story about narrow content. Narrow content is distinguished from the wide content. Wide content is at least partially dependent on external circumstances for its individuation, such as your thoughts and utterances of the word "water" being dependent on the fact that there is a story about this stuff in terms of H2O, specifying the constitution of the stuff referred to in the world. Narrow content to the contrary is individuated in the internals of the organism only. The usual functionalist proposal would conceive internal individuation to happen through a kind of holistic adumbration of the states to the rest of the system's coherent of mental states. Rich consciousness intrinsic to such states continues to be ignored though by functionalists.

This all invites you to become more careful about the description of real internalist scenarios and not just to their half-fledged functionalist substitutes. Brain in a vat is a scenario that invites itself to the rescue.

VI. Narrow content is interestingly introduced in a famous though experiment of brain in a vat, which is actually a version of the Cartesian skeptical story.

Descartes was concerned to argue against the skeptic in trying to establish a point of certainty. His thought experiment in this direction involves the cheating God, whose stick consists in systematically confusing my mental states and misguiding them in respect to the real happening in the world. The high-tech version of the malintended or of the well intended demon (according to your taste and to your state of optimism) became to be known as the story about the brain in the vat. Suppose that an evil scientist superneurobiologist takes out your brain and links all its afferent and other appropriate neuronal paths to a powerful computer, creating thereby an ongoing illusion in your perception and thought. The evil designed machinery is presenting to you a rich experience despite that you are actually a brain in the vat. Here is slightly more optimistic version of the same story. A well intended brain neurologist and super-scientist is your real friend. Unfortunately he learned that you had such a terrible car crash accident that no bone is left intact in your body. But the brain somehow miraculously survived intact. Your friend thinks fast, and finds a solution for you. He links all your afferent and other important neurons to a super computer, creating thereby a powerful illusion that you are sitting right here now, that you are reading this text, that there is music playing in the background, that your feet begin to be colder and that you have finally to get those shoes on your feet. But in reality and happily unbeknownst to you, you happen to be just a brain in a vat in the nutritious solution, hooked to a powerful supercomputer, which creates all this massive illusion.

Now notice that the brain in a vat has the same rich intentional conscious experience of the world that you have right now. It has what it is like states of how it is to be in the world. These what it is like states are outcome of richly structurally intertwined intentional conscious experiences and of rich conscious intentionality. In fact, there is no way for you to tell or prove right now that you are not a brain a in a vat!

VII. Brain in a vat is the right picture of human condition.

Notice now that externalists have robed us of an appropriate account of human condition, in far as intentionality and its internal consciousness are concerned. Now brain in a vat is giving all that was missing back to us again. Brain in a vat has a richly consciously intentional what it is like to be in the world attitude. Actually, this brain in a vat has a rich world of experience and therefore she is a Dasein in a vat.

Notice that many generations of teachers and students have found the skeptic Cartesian thesis to be a genuine possibility. This is not a conclusive, but nevertheless it is a strong empirical evidence in favor of the thesis that brain in a vat is the situation that not only might be real, but that it really might be your situation. As this Cartesian life of brain in the vat is completely possible, and moreover as it accounts so well for the richness of our experiential world, it should be seen as an appropriate picture of human cognition.

VIII. What about www now, as we return to it on the background of the previous discussion? Two claims seems to be in order here, if we think about www for a while:

A. Www does not have any consciousness.

This seems to be quite uncontroversial. Www is a superconnected and overconnected system of links, designed to deliver and transmit information. Www functions, it delivers functional content to the users all around the globe. But it would be inappropriate to claim that www has any consciousness. Indeed, it cannot be imagined that www would have this particular feel of having eaten an apple in its mouth, or that it would even approximate the qualitative feeling of what it is like to see red that you so often experience. Thus it does lack some features that are so common for me and you. Now, as www does not have consciousness, it can't be anything but a kind of zombie. Zombie is a creature without consciousness. It is functionally perfectly designed, a kind of functional Frankenstein creature. But it just does not have any qualitative feeling at all. This is not hard to transfer to the case of the www. Www, as we all know, for most of the time is in state of utter perplexity. There is all this information here, and the thing tes and links you with a high speed. But is all this of any help? To what does it link you? Www delivers too much information, and too fast as well. In the end, browsing on the internet, you not only get some information (which may be true), but you distract your attention, and you loose your time, and therewith you finally loose the essential information. You finally loose, most of all, the qualitative information. This proves the zombie state of the www.

B.Www does not have intentionality either.

Www does not have intentionality either. The main reason is that www does not have any consciousness, as we proved a while ago. But having consciousness intrinsically is a precondition for intentionality to exist. So this proves that www cannot have intentionality.

