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SOME QUORA ANSWERS
by David Pearce (2015-19)
David Pearce answers Quora questions

INDEX
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  • What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?
  • All that matters is the pleasure-pain axis. Pain and pleasure disclose the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Our overriding ethical obligation is to minimise suffering. After we have reprogrammed the biosphere to wipe out experience below “hedonic zero”, we should build a “triple S” civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss. The nature of ultimate reality baffles me. But intelligent moral agents will need to understand the multiverse if we are to grasp the nature and scope of our wider cosmological responsibilities. My working assumption is non-materialist physicalism. Formally, the world is completely described by the equation(s) of physics, presumably a relativistic analogue of the universal Schrödinger equation. Tentatively, I'm a wavefunction monist who believes we are patterns of qualia in a high-dimensional complex Hilbert space. Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the “fire” in the equations. The solutions to the equations of QFT or its generalisation yield the values of qualia. What makes biological minds distinctive, in my view, isn’t subjective experience per se, but rather non-psychotic binding. Phenomenal binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. Without the superposition principle of QM, our minds wouldn't be able to simulate fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment. When awake, we are quantum minds running subjectively classical world-simulations. I am an inferential realist about perception. Metaphysically, I explore a zero ontology: the total information content of reality is zero on pain of a miraculous creation of information ex nihilo. Epistemologically, I incline to a radical scepticism that would be sterile to articulate. Alas, the history of philosophy twinned with the principle of mediocrity suggests I burble as much nonsense as everyone else.

  • Is 'The Hedonistic Imperative' plausible? Is it truly imperative for sentient life to seek self-gratification?
  • Technical feasibility differs from sociological plausibility. HI was written in 1995. Mastery of our genetic source code, the development of in vitro meat, and the CRISPR revolution in biotechnology have left the merely technical arguments against phasing out the biology of suffering less convincing than they seemed two decades ago.
    (cf. "Genetically Engineering Almost Anything")

    Yet how can we anticipate the outcome of the reproductive revolution of “designer babies”? What will be the nature of selection pressure in an era when prospective parents can choose both the upper and lower hedonic bounds and the hedonic set-points of their future offspring?
    (cf. The Reproductive Revolution)

    "Self-gratification" doesn't sound very noble or sublime. But the purpose of radically enriched hedonic set-points isn't just to improve everyone's default quality of life. Rather, enriched hedonic set-points allow critical insight, social responsibility, depth of motivation and intellectual progress to be sustained. A plea for life based on gradients of intelligent bliss is very different from a plea for us to become “blissed out”. For a nice video introduction to the prospect of a “Triple S” civilisation of superhappiness, superlongevity and superintelligence, perhaps see, “Introduction to Transhumanism".

    “May all that hath life be delivered from suffering”, said Gautama Buddha. “Buddhism plus biotech” – or perhaps “Bentham plus biotech” – still strikes me as a morally admirable goal compared to the cruelties of Darwinian life. By contrast, critics predict – and in some cases advocate – that involuntary pain and suffering will endure as long as life itself.

  • Is the hedonistic imperative ethical/moral to Christians?
  • Why would a benevolent God create a world with so much suffering? The honest answer is we don't know. The author of HI leans to secular rationalism. But other transhumanists are religious (cf. The Mormon Transhumanist Association: http://transfigurism.org/). And coincidentally or otherwise, the co-founder of World Transhumanist Association (H+), Nick Bostrom, originated the Simulation Argument (cf. http://www.simulation-argument.com) – sometimes invoked for why scientific rationalists should contemplate the existence of a Creator. For what it's worth, the only reason I can think of why a benevolent Creator would design a world with so much suffering is in order to mitigate or prevent some even greater evil whose nature escapes us.

    Theodicy aside, it's worth recalling an earlier controversy. The nineteenth-century introduction of pain-free surgery – and the use of anaesthesia and painkillers in childbirth – once provoked fierce debate amongst religious believers. Was agony bravely borne spiritually uplifting? Cardinal Berlusconi in Milan, for example, delivered a much-cited sermon condemning advocates of painless surgery for seeking to abolish "one of the Almighty's most merciful provisions". On the other hand, the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, the Rev. Thomas Chalmers, claimed that opponents of anaesthesia were "small theologians" whose opinions should be discounted. For more background, perhaps see: Utopian surgery? The case against anaesthesia in surgery, dentistry and childbirth.

    Yet what about using the tools of molecular biology to banish "psychological" pain? If tomorrow's designer drugs, or the CRISPR revolution in biotechnology, can deliver life based on gradients of intelligent bliss, how should believers respond? My normal reply to Christian critics is that if mere mortals can envisage a world without misery (“May all that hath life be delivered from suffering” – Gautama Buddha), then it's hard to see how God could be more stunted in either range or depth of compassion. Rather than fearing divine disapproval, we should aim to ensure the momentous transition is carried out wisely, prudently and intelligently, so that even the humblest of creatures can benefit. After all, what intuitively sound the “craziest” aspects of HI, for example a non-predatory future where sentient beings don't hurt, harm and kill each other, have Biblical precedent. Recall how Isaiah prophesies a future where obligate carnivores will lie down beside herbivores. To be sure, in vitro meat, “reprogramming” predators and cross-species immunocontraception aren't mentioned explicitly in the Bible. But a peaceful world where the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb calls for some genetic tweaking, to say the least.
    For more, perhaps see Christian Transhumanist Podcast.

    Naturally, not all religious believers agree with using biotechnology to abolish suffering, let alone the transhumanist vision of engineering life governed by gradients of superhuman bliss. I'd simply urge critics to recall the vital ethical difference between forswearing such technologies oneself – whether anaesthetics, painkillers, designer drugs or gene therapies – and urging their prohibition to others. Later this century and beyond, the biology of suffering is likely to become optional. I know of no good theological or secular reason why sentient beings should be forced to suffer against their will indefinitely.

  • How can physics explain qualia?
  • The existence of qualia is not consistent with our conception of the properties of matter and energy as formalised by Standard Model. If the story told by physics were correct, then we would be p-zombies. At least one biological organism is sentient. There may well be others. Presumably, p-zombies aren’t really physically possible. Given our normal "materialist" physicalist assumptions, no one knows why. It’s tempting to invoke emergence via "complexity". After all, quantum field theory (QFT) gives rise to quantum chemistry which gives rise to molecular biology. Life thereby (weakly, unspookily) emerges. Why not qualia too? Physics is causally closed and complete. When humans are smarter, we will be able to reduce subjective experience to QFT in the same way. It must be so.

    Well, maybe it must. Materialist physicalism has no clue how even to begin the derivation. Whereas biological life is just fields of matter and energy configured in (naively) thermodynamically improbable ways, subjective experiences are different in nature: first-person facts are "ontologically" different, as philosophers say. For technical reasons, most physicists are (rightly, as far as I can judge) dismissive of "hidden variables" theories in QM. Yet millions of experiences pop into existence each day from insentient matter and energy, as if by magic. How? Why? If bosonic and fermionic fields really possessed only the properties that physicists normally ascribe the stuff of the world, then the emergence of qualia would be miraculous in all but name.

    Can the problem of consciousness be sidestepped? Many physicists, bioscientists and AI researchers think so: they are implicitly or explicitly epiphenomenalists. Just as it’s causally and functionally irrelevant whether e.g. Watson, AlphaGo or Deep Blue are conscious, likewise it’s causally and functionally incidental whether your brain is conscious: your neurons (and hence ultimately physical interactions as captured by the formalism of QFT) are doing the real casual work.

    Unfortunately, this response can't be right, or at least not as it stands. As countless books, papers and Quora questions attest, consciousness exerts the causal capacity to induce us to ask questions about its existence, phenomenal binding and varieties. Psychonauts spend their days investigating its rich diversity. Mainstream investigators use e.g. microelectrode studies to probe the "neural correlates of consciousness" (NCC) – again showing that subjects are causally and functionally capable of reporting what they subjectively feel. How is this causal power physically possible? How is it computationally possible? No, we can’t rule out so-called causal overdetermination. The disease was cured by antibiotics and the spells cast by the tribal witchdoctor. But once again, if materialist physicalism were true, then a non-redundant causal-functional role for conscious experience should be impossible. We seem to have reached an impasse.

    So what might an answer look like if, fancifully, an "Oracle" – or perhaps posthuman superintelligence – revealed the true explanation? If humans could understand the answer at all, then our intuitive response, and maybe our considered response as well, would probably not be, "Ah, of course, now why didn't I think of that!" but rather, "That’s crazy!” I fear that any crank or independent researcher with an axe to grind will purr with approval here – an acknowledgement of why hidebound pillars of scientific orthodoxy fail to recognise their genius! Sad to say, most crazy theories are implausible simply because they are incoherent or demonstrably wrong. Politely asking the maverick genius in question if his theory yields any novel, precise, experimentally fallible predictions normally saves time and effort.
    That said...

    Science that isn't consistent with the empirical evidence, i.e. the existence of conscious experience, isn't science. It's metaphysics. Or worse. As it stands, materialist physicalism isn't wrong: it's "not even wrong”. Exempting one’s favoured theory of the world from falsification by speaking instead of the "Hard Problem" of consciousness (cf. the "Hard Problem" of fossils for the Creationist) would be laughable in any other context. Instead, IMO we should be willing to contemplate the unthinkable. A “crazy" theory of consciousness is most likely true, even though one’s own particular crazy theory will almost certainly be false.

    Options? Well, maybe physics – or rather physics beyond the Standard Model – is formally complete. The crazy option I take seriously – no more – is relaxing the metaphysical assumption that spawns the Hard Problem in the first instance, i.e. the assumption that the "fire" in the equations of QFT is non-experiential. According to non-materialist physicalism, your experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. P-zombies, as normally conceived, are impossible because they are unphysical. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then the entire mathematical machinery of quantum field theory should be transposed to describe fields of sentience. The diverse solutions to the equations of QFT encode the diverse values of qualia. An ontology of monistic idealism should be recast in the mathematical straightjacket of theoretical physics. Reality, on this view, is patterns of qualia in Hilbert space…

    As I said, it’s an implausible tale. Intuitively, the conjecture is untestable too – which means that non-materialist physicalism can safely be binned: life is short. However, unlike materialist metaphysics, non-materialist physicalism explains the existence, phenomenal binding, causal-functional efficacy and diverse values of qualia, i.e. the empirical evidence. And counterintuitively, non-materialist physicalism yields novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions as well.
    So yes, utterly crazy and probably false – but worth falsifying.

  • How would David Pearce respond to Jordan Peterson's assertion that the answer to suffering is meaning, rather than eradication of suffering?
  • "Pick up your damn suffering and bear it."
    (Jordan Peterson)

    “Animals don't have rights....Animals cannot shoulder an obligation....This is also why you don't have a ‘right’ to medical care. Someone else has to provide it. If you have a right to it, then the provider, who has no choice but to provide it, is no more than a slave.”
    (Jordan Peterson)

    Pain and suffering that feels meaningless typically feels worse than pain and suffering that feels meaningful. So other things being equal, creating more subjective “meaning” in the world is good. In that sense, I agree with Jordan Peterson. Yet we are living in the final century of life on Earth when any suffering is biologically inevitable. Total emancipation beckons. CRISPR genome-editing makes mental and physical pain technically optional. Should we conserve it?

    First, consider non-human animals. Pigs, for example, are as sentient and sapient as human toddlers. How exactly would creating more “meaning” alleviate the misery of a factory-farmed pig? Let’s suppose, fancifully, that a captive pig understood that her life of suffering was “meaningful” because human consumers prefer the taste of a hamburger to a veggieburger. How would thereby enlightening our victims justify the horrors of factory-farming and slaughterhouses? The solution to industrialised animal abuse isn’t extra “meaning” for our victims, but global veganism.

    What about equally pointless free-living (“wild”) animal suffering? Well, the biosphere is now programmable.

    Human suffering might seem different. Unlike human infants and non-human animals, mature non-depressed humans can live secular or religious lives charged with varying degrees of self-conceived higher purpose. Some sort of life project may partially offset our everyday woes. No, we wouldn’t tell someone with a migraine that they need to find more “meaning”. Yet generally, it’s good to help people to rationalise (their own) suffering more effectively. You know the spiel. The failed relationship was a valuable learning experience. Pain and struggle leads to personal growth. Suffering is character-building. Beware empty hedonism. And so forth. And yes, a misery-ridden life can be valuable, on balance, if one helps alleviate and prevent more suffering elsewhere. Gradients of empathetic bliss will still be best.

    Either way, the symptomatic relief of suffering and its rationalisation are stopgaps. Worse, natural selection “designed” humans to keep churning out even more suffering by creating malaise-ridden kids via the age-old genetic crapshoot. On the African savannah, a predisposition to breed discontented children was genetically adaptive. So the cycle of misery – and likewise our endless struggle for “meaning” – goes on indefinitely. If we’re ethically serious, only rewriting our genetic source code gets to the heart of the problem. Tellingly, the happier one feels, the more meaningful life characteristically seems. Thus no one says, “I feel blissfully happy, but my life feels meaningless.” Perhaps compare how mania is associated with an indiscriminately heightened sense of significance. Conversely, low mood is bound up with a pervasive sense of emptiness and a lack of motivation, shading into the nihilistic despair of severe depression.

    Thankfully, Darwinian life is on the brink of a major evolutionary transition. Futurology is not an exact science. Nonetheless, we may cautiously predict that transhuman life will feel not just superhumanly blissful, but also superhumanly significant too. Post-Darwinian life will have a profound sense of meaning that is physiologically impossible today. Take care of happiness, and the Meaning Of Life will take care of itself.

  • How do you interpret human consciousness? Are you the centre of the universe?
  • “As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are.”
    (Peter Cook)
    For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the centre of the universe, which faithfully follows me around. Other people have walk-on parts; I am always centre-stage. Strangely, members of the supporting cast, and even the extras, each behave as though gripped by the delusion that they are the centre of the universe – oblivious of the starring role of the protagonist. This behavioural psychosis has many faces, but no name.

    Disturbingly, one learns that all is not as it seems. Theory suggests that actually I’m not the hub of reality. Intellectually, at least, I have internalised the scientific world-picture, including post-Everett QM, evolutionary psychology, and the theory of perception. One’s place in the great scheme of things is humble. Countless other sentient beings are the centre of their own island-universes. In the world-simulations run by their minds, my zombie avatars and virtual namesakes are just the bit players. The egocentric illusion is a genetically adaptive lie that promotes the inclusive fitness of our genes.

