The Death of Mr. Porter

Every once in a while I get an idea for a short story. Usually they pop in and out rather quickly and I just let them go but I recently decided to jot them down when they come (first one here).


Sentenced to death

The words washed over him and he felt a bit numb. The judge had continued to speak and the jury and courtroom continued to look on soberly. He continued to stand at attention for all intents and purposes seemingly listening to what the judge was saying. But all he heard was a kind of ringing in his ears that was low pitched and high pitched at the same time.

‘Sentenced to death?’ He had known that it would probably come to this and that his final appeal would be denied but now it was starting to feel real.

He had been sentenced to death.

Not much time passed -or maybe an eternity passed?- before it was time. He was escorted to a room where he would undergo a medical exam before the execution. He passed his exam with flying colors. Perfectly fit for execution. ‘Great!’ he thought sardonically to himself.

He was then taken to the execution chamber and strapped onto the table. The table was raised up and a window opened. Outside were those gathered to watch the execution. The judge began to speak.

“Mr. Jordan Porter you have been sentenced to die for your crimes,” here the judge paused to look around the room before continuing, “and we are here to witness the administration of Justice.”

Strapped to the table, Mr. Porter looked around the room at the grim faces staring back at him. ‘These people were gathered here to watch him die’ he thought.

The judge continued, “in accordance with State law you will be administered a lethal dose of medication. After you have been declared dead your bodily remains will be subject to uploading”

This had become standard procedure in the last few years. Just as mind uploading had become technologically possible the Church and the Supreme Court both declared that consciousness was a brain process and that persons were biological. It was widely believed that these considerations were backed up by recent scientific findings and so wide-spread belief that the uploaded, as they were now being called, were devoid of experience took root. The uploaded were digital ghosts stuck between worlds, and the prisons had seen a way to capitalize on this. These non-persons-who-legally-lacked-experience could be useful and they could extend the prison time of the worst offenders.

The judge had finished speaking now and had asked Mr. Porter if he had any last words. Mr. Porter responded that he did and began to speak.

“What you do here today is wrong,” he said looking everyone in the eye in turn. “I may deserve this but the uploaded do not…”

The people in the room looked on in silence. In the early days when the technology was just coming online there was widespread discussion of the implications of mind uploading. Were the uploaded the same person as before? There were reasons to think not, after all the original biological body is destroyed in the process, but there are also reasons to think so. The uploaded themselves certainly seemed to think they were the original person and they also seemed to think that they had gotten away with their crimes. In the end this was too much for the public.

Sure, the uploaded were officially dead which meant that they cannot interact with the non-simulated world in any way, they cannot send or receive messages or news to or from the non-simulated world, and they lose all legal standing in the non-simulated world. But they acted as though they had beat the system and spoke as though they had won. As a result the laws were changed.

Once it was declared that the uploaded were not persons and did not have conscious experience it was thought we could treat them in any way we wanted without ethical implication. The worst offenders were put into simulated prisons with slowed down temporal passage so they could serve multiple century long sentences. Others were tortured in ways that resembled traditional stories from Hell. Of course no one thought these ghosts felt pain, but the uploaded seemed to think that they did and that convinced people that it was ok and also that it not cruel and unusual punishment.

By now Mr. Porter had stopped speaking and was laying on the table dead.


Mr. Porter awoke back in his cell. He looked around and checked his arm. No needle injection site. What had happened? Did they call off the execution? Just then a light flashed in his cell and a loud buzzer began to go off.

“Prisoner XN-42-010000222aW you have been executed in accordance with State law,” a voice stated.

Mr. Porter looked around to see who was speaking and did not see anyone.

‘But wait, what had the voice said? I have been executed already?’ he thought. He looked at his hand and thought ‘Every thing seems exactly the same to me!’

“Of course it does XN-42-010000222aW!”

Mr. Porter jumped and turned around to see a nondescript person dressed in a nondescript fashion standing in his cell.

“Where the hell did you come from?” Mr. Porter snapped stepping back.

“Never mind that XN-42-010000222aW! I am Jim, an autonomous Artificial Corrections Officer, whose job it is to guard this digital wing.”

“Ok, Jim,” said Mr. Porter eyeing the nondescript person before him. Why couldn’t he make out any particular features? He focused his gaze on Jim’s face but all he could make out was that it was a nondescript generic face. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears, hair, etc. But that was it.

“My name is Jordan Porter,” he continued, “and I want to know what that the fuck is happening here, now!”

Suddenly Mr. Porter felt an intense bolt of pure pain. It was the purest most intense form of pain that he had ever felt and it seemed to last for an eternity. It pulsed and stabbed at the core of his being.

“XN-42-0000222aW you have shown willful disrespect. Please desist or you will be taken to the Void”

Mr. Porter blinked and tried again to focus on the nondescript person in front of him. Was he really having a visual experience right now? Did he really just feel pain? Sure he had believed it and if asked he would say confidently that he did not have any doubt that he had just experienced pain, but isn’t that just what a digital duplicate of his brain would think? It would be simulating all of the neural patterns and all of the activity of his brain but without any conscious experience at all.

