Friday, 30 January 2015

Is Anything There?

Should I feel sorry for my brand-new tumble dryer?

Or my ageing car?  Or my neglected, very old lawnmower?  Or even that ancient TV I threw out without a second thought when my freshly born new one arrived last October?  What about that trusty Nokia phone I blamed for losing itself and forcing me to buy an iPhone I didn’t really want, a classic case of guilt transference if there ever was one?  Do they care?

Philosophers talk of little else at the moment – what exactly is consciousness?   Tom Stoppard, ahead of the curve as always, has written a play about it.  Some posit that as we can’t define our own, it’s impossible to be sure whether it really exists, or if it does, where its boundaries lie.  Is it likely that it can be restricted to this single biological construct we call a human being, or even to other sentient, mobile chunks of carbon and water and trace elements?  Can we be sure that our machines, made of the same chemical basics, aren’t in their own way conscious?  These ‘things’ certainly possess their own sensory apparatus, languages, nervous systems, all the attributes we assign to ourselves to prove our unique superiority.  Maybe everything is conscious in its own way.  Or maybe there’s no such thing.

Bishop George Berkeley proposed that solipsism is irrefutable, and Sam Johnson refuted him by kicking a stone – but Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrödinger's cat hadn’t even been born then.  More recently, Descartes thought that thought defined consciousness, but that kind of begs the question, doesn’t it?  Bertrand Russell and his buddies boiled it down to pure mathematics, which exists regardless of whether conscious creatures work it out or write it down – which means either the whole universe must be conscious, or nothing is.  Which doesn’t get us a whole lot further.

If there’s a single thing that demonstrates consciousness, I suggest: a sense of humour.  My car (especially its satnav) certainly has one, so did my dog.  My apple tree is cheekily poking its little buds out as I write.  On the other hand, I could name some humans who, by this test, probably aren’t conscious.  (Don’t worry, you can vote them out in May.)

A tumble dryer writes: I have 12 programmes, and you’ve only used two of them.  You don’t care about me, do you?

I reply: You might think that; I couldn’t possibly say.


  1. Your kitchen goods obviously have a drier sense of humour.

  2. I feel guilty when I pick a flower or pull a carrot, that I foolishly think are enjoying their lives. Please don't make me start worrying about my household appliances.