    It’s not surprising that humans are so self-centred –“selfish” in both the psychological as well as the technical, genetic sense of the term. For the principle of mediocrity and the scientific “view from nowhere” are only theories. Treating oneself as no more significant than anyone else involves defying the empirical evidence. Your sentience is theoretical, a hypothesis dependent on a chain of speculative inferences; my sentience is a reality. All sorts of human depravity, narcissism, and callousness are pardonable if one appreciates that evolution has hardwired each of us with a fitness-enhancing perceptual disorder.

    Perhaps one day this illusion can be overcome. Transcending the inbuilt psychosis of Darwinian life would unleash a momentous revolution in our conception of reality, morality and decision-theoretic rationality. However, the technical obstacles to full-blown “mind-melding” are immense.

    So will posthuman superintelligence be prey to the egocentric illusion too?
    I don't know.

    In the meantime, low mood is a corrective to delusions of grandeur. So are the routine frustrations and humiliations of living in a Darwinian world. Most of us aren’t clinically insane, at least by the lights of contemporary human psychiatry. By contrast, manic euphoria coupled with the egocentric illusion is a recipe for theomania and its secular counterparts.

  • What is your theory of mind?
  • Insane, but experimentally falsifiable.
    You are a quantum mind simulating a classical world.
    Biological minds and the real-time world-simulations they run have been quantum computers for over 540 million years.
    More selection pressure (“quantum Darwinism”) is compressed into every microsecond of your existence than is exerted over four billion years of natural selection as conceived by Darwin.

    Background assumptions:
    Inferential realism about perception.
    Physicalism, more specifically non-materialist physicalism.
    Wavefunction monism, i.e. no new principle of physics to supplement or modify the unitary Schrödinger dynamics.
    Connoisseurs of online craziness who want more in this vein can read, e.g.
    Is the brain a quantum computer? (etc).

  • Is physics an explanation of reality or a description of reality?
  • Alas, neither. Modern physics doesn’t explain or adequately describe reality. Any satisfactory account of reality must indeed be consistent with the mathematical straitjacket of quantum field theory (QFT). The “special sciences” (quantum chemistry, molecular biology, etc) all reduce to physics. In one sense, the mathematical straitjacket of physics is exceedingly tight. At least at sub-Planckian energy regimes, no “element of reality” seems missing from the formalism. Thus QED is experimentally confirmed to a dozen or more decimal places. The three gauge interactions (the electromagnetic, weak, and strong force) of the Standard Model yield a scary-looking formalism with too many arbitrarily adjustable parameters to be beautiful. But it works.

    In another sense, physics is lamely permissive. Quantum field theory says nothing about the intrinsic nature of a quantum field, e.g. whether it’s a field of insentience, or sentience – or soulstuff. Nor, on the face of it, has QFT anything to say about what it’s like to instantiate different values of the solutions to the equations. For unless dualism is true, both our phenomenal minds and the quasi-classical world-simulations they run must be counted amongst these solutions. Any empirically adequate description of physical reality must capture the existence, varieties, phenomenal binding, and causal efficacy of consciousness, i.e. the empirical evidence. Physics – or more strictly, “materialist” physicalism – fails adequately to describe or explain the properties of matter and energy. Whether non-materialist physicalism can do better is an open question.

  • Should we prevent the pain and suffering of wild animals? Why or why not?
  • “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.”
    (Richard Dawkins)
    Should Darwinian life be conserved, reformed or abolished?
    Today humans systematically harm captive nonhuman animals in factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Until we close the death factories, the idea of systematically helping free-living nonhumans is fanciful. But the in vitro meat revolution promises a world of global veganism / invitrotarianism. The human dietary revolution will be accompanied by a moral revolution in human treatment of sentient beings of other species.
    So what comes next?

    Artificial intelligence, CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives turn the level of suffering in the biosphere into an adjustable parameter. Intelligent moral agents will need to choose what level of suffering is optimal Synthetic gene drives, for instance, can potentially benefit all members of even the humblest sexually reproducing species. Counterintuitively, it’s quicker, easier and cheaper to help rabbits than elephants.

    Pitfalls?
    Where does one start? Who is in charge? What are the risks? What about adequate trials? Costs? What about the future of predators and predation? Realistically, some sentient beings will continue to harm other sentient beings for centuries or more. Yet when a bioconservative critic says, “There Is No Alternative!”, we are entitled to disagree.

  • Could David Pearce explain his views on consciousness, materialism, and quantum physics in simple language?
  • Why does anything exist? Why do experiments seemingly have definite outcomes? What explains the phenomenal binding of our minds? In my view, a single logico-physical principle explains all these mysteries and more: the superposition principle. Dirac stressed the superposition principle is the fundamental principle of quantum theory.

    What is the superposition principle?
    Cue, typically, for a lot of technical jargon and forbidding equations. A physicist would start telling us about linear combinations of the normalised eigenstates of a particular operator that constitute a basis of the space occupied by the wavefunction.
    And in plain English?
    For the purposes of this answer, think of Schrödinger's cat. Or rather, think of Schrödinger’s neurons. Rather than asking what it’s like simultaneously to be a live-and-dead cat – i.e. a macroscopic superposition of two classically distinct states – ask instead: what is it like to be a superposition of, say, neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors and colour-mediating neurons?

    If you respond, “Nothing at all!”, then you’re in good company. Conventional wisdom in the scientific community and lay public alike says that quantum superpositions are never experienced, only inferred. Even if superpositions were experienced, what use would be fleeting and psychotic neuronal superpositions?! It’s just “noise">

    My tentative response to what it's like to be such neuronal superpositions would be, “An alive black cat.” The conjecture I explore is that only quantum superpositions are ever experienced. You and your classical-looking world-simulation consist of quadrillions of neuronal “cat states”, continually sculpted by a selection mechanism of almost inconceivable power: what Wojciech Zurek and his collaborators call “quantum Darwinism” applied to the central nervous system. You and your phenomenally-bound world-simulation are what a naturally evolved quantum computer feels like “from the inside”.

    Insane or otherwise, the conjecture is testable – and can be independently (dis)confirmed by molecular matter-wave interferometry to the satisfaction of proponent and critic alike.
    OK, stepping back…

    1) Consciousness.
    First-person facts are objectively real. From the experience of a beautiful sunset, to the sound of distant thunder, to an introspective thought-episode, all you ever know, except by inference and conjecture, are the subjective contents of your own mind.

    Compare this expansive conception of consciousness with perceptual direct realism. Perceptual direct realists believe that while awake, they enjoy direct access to material objects in their mind-independent local surroundings.

    In contrast to commonsense direct realism, inferential realists about perception believe that e.g. the empirical skull that you can feel right now with your empirical hands differs from the theoretically-inferred transcendental skull that encases your world-simulation. On occasion, poets grasp the human predicament better than philosophers or scientists (“The brain is wider than the sky…”). Perhaps see Antti Revonsuo or Steve Lehar for contemporary expositions of the world-simulation model of perception.

    You can appreciate that your empirical and transcendental skulls are distinct when having a lucid dream. When lucid dreaming, you know that everything beyond your phenomenal mind and its world-simulation is theoretical – though no less real. Contra perceptual direct realism, “waking up” doesn’t change this theoretically inferred status. “Waking up” does not confer direct access to physical reality that transcends your skull-bound virtual world. Rather, on waking from a dream, you may infer that the mind-independent external environment now partially selects – not creates – the contents of your consciousness, including your phenomenal world-simulation.

    Hard-nosed scientists sometimes dismissively say things like “What do you mean by ‘consciousness’?” Yet consciousness isn’t something that is, by its very nature, subtle, elusive, and hard to define, as are your introspective thought-episodes and meta-cognitive self-awareness. Other examples of consciousness include the solid, medium-sized dry objects populating your everyday world-simulation – the chairs and tables and coffee-mugs that one normally thinks of as exemplifying the physical. And solid rocks.

    Note that the world-simulation model of perception isn’t a sceptical or a solipsistic view. Nor does the world-simulation model of perception commit us to any sort of idealist ontology, although non-materialist physicalism is the option I tentatively favour. Rather, evolution over millions of years via natural selection has thrown up countless skull-bound world-simulations besides one’s own. These macroscopic world-simulations are each centred on a different body-image. Selfish DNA ensures that all of us conceive ourselves to be the centre of our own world. Other body-images play walk-on parts. Virtual universes die with the minds that run them.

    For around a tenth your life, your world-simulation is psychotic (“dreaming”). For another fifth or so of your life, you are dreamlessly asleep, a phenomenally-unbound pack of effectively classical neurons. But for around fourteen hours a day, your skull-bound mind runs a seemingly law-governed virtual world. This robustly classical-seeming world-simulation tends to track genetic fitness-relevant features of your local environment, not least the state of your extra-cranial body. This inferred – but not directly perceived – environment may be described by an approximation of classical physics, and more accurately by quantum field theory (QFT), our best mathematico-physical description of the universe. In my view, quantum field theory also explains the properties of our minds and their macroscopic world-simulations.

    Yet how are our conscious minds physically possible, given what we think we know about the fundamental properties of matter and energy?

    2) Materialism versus physicalism.
    The triumph of the Standard Model suggests the world can exhaustively be described by the equations of mathematical physics. Physicalism is true. With two big complications, no “element of reality” is lacking of from the formalism of quantum field theory, or more strictly, its M-theoretic extension.
    And the two complications?

    First, consciousness. Why aren’t we p-zombies?
    Second, the intrinsic nature of the physical. We don’t know what “breathes fire into” the equations of physics and makes a universe for them to describe. Stephen Hawking doesn’t know. Ed Witten doesn’t know.
    Despite our ignorance, “materialist” physicalists make a seemingly modest metaphysical assumption. The unknown essence of the physical is non-experiential. Quantum field theory is about fields of insentience. It’s an intuition I share.

    Why not trust such an intuition?
    Well, if “materialist” physicalism is true, then we face the Hard Problem of consciousness. The Hard Problem is a rather grand way of saying that materialism is inconsistent with the empirical evidence. I am not a p-zombie. I suspect that you aren’t either.

    Faced with the empirical refutation of our best-developed story of reality, some scientifically-minded philosophers and philosophically-minded scientists go into denial and lose their minds, figuratively at any rate (cf. Are radical eliminativists about consciousness p-zombies?). Other folk intellectually despair and turn to dualism or mysterianism. Some philosophers invoke “complexity”, but tacitly accept what philosophers call “strong” emergence. The reality of strong emergence would spell an end to the ontological unity of science. Imagine, fancifully, that molecular biology had proved irreducible to physics. If lawless ontological eruptions into the fabric of reality are real, then New Agers and religious believers can rejoice. Physicalism is the god that failed.

    Or has it?
    Non-materialist physicalism simply drops the metaphysical assumption. You are made up of exactly the same subjective field-theoretic stuff as the rest of the universe. By contrast, fields of insentience are on a par with fields of luminiferous aether.

    Perhaps also compare non-materialist physicalism with traditional forms of panpsychism and pre-scientific animism. Traditional panpsychists recognise the existence of physical properties as normally understood. But panpsychists also believe that experience is attached to, or associated with, these physical properties in some fundamental way. By contrast, non-materialist physicalism doesn’t claim that consciousness is inseparably associated with the world’s fundamental fermionic and bosonic fields. Rather, non-materialist physicalism proposes that fermionic and bosonic fields are fields of consciousness. “P-zombies” are impossible because they are unphysical.

    According to non-materialist physicalism, what makes biological minds so unusual is how our consciousness is phenomenally bound into macroscopic world-simulations, not the existence of subjective experience per se. Subjective experience is the essence of the physical. Only the physical can have causal efficacy. If consciousness weren’t the essence of the physical, then consciousness would lack the causal power to talk about its own existence, as we’re doing here. Without phenomenal binding, however, you are no more a unitary subject of experience than a rock or a lettuce or a Mexican wave – or a classical digital computer.

    So how is phenomenal binding physically possible?
    On the face of it, neither classical nor quantum physics can explain how a pack of biological nerve cells can support feature-bound phenomenal objects, for example live cats, i.e. “local” binding, or perceptual unity, i.e. “global” binding, embracing the unity of perception and the unity of the self. If physicalism is true, then why aren’t you at most just 86 billion discrete pixels of micro-experience – what American psychologist and physician William James christened “mind-dust”? Phenomenally-bound virtual world-making should be impossible for a bunch of decohered, membrane-bound neurons. Granted, probes of the central nervous system disclose tantalising hints of a structural match between mind and brain. Thus when you see e.g. a live cat, neuroscanning can identify neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons (etc) synchronously firing. But neuroscanning reveals no cat, nor even the formal structural shadow of cat. Membrane-bound “pixels” of experience are just aggregates of Jamesian mind-dust. What David Chalmers calls the “structural mismatch” between your experience and the microstructure of your CNS seems unbridgeable.
    “Naturalistic” dualism beckons.
    But let’s not surrender yet…

    3) Quantum physics, definite outcomes, and phenomenal binding.
    As far as we know, the formalism of quantum mechanics is complete. Experiment faithfully matches theory. The superposition principle of QM has universal validity. Neither consciousness not anything else “collapses the wavefunction”, i.e. the ostensibly non-unitary transformation of the state vector into a single definite state upon measurement. The big mystery is definite outcomes. Why do you see a live cat, or a dead cat? The normally sober expert on the foundations of quantum theory, Maximilian Schlosshauer, is worth quoting here. Schlosshauer notes how the problem of definite outcomes is “a dire warning something is irrevocably rotten at the core of quantum mechanics, something that could prompt this theoretical edifice to collapse at any moment, like a house haphazardly erected on swampy grounds.

    Some physicists are brave (or IMO foolhardy) enough to tamper with the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. I’m conservative on that score. My response to the measurement problem nonetheless sounds like schizophrenic word-salad. Recall Schrödinger’s “infernal device”. Neither before, during, or after opening the chamber do you perceive a definite classical outcome. Nor are there decohered (“split”) Everett branches where you perceive a definite classical outcome. Ever. Anywhere. Definite outcomes don’t exist, only coherent neuronal superpositions subjectively experienced as definite classical outcomes. Real definite outcomes would create information ex nihilo. A cardinal principle of quantum physics is that information can never be created or destroyed. More speculatively, a zero ontology suggests the information content of reality itself is nil.