Look at the question from an empirical perspective of dealing with internet on a daily basis. Do you really feel that www gives you direction there? You are not just confused because of lack of the quality on the internet, you tend even more to be confused about the almost complete lack of any direction coming therewith. Even if it would give you direction in some empirical matter, such as finding a train schedule - does it give the direction to your life ? The answer, seems to me, must be a decisive No.

But directedness is the primary mark of intentionality (being directed at a cat in my thought would be an example here). So lacking directedness www does not have intentionality.

Here is another consideration considering intentionality, illustrating also the above mentioned point about its intrinsic coming together with consciousness. A typical traditional account of intentionality will be extensionalist. Quine says that intentional reference to a rabbit is extensionally equivalent with an intentional reference to a bunch of undetached rabbit parts.

But there cannot be such an extensional equivalence. What it is like to have the thought concerning rabbit and what it is like, what it feels to have a thought concerning a bunch of undetached rabbit parts, are distinctively and qualitatively different, and they are not equivalent at all. They have very different experiences of what it is like intrinsic to them.

One confusing thing about the www related to this is that www serves you all this information without any real feeling to it. But without feeling, you tend to loose the direction.

C. The defense of www ends up in a state of a conscious zombie.

Let us try the exercise now of defending www for a while. One may say that traditional view of human performance does have both intentionality and consciousness. Consciousness accompanies functionally shaped intentionality. So, traditional view cannot be that wrong after all. But now as the www position is close to the traditional view, it is natural that it also has this accompanying consciousness. After all, as you surf the internet, there are some accompanying feels to this that you have.

The answer here is that with www we did not reach the intrinsic intertwining necessary for rich conscious and intentional experience. We have just stayed with the consciousness eventually accompanying intentional states. If there would be any. But these are impossible as well because there is no intrinsic links here between consciousness and intentionality. What we have reached, with this accompanying trick, is a state of a conscious zombie. Conscious zombie has its functional organization shaped to some extent. Thus, the informational part is shaped. But to this engineering basis, the consciousness or what it is like feelings just come as a kind of accompanying blur, and thus not as something intrinsic to intentionality. But as there is no intrinsic consciousness here, there cannot be intentionality either (for intentionality has consciousness as its intrinsic precondition).

Conscious zombie is exactly the position of www in the lucky case it tries very hard. There is a wide structure of functional information in the www. Through this information, there are confuse and blurring flashes of what looks like consciousness. But these flashes are ultimately just confusing the picture. With www, we have to do with the conscious zombie. Just recall the perplexity of all the available information and the difficulty of reaching to some useful information on the net, unless you already know exactly what you are looking for.

IX. Swampman.

A particular hard problem for an externalist (who delivers his misguided and false picture of intentionality all confused with reference) is the case of swampman.

Swampman is just like yourself, it is a perfect physical replica of you, atom after atom, molecule after molecule, neuron after neuron. And it is identical to you in its behavior. But notice that the swampman has been created five minutes ago, as an outcome of a strike of lightning into a local swamp, hitting an disintegrating log. By cosmic chance of events, it just happens that swampman then rose from the moor, a replica of yours, yours molecule for molecule and action for action perfect physical and behavioral duplicate. The swampman is in its physical constitution and in its behavior just indistinguishable from you, although it arose from the local swamp just five minutes ago as the flash stroke the mentioned disintegrating log in the moor.

Now, the trouble with externalist, particularly with its teleological version, is that functional mental states are explained by her through causal and historic hookup to the external world, and through the evolution of states in this presumably external world. But there is not much or any of this for swampman to come about. There is no historical evolution for it (swampman came into being five minutes ago, remember), and there is no real external hookup either.

Is www a kind of swampman now? It is in the sense that there is no real history in the www. It just came into being practically a few moments, pardon me, a few years ago. So it has no memory. But it functions. It functions weirdly, just like a conscious zombie.

X. In favor of a swamp brain in a swamp wat.

Should we conclude that it is wrong to be a system that is a swampman or a swampman like? Not necessarily. Brain in a vat is here to fight against the misguided picture of externalist conception of intentionality, and it is defending, by her rich conscious intentional content, the right picture of what it is like to act as a human.

The zombie and conscious zombie act against this. So they should be culprits if failure of performing rationally is invoked. Www acts like zombie, or like conscious zombie.

Now swamp brain in a swamp vat has all the desirable properties that permit it to fight externalism. It is not hooked to the external world. It has risen into being five minutes ago by a kind of cosmic accident. But it has rich conscious intentionality. And this is something that www does not have. What swampman has is also what the conscious zombie does not have.

XI.From www to the www city.

Notice that I have not identified www with the www city, but that rather I have distinguished them. Whereas www is a blurred conscious zombie-like in its behavior and in its confusing deep belief into the external world, www city could function in the web as a kind of displaced margin. This margin could perhaps generate something richly intentional. Against the conscious zombie, it would then affirm position of the swamp brain in the swamp vat. This is perhaps not much, but it is something.


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