I read a short story years ago whose name and author I cannot now recall. It was an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum argument against "computationalist" theories of mind/consciousness, which posit that consciousness is a form of information processing (and thus that conscious machines could, in principle, exist someday). The story included a series of physical systems, of increasing complexity, none of which would be described as "conscious" by most people, but which (the author implies) must be conscious if computationalism is true. The last system in particular is a set of neurons, each in the brain of a different person and not physically connected to each other; the story imagines that if the neurons happened by chance to fire in a pattern identical to that in a single person's brain, that this would constitute "consciousness" according to computationalism (the author thinks this is absurd).

I have a vague suspicion that the author might be Stanislaw Lem, but I've searched his bibliography and couldn't find anything that matched my recollections.

  • 1
    – Valorum
    May 6, 2020 at 7:36
  • Lem's Ijon Tichy books have a number of stories concerning the nature of consciousness, but none that match your description. May 6, 2020 at 13:52

1 Answer 1


Possibly "The Story of a Brain" by Arnold Zuboff?

The story included a series of physical systems, of increasing complexity, none of which would be described as "conscious" by most people, but which (the author implies) must be conscious if computationalism is true.

The story talks about a "spread-brain" project.

Initially a man with "a horrible rot was overtaking all of his body but his nervous system" has his brain put into a "brain-in-a-vat" situation, and experiences are fed into it. In phase 1, an accident occurs, and the two hemispheres of the brain are severed from each other (but are still alive). Rather than give up the project, or attempt to repair the brain surgically, they attach "radio neurons" to restore the connection. A man named Cassander warns that this violates the previous condition of "proximity of hemispheres", but nobody listens.

In phase 2, the project has grown to encompass many thousands of workers, each of whom operates one neuron. All the neurons are connected by radio, and the workers have a schedule where they are supposed to fire the neurons to maintain the experiences of the person whose brain this used to be. Again, Cassander and people like him warn that this is eliminating conditions that the original brain had, like proximity of neurons, alignment of direction, etc. Nobody listens.

One worker's neuron accidentally dies, and there isn't enough time to replace it from the neuron growing stocks. He visits a friend and asks to be allowed to fire his neuron.

‘Well, look. I've just replaced my neuron with another like it, as we all do occasionally. Why don't we take my entire bath over to the old position of yours? Then won't it still be the same experience brought about in five minutes that it would have been with the old neuron if we fire this then, since this one is just like the old one? Surely the bath's identity means nothing. Anyway, then we can bring the bath back here and I can use the neuron for the experience it is scheduled to be used for later on. Wait a minute! We both believe the condition of topology is baloney. So why need we move the bath at all? Leave it here; fire it for yours; and then I'll fire it for mine. Both experiences must still come about. Wait a minute again! Then all we need do is fire this one neuron here in place of all the firings of all neurons just like it! Then there need be only one neuron of each type firing again and again and again to bring about all these experiences! But how would the neurons know even that they were repeating an impulse when they fired again and again? How would they know the relative order of their firings? Then we could have one neuron of each sort firing once and that would provide the physical realization of all patterns of impulses (a conclusion that would have been arrived at merely by consistently disregarding the necessity of synchronization in the progress from parted hemispheres to parted neurons). And couldn't these neurons simply be any of those naturally firing in any head? So what are we all doing here?’

There are a few more paragraphs about this and then it ends with the spread-brain project ending.

(Although the PDF copy doesn't have any italics, I am certain I remember at least that much emphasis as I've shown.)

  • 2
    Possibly the reason you thought it might be Lem is that it appeared in The Mind's I, which also had Lem's "The Seventh Sally". May 7, 2020 at 19:25
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    That's it! Thank you!
    – radiaph
    May 7, 2020 at 21:54

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