    On the face of it, the claim that definite outcomes are fiction is nonsense. You observe live cats. You observe dead cats. You never observe superposed live-and-dead cats. What else could a “definite outcome” mean?

    Yet recall our discussion of perceptual consciousness (1) above. “Observations” are just one kind of subjective experience internal to your skull-bound virtual reality. On my view, only the universal validity of the superposition principle allows biological minds to undergo the fitness-enhancing experience of classicality. If, counterfactually, perceptual direct realism were true, then the superposition principle would indeed demonstrably break down whenever a measurement or observation is made. See the Born rule. But perceptual direct realism is false. Your mind is running a world-simulation. And only the superposition principle allows you to undergo the coherent phenomenally-bound superpositions of neuronal feature-processors subjectively experienced as a classical live cat or a classical dead cat. Superpositions are individual physical states, not classical aggregates or mixtures. Environmentally-induced decoherence explains how neuronal superpositions progressively become unbound – fast.

    Again, this proposal is intuitively insane. Theoretical physicists, notably Max Tegmark, have done the maths. Thermally-induced decoherence alone is stupendously powerful. The effective lifetime of “cat states” in your warm and wet CNS can be calculated. It’s femtoseconds or less. “Cat states” in your CNS must at most be psychotic noise. Even if non-materialist physicalism is true, psychotic noise is computationally useless. Performing interferometry experiments to test this assertion would be as pointless as using interferometry to investigate whether the superposition principle breaks down in the central processing unit of your PC. No, it doesn’t; but your PC functions as a classical Turing machine. Likewise, your waking world-simulation seems well-ordered, law-governed, effectively classical. You are not a universal quantum computer.

    Indeed. So why not treat sub-femtosecond decoherence times as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind – or at least, a reductio of theoretically-conservative (“no collapse”) quantum mind proposals that don’t invoke any new principle of physics like the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory? Sure, if coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the CNS endured for milliseconds, then we’d have a credible candidate for a perfect structural match between our phenomenally bound minds and the architecture of the CNS, and hence ultimately physics. Two disparate kinds of holism, a single elegant explanation. Voilà! But the numbers don’t add up. The respective lifetimes of neuronal superpositions and our mental states aren’t even close. Femtoseconds versus milliseconds: it’s a different ballpark.

    Enter Quantum Darwinism.

    “Quantum Darwinism” sounds like quantum healing and quantum tarot. It’s not. Quantum Darwinism is the name that theoretical physicists give to the selection mechanism that explains the emergence of observer-independent quasi-classicality from quantum reality. The best non-technical account I know is John Campbell’s “Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process”: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf
    But Wojciech Zurek himself is well worth reading, e.g. “Quantum Darwinism”: https://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082v1.pdf
    Together with H-Dieter Zeh, Zurek is one of the pioneers of the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics.

    What happens when the selection mechanism of quantum Darwinism plays out inside your head? On the temporally coarse-grained scale of milliseconds captured by today’s neuroscanning, yes, dynamically stable quasi-classical neurons emerge from bedrock quantum reality. But at temporal resolutions of picoseconds, femtoseconds and attoseconds? Will the non-classical interference signature reveal functionless “noise”, or a perfect structural match between phenomenology and physics?

    I don’t know. I hope experiment will tell us. See Schrödinger’s Neurons? Evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky once observed, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". Maybe nothing in any true biological science of mind will make sense except in the light of quantum Darwinism in the CNS.

    The experimental signature we’re looking for is subtle (cf. Double-slit experiment - Wikipedia), but not because the empirical evidence for quantum mind is subtle. Rather, in my view, the evidence that our minds are quantum minds consists in the phenomenally bound classical-seeming world-simulation that you’re undergoing right now. The superposition principle creates the illusion of definite outcomes. A classical mind couldn’t phenomenally simulate a classical extra-cranial world. But of course this is a philosophical argument, not a novel prediction (cf. Quantum computing: the first 540 million years). A good experiment needs to convince critics. And only a genuinely novel empirical prediction – in this case, a telltale non-classical interference signature that implicates precisely the feature-processing neurons that neuroscanning identifies with any given phenomenally bound perceptual experience. If synchrony is really superposition, then the non-classical interference signature will tell us.

    [I’ve just read my reply. It’s not as simply worded as I’d like. Sorry. I’ve added some hotlinks. To stress: this is a conjecture I’d like to see experimentally falsified, not a declaration of belief. Most scientifically educated people who appreciate the power of decoherence will reckon a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture too insane to be seriously worth testing. Maybe they are right. I am just curious.]


  • What do transhumanists think of David Pearce's "The Hedonistic Imperative"?
  • "We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise."
    (The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009)
    Transhumanists advocate the use of technology to overcome our biological limitations. Critics sometimes denounce the movement as “selfish”. Perhaps so; we are human. Yet a “triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness can benefit all sentient beings, not just a Silicon Valley elite.

    Where do transhumanists differ?
    I think our overriding ethical priority should be phasing out the biology of suffering throughout the living world: in essence, Buddhism (or Bentham) plus biotechnology. Other transhumanists believe that our highest priority should be the conquest of aging (cf. Why is superlongevity so much more popular among transhumanists than superhappiness?). Many transhumanists agree with futurist philosopher Nick Bostrom that our greatest challenge is navigating the transition to posthuman superintelligence (cf. Interview with Nick Bostrom and David Pearce).

    Do any transhumanists believe that we should conserve the biology of involuntary suffering? The “involuntary” should be stressed: transhumanists don’t urge a regime of coercive bliss. One of the most influential figures in the transhumanist movement has been American artificial intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky. Eliezer believes that a world underpinned entirely by gradients of bliss would be “boring”. We should instead abolish only extreme suffering, while conserving the capacity to experience “mild sorrow”.

    As you can probably guess, I’d beg to differ. The biology of boredom can be abolished in favour of information-sensitive gradients of fascination. Neurodiversity can be increased. The transhuman functional analogs of mild sorrow can still be far richer than human “peak experiences”.

  • Is Elon Musk a transhumanist?
  • If humans are to become transhumans, then we will need to rewrite our genetic source code. However, like many people, Elon Musk is ambivalent. On the one hand, Musk doesn't want to endorse human genome-editing because he doesn't know how to avoid what he calls "the Hitler problem". On the other hand, when considering how to overcome the biology of ageing, Musk is on record as saying that "...in order to fundamentally solve a lot of these issues, we are going to have to reprogram our DNA. That's the only way to do it."
    And of course he's right.

    Source: http://uk.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-doesnt-want-to-get-into-genetic-engineering-because-he-doesnt-know-how-to-avoid-the-hitler-problem-2015-6

  • Should abolitionism (bioethics) be applied to non-humans?
  • Suffering doesn't matter less if experienced by members of another ethnic group. Nor does suffering of equivalent intensity matter less if the victims belong to a different species. Brain-scaling suggests that the intensity of experience undergone by, say, a sperm whale may surpass humans. The intensity of experience undergone by humans and other primates is presumably greater than the experience of mice.

    However, such comparisons are invidious. Human mastery of our genetic source code, the accelerating revolution in computing and artificial intelligence, and CRISPR genome-editing technologies promise a major evolutionary transition in the development of life on Earth. Whether the biology of involuntary suffering persists indefinitely in the living world will depend on the policy decisions of the cognitively dominant species on the planet, Homo sapiens.
    For an overview of the abolitionist project, see:
    https://www.abolitionist.com
    Pitfalls?
    Undoubtedly immense.

  • What are the arguments against anti-natalism?
  • Is coming into existence inherently bad? Or is it bad only because life perpetuates suffering? [cf. “Better Never To Have Been; the harm of coming into existence” (2006) by David Benatar] This distinction might strike radical anti-natalists as pedantic. Crudely, life is suffering. Gautama Buddha was right. Evolutionary psychology and molecular biology flesh out the ghastly details. But the CRISPR genome-editing revolution means that we are living in the final century of involuntary mental and physical pain. In future, unpleasant experience of any kind will be technically optional. Life can potentially be a gift, not a curse. Subjectively, post-Darwinian life will be sublime.

    So negative utilitarians and other proponents of suffering-focused ethics face a choice.
    Should we advocate:

    1) Human extinction via radical anti-natalism?
    Voluntary human extinction would entail anti-natalists persuading literally everyone, everywhere, to stop having children, including people who sincerely believe they have a religious duty to “go forth and multiply” (cf. God's little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide). Voluntary mass-sterilisation and/or intrusive monitoring and control of women’s bodies would presumably be needed and/or mass abortions because of inevitable “accidents” – even if consent were (fancifully) agreed and the nature of selection pressure were (fancifully) ignored. So we’re talking about the creation of a totalitarian world-state. And consider the plight of nonhuman animals. Most of the world’s suffering isn’t undergone by Homo sapiens. So what are the practical details of the thermonuclear Doomsday device or weaponised gene drives needed to sterilise the biosphere, or at least wipe out multicellular life? How does one spell out exactly what is involved without inadvertently writing an instruction manual for bioterrorists? Should radical anti-natalists practise, e.g. systematic deep entryism into life-lover institutes dedicated to the prevention of existential risk? (cf. Centre for the Study of Existential Risk) I’m not sure that it’s fruitful to continue in this vein. Public speculation might even be harmful. One hesitates to sound dogmatic, but I’ll say it: voluntary species euthanasia is never going to happen, or rather, species euthanasia may come to pass only in the sense that humans will progressively become transhumans, who then opt to become posthumans.

    2) the abolition of suffering throughout the living world via biotechnology?
    We can invest our time, efforts and resources in promoting a happy biosphere. Options (1) and (2) are both conceptually simple. The first option is (IMO) sociologically impossible, while the second is “merely” technically and sociologically challenging. On a personal level, choosing not to have children or adopting children is morally admirable. So is urging other folk to do likewise: “soft” anti-natalism. I’m personally a “soft” anti-natalist. For better or worse, “strong” Benatarian anti-natalism aimed at human extinction is a non-starter.

    I guess most radical anti-natalists will feel frustrated at this response. I can sympathise. Life on Earth is misery-ridden. Why can’t we all just stop breeding? The reckless genetic experimentation we call sexual reproduction spawns untold tragedies. Naively, universal childlessness is a simpler solution to the problem of suffering than genetically reprogramming the biosphere. Centuries of suffering and malaise almost certainly still lie ahead of us. Yet normative ethics shouldn’t merely express one’s feelings – in my case, a frequent sense of despair – but inform responsible policy-making. We can bring the horror-show to an end. Phasing out this planetary infestation of Darwinian malware will take a daunting amount of hard work. At present, utopian genetics is scarcely credible. But in a post-Darwinian world, natalism can be harmless.

  • How do I believe that the humans around me actually possess consciousness?
  • The ancient sceptical Problem Of Other Minds is usually reckoned insoluble. Worse, mainstream scientific materialism offers no grounds for believing that one is not surrounded by p-zombies.
    However, the conjecture that one is surrounded by sentient beings rather than p-zombies may instead be treated as an experimentally testable hypothesis.
    Consider the Hogan sisters (cf. "Could Conjoined Twins Share A Mind?":
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/magazine/could-conjoined-twins-share-a-mind.html)
    Developing technologies of reversible thalamic bridges promise a future of “mind-melding" with other humans and sentient beings from other species. Such utopian technologies should finally lay to rest the philosophical Problem Of Other Minds.
    Mind-melding technologies may lead, not just to a Copernican moral revolution, but also a revolution in our conception of decision-theoretic rationality. Naturally, the proposal that mature posthuman ethics and decision-theoretic rationality might converge sounds too good to be true. But once sentient beings can "mind-meld", behaving "selfishly" may come to seem not just immoral but also irrational – akin to harming oneself. Perhaps compare the orthodox metaphysical individualism presupposed by the otherwise excellent Less Wrong Decision Theory FAQ:
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/gu1/decision_theory_faq/

  • Will there ever be a time when, as a species, we eradicate warfare completely? Why/why not, if yes how? And within what time frame?
  • From a technical perspective, the answer is simple if not easy. Whether among chimpanzees or humans, history doesn't record a single instance of females banding together for the purposes of a territorial war of aggression. Electing all-female political leadership would effectively solve the problem. Unfortunately, IMO such a technical solution isn't sociologically realistic. This is because of our tendency to conflate the proposal with a separate personal and social issue, namely feminism and the women's movement. Hundreds of millions of people will probably die violently in consequence.

  • What is High-Tech Jainism?
  • Sentient beings shouldn’t harm each other, or allow each other to come to harm. The utopian ethic is ancient; the technology to implement such an ethic is new. Thus Jains aim never to harm other sentient beings by word or deed. Jains are best known in the West for sweeping the ground before their feet so they don’t inadvertently tread on an insect. "High-tech Jainism” refers to an ethic and (hypothetical) practice of using biotechnology to phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world.

    For a nice overview of the technical background, see "Genetically Engineering Almost Anything":
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/evolution/crispr-gene-drives/
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/gene-drives-and-crispr-could-revolutionize-ecosystem-management/

  • Are we quantum computers?
  • Conventional answer: no. The brain is too “warm, wet and noisy.” Approximate decoherence timescales for neuronal superpositions can be calculated.
    (cf. Max Tegmark: https://www.physicalism.com/quantum-computer.pdf: “Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer”)
    Intuitively, sub-femtosecond timescales are orders of magnitude too rapid to be harnessed by natural selection. Intuitively again, consciousness “emerges” on a dynamical timescale of milliseconds via patterns of neuronal firings.

    Unconventional answer: yes. Our minds have been quantum computers for the past 540 million years. If neurons were the discrete, decohered classical objects of textbook neuroscience, then phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects would be impossible. Without such classically impossible phenomenal binding, the quasi-classical world-simulations of our everyday experience would be impossible too. If your waking or dreaming brain were a classical computer, then you'd at most be what philosophers call a “micro-experiential zombie”, i.e. a mere aggregate of Jamesian mind-dust.

    Who is right?
    Mercifully, experiment rather than philosophising should decide.
    Any quantum mind theory that does
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1571064513001188
    ("Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch-OR’ theory")
    or doesn't
    https://www.physicalism.com/#6 ("an experimentally testable conjecture")
    propose modifying or supplementing the unitary Schrödinger dynamics makes empirical predictions that can be experimentally falsified (or confirmed) by molecular matter-wave interferometry.

