Disclaimer: I have a spectrum of posts, from “thoughtfully laid out to attempt to appeal to people who disagree” to “more quickly summarized to appeal to people who already at least partially agree with me.” This post is in the second category.

I want to contribute another word to my pile of cheesy invented terms: bonsciousness.

One of my pet peeves is people confusing questions about consciousness. I’ve seen “can we ever scientifically solve the hard problem of consciousness?” uttered just a few sentences away from talking about “what is the origin of qualia.” Consciousness is a fascinating problem for reasons that render those questions useless, but in order to make this more clear I want to divide the one concept into two.

“Consciousness” is the word we (should?) use for the conceptual model we have of “other things being self aware.” When we ask the question, “how do we know if an AI should be treated ethically?” we’re probably asking if the AI is conscious. The P-Zombie thought experiment has to do with whether or not other beings contain this elusive “consciousness” quality.

Consciousness can’t be known for sure, as we could be in a simulation where everyone else just behaves very convincingly, or a dream where we are absolutely convinced that we are talking to an intelligent friend, despite them just being a projection of our own minds.

When we handle the concept ‘consciousness,’ we’re usually handling something like the concept of ‘how much do we feel that other beings exhibit patterns that we uniquely identify with’ – as in, we might think an AI is conscious if it can do things like “use language creatively.”

The key concept of consciousness is that it is something that can be applied to multiple things. There can be multiple consciousnesses, whatever it means or however sure we are of it existing. Multiple awarenesses feel like it makes sense, and is calculable, or measurable, and one day we might be able to do better science to it and feel like we’ve made additional consciousnesses.

Bonsciousness, on the other hand, is fundamentally singular. It is the subjective and immediate awareness of the self. It is direct experience.

The concept of bonsciousness becomes relevant in thought experiments like Mary’s Room (if a color blind scientist studies color for a thousand years, will surgically fixing her color blindness on the 1000th year give her any new information?), in questions of identity – but it always has to do with the nature of experience.

It cannot be multiple. If you try to imagine someone else possessing bonsciousness, you are not thinking about bonscoiusness, you are thinking about consciousness. This may seem a subtle distinction, but I find it incredibly important. Teleportation poses no deep philosophical questions when it happens to other people – the importance lies in the subjective and personal experience. The question “does teleportation kill you” relies on what the continuation of experience feels like – while the question “is AI conscious” relies on whatever markers we have that we think needs to be met for consciousness to exist. These are two questions that come from two hugely different types of ideas.

I find this to be an unintuitive distinction for some people, as it’s very common for people to combine the concepts of consciousness and bonsciousness in their own mind. I also find that if one does not already find self-awareness to be deeply philosophically strange, it’s difficult to induce that sensation in them through argument alone and I don’t expect this post would accomplish that.

I do suspect, though, that at least attempting to use different terms for singular/multiple ideas of consciousness would clarify a lot of the conversations I’ve been listening to lately. I’ve been hearing people ask a question about bonsciousness and then attempt to answer as though they’re talking about consciousness, which is quite frustrating.

Bonsciousness is so elusive because it is about a category of knowledge that isn’t measurable, and trying to treat it as measurable shuts down a lot of avenues of learning.

2 thoughts on “Bonsciousness”

  1. Is your idea of ‘bonsciousness’ equivalent to, or at least derivative of, the scholastic concept of ‘haecceity’?

    “Imagine the following alternative history of the world: Things are qualitatively just as they actually are. There is no difference in anything like the shape, size, or mass of objects. There is no difference in the number of entities. Even so, there is a non-qualitative difference and it concerns you in particular. According to this alternative history, you fail to exist. In your place, there is a distinct individual, Double. Double has all the qualitative properties, whether mental or physical, you actually have, but, despite all these similarities, you and Double are distinct individuals. So, according to this alternative history, you do not exist.

    Is this alternative history of the world a possible one? And what should we make of other alleged qualitatively indiscernible possibilities? For example, is it possible for a pair of siblings to swap their actual qualitative roles—i.e., where the actually firstborn twin is born second and vice versa—but where no qualitative features of the world are altered? In a similar vein, suppose, following Black (1952), that there could be a world containing only two qualitatively indiscernible iron spheres. Are there yet other possible worlds where these spheres “swap” their respective spatial locations or are “replaced” by numerically distinct yet qualitatively indiscernible doppelgängers?

    An affirmative answer to these questions entails haecceitism, according to which the world could differ non-qualitatively without differing qualitatively.”

    Much less dryly, I think contemporary mystic/medievalist/metalhead Nicola Masciandaro’s work is all about this question – “why am I myself?”, “why is it now, now?”, – being the inexplicable root of every question. Like you say, it’s a separate category of knowledge. A ghazal of his:

    Everything existing is existing right now
    The real impossibility of what might now

    Thinking this space, the place of everything itself
    Is making my heart and head feel very light now

    Look at this hand. Over ‘soul is in the body’
    And ‘body is in the soul’ who can fight now?

    ‘Haecceitas’. ‘Geworfenheit’. ‘Quodlibet ens’.
    Happy the philosophers who see my plight now.

    Know me like this, ever irreparable and new,
    So we can start work in the play of delight now.

    The next, this moment is nothing less than new worlds.
    Pay close attention. Do you still think this trite now?

    Next time Nicola worries over when and then
    Remind him that all things really are in sight now.

    I could be mistaken though that this is quite what you’re talking about. Because it seems like you can believe in bonsciousness without believing in haecceity insofar as you can believe that bonsciousness is guaranteed by some set of qualitative facts about yourself which, e.g. teleportation, renders void. Or is your bringing up teleportation in the context of continuity of personal identity merely meant to point to how the ‘feeling of bonsciousness’ is what we’re necessarily scared of losing even if the ‘feeling of consciousness’ might necessarily not be lost?

    Yet there’s something weird going on here. If bonsciousness is “fundamentally singular”, if it’s “the subjective and immediate awareness of the self”, if it’s “direct experience”, then talking about its supposed ‘continuity’ in relation to ‘personal identity’ is meaningless. Whoever we are now is who we are.

    “The next, this moment is nothing less than new worlds. / Pay close attention. Do you still think this trite now?”

    But then, if we can’t distinguish bonsciousness from consciousness by virtue of identity-over-time, how can they be distinguished?

    So maybe there’s haecceity in the sense of an experience of ‘raw this-ness’ but I don’t know if a bonscious sense of ‘raw me-ness’ can be made coherent over and above a conscious sense of ‘constructed me-ness’.

  2. I definitely agree, they are distinct terms without proper distinction in English. Self-awareness and consciousness are often used interchangeably, too.

    Here’s a related thought experiment: Assume you imagine a fictional character in your mind in such explicit detail that they have all the intricacies of a real person. In having a mental conversation with them, would the process representing their state of mind be defined as consciousness, or bonsciousness, or neither? And for that matter, if you could understand what another person was thinking in realtime, would that no longer make them a separate consciousness?

    I should really be sleeping now, feel free to ignore my “whoa dude” philosophical nonsense. XD

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