Thought experiment on emergent consciousness from physical object - brain:
Imagine we record all neural firings of human brain within 5 seconds interval. Now, if we replace each neuron with a single person (we would need billions of people), and each recorded firing with snail mail letter (for example letter reading "I just fired!") that one person sends to other person.
Will flow of these mails lead to emergent consciousness? If not, what is difference, in principle, between this, and neurons communicating with electric pulses?

  • 2
    Yes, such a thing would be conscious. Consciousness is a matter of the structure of a system, and this structure is independent of the substrate. Empirically we could question the system and it would say it is conscious and argue for its consciousness and tell us about the things it perceives. And we can verify that it internally thinks in similar patterns to us. If these signs are insufficient to convince us that it is conscious, on what basis can we assume even other humans are conscious?
    – causative
    Commented Jul 17, 2021 at 23:23
  • Although it's a real challenge to pin down, mathematically, what this "structure of a system" is. It's a matter of the relationships between the parts of the system, in a way independent of how those parts are physically instantiated.
    – causative
    Commented Jul 17, 2021 at 23:38
  • That’s a fascinating thought experiment. Closely related, Turing proposed that when a computer was able to pass itself off as a human in conversation, it should be considered to be conscious and should be afforded the same rights as are given to humans. Of course, when computers started to pass the Turing test this was quietly dropped; one awkward side-effect being the inference that humans who aren’t able to pass the Turing test should be denied those rights. And while I would be inclined to believe that consciousness is independent of substrate, that hasn’t been shown to be the case.
    – Frog
    Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 2:42
  • 5
    This sounds a lot like the China Brain thought experiment.
    – nwr
    Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 4:52
  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Is humanity as a whole a philosophical zombie?
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 9:31

3 Answers 3


We don’t know. This is the unavoidable conclusion. The famous thought experiment is the China brain thought experiment. There are many responses to this, arguing both sides. It also depends on which school of thought you believe in – behavioralism, functionalism, eliminative materialism, dualism, etc. We need to know more about consciousness, artificial intelligence, and neurology to be able to disprove some of those schools.

I will mention Searle’s Chinese room argument is a relevant thought experiment. There is a comment to the original question mentioning “Yes, such a thing would be conscious. Consciousness is a matter of the structure of a system, and this structure is independent of the substrate.” This response presupposes the truth of a school of thought. There is no reason to believe consciousness does not depend on a substrate, and Searle argues precisely this in his discussion for the Chinese room argument.


The very obvious answer to your question is "no".

There are also some aspects of confusion in your question. You appear to be presuming that consciousness "emerges" from a neural net doing processing. But you also treat brains reductively -- IE brain == accumulation of neural net processes. Which is reductionism, not emergence. Emergent phenomena depend on some key phase change or feature before they appear, and as you have not identified what they would be, you don't know if your functional processing replacement would actually satisfy the emergence criteria. As your question is phrased, it instead presumes Algorithmic Identity Theory, not emergence -- which is a different theory of consciousness.

So -- why no?

Algorithmic identity theory is clearly false. We have created multiple algorithms, and they are not conscious. So algorithm == consciousness is untrue.

The subset of AIT you cite, neural net algorithms, are also not conscious. We have created multiple neural net processes, and they show none of the features of consciousness. Additionally, our own neural nets do LOTS of processing, 99+% of which is not conscious. So neural net processing, even by brains, is neither identical to consciousness, nor automatically leads to consciousness emerging.

One final test case for your reductive presuppositions is the evolutionary tuning of consciousness. Human consciousness has all the features of an evolutionarily tuned structure. It is complex, with multiple sub modules. its overall architecture is basically ad hoc, rather than coherently planned or optimized. And it is highly effective, in most cases where we need it to be, while being imperfect mostly in cases where it matters less often to us. That means the consciousness is CAUSAL -- otherwise it could not be tuned and acted upon by evolution. In reductionism, consciousness cannot be causal, because all causal agency is at the lowest tier of reduction.

One cannot get causal consciousness from reductionism. It requires either original pluralism (dualism is the simplest pluralism), or very very strong emergence, where emergent structures can be causally effective -- IE emergent pluralism.

Your reductive coding exercise will never be more than an exercise. Merely encoding what brains do, will remain just code, without the fire of vitality.

If you want to get consciousness from a construct you need to include in that construct either fundamental or emergent pluralism.


You would have to put SEVERE constraints on the freedoms of humans involved. Damage to the brain in the form of a tiny bloodclot in the form of a stroke, can cause catastrophic loss of function of a whole brain. That could be a local flood blocking postal vans, or people going on holiday.

A typical human brain has 86 billion neurons, and each one may have functional, tailored, tuned connections with 10,000 other neurons, as shaped by the learning process.

Neural networks take multiple inputs, and trigger signals when thresholds are crossed. That requires more than just exchanging letters. You also need brain waves. We don't really understand how they work, we don't understand how memory works. The 'easy problems of consciousness', are still extremely difficult.

Your thought experiment is close to David Chalmers 'fading qualia' idea, replace neurons one by one with functionally equivalent silicon chips to see if the qualia stop.

But with perhaps an extra twist about intelligence of human communities and collectives - in which concern you may enjoy this discussion: Are humans becoming more hive-like? Does this have philosophical implications?

  • Without constraints on the humans involved, and relaxing the use of letters as the only communication media, the question boils down to whether mankind on this planet does have some sort of consciousness. For the time being, we seem to be realizing we're destroying our natural environment, which is a first step (hopefully not the last).
    – Ale
    Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 15:00
  • @Ale: I wouldn't call it a first step. aeon.co/ideas/… Our language and minds emerged in eusocial groups. We barely make sense, and could barely survive, as truly isolated individuals. We need global governance now, and that is a different thing. Our global politics had to mature a little with the advent of nuclear weapons. What survives the coming climate wars, will also have to have matured.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 23:09
  • Mankind considered as a global system is different from local groups, language, social habits, and the like. It produces complex behavior, such as world economy, which apparently enjoys its own dynamics despite attempts at governing it. Yet, if we cannot legibly understand its thought, we can gauge its self-awareness by the good sense of its decisions.
    – Ale
    Commented Aug 13, 2021 at 16:45
  • The claim by causative that "Consciousness is a matter of the structure of a system" is true, but it's not only a matter of the structure of a system. Two philosophical zombies might exhange what would be emotional messages between actual human beings, but have no internal experiences as a result. So it is not only a question of structure but also of there being an internal effect at the endpoints. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 18:33

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