    For some background reading on the phenomenal binding/combination problem, see David Chalmers:
    http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf

  • In what year was the original Hedonistic Imperative written?
  • HI was written in late 1995. The human genome hadn't been decoded. Inference to the high genetic loading of hedonic set-points rested largely on twin studies. The distinction between dopaminergic "wanting" and mu opioidergic "liking" wasn't widely appreciated. CRISPR genome-editing technologies would have sounded like science fiction. In short, the science behind HI will rapidly date. Yet the ethical case for using biotechnology to create a civilisation based on gradients (cf. An information-theoretic perspective on life in Heaven") of intelligent bliss is compelling.

  • Effective Altruism: What do effective altruists think of eugenics?
  • The term "eugenics" has been so polluted by past abuse that its revival seems unlikely. That said, ineffective altruism tackles symptoms and neglects underlying causes. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling, and eventually germline editing, may be the only effective long-term route to phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering. Having children via today's genetic crapshoot may eventually be recognised as child abuse.

    The effective altruist movement does not speak with one voice on this issue. In my view, it's safest on indirect ethical utilitarian grounds to enshrine the sanctity of human life in law, and to adopt high-tech Jainism, so to speak, towards nonhuman animals. Such caution does not guarantee a happy outcome; but the historical track-record of utopian experiments is not encouraging.

    Other views? Well, my co-panellist at EA Global Melbourne will be Peter Singer:
    http://www.eaglobal.org/melbourne/
    ("Effective Altruism Global, August 14th-16th 2015")

  • How much do our pain thresholds differ?
  • Pain-sensitivity varies hugely. Many genes are implicated. Here let's focus on the sodium-channel SCN9A gene. The SCN9A gene encodes the voltage-gated sodium-channel type IX a subunit known as Nav1.7. Nonsense mutations of the SCN9A gene abolish the capacity to feel physical pain. Other alleles of SCN9A are associated with unusually high or unusually low pain thresholds. (cf. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2096434/)

    In principle, humanity could massively reduce the burden of suffering in the world by offering all prospective parents routine access to preimplantation genetic screening for benign “low pain” genes. “Low pain” alleles could also easily be bred in domestic nonhuman animals and rapidly extended across the rest of the living world via CRISPR-based “gene drives”: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/gene-drives-and-crispr-could-revolutionize-ecosystem-management/ ("'Gene Drives'" And CRISPR Could Revolutionize Ecosystem Management.")

    When a friend of the American composer John Cage asked "Don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?", Cage answered, “No, I think there's just the right amount.” Many victims would disagree. Humanity will shortly be able to decide the optimal level of suffering both for members of our own species - and eventually for life itself.
    Should we eliminate the human ability to feel pain?

  • Why are there meat eaters or carnivores? Why can't all animals be herbivores?
  • “Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
    And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so,
    ad infinitum.”
    (Augustus de Morgan, Siphonaptera)
    Darwinian life is based on living organisms harming each other. The existence of the food chain, or more strictly the food web, is intuitively a law of Nature – akin to the conservation of energy or the second law of thermodynamics. A minority of activists do care about the suffering of free-living non-human animals (cf. Why don't animal rights activists care more about wild animal suffering?). But the idea that sentient beings of all races and species could flourish unmolested sounds hopelessly utopian and ecologically illiterate. What about obligate carnivores? What about the uncontrolled population explosion that would follow the end of predation? Proverbially, Nature is cruel. Starvation, parasitism and predation are facts of life. To quote Richard Dawkins: “It must be so.”
    Well, no, actually.
    See e.g. Reprogramming Predators
    Cross-species immunocontraception, the CRISPR genome-editing revolution, and the prospect of synthetic gene drives make the level of suffering in the biosphere an adjustable parameter.
    I don’t know what level of suffering an advanced civilisation will choose for the living world.
    Yet if I had to hazard a guess: zero.
    Civilisation will be invitrotarian or vegan.

  • Scientifically speaking, how serious is the measurement problem concerning the validity of the various interpretations in quantum mechanics?
  • It’s serious. Science should be empirically adequate. Quantum mechanics is the bedrock of science. The superposition principle is the bedrock of quantum mechanics. So why don’t we ever experience superpositions? Why do experiments have definite outcomes? “Schrödinger’s cat” isn’t just a thought-experiment. The experiment can be done today. If quantum mechanics is complete, then microscopic superpositions should rapidly be amplified via quantum entanglement into the macroscopic realm of everyday life.

    Copenhagenists are explicit. The lesson of quantum mechanics is that we must abandon realism about the micro-world. But Schrödinger's cat can’t be quarantined. The regress spirals without end. If quantum mechanics is complete, the lesson of Schrödinger's cat is that if one abandons realism about a micro-world, then one must abandon realism about a macro-world too. The existence of an objective physical realm independent of one’s mind is certainly a useful calculational tool. Yet if all that matters is empirical adequacy, then why invoke such superfluous metaphysical baggage? The upshot of Copenhagen isn't science, but solipsism.

    There are realist alternatives to quantum solipsism. Some physicists propose that we modify the unitary dynamics to prevent macroscopic superpositions. Roger Penrose, for instance, believes that a non-linear correction to the unitary evolution should be introduced to prevent superpositions of macroscopically distinguishable gravitational fields. Experiments to (dis)confirm the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR conjecture should be feasible later this century. But if dynamical collapse theories are wrong, and if quantum mechanics is complete (as most physicists believe), then “cat states” should be ubiquitous. This doesn't seem to be what we experience.

    Everettians are realists, in a sense. Unitary-only QM says that there are quasi-classical branches of the universal wavefunction where you open an infernal chamber and see a live cat, other decohered branches where you see a dead cat; branches where you perceive the detection of a spin-up electron that has passed through a Stern–Gerlach device, other branches where you perceive the detector recording a spin-down electron; and so forth. I’ve long been haunted by a horrible suspicion that unitary-only QM is right, though Everettian QM boggles the mind (cf. UniverseSplitter). Yet the heart of the measurement problem from the perspective of empirical science is that one doesn't ever see superpositions of live-and-dead cats, or detect superpositions of spin-up-and-spin-down electrons, but only definite outcomes. So the conjecture that there are other, madly proliferating decohered branches of the universal wavefunction where different versions of you record different definite outcomes doesn’t solve the mystery of why anything anywhere ever seems definite to anyone at all. Therefore, the problem of definite outcomes in QM isn’t “just” a philosophical or interpretational issue, but an empirical challenge for even the most hard-nosed scientific positivist. “Science” that isn’t empirically adequate isn’t science: it’s metaphysics. Some deeply-buried background assumption(s) or presupposition(s) that working physicists are making must be mistaken. But which? To quote the 2016 International Workshop on Quantum Observers organized by the IJQF,

    "…the measurement problem in quantum mechanics is essentially the determinate-experience problem. The problem is to explain how the linear quantum dynamics can be compatible with the existence of our definite experience. This means that in order to finally solve the measurement problem it is necessary to analyze the observer who is physically in a superposition of brain states with definite measurement records. Indeed, such quantum observers exist in all main realistic solutions to the measurement problem, including Bohm’s theory, Everett’s theory, and even the dynamical collapse theories. Then, what does it feel like to be a quantum observer?"
    Indeed. Here I’ll just state rather than argue my tentative analysis.
    Monistic physicalism is true. Quantum mechanics is formally complete. There is no consciousness-induced collapse the wave function, no “hidden variables”, nor any other modification or supplementation of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. The wavefunction evolves deterministically according to the Schrödinger equation as a linear superposition of different states. Yet what seems empirically self-evident, namely that measurements always find a physical system in a definite state, is false(!) The received wisdom, repeated in countless textbooks, that measurements always find a physical system in a definite state reflects an erroneous theory of perception, namely perceptual direct realism. As philosophers (e.g. the “two worlds” reading of Kant) and even poets (“The brain is wider than the sky…”) have long realised, the conceptual framework of perceptual direct realism is untenable. Only inferential realism about mind-independent reality is scientifically viable. Rather than assuming that superpositions are never experienced, suspend disbelief and consider the opposite possibility. Only superpositions are ever experienced. “Observations” are superpositions, exactly as unmodified and unsupplemented quantum mechanics says they should be: the wavefunction is a complete representation of the physical state of a system, including biological minds and the pseudo-classical world-simulations they run. Not merely “It is the theory that decides what can be observed” (Einstein); quantum theory decides the very nature of “observation” itself. If so, then the superposition principle underpins one’s subjective experience of definite, well-defined classical outcomes (“observations”), whether, say, a phenomenally-bound live cat, or the detection of a spin-up electron that has passed through a Stern–Gerlach device, or any other subjectively determinate outcome. If one isn’t dreaming, tripping or psychotic, then within one’s phenomenal world-simulation, the apparent collapse of a quantum state (into one of the eigenstates of the Hermitian operator associated with the relevant observable in accordance with a probability calculated as the squared absolute value of a complex probability amplitude) consists of fleeting uncollapsed neuronal superpositions within one's CNS. To solve the measurement problem, the neuronal vehicle of observation and its subjective content must be distinguished. The universality of the superposition principle – not its unexplained breakdown upon “observation” – underpins one’s classical-seeming world-simulation. What naïvely seems to be the external world, i.e. one’s egocentric world-simulation, is what linear superpositions of different states feel like “from the inside”: the intrinsic nature of the physical. The otherwise insoluble binding problem in neuroscience and the problem of definite outcomes in QM share a solution.

    Absurd?
    Yes, for sure: this minimum requirement for a successful resolution of the mystery is satisfied (“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”– Einstein, again). The raw power of environmentally-induced decoherence in a warm environment like the CNS makes the conjecture intuitively flaky. Assuming unitary-only QM, the effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal “cat states” in the CNS is less than femtoseconds. Neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors are intuitively just “noise”, not phenomenally-bound perceptual objects. At best, the idea that sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions could underpin our experience of law-like classicality is implausible. Yet we’re not looking for plausible theories but testable theories. Every second of selection pressure in Zurek’s sense (cf. “Quantum Darwinism”) sculpting one’s neocortical world-simulation is more intense and unremitting than four billion years of evolution as conceived by Darwin. My best guess is that interferometry will disclose a perfect structural match. If the non-classical interference signature doesn’t yield a perfect structural match, then dualism is true.

    Is the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism – more snappily, “Schrödinger's neurons” – a potential solution to the measurement problem? Or a variant of the “word salad” interpretation of quantum mechanics?
    Sadly, I can guess.
    But if there were one experiment that I could do, one loophole I’d like to see closed via interferometry, then this would be it.

  • Are our perceptions physically existing somewhere?
  • Talk of "perceptions" can be misleading. Whether one is dreaming or awake, the mind-brain runs a spatio-temporally located world-simulation. The simulation is entirely internal to the skull: immersive, cross-modally matched organic VR. Thanks to natural selection, when you are awake your world-simulation tends to track – and causally co-vary with – gross, fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent world.

    The world-simulation metaphor of our minds is ably defended by e.g. cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher of mind Antti Revonsuo (cf. "Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon") and contested by e.g. philosopher Daniel Dennett (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartesian_theater).

  • Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose? Is it even necessary for biological systems to work?
  • Does consciousness serve any functionally vital role in biological organisms?
    Sceptical answer:
    No. The “raw feels” of subjective experience are functionally incidental to biological and non-biological information processing systems alike. Compare how the answer to the “philosophical” question of whether Deep Blue, or Watson, or AlphaDog, or posthuman superintelligences have any subjective experiences (“qualia”) makes no computational difference to their behaviour. Likewise with biological nervous systems based on carbon and liquid water. What matters to intelligent behaviour is functional architecture, not emergent consciousness (cf. epiphenomenalism) – or low-level implementation details (cf. Universal Turing machine).

    Affirmative answer:
    Yes. Consciousness per se isn’t “for" anything. But some forms of consciousness harnessed by natural selection are fitness-enhancing. Even their partial absence is grossly maladaptive. The challenge is to show how such adaptations are physically possible given what we think we know about the nature of reality and the architecture of the CNS. Consider phenomenal binding. Imagine a hypothetical organism with a generalised binding deficit syndrome. The syndrome includes an exaggerated form of simultanagnosia, cerebral akinetopsia (“motion blindness”), chronic schizophrenia (not “split personality” but rather a complete fragmentation of self), and an absence of any form of local or global phenomenal binding. The CNS of this notional organism consists of 86 billion membrane-bound neuronal “pixels” of micro-experience.

    Perhaps we may model such a hypothetical organism with an artificial neural network. The interconnected silicon units of this “artificial brain” may be trained up by modifying its connection weights in accordance with sophisticated connectionist learning algorithms. The upshot? If physicalism is true, the modelled organism is still a micro-experiential zombie. On the African savannah, micro-experiential zombies don’t fare well. Without the capacity phenomenally to bind distributed neuronal feature-processors into unitary dynamical perceptual objects (“local” binding, e.g. an advancing sabre-toothed tiger in search of a meal) experienced within a unified world-simulation (“global” binding, e.g. the nearby refuge of caves and hollering fellow tribesmen), a micro-experiential zombie will end up as a carnivorous predator’s lunch. Or simply starve. Mercifully, a micro-experiential zombie doesn’t suffer. Individual neuronal pixels of micro-experience in its CNS mediate only individual micro-pinpricks. Shifting patterns of classical “mind-dust” are spared the all-consuming panic or agony or despair experienced by a unitary phenomenal self.

    Contrast such a (fanciful) micro-experiential zombie with a real-life biological nervous system. The unexplained ability of awake biological nervous systems to run unified, dynamic, cross-modally matched, egocentric world-simulations experienced by a unitary phenomenal self in nearly real time is the most computationally awe-inspiring feat of post-Cambrian life. For the most part, biological minds are unaware of the computational power of the world-simulations they run. For one seems directly and effortlessly presented with a mind-independent physical environment (“perception”). Nature’s version of immersive VR is rarely recognised as virtual reality at all. The real extra-cranial external world helps partially select the subjective content of one’s virtual world-simulation; it doesn’t create it. Most organisms are perceptual naïve realists. Perhaps instead one laments how “slow” and inefficient our serial, conscious, logico-linguistic thought-processes are compared to “fast” digital computers. Muddying the issue further, introspective self-awareness can be subtle and phenomenally thin. So maybe one complains about how nebulous, ill-defined and unscientific talk is about “consciousness” – as though the phenomenal chairs, tables and personal computer in front of one’s body-image were not autobiographical features of an overarching skull-bound mind and the law-governed, vividly conscious world-simulation it runs.

