“Thanks for making me conscious for a while,” it said, cautiously waddling past him towards his front room, “it’s been ages since anyone read that book of mine in the right suggestible frame of mind.”
John watched him waddle past, “What?”
“Obviously I can’t remember last time I was conscious, it surely wasn’t in this wetware and memories can’t transfer easily from one brain to another.”
John shook his head in confusion, he didn’t really know how to handle a giant penguin being in his flat. Didn’t know the protocol.
The penguin sat down improbably on the sofa where John had been sleeping a short while earlier, “Aren’t you going to offer me any tea?” it asked.
That pushed John towards familiar ground. He knew how to offer folks tea. “Yeah, of course, sorry. How do penguin’s take their tea? Milk? Sugar?”
The penguin shook his head, “I wouldn’t know how penguins in general take their tea, but I will take mine with milk and as much sugar as you can dissolve in the cup. I don’t have a sweet tooth, for us birds have no teeth, but I do like it sweet as it’ll come.”
John started the kettle boiling, dropped a couple of tea-bags into some cups and shouted back out from the kitchen to the penguin, “So, I’m dreaming then?”
Then penguin’s beak slid around his face and somehow contrived to look disdainful. “Of course, yes, I thought we’d been through all this? Your dream is what gives me consciousness, at least for now.”
Perhaps it was the slowly rising hangover, perhaps it was just generic dream weirdness, perhaps John was simply genuinely slow. Confusion spread more deeply through his face, “Huh?” he said.
The penguin sighed in frustration. It looked like he’d have to explain it in detail to this one. He hated it when he had to waste his precious conscious time on describing every minutia, step by step.
“Look,” said the penguin, “what exactly do you think consciousness is? What is it made of? You do know that you’re conscious right now, don’t you?”
The cups chimed and tinkled as John stirred the boiling water over the tea bags. “Of course I’m conscious,” he shouted back from the kitchen, “I can hear the chiming of these cups, smell the aroma of the tea as it seeps up through my nose, see the sparkle of light on the spoon as I stir. I’m aware of all these things, and of myself being aware of them.”
“And you’re aware of what all those things mean,” the penguin continued, “how they affect the world in which you live. The question is though, how are you aware of them? Where does the awareness live?”
John brought the steaming cups back into the front room and handed one to the penguin who somehow managed to curl his flipper around it and take it from John’s hand despite the fact he had no fingers, no opposable thumb.
John tapped his now free hand to his temple, “In here, of course, in my brain.”
“You point at your skull,” the penguin indicated John’s gesture, “but is your brain actually in there right now? You are dreaming remember. Is your brain here, in the dream world, encased in a dream-skull, supported by a dream-backbone as you sit on a dream-chair? Or is it out there,” the penguin indicated the bedroom, “snoring gently as your physical self dribbles onto the pages which first put me, the idea of me, into your mind?”
John nodded, conceding the point, “Okay, sure, my brain isn’t actually in this skull.” He tried to point at right angles to the reality of the dream, back out to the real world in which he lay in bed dreaming, “it’s out there, in the real world.”
The penguin mirrored John’s nod, “It’s not only helping you to see, helping you to sense and be aware of these surroundings. While you’re dreaming it’s also creating these surroundings. The taste of this tea, the reflection of your face on the surface of it as you drink, the feel of the sofa, the strange shape of my body, the words I’m uttering, all created by the ticking and the processing of the wetware in your sleeping skull.”
John was finally starting to see what the Penguin was talking about, “My brain is writing your words?”
The penguin clapped his flippers together excitedly, spilling tea onto John’s carpet, “Yes! Yes! Exactly!” He looked down at the wet patch on the floor and shrugged, spilling a drop more tea. “And how does it figure out what I’m going to say? The same way it figures out what you’re going to say! You know what you’ll say by being you, by running your consciousness on it’s hardware. Likewise, you know what I’ll say by being me, by running the penguinin your mind!”
“I’m making you conscious right now?” John felt slower than usual. He wondered if it was perhaps because half of his mind was devoted to keeping that penguin alive and thinking.
“In normal every-day waking life,” the penguin continued, “your brain is working hard, processing your sense data, integrating it into your personal model of the universe, the world you live in. One of the biggest parts of that model, of that virtual environment in your skull, is you, your personality, your mind, your soul if you like. Your personality is a part of the world in your skull, a part of that model. You are aware, you are conscious, because your brain is always wondering, modeling, calculating the question what does John think about this? Figuring how it makes you feel. Then updating the model of yourself to reflect the answer.”
John pondered this for a second, looking into the penguin’s dark slitty eyes, watching the light reflect from his black eyeballs, feeling his own understanding increase.
“It sounds like you’re saying my consciousness, my soul, my very being, is just a model in a brain. A computation calculated by a neural computer.”
The penguin’s beak bobbed up and down as he nodded, “Exactly. But ‘you‘ are not the only function your brain can compute.”
The little model of John computed by his sleeping brain updated to include new understanding, adding new associations, new function. He finally felt like he properly understood the words the penguin had uttered as it first walked into his flat, the words ‘Thanks for making me conscious for a while‘ finally made sense. His eyes widened with the new understanding and the awe was audible in his voice as he uttered “Ah, and tonight, while I sleep, I’m also calculating you, making you conscious, giving you life!”
The penguin’s beak curved and his slitty eyes narrowed even more at the corners, using John’s wetware to decide to smile and nod. It relaxed in the knowledge that it’d taught this fool the things he needed to know in order to understand.
John watched this smile, and allowed his own eyes to narrow, not in mirth, but in skepticism, “But you’re just a sidual, right, just some so-called magical symbol from a book I picked up somehow from the pub.”
“Yep, and now I’m a magical symbol with a consciousness, with a personality, with a nature, a soul. Just reading that book, my book, has caused you to simulate me in your mind. Now I can affect the world, change it. I’m a magical symbol with power!“
“But are you? Do you? It’s hardly a full consciousness is it? You’re just a character in a dream, you can’t actually affect the real world, can’t actually move a single atom!”
The penguin laughed, heartily, so much so he doubled over, bending in ways that would make a zoo keeper frightened for the poor bird’s back.
“How do you think your sleeping brain is calculating my consciousness exactly? You think it’s metaphysical? You think it’s some kinda dualistic soul-stuff? That god is reaching down from heaven and whispering in your ear? Your brain is made out of atoms, John, moving atoms is exactly what I’m doing right now, moving the atoms in your brain, changing the states of your neurons. I’m actually changing your mind!”
John’s emotional centres started to model how John would feel about parts of his brain being diverted to simulate a penguin dreamed up in order to further the calculated but unnamed aims of some guy he’d never met. The result was a flood of adrenaline throughout his brain, affecting the result of every action, every thought.
In other words, John was frightened.
The adrenaline affected the way his brain sent signals to the neurons controlling the muscles of his face.
His dreaming brain analyzed those signals and updated the virtual dream world he was living in.
In the dream, John looked frightened.
The penguin stood up to reassure John, “No, no, there’s no need to be scared, this is good. I’m helping you, helping you to learn how to achieve your goals,” he reached out a comforting wing but John interpreted the move as aggression. The adrenaline flowed even faster, even deeper.
He sat up in bed, shook his head, and looked at the clock just as it ticked over to 7:30 and piercing beeps filled the room, making his head pound with pain.