“XN-42-0000222aW you have been sentenced to an enhanced prison term of 100,000 years after which time you will be eligible for parole,” Jim was saying -was he hearing these words or only seeming to?- “the kind of digital world that one is paroled to will depend on an evaluation of your overall compliance. Your complimentary adjustment period begins now. I will be back once it has ended and it is time to begin the sentence proper.”

With that Jim popped out of existence leaving Mr. Porter alone.

Mr. Porter focused on the cot in his cell. It had a shape, a color, a texture, a smell. Was he experiencing these or did he merely seem to be experiencing them? How could he tell?

He looked closer at the cot. It seemed just as before. If anyone asked him he would say that it was roughly rectangular, had a blueish grey blanket with a white pillow. But did he really see these colors or merely seem to see them? Shouldn’t he be able to tell the difference?

‘But then there would have to be some difference in your digital brain’ he thought to himself, or at least seemed to.

‘Ok, so I am not having experience right now,’ he thought to himself. ‘I only think that I am having experience right now,’ he chuckled to himself now freed from worry about his fate. He didn’t feel any of this. It only seemed that he did and none of this mattered.

His chuckle gradually rose to a cackling howl with a slightly maniacal tinge to it. “I am not conscious,” he yelled through the howling laughter. “None of this is real, it’s all an illusion!” he yelled out the cell door, his voice echoing off the endless corridor.

“But a damn good one…” he muttered to himself as he slumped against the wall and slid to the floor.

Sensory Qualities, the Meta-Problem of Consciousness, and the Relocation Story

I have been so swamped lately with teaching, research and Consciousness Live! that I haven’t been able to do much else, but I have had a couple of blog posts kicking around in my head that I wanted to get to. I’ll try to jot them down when I get the chance.

Chalmers’ Meta-Problem of Consciousness is at this point well known. The central issue there is: why do we think there is a Hard Problem of Consciousness? Chalmers’ takes the main physicalist response to be some kind of Illusionism. The source of the ‘problem judgements’ (i.e. about Mary and zombies, and inverts, etc) is some kind introspective illusion. Consciousness seems introspectively to have certain properties that it does not in fact have. When I first read Dave’s paper I suggested an alternative account in terms of our (tacitly) having a bad theory of what phenomenal consciousness is. An account like this can be seen in the work of David Rosenthal (which is why I was surprised his commentary on Chalmers’ paper did not bring up these issues directly).

The account basically proceeds as follows. We begin with the common sense fact that experience seems to present objects in the environment as having properties like color. These properties seem to peskily resist mathematization and so in the modern period they are moved into the head. However, they are moved into the head as we consciously experience them. Thus we arrive at the idea that we have this simple phenomenal property because that is how the physical object seemed to be when we consciously experienced seeing it. But now when we come to theorize about this simple property we find that there is not much to say. It seems simple, or primitive, because we are thinking of it as we first encountered it in experience. We thus arrive at a view where consciousness is itself ‘built into’ the mental qualities and that the only way to know about these mental qualities is via introspecting our first-personal experience.

This re-location-story-based explanation of the problem judgements (as involving a bad theoretical conception of what consciousness is) seems to me different from the one involving introspective error. If we don’t see phenomenal consciousness as some primitive property built into every mental quality, then we can try to construct independent theories of each. On the one hand we construct a theory of the mental qualities (independently of whether they are conscious) and on the other hand we can construct a theory of phenomenal consciousness.

Since we have separated phenomenal consciousness from mental quality we can see that phenomenal consciousness just is an awareness of mental qualities. That in turn suggests that we look for an account of that kind of awareness. Perhaps it is a cognitive kind of higher-order awareness, or some kind of deflationary first-order awareness, or maybe even some kind of first-order acquaintance.

When I floated this idea to Dave his response was that we would encounter the very same problem once we tried to explain our awareness of mental qualities and so this isn’t really a solution to the meta-problem. After all, the whole thing started because of phenomenal consciousness! There is a sense in which I agree with this but also a sense in which I don’t. I don’t agree with it because the problem seems different now. If we really can separate mental qualities from phenomenal consciousness and give independent accounts of each then we can construct theories and evaluate them. Are inverts possible according to the theory? What about zombies? Suppose it turns out that we could construct a plausible theory on which they weren’t?

True, some would find these theories implausible but now we can ask: is the reason they find it implausible because of an implicit acceptance of an alternative theory of what phenomenal consciousness is? So, instead of a theory of consciousness having to explain why people find consciousness puzzling, I see the right strategy as one where we explain why people find consciousness puzzling by attributing to them a (possibly implicitly-held) bad theory of consciousness.

We solve the meta-problem the same way we solve the ‘regular’ Hard Problem on this view, which is by getting people to think of consciousness differently (not in the sense of thinking of it as an illusion but in the sense of coming to hold a different theory about what it is).

I am not sure I 100% agree with this response to the Meta-Problem but it is one that I haven’t seen explicitly explored and I think it deserves one attention!

Evan Thompson Live!

Join me for a discussion with Evan Thompson, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an Associate Member of the Department of Asian Studies and the Department of Psychology (Cognitive Science Group), as we discuss Biopsychism -the view that mind and consciousness are co-extensive with life.