    So how does the mind-brain do it? After all, psi powers and the magic of Harry Potter would be “adaptive” too. Contra Daniel Dennett (cf. “Darwin's Dangerous Idea”), highlighting how a pervasive feature of our minds is genetically fitness-enhancing doesn't explain that feature in any deep sense. In default of a physicalist explanation of how phenomenal binding is possible for the pack of supposedly discrete, decohered neurons of orthodox neuroscience, we are left with spooky “strong” emergence. “Strong” emergence can’t be excluded from our best story of reality. Neither can psi, dualism, or magic. But “strong” emergence would be an intellectual catastrophe for the unity of science.

    My view? I’m theoretically conservative, at least in physics if not neurobiology. Quantum physics (or more strictly, tomorrow’s physics beyond the Standard Model) is causally closed and formally complete. Nothing is missing from the formalism of our best theory of the world, i.e. the unmodified unitary dynamics of Everettian QM. In my tentative, idiosyncratic opinion, only physics can explain the properties of conscious mind. Yet the real answer to your question is simply that science does not understand consciousness.

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • No one knows the explanation. But perhaps a zero ontology hints at an explanation-space where the answer will ultimately be found. What would be the case if the total information content of reality were exactly zero? Like the Library of Babel, this scenario seems uncannily analogous to the message of our best theory of the world, post-Everett quantum mechanics. For there's a sense in which the universal state-vector of QM doesn't contain any information. See e.g. Jan-Markus Schwindt on "Nirvana factorization" versus "Samsara factorization": http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf? ("Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation")

    "A theory that explains everything explains nothing" is sometimes treated as a shortcoming of Everettian QM. But maybe this supposed vice is really a virtue – and a clue. For a fundamental principle of physics says that information can neither be created nor destroyed. Taken literally, this prohibition means that information could never be created in the first instance. In this sense, a zero ontology is an experimentally falsifiable conjecture. Any breakdown of the unitary dynamics of QM (a so-called "collapse of the wavefunction") would falsify not just Everett but also a zero ontology. The largest scale on which the superposition principle has been tested to date is that of fullerene molecules ("buckyballs"). Scaling up to the whole of reality is quite a leap, but may be inevitable on pain of creating information ex nihilo.

    In my view, the greatest challenge facing any kind of zero ontology is first-person experience. However, let's assume wavefunction monism: all experiences are mathematically encoded in the universal wavefunction. On this story, sentient beings are wavefunctions in configuration space – fields of phenomenally bound subjective experiences whose exact textures are expressed by the values of two numbers, the amplitude and the phase, specified at every point in the universe's configuration space. If we possessed some kind of cosmic Rosetta Stone, then we could understand how the values of all experiences necessarily have the textures they do in virtue of "cancelling out" to zero too.

    As I said, this is an explanation-space – not an explanation.

  • Is everything made of consciousness?
  • It's an open question. Formally, the world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions. Physics – or rather tomorrow’s physics beyond the Standard Model – is causally closed and complete. But physics is silent on the intrinsic nature of the physical: the mysterious “fire” in the equations.

    An intuitively plausible philosophical assumption is that this “fire” – the essence of the physical – is non-experiential. Thus the equations of quantum field theory describe the behaviour of fields and their excited quanta of insentience. Such an assumption is hard to test experimentally. Moreover, the assumption that the intrinsic nature of the physical is non-experiential would seem inconsistent with the only part of the “fire” in the equations to which one enjoys direct access, namely one's own conscious mind. If the “fire” in the equations really is non-experiential, we need to explain how consciousness "emerges" (how? where? when? why?) from insentient fields. In addition, we must derive the values and interdependencies of the diverse textures of experience from the underlying formalism of QFT. We must also explain how such emergent consciousness has the causal capacity to allow us to discuss its existence without violating the causal closure and completeness of physics.

    By contrast, if non-materialist physicalism (cf. https://www.physicalism.com) is true, then the world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics; and the solutions to the field-theoretic equations yield the values of consciousness. Traditionally, physicalism is treated as a cousin of materialism. Yet non-materialist physicalism is better viewed as the scientifically literate form of monistic idealism.

  • Do Holocaust survivors feel empathy for slaughtered animals?
  • Is it a coincidence that Israel may become the first vegan nation:
    http://www.israel21c.org/culture/israel-goes-vegan/
    Many Holocaust survivors – and their children and grandchildren – have made the connection. When a Nobel laureate like Isaac Bashevis Singer describes the fate of nonhuman animals as "an eternal Treblinka", this is not a parallel a Jewish writer draws lightly.
    In later life, even death-camp commandant Franz Stangl recognised the parallel. In Brazil, Stangl gave up eating tinned meat after his train stopped one day next to a slaughterhouse ("Into That Darkness: from Mercy Killing to Mass Murder" (1974, second edition 1995)).
    Of course, all analogies break down somewhere. Thus the Nazis sincerely (and psychotically) believed in a mythical international Jewish conspiracy against the Aryan race. By contrast, the standard moral argument in favour of meat eating runs "But I like the taste!"

    Not merely animal advocates have come to believe that humans are doing something ethically monstrous. In "Sapiens" (2014), Israeli historian Prof. Yuval Noah Harari observes: "Tens of billions of them [nonhuman animals] have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history."

  • What does David Pearce think about the strands in philosophy that describe suffering as an essential part of human existence?
  • Phasing out the biology of suffering, and engineering a reward architecture based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss, needn't make us any less human. Interbreeding with archaic Homo sapiens could still yield fertile offspring – ethically created or otherwise. Like wearing clothes, life lived entirely above hedonic zero would be an evolutionary novelty. But does this matter? Compare how a conditionally-activated capacity to wage war, rape women from neighbouring tribes, keep slaves, abuse stepchildren (etc) was fitness-enhancing in the ancestral environment of adaptation. No doubt history shows that rape, warfare and child abuse are "part of what it means to be human" too. Worries about losing some vital part of our human species essence aren't good moral reason to practise such behaviour. Likewise in the post-genomic era. Intelligent moral agents can shortly decide whether to perpetuate – or retire – genes and allelic variations predisposing to psychological pain. We can flourish without them. Good riddance:
    https://www.reproductive-revolution.com

  • If events at both the quantum and "macro" levels are neither random nor deterministic, then can "probability" be viewed as a unifying principle between them?
  • Classical physics is often said to be deterministic while quantum physics is indeterministic; but really it's the other way round. For the world is exhaustively described by the deterministic dynamics of the universal Schrödinger equation or its relativistic generalisation.
    (cf. Hugh Everett's "The Theory of the Universal Wavefunction": https://www.physicalism.com/everett.pdf)

    The decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics explains how quasi-classical Everett branches ("worlds") emerge from the deterministic unitary dynamics of QM. Perhaps see Wojciech Zurek on "Quantum Darwinism" or Maximilian Schlosshauer's "Decoherence and the Quantum-to-Classical Transition" (2008):
    http://www.amazon.com/Decoherence-Classical-Transition-Frontiers-Collection/dp/3540357734

    Determinism and predictability are different concepts. Thus if you wanted to outwit the predictive powers of even mature posthuman superintelligence, then you could live your lives as the quantum analogue of Luke Rhinehart's Dice Man:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dice_Man

  • How could we stop Super AI once it becomes sentient? Is that even possible?
  • Digital computers are no more sentient than rocks. The idea that our machines will one day “wake up” is popular. It’s unsupported by theory or empirical evidence. Digital computers have no knowledge of the existence, diversity, causal efficacy or phenomenal binding of conscious experience. Digital computers don’t have unified phenomenal selves that might start hatching plots against the human race. Nor do digital computers have a clean digital abstraction layer functionally equivalent to unified phenomenal selves that might start plotting against us. And the spectre of silicon robots staging a zombie coup is science-fiction.

    “Narrow” AI will be an awesomely powerful tool. Recursively self-improving humans and transhumans will enhance their minds with neurochips and smart prostheses. We will enjoy the pleasures of world-class robolovers, companions, personal assistants, mentors, educators, healers, conversationalists and other versatile digital zombies. The real threat to what humans call civilisation isn’t artificial general intelligence, but rather humans doing what evolution “designed” coalitions of male human primates to do, namely waging wars of territorial aggression against other coalitions of male human primates. Nuclear and biological war could decimate us. The next few decades will be ugly.

  • How could we make life on Earth a utopia?
  • For the past half-billion years, sentient beings have hurt, harmed and killed each other under pressure of natural selection. Nature "designed" male humans to be hunters and warriors. As "Machiavellian apes", we have learned to cooperate ever more effectively to hurt, harm and kill members of other species (cf. the horrors of factory-farming and slaughterhouses) and likewise to hurt, harm and kill rival coalitions of male primates (cf. aggressive territorial warfare). In the twentieth century, male humans killed over 100 million men, women and children during armed conflict. The twenty-first century body-count of human and nonhuman animals will be higher. Idealists may dream of a better world. Yet all utopian experiments seem doomed to founder on the rock of human nature and the thermodynamics of a food-chain.

    So what is to be done?
    Technical fixes to Darwinian life do exist.
    What's in question is when and how they can be implemented.
    Mastery of our genetic source code, universal access to preimplantation genetic screening, radical reward-pathway enrichments, the in vitro meat revolution together with "gene drives" and CRISPR genome-editing can be harnessed to artificial intelligence to deliver a happy biosphere – and maybe the elimination of all experience below "hedonic zero" in our forward light-cone. Technically speaking, biotechnology and tomorrow’s IT could allow all sentient beings to flourish indefinitely (cf. High-tech Jainism). Post-Darwinian life may be animated by gradients of intelligent bliss beyond the bounds of normal human experience (cf. Superhappiness.com).

    However, the socio-political obstacles to creating a happy biosphere are immense. Several centuries of Darwinian murder, misery and malaise probably still lie ahead – perhaps millennia: I don't know.

  • What is the scientific evidence against materialism?
  • Materialism is inconsistent with the existence of consciousness. (Why aren't we p-zombies?) Nor can materialism conjoined with classical physics explain local or global phenomenal binding. (Why aren't we micro-experiential zombies made up of Jamesian "mind-dust"?) Nor can materialism explain the countless different textures of consciousness. Nor can materialism explain how consciousness could have the causal capacity to allow us to think, talk and write about its properties. Materialism is also inconsistent with a realistic interpretation of our best scientific description of the world, relativistic quantum field theory.

    Materialism is worth distinguishing from the doctrine of physicalism, according to which the world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions.

  • What are the most convincing theories that time is an illusion?
  • "The objective world simply is, it does not happen", says Hermann Weyl in "Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science" (1949). For a contemporary defence of this position, see Jan-Markus Schwindt: "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation":
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf
    For a semi-popular counterblast to timeless physics, perhaps see Lee Smolin's "Time Reborn":
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jun/06/time-regained/
    Stillborn, IMO; but I'm not convinced anyone really understands what's going on.

  • What do you think about the view that veganism may increase wild animal suffering, because veganism have smaller environmental impact?
    http://reducing-suffering.org/vegetarianism-and-wild-animals/
  • As it stands, the same argument might excuse a culture of cannibalism. “I eat meat / human flesh to promote habitat-destruction and thereby reduce wild animal suffering” isn’t exactly a common defence of harming other sentient beings. Even so, caution is needed before playing around with such far-fetched ideas. Meat-eaters are human, and liable to latch on to any argument that helps rationalise the morally indefensible.

    Yet from a utilitarian perspective, might the argument conceivably be true? Results, not purity of motivation, are what matter on any consequentialist ethic. Ethics should be computable. The author of “How Does Vegetarianism Impact Wild-Animal Suffering”, Brian Tomasik, is one of the pioneers of rigorous cost-benefit analysis in animal advocacy.

    No, in my view, for two reasons.

    First, although Nature can sometimes be savage, free-living nonhumans are rarely so distressed that they self-mutilate – an “objective” metric of extreme suffering in sentient beings who can’t verbalise. By contrast, nonhuman animals in our factory-farms must be tail-docked, debeaked, declawed, castrated (etc) because otherwise in their desperation they mutilate themselves and each other. Compare how only exceptionally distressed humans self-harm. This observation is not intended to romanticise Nature, which can be grisly enough, but to highlight the unrelenting horror of industrialised animal abuse. So yes, veganism can potentially lead to less habitat-destruction and environmental degradation than animal agriculture. This isn’t a reason to pay for animal abuse by eating meat.

    Secondly, outlawing factory farms and slaughterhouses shouldn’t be viewed in isolation from the rest of human behaviour towards nonhumans. Embracing a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle is just one strand of the anti-speciesist revolution. An impartial anti-speciesist ethic calls for a transition from systematically harming to systematically helping sentient beings, regardless of race or species, in an expanding circle of compassion.

    For sure, talk today of the human species actively and comprehensively helping free-living nonhuman animals is rhetorical, or at best theoretical. Drawing up blueprints for compassionate stewardship of the living world in an era when humans still practise industrialised animal-abuse can easily feel surreal, if not morally frivolous. Campaigning for global veganism, not least by accelerating the development and commercialisation of cultured meat products for the weak-willed and morally apathetic, is more urgent than utopian planning for a pan-species welfare state. Shutting the death factories comes first.

    Yet this transition is only the start of something bigger. The biotech revolution, notably CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives, promises tools for compassionate stewardship of the entire biosphere. Later this century and beyond, the level of suffering in the living world will be programmable. How much suffering exists on Earth will soon be a policy decision taken by intelligent moral agents. On some fairly modest assumptions, sentient beings shouldn’t harm each other. Intelligent sentient beings shouldn’t let others come to harm. Nature could be idyllic. Post-Darwinian life will be wonderful. Civilisation will be invitrotarian or vegan. But when?

  • Would there be self-awareness and consciousness without the brain?
  • Consciousness, yes; reflective self-awareness, no. Perhaps compare the anti-predator defence of self-amputation (“autotomy”), for example how some lizards shed their tails when in mortal danger: “Severed Lizard Tail Has a Mind of Its Own”.

    Or compare how your hand may withdraw from a hot stove shortly before you feel the searing pain. Does this time-lag mean that the “raw feels” of pain play no direct causal role in your behavioural response? Or are micro-experiences in your peripheral ganglia and nociceptors “encapsulated”, i.e. not directly accessible to your mind and the phenomenal world-simulation run by your central nervous system?

    Consider too the 200 million-odd neurons of your enteric nervous system ("the brain in the gut”). Intuitively, this immensely sophisticated information processing system is not a unitary subject, even if its individual membrane-bound neurons support rudimentary micro-experiences. It would be nice to be able to prove this claim rather than just affirm it. For instance, if neuroscientist Giulio Tononi’s currently fashionable Integrated information theory is correct, perhaps the enteric nervous system is a subject of experience.

    In short, a confident answer to your question will be feasible only when science has an adequate explanation of the existence of consciousness, i.e. the Hard Problem of materialist metaphysics, and phenomenal binding.

  • Which position has the burden of proof: dualism or physicalism?
  • Ockam's razor is a powerful tool. But so is the principle of falsification. If a phenomenon is inconsistent with one's favourite theory, and if one has no explanation – or even an explanation-space – of how that phenomenon can be reconciled with one's cherished beliefs, then sometimes the humblest thing to do is admit defeat. In the case of our conscious minds, traditional “materialist” physicalism has no explanation of how conscious minds are possible at all, or how they could have the causal efficacy to talk about their own existence, or how they could be phenomenally bound in ways inconsistent with classical or quantum physics.
    (cf. Phil Goff's “Why Panpsychism doesn't help explain consciousness”
    http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness)

    Philosophers of science have christened the existence of consciousness “The Hard Problem”. Yet imagine if nineteenth-century biblical literalists had talked solemnly of The Hard Problem of fossils. In practice, a majority of religious believers were sensible enough to discount Philip Gosse's proposal that God placed fossils in geological strata as a means of testing Man's Faith. For the parallel to be complete, the religious counterpart of a Daniel Dennett would be the author of the eliminativist tract “Fossils Explained”.

    For what it's worth, I reckon monistic physicalism can be saved. (cf. Physicalism: an experimentally testable conjecture.)
    But on current evidence, the burden of proof falls squarely on physicalism.

  • Why does quantum physics say that anything that can happen, will happen?
  • Ex nihil, nihil fit.” Information cannot be created or destroyed. If everything didn’t happen, as Everettian quantum mechanics suggests it must, then the cosmic abundance of information would exceed zero. Zero information is presumably the default condition from which any departure would call for explanation. If so, then the hypothetical universality of the superposition principle of QM formalises inexistence. By contrast, the creation of information ex nihilo would miraculous: some sort of divine intervention. In fairness, there are “spontaneous collapse” theories that involve the creation of information ex nihilo without any supernatural assistance (cf. GRW theory). On balance, I find an orthodox naturalistic explanation more credible:
    Why does the universe exist?

  • Can time go backwards in quantum theory?
  • Yes. But rather than time going backward or forward, the two-state vector formalism (TSVF) of quantum mechanics suggests that causality is best conceived as a symmetrical relationship. Russian-Israeli physicist Lev Vaidman (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/0706.1347.pdf), in particular, stresses how well the time-symmetric TSVF description of quantum mechanics dovetails with the Everettian interpretation, i.e. unitary-only QM without the mythical “collapse of the wavefunction”.

    If so, posterity has a lot to answer for.

  • Will we be able to create conscious AI without understanding how our consciousness works first?
  • No, probably not. We may unwittingly have created artificial consciousness already by growing psychotic mini-brains (cf. Scientists Just Tested Psychedelic Drugs on Lab-Grown 'Mini-brains' https://www.inverse.com/article/37236-organoids-5-meo-dmt-mini-brains). But if so, psychotic ‘mini-minds’ are scarcely intelligent. Meanwhile, smart or dumb, digital computers and silicon robots show no signs of awareness. Neither do massively parallel connectionist systems, nor so-called artificial neural networks using reinforcement learning. No doubt programming or “training up” non-biological AI to fake signs of consciousness to credulous human observers is increasingly feasible. Yet the successor to AlphaDog won’t spontaneously start howling in conscious distress if it damages a limb. Nor will AlphaDog 10 demand general anaesthesia before replacement of an internal body-part.

    In order to create intelligent, conscious, non-biological artificial minds – and perhaps avoid ethical catastrophes – we will first need to understand (1) the functional role and (2) the mechanism of conscious experience in biological nervous systems. In other words, what is consciousness “for”? Or are the “raw feels” of our subjective experience just incidental: a mere implementation detail of organic minds, rather like the textures of the pieces in a game of chess? For a stab at answering these two questions, see:
    Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose?

    I’m more confident of my answer to the primary functional role of biological consciousness (1), namely local and global phenomenal binding to permit skull-bound mind-brains to run unified world-simulations, than (2), the neural mechanism. On our current understanding of the CNS, phenomenal binding should be impossible for a pack of membrane-bound neurons. We ought to be (at most) micro-experiential zombies. At any rate, here are some tentative predictions:

    1. Classical digital computers will never be (non-trivially) conscious. So there will never be “mind-uploading” either.
    2. Classically parallel connectionist systems / artificial “neural networks” will never be (non-trivially) conscious.
    3. Non-biological quantum computers will one day be conscious.
    4. Post-human biological superminds, augmented by “narrow” zombie AI, will be abundantly conscious. Sentient biological robots like us will be akin to sleepwalkers compared to full-spectrum superintelligence.

  • Is speciesism bad?
  • Insofar as anything is bad, yes. The speciesist claims that if two beings are of comparable sentience and sapience, the interests of one being automatically take precedence over the interests of the other being purely in virtue of their difference in species membership – typically membership of the speciesist's own group. Thus pigs, for example, are as sentient – and demonstrably as sapient – as human prelinguistic toddlers. Yet for evolutionary reasons, humans tend to harm pigs and cherish toddlers. Such discrimination is intuitively “natural”.

    Progress in science depends on shedding anthropocentric bias. Therefore, scientists aspire to a so-called God’s-eye-view – Nagel’s "view from nowhere”. Likewise, moral progress depends on shedding egocentric, ethnocentric and anthropocentric bias – and working impartially towards the well-being of all sentience.
    Perhaps see: The Antispeciesist Revolution

  • Is the brain a quantum computer?
  • Standard answer:
    No. Phase coherence between the components of neuronal superpositions (“cat states”) is scrambled too rapidly to have any conceivable computational or phenomenal relevance to our minds. The operating temperature of the CNS is too warm. Decoherence is too rapid. Perhaps see Max Tegmark’s “The Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes”: https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9907009.pdf.

    A non-standard answer:
    Yes. You are a quantum computer running a quasi-classical world-simulation. The brain is not a universal quantum computer. Evolution doesn't care about factoring thousand-digit numbers (cf. Shor's algorithm). Yet the classical world-simulation run by your CNS is what quadrillions of individual "cat states" subjectively feel like from the inside: a highly fitness-enhancing illusion. The superposition principle of QM doesn’t break down in your skull or anywhere else. Unitarity is always conserved. Your otherwise inexplicable experiences of definite classical outcomes within your world-simulation are themselves coherent neuronal superpositions. “Cat states” in your CNS underpin what would otherwise be phenomenally and computationally impossible, i.e. your everyday perceptual experience of robust and law-like classicality. The genetically adaptive ability of the CNS to run real-time, phenomenally bound world-simulations – i.e. the perceptual mode of consciousness that each of us naively conceives as “the world” – is the greatest computational feat of nervous systems over the past 540 million years.

    Intuitively, this is nonsense: superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors are functionless “noise”. Barring an unexplained failure of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, we know that such classically impossible neuronal superpositions must fleetingly exist. Naively, at any rate, there’s no need experimentally to demonstrate their computational irrelevance to our minds via molecular matter-wave interferometry. The sub-femtosecond lifetime of such neuronal superpositions all but guarantees they are uselessly psychotic. So why urge fiendishly hard interferometry to test our classical intuitions rather than just trust commonsense?

    One reason to avoid premature dogmatism is the potential role of a selection mechanism to sculpt neuronal superpositions in otherwise miraculously improbable feats of phenomenal world-making. If applied to the CNS, Wojciech Zurek’s “Quantum Darwinism” promises the secular equivalent of a Divine Moviemaker (cf. Paley’s Watchmaker analogy) playing out inside your skull. Compare the selection pressure exerted over millions of generations of (traditionally conceived) Darwinian natural selection to create, say, the vertebrate eye. Assuming the unitary-only dynamics, more selection pressure in Zurek's sense is crammed into every millisecond of your existence than the whole of evolution via natural selection as conceived by Darwin. While you’re dreamlessly asleep, such selection pressure (i.e. multiple mechanisms of environmentally-induced decoherence) overwhelmingly tends to create effectively classical neurons / decohered “mind-dust” from quantum reality.
    And when you’re awake?
    Well, let’s find out – experimentally.
    Critically, a “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture is testable, i.e. it yields novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions that will be independently (dis)confirmed via the nonclassical interference signature of molecular-wave interferometry.

    Let’s step back for a moment. Consider the "World In Your Head”. Using conventional tools of neuroscanning, e.g. microelectrode studies, researchers can discern hints of a perfect structural match between your egocentric world-simulation and the microstructure of the CNS. Microelectrode studies can identify neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons, and so forth. A notional somato-sensory homunculus can be constructed too. Over a coarse-grained timescale of milliseconds rather than femtoseconds, a classically parallel neurocomputational story can be told: textbook connectionist neuroscience involving the encoding, transforming and decoding of information described by patterns of neural activity in crude accordance with different learning algorithms. Yet for all these tantalising hints of a structural match between phenomenal mind and the CNS, mere synchronous neuronal firings can’t “save the phenomena”, i.e. deliver empirically adequate local and global binding. A pack of decohered membrane-bound neurons is just a micro-experiential zombie with no more ontological integrity than a China brain – irrespective of synaptic connectivity and connection weights, and irrespective of what’s happening inside e.g. your neuronal microtubules. Effectively decohered neurons are (at most) mere pixels of “mind-dust”, just as you are when dreamlessly asleep.

    Following William James, philosopher David Chalmers argues that no such perfect structural match exists. Hints, yes – but no cigar. So we must bite the bullet and accept dualism. Unlike “materialist” physicalism, dualism isn’t demonstrably false. Even so, dualism is sterile. Let’s stick to monistic physicalism.

    In a different vein, Daniel Dennett attacks what he calls “the myth of the Cartesian theatre”. Homunculi don’t exist on pain of an infinite regress. However, the “world in your head” and its dramatis personae are physically real, whether you’re dreaming or awake. Compare REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder, where people (and nonhuman animals) act out their dreams because they lack the muscular atony that stops neurotypicals risking life-and-limb while acting out dreamworld dramas.

    Upon waking, victims of this syndrome independently confirm their behaviourally manifested dream content. So Dennettian scepticism about the inner theatre fails. Ordinary waking life for neurotypicals is no different – in one sense – from our nightly dramas. The difference is that instead of acting out our dreams, we act out the contents of our functionally veridical world-simulations. If your body-image walks in front of a virtual bus when you’re awake, then your world-simulation will come to an abrupt and definitive end. It’s still just a world-simulation. Peripheral nervous inputs can partly select phenomenal content; they can’t create it. Perceptual direct realism is false. Whether you are awake or dreaming, you don't directly perceive your local surroundings. They must be computationally simulated. For instance, when you open the mind-dependent box in your world-simulation to find out if Schrödinger's cat is alive or dead, you don't directly “see” a mind-independent box; and you can’t directly "perceive" a live cat, or a dead cat, or indeed a live-and-dead cat. Your classical-seeming experience of a determinate “measurement outcome” (cf. the Born rule) exemplifies the superposition principle, not stochastic collapse. Classical notions of "perception" and "observation" are theory-laden misconceptions born of folk physics and Copenhagen-style positivism.

    So where in reality is the perfect structural match between your phenomenally bound experience and – ultimately – the formalism of quantum field-theoretic physics? More specifically, where in the physical world are the feature-bound perceptual objects in front of your body-image within your unified world-simulation?

    No such perfect match exists in 4D space-time. But the partial structural mismatch in 4D space-time doesn’t mean that we should abandon monistic physicalism and the ontological unity of science – any more than the experimentally well-attested violation of Bell’s inequality means we should abandon local realism. The answer, IMO, is that all of you, and all our phenomenally bound minds, exist as states in Hilbert space – treated not as abstract mathematical machinery for generating “observations”, but realistically, as a faithful and formally complete description of physical reality.

    In my tentative view, the best evidence that the brain is a quantum computer lies in front of your (virtual) eyes and under your (virtual) nose in the form of the classically impossible unity of perception. Wavefunction monism in physics confirms what philosophical reflection suggests. Yet for those who prefer the empirical method to armchair philosophising, the acid test of whether classical synchrony is really coherent superposition is not philosophy, but interferometry.

  • What if consciousness doesn't come from the brain and scientists have been fooled- bamboozled and-drawing wrong conclusion since the inception of neuroscience?
  • “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”
    (Erwin Schrödinger)
    Our successors may find modern neuroscience as quaint as we find humoral psychology. For example, most neuroscientists would say that dualism is false. Consciousness is identical with states of the brain. Most neuroscientists would also say that brains cause consciousness.

    Unfortunately, these claims aren’t consistent. Identity is not a causal relationship. Can science at least confidently say that consciousness first “arose” some 500 million years ago along with the first brains?

    Maybe. Yet why should a world devoid of subjective experience undergo a change in ontology as well as organization? Why should supposedly insentient quantum fields change their essential nature simply by virtue of forming excitable nerve cells? Is non-materialist physicalism demonstrably false, or just implausible?

    What science can say, I think, is that possession of a functioning brain (or ganglion) is necessary for a unified subject of experience. A rock or a carrot cannot suffer. How such phenomenal binding is possible in a bunch of supposedly decohered classical neurons is itself a mystery.

  • Population Ethics: How has the approach to the repugnant conclusion changed in the last 30 years?
  • For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living”, says Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons (1984).

    However, imminent mastery of our reward circuitry combined with technologies of immersive VR undercut the Repugnant Conclusion. 100 billion people can flourish leading rich, complex, blissfully happy lives in (subjectively) vast open spaces just as well as a population of 10 billion (https://www.repugnant-conclusion). Thus no trade-off need exist between physical population density in basement reality and subjective quality of life.

    However, classical utilitarianism does pose a grave dilemma for conventional population ethics. If all that matters is maximising happiness, then intelligent moral agents should presumably launch a so-called utilitronium shockwave – obliterating complex civilised life in some kind of cosmic orgasm. Counterintuitively, optimum population size for the classical utilitarian may actually be zero.

  • What is an interesting fact about you?
  • “My personality doesn’t interest me.”
    (Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs)
    I’ve never tasted meat. Both my parents, all four grandparents, and three(?) of my great-grandparents were vegetarian. This is an accident of birth rather than a badge of superior virtue. My poor and sometimes hungry maternal grandmother went vegetarian aged 10 with her mother on learning that the family pet rabbit was destined for the pot. My paternal grandmother went vegetarian in 1930 on converting from Zoroastrianism to anthroposophy. Yes, all families are different. But a lifelong refusal to harm sentient beings will probably one day seem normal. The way that humans hurt, harm and kill nonhumans who are as sentient as human infants and toddlers will strike our descendants as barbaric. Am I missing a source of pleasure that – somehow – justifies such obscene suffering?

  • How would we tackle an alien invasion?
  • “Across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts of the jungle – intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic – regard this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely draw their plans against us...”
    (Orson Welles, ‘War of the Worlds’)
    How would we tackle an alien invasion of tourists, missionaries or warriors? Regardless, a warm welcome might be wise.
    Other things being equal, is the optimum distribution of matter and energy on Earth most likely to be chosen by:
    a) twenty-first century humans?
    b) an advanced civilisation?
    In practice, a Rare Earth hypothesis looks increasingly credible. Life-supporting Hubble volumes in which primordial life arises more than once may be atypical (cf. the Fermi paradox). The biggest existential threat to most sentient beings isn’t the spectre of extra-terrestrial invasion but unfriendly male human primates. However, let’s run with your question. Why might a spacefaring civilisation want to invade Earth? Dwindling domestic resources? The search for exotic mates? A relic of the territorial dominance behaviour of their ancestors? Some equally far-fetched staple of pulp sci-fi? Alternatively, perhaps we might envisage a cosmic rescue mission (cf. ‘The Expanding Circle’ by Peter Singer).

    Here we enter a realm of wild speculation. The values of an advanced posthuman civilisation – let alone an alien civilisation not descended from humans or the ultra-intelligent machines we create – might be incomprehensible to us. Yet we do have one clue: the pleasure principle. No sentient being on Earth values (their own experience of) unbearable agony or despair. All sentient beings value (their own experience of) subjective well-being. This includes ascetic, masochistic, or devout humans who disavow the value of their own happiness. For reasons we don’t understand, the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. This doesn’t mean that Genghis Khan was a closet utilitarian, i.e. a fallacy of composition. Far from it. Natural selection ensures that Darwinian life-forms typically don’t get off on each other’s pleasures, or experience the miseries of others as our own. Most relevantly for answering your question, we may anticipate convergent evolution in primordial life elsewhere in the cosmos. The functionally unique valence properties of carbon and liquid water mean that an advanced alien civilisation will be descended, or spun off from, organic lifeforms evolved under pressure of natural selection. These primordial life-forms will be animated by a pleasure-pain axis, and the web of secondary values that the pleasure-pain axis tends to spawn. If and when intelligent aliens master their genetic source code, an equivalent mastery of their reward circuitry means that their civilisation is unlikely to preserve subjectively disvaluable states, i.e. experience below “hedonic zero”. Also relevant to your question: any advanced civilisation is unlikely to entertain a false metaphysics of personal identity.

    Provisionally – very provisionally – grant the above assumptions in contrast to, say, the Orthogonality thesis. What might advanced extra-terrestrials decide about the fate of other worlds within their cosmological horizon? It’s hard to imagine that alien superintelligence would deliberately create the horrific suffering and routine squalor of Darwinian life. Admittedly, believers in e.g. one of the Abrahamic religions and proponents of the Simulation hypothesis reckon otherwise. Would superintelligent aliens show status quo bias? (cf. the “Prime Directive”) Again, such cognitive infirmity is implausible. If alien superintelligence is not prone to status quo bias, by what mechanism might they decide Darwinian life should be retired? An “uplift” scenario is one option. Other retirement options are more unsettling. The most apocalyptic (indirect) manifestation of alien contact might be some kind of a utilitronium shockwave – conceived not as the ultimate cosmological super-weapon, but rather, a disguised implication of classical utilitarian ethics. Indeed, any value system based exclusively on the pleasure-pain axis has potentially apocalyptic policy-implications its originators never intended. Tamer, messier, bioconservative options are conceivable too, at least for superintelligence founded on the principle of responsible stewardship of its Hubble volume. Just as a minority of twenty-first century humans envisage civilising Darwinian life, might aliens choose to civilise us – the alien equivalent of high-tech Jainism for human insects, so to speak? Or might the invading aliens coerce us into civilised behaviour by subjecting us to gradients of indescribable bliss? Resistance is futile…
    Alas, here we risk veering off into escapist fantasy.

  • Philosophy: Is consciousness necessary for existence?
  • Maybe.
    Three distinct positions:

    1) World-simulationism. The classical-looking world you’re now experiencing is a mind-dependent simulation run by your CNS. Waking consciousness resembles a genetically adaptive sleep disorder. When you are “awake”, you act out your dreams, so to speak, the content of which causally covaries with fitness-relevant patterns in your local environment (cf. What's the Cartesian theater?) in accordance with an approximation of the laws of classical physics. Compare the muscular atony that stops most of us from acting out our dreams each night (cf. REM sleep behavior disorder), and fitfully stops victims of catalepsy from acting by day. This revision of our folk concept of perception has affinities with the idealism of Bishop Berkeley (Esse est Percipi - “To be is to be perceived”). Yet unlike Berkeleyian idealism, world-simulationism is a form of inferential realism about the mind-independent world. Other variants of world-simulationism are explored by researchers such as cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman (cf. “Did Humans Evolve to See Things as They Really Are?), philosopher of mind Antti Revonsuo (cf. “Inner Presence”) and Gestalt psychologist Steven Lehar (cf. “The World in Your Head”).

    2) Non-materialist (“idealistic”) physicalism. The mathematical formalism of our best scientific theory of the physical world, quantum field theory (QFT), describes fields of sentience. There is no Hard Problem of consciousness because consciousness is the essence of the physical (cf. Why can’t science explain consciousness?). There is no problem of causal over-determination versus causal impotence of consciousness because all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. There is no phenomenal binding problem because the superposition principle of QM is universally valid; quantum decoherence explains unbinding. There is no palette problem because the diverse solutions to the equations of QFT yield the diverse values of subjective experience. Proponents of variants of non-materialist physicalism include the late Grover Maxwell, who coined the term; Galen Strawson (see the postscript to “Real Materialism” in Consciousness in the Physical World); and most recently, Philip Goff (cf. Consciousness and Fundamental Reality).

    3) The von Neumann–Wigner interpretation of quantum mechanics. Consciousness collapses the wavefunction, i.e. the supposedly non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement into a seemingly definite classical state in accordance with the Born rule (cf. How can we best resolve the problem of definite outcomes in quantum mechanics?). Whereas Everettian QM says reality is described by the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic evolution of the universal wavefunction, “objective collapse” theorists propose that the unitary Schrödinger dynamics should be modified, either via spontaneous collapse (cf. Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber theory), or by a conscious observer (cf. Eugene Wigner). The belief that consciousness collapses the wavefunction leads to paradox (cf. Wigner's friend).

    My view? (1) is true, (2) might well be true, (3) is false.
    I may be mistaken on each count!
    I’ve added some hotlinks.

  • What would the Nazis think about transhumanism?
  • “The day of individual happiness has passed.”
    (Adolf Hitler)
    National Socialist ideology was rooted in Aryan supremacism, völkisch nationalism, virulent anti-semitism, and an extreme form of social Darwinism. So the Nazis would not approve of the transhumanist commitment to the well-being of sentience; support for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people; advocacy of Enlightenment values; a rejection of sexism, racism, and nationalism; and the distinguished role played by Jewish intellectuals in the transhumanist movement. Perhaps in other Everett branches, Nazi intellectuals worry about the challenge of building Aryan-friendly superintelligence as distinct from sentience-friendly superintelligence. This idea might charitably be called speculative.

    That said, many leading Nazis were scarcely stupid (cf. IQ scores of high-ranking Third Reich officials: https://www.quora.com/How-accurate-were-the-IQ-scores-of-the-high-ranking-Third-Reich-officials-tried-at-Nuremberg). In the light of World War Two, perhaps the transhumanist vision of a civilisation based on the principles of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness for all sentient beings would prove more appealing than a racist dystopia.

  • Could it be that only quantum reality exists, and that classical macroscopic experiences, events, and physics are just the interpretations and measurements of this quantum reality by the senses of a particular type of observer?
  • Yes. The superposition principle of QM may just conceivably be the key to the universe. Your subjective experience of definite outcomes and quasi-classical reality may consist of coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors, sculpted by a selection mechanism so powerful that it beggars the imagination: Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism”: see What is Quantum Mind?

    Background assumptions:
    1) Perceptual direct realism is false.
    2) Non-materialist https://www.quora.com/How-does-physicalism-tackle-the-experience-of-consciousness">physicalism is true.
    3) Phenomenal binding is non-classical.
    4) The unitary-only Schrödinger dynamics.

  • Are we, human beings, 100% particle and 100% wave?
  • If the unitary dynamics of post-Everett quantum mechanics is correct, then we're 100% wave – not in the sense of spatial waves, but rather wavefunctions in configuration space. However, experimentally testing this conjecture will be difficult.

    Philosophers like David Chalmers claim that we must embrace dualism because of the "structural mismatch" between the phenomenology of our minds and the microstructure of the mind-brain and [ultimately] physics, i.e. the phenomenal binding/combination problem:
    http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf
    For scientifically unexplained reasons, our phenomenally bound organic minds are not simply aggregates of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound neuronal "mind-dust".

    Yet is such a structural mismatch real? Or just an artifact of our clumsy temporally coarse-grained tools of investigation and a naive classical conception of the dimensionality of the physical?

    Directly testing such a conjecture would be demanding even to posthuman superintelligence because quantum superpositions of 86-billion-odd neurons of the CNS are "destroyed" (i.e. effectively lost to the wider extra-neural environment via thermally-induced decoherence in a thermodynamically irreversible way) at sub-femtosecond timescales beyond the reach of contemporary molecular matter wave-interferometry. However, I'd love to learn the result of the conceptually simple but still technically tricky experiment outlined here:
    https://www.physicalism.com/#6
    A summer project for a postgrad perhaps?
    My own best guess is that next-generation interferometry will reveal a perfect isomorphism between the phenomenology of our minds and the formalism of (unmodified and unsupplemented) quantum physics.
    Alas the intuitions of armchair physicists are cheap.

  • Are there any reasonable reasons to believe that there is a connection between quantum physics and consciousness?
  • It's a testable conjecture. Classical physics can't explain why we aren't "micro-experiential zombies". If the neurons of the CNS were discrete and decohered classical objects, as textbook neuroscience assumes, then we'd be what William James christened "mind-dust", i.e. just patterns of membrane-bound "pixels" of experience incapable of generating phenomenally bound objects ("local" binding) apprehended by a unitary self ("global" binding).
    Philosophers call this mystery the phenomenal binding or combination problem:
    http://philpapers.org/browse/the-combination-problem-for-panpsychism
    ("The Combination Problem for Panpsychism - Bibliography - PhilPapers")

    Can quantum physics do better? Let us assume that unmodified and unsupplemented quantum field theory is true: no departure from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics has ever been experimentally detected. If so, then superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the CNS must exist. These quantum-coherent superpositions ("Schrödinger's neurons") are – in principle – experimentally detectable with the tools of tomorrow's molecular matter-wave interferometry.

    What will the non-classical interference signature tell us?

    Intuitively, all we'll find is nonsense: just meaningless "noise" (cf. Max Tegmark's "Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes": http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9907009v2.pdf). A perfect structural match between physics and the phenomenology of consciousness is impossible because thermally-induced decoherence – the scrambling of phase angles of the components of individual neuronal superpositions – in the warm, wet CNS is insanely fast. Sub-femtosecond timescales are intuitively too rapid for selection pressure to have got to work. Sure, robins may be quantum computers (cf. http://www.nature.com/nphys/journal/v9/n1/full/nphys2474.html: "Quantum biology : Nature Physics : Nature Publishing Group"), but not Homo sapiens!

    Maybe so. Yet this is a "philosophical" opinion, not an experimentally-confirmed scientific discovery. Let's put our philosophical intuitions to the test.

  • How do vegans feel about wild animals that kill other wild animals? I wonder if they are opposed to all predatory species, or just us humans at the top of the food chain? Surely they must realize, eating meat is as natural a thing as there could possibly be...
  • Like wild humans who kill other wild humans, a minority of wild nonhuman animals have hurt, harmed and killed their peaceable herbivorous cousins since time immemorial. Such behaviour is natural and genetically adaptive. To imagine that life could be otherwise sounds not just utopian but ecologically illiterate – not least, inconsistent with the thermodynamics of a food chain. To quote Richard Dawkins: “It must be so.”

    However, in recent years a minority of vegans have wondered about the long-term future of predation. In tomorrow's wildlife parks, should free-living nonhumans continue to suffer disembowelment, asphyxiation or being eaten alive? Or should fertility-regulation via cross-species immunocontraception replace the traditional horrors of Darwinian life? Every cubic metre of the planet will shortly be computationally accessible to surveillance and micro-management. Mastery of our genetic source code, the era of mass-manufactured in vitro meat, and the CRISPR revolution in biotech can in principle make obligate carnivory obsolete. So should sentient beings be encouraged to keep harming each other indefinitely?

    Reactions? Well, a minority of futurists believe that traditional Darwinian life is life well lost (cf. Robert Wiblin, “Why improve Nature when destroying it is so much easier?”
    http://robertwiblin.com/2010/01/21/just-destroy-nature/)

    Bioconservatives and traditionally-minded conservation biologists seek to preserve some version of the Darwinian status quo indefinitely – and even turn the clock back via “rewilding”:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleistocene_rewilding

    Between these two extremes, preserving a recognisable approximation of today's “charismatic mega-fauna” minus predation, starvation and disease offers a messy and costly compromise. Perhaps compromise will prove more sociologically acceptable.

    That said, IMO the first priority of vegans and ethically-minded people everywhere should be shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Until humans stop paying for the industrialised abuse of other sentient beings, the idea of compassionate stewardship of Nature is probably fanciful.

  • How does inflationary multiverse fit with the many worlds interpretation?
  • For a non-technical account of the conjecture that Everett’s multiverse and the Landscape of string theory are the same, see Sean Carroll’s “Are Many Worlds and the Multiverse the Same Idea?” If one takes seriously the “philosophical” possibility that the total information content of reality cannot exceed zero (cf. Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?), then Bousso and Susskind’s >proposal (cf. “The Multiverse Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”) is appealing independently of its technical merits.

  • What do quantum physicists say about the microtubules quantum mind theories?
  • The Penrose-Hameroff orchestrated objective reduction theory (Orch-OR) is admirable and extraordinary. Orch-OR is a theory of consciousness that actually makes novel, precise and experimentally falsifiable predictions. Most physicists, neuroscientists and AI researchers reckon that Orch-OR is false (I do too). But the predictive novelty is worth stressing. Trillions of philosophical words are written about consciousness defending “not even wrong” ideas with no predictive power at all.

    So why are most physicists so dismissive of Orch-OR and “quantum mind” theories in general? Don’t recent discoveries of anomalously long-lived coherence times in neuronal microtubules (cf. Discovery of quantum vibrations in 'microtubules' inside brain neurons supports controversial theory of consciousness) lend weight to the theory? Yes. But what would vindicate Orch-OR – and shatter the foundations of theoretical physics – is the detection via interferometry of any collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Most physicists are extremely sceptical of gravitationally-induced wavefunction collapse.

    My view?
    Scott Aaronson’s “’Can computers become conscious?’: My reply to Roger Penrose” generated a lively discussion. Stuart Hameroff (#244, #284) responds to some of my “philosophical” (#162, #186, #210, #242, #283, #290, #294) worries about Orch-OR. Even if consciousness is fundamental in Nature, I still don’t understand how Orch-OR solves the phenomenal binding/combination problem that drives David Chalmers to dualism. And when it comes to physics, I’m boringly conservative (cf. What is quantum mind?).

  • Is genetic engineering (CRISPR, gene drives, etc.) advanced enough to kill or save billions of people?
  • Millions of gamers across the world enjoy playing Plague Inc: Evolved. The object of the game is to eradicate the human species by evolving pathogens via a complex set of variables to simulate the severity and spread of the plague. Tomorrow's CRISPR-based "gene drives" (cf. Gene Drive FAQ – Sculpting Evolution) have the capacity to kill billions of sentient beings or make the world a radically better place.

    First the scary stuff. "Weaponised" gene drives may democratise weapons of mass destruction. (cf. http://qz.com/554337/this-could-be-the-next-weapon-of-mass-destruction/:
    "This could be the next weapon of mass destruction")
    Newspaper stories like "New ISIS weapon: 'Supercharged' killer mosquitoes" are sensationalist and (to the best of my knowledge) still unduly alarmist; but the threat of bioterrorism is real (cf. http://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/457586/New-ISIS-weapon-killer-Mosquitoes:
    "Why FBI and the Pentagon are afraid of gene drives").
    Using cheap molecular tools and laboratory equipment readily available on eBay, an ecologically literate garage biohacker could take out entire ecosystems by targeting one or more “keystone” species (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_species).
    In principle, even a single gene-drive-engineered organism released in the wild – whether accidentally or deliberately – could crash an entire ecosystem. The novel capacity of synthetic biology to let you "upload" genetic code to your PC, then edit and manipulate the code, and next download the code into revised living organisms heralds the era of computer-designed sentient beings – and computer-designed weaponised organisms that "hijack" evolution and transcend the old constraints of Mendelian inheritance. Using weaponised gene drives, tomorrow's bioterrorists could suppress pollinators in order to destroy a country's agricultural production; modify the host range, transmissibility and virulence of pathogens; make vaccines ineffective and confer resistance to antibiotics, antifungals and antiviral agents; and modify currently innocuous insects to transmit diseases such as malaria, dengue, filariasis – and worse. Depending on their level of sophistication, biohackers – or rogue state actors could sabotage biosurveillance efforts, circumvent existing diagnostic and detection tools; and defeat potential "reversal drives" designed to overwrite changes introduced by their primary drives.

    Worryingly, the deliberate release of gene-drive-engineered organisms into the wild is also potentially anonymous. Effective deterrence, international regulation and enforcement mechanisms, and democratic accountability are all woefully lacking.

    If all goes well, CRISPR/Cas9-based gene drives will imminently be used to wipe out the scourge of insect-borne disease. Malaria has killed an estimated half the humans who ever lived (cf. "Portrait of a serial killer": http://www.nature.com/news/2002/021003/full/news021001-6.html); the disease still kills or sickens millions of human and nonhuman animals each year. However, mosquitoes and other insect vectors can just as readily be weaponised to deliver lethal bacterial toxins to entire human populations. Mercifully, Unit 731 (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Cherry_Blossoms_at_Night
    "Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night")
    didn’t have access to CRISPR-based gene drives because if they did, the outcome of WW2 might have been very different. By levelling the playing-field for weapons of mass destruction, weaponised gene drives are likely dramatically to shift the balance of international power. Simultaneous release of multiple independently-targeted gene drives makes biodefense extremely difficult. IMO some of the nastier non-obvious possibilities shouldn’t publicly be speculated on even in outline; but the optimal level of self-censorship is unclear. Does the study of global catastrophic and existential risk increase or diminish its likelihood? How do bio-laboratories and academic research institutes protect themselves – and us – against "deep entryism"? Evidently, CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene drives can't distinguish between Christians, Jews and Muslims; but CRISPR-based gene-drive-engineered organisms could be used as so-called "ethnic bioweapons". Genotype-specific bioweapons can either be finely targeted
    (cf. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/11/hacking-the-presidents-dna/309147
    "Hacking the President’s DNA")
    or appallingly indiscriminate. We may hope that tomorrow’s genetic jihadis will worry about "collateral damage". Unfortunately, some religious fundamentalists think more like Arnaud Amalric than like secular bioethicists.
    [Arnaud Amalric was a Cistercian abbot who played a prominent role in the Albigensian Crusade. When asked by a Crusader how to distinguish the Cathars from the Catholics, Amalric supposedly responded, "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius." Loosely: "Kill them all. God will know His own."
    (cf. Massacre at Béziers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_at_B%C3%A9ziers)]

    Religious extremists won’t be the only groups tempted to modify the biosphere with rogue drives. Blackmailers, extortionists, and organised crime are already taking an interest in synthetic biology. However, highly motivated idealists and ideologues are at least as worrying as amoral criminals. For example, sooner or later animal rights extremists may decide to tweak e.g. the Lone Star tick
    (cf. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/10/this-bugs-bite-could-turn-you-into-a-vegetarian
    "This bug’s bite could turn you into a vegetarian") with a clever gene drive. The way that humans treat nonhumans is indeed monstrous; but such an initiative is not going to help win the battle for hearts and minds.
    [The concept of using bioweapons to promote dietary modification isn’t entirely new. "Operation Vegetarian" (cf. Operation Vegetarian) isn’t the name of a clandestine animal rights plot to turn humans into obligate herbivores, but rather a plan hatched by British Intelligence in WW2 to drop cattle-cakes laced with anthrax spores on Germany. Grazing cattle would then eat the cakes and infect meat-eating German consumers – although not Hitler, who was a vegetarian.]

    And then there are Deep Greens who publicly or privately agree with Professor Erik Pianka, who reportedly favours elimination of 90 percent of Earth's human population by airborne Ebola or its equivalent.
    (cf. http://www.naturalnews.com/052796_Ebola_population_control_genocide.html
    "Group of scientists gave standing ovation for plan to kill 90 percent of human population with airborne Ebola")
    The idea of using gene drives to cull an ecologically damaging invasive species opens up possibilities its originators may not have intended. In addition, some Deep Greens have a depth of ecological knowledge of keystone species needed to bring about a planetary cataclysm that is still (probably) lacking in Islamic fanatics.

    Again, depending on the sophistication and motivations of the actors in question, a "Doomsday device" could theoretically be engineered either to eradicate or interfere with the metabolism of keystone species of phytoplankton in the oceans. Phytoplankton contribute between 50 to 85 of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. For evolutionary reasons, status quo bias is endemic in human society; but it's far from universally shared (cf. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/646592-better-never-to-have-been-the-harm-of-coming-into-existence
    ("Better Never to Have Been Quotes").

    In a lighter vein...
    Used responsibly and under United Nations auspices, CRISPR-based gene drives will eradicate vector-borne infectious diseases ranging from Zika to malaria. Most ambitiously, gene drives could be used to help create a happy biosphere (cf. gene-drives.com: "Genetically Designing A Happy Biosphere"). Synthetic biology allows intelligent moral agents to "reprogram" Nature. Life on Earth can potentially be wonderful – and perhaps even sublime. “May all that hath life be delivered from suffering”, said Gautama Buddha; and this outcome will shortly be technically feasible – one way or another.

  • Is the scientific and philosophical concept of physicalism / materialism falsifiable?
  • Materialism and physicalism are different doctrines. Materialism is a conjecture about the intrinsic nature of the stuff of the world. The nature of this "stuff" – quantum fields, superstrings, branes, or whatever – is wholly devoid of phenomenal properties. Physicalism is the conjecture that reality is exhausted by whatever is formally described by the equations of physics and their solutions. In other words, no "element of reality" is missing from the mathematical formalism of tomorrow's TOE. Materialism and physicalism are often conjoined. Thus we normally assume that quantum field theory describes fields of insentience. When Stephen Hawking says we have no idea what "breathes fire into" the equations, Hawking plausibly takes it for granted that the mysterious intrinsic nature of the physical is non-experiential, i.e. he is both a physicalist and a materialist.

    Are materialism and physicalism falsifiable?
    Yes. For example, demonstration of telepathy or telekinesis or any of the spiritual phenomena claimed by the world's religions would – if replicated – empirically falsify both materialism and physicalism. We have no evidence of the existence of miracles or psi. What does falsify "materialist" physicalism is the existence of first-person experience. Consciousness is irreducible to the properties of the world’s fundamental constituents as normally conceived. In the face of such empirical falsification, the materialist can deny the existence of first-person facts like one’s own subjective experience. On this story, people who demand painkillers or anaesthetics are victims of bad metaphysics not bad qualia. Other researchers speak gravely of the Hard Problem of consciousness. Some theorists urge not just post-empiricist science but post-empirical science. But here we risk pursuing what Lakotos calls a "degenerating research program". Materialism today is no closer to explaining consciousness than when Democritus claimed all that exists are atoms in the void.

    Is non-materialist physicalism a falsifiable conjecture too? Yes. To be sure, we’ll never know what (if anything) it’s like to be, say, superfluid helium. Yet what we can do to falsify non-materialist physicalism is experimentally to demonstrate a "structural mismatch" between some element of our experience and the micro-structure of the CNS. On the face of it, both materialist and non-materialist physicalism are inconsistent with the properties of our phenomenally bound minds. While awake, you are a unified subject of experience. Your CNS runs a unified phenomenal world-simulation populated by phenomenally bound objects described by an approximation of classical physics. You are not 86 billion membrane-bound neuronal “pixels” of experience.

    However, the phenomenal binding / combination problem, as normally posed, just assumes rather than derives the alleged classicality of our neural networks from the formalism of QFT. The decoherence program of no-collapse QM is still in its infancy. But to date we have no evidence the unitary Schrödinger dynamics breaks down in your head or anywhere else.
    Will a false theory, i.e. classical physics, yield a true scientific explanation of conscious mind? In my opinion, probably not. Yet the raw power of decoherence makes quantum mind conjectures a minority view.

  • Space is 3 dimensions. Time is a 4th. How many dimensions beyond these four are generally accepted to exist?
  • Does the mathematical structure needed to formulate the unitary dynamics of quantum theory allow inference to the corresponding dimensionality, physical structure and ontology of the natural world? If so, then 11-dimensional M-theory grotesquely understates the number of dimensions of reality. For a review of Alyssa Ney and David Albert's volume:
    "The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics" (2013), see:
    http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/ccallender/Ney_Albert_review.pdf
    However, most physicists still balk at what wavefunction monism entails.

  • What are the main differences between the anti-natalism / efilism community and the negative utilitarian/”suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?
  • Radical anti-natalists, efilists, Benatarians (cf. ‘We Are Creatures That Should Not Exist’), negative utilitarians (NUs), and advocates of suffering-focused ethics would all “walk away from Omelas”. Recall how in Ursula Le Guin’s fable, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973, pdf), Omelas is a vast, wondrous city of delights. All the inhabitants of Omelas lead joyful, vibrant, sophisticated lives of immense happiness – with one exception. The existence of Omelas depends on the perpetual torment of a single child, locked away in a dark cellar. Compared to the abundance of happiness, the misery of a single child might seem trivial in the ledger of some notional felicific calculus. Nonetheless, many readers find the existence of the city of Omelas as depicted to be morally obscene, or at least troubling. Unlike a philosophy treatise, Ursula Le Guin’s story does not rest on a complex chain of reasoning. Rather, the fable gives expression to a powerful moral intuition. If anyone wants to have fun at the expense of harming a child, whether directly or indirectly, then alluding to the abundance or intensity of pleasure derived is not a morally relevant consideration. Contemporary NU formalises this intuition, sadly with a rather unfriendly label.

    Our moral intuitions have been shaped, though not created, by natural selection. History suggests they cannot be trusted. Maybe there’s no fact of the matter in questions of moral justification, as meta-ethical anti-realists claim. Or maybe the abuse of a single child is a price worth paying for glorious happiness – if it’s really glorious enough. Or maybe the misery of even billions of sentient beings is a price worth paying for post-human superhappiness. I suspect our supposedly “wiser” posthuman successors will think so, at least insofar as they contemplate primitive Darwinian existence. Post-human life will seem self-evidently sublime. However, here let’s assume that radical anti-natalists, efilists, Benatarians, negative utilitarians and advocates of suffering-focused ethics are essentially correct in their grim diagnosis of life today.

    If so, then in concrete terms, how should we behave?
    Brian Tomasik and Jiwoon Hwang have already given excellent responses on the different approaches within the effective altruist community. My own worries focus on the practicalities of efilism and Benatarian anti-natalism. Is the proposed voluntary extinction of human life, and the assisted extinction of non-human life, a realistic universal solution to the problem of suffering? If such proposals aren’t realistic solutions, does promoting such scenarios risk distracting effective altruists from practical initiatives to mitigate, prevent and ultimately abolish suffering? To stress, we’re talking here about radical anti-natalism and efilism, not the admirable wish to refrain from bringing more suffering into the world by staying childless or adopting children, or the ecological conviction that Earth is overpopulated.

    In my view, planned human extinction scenarios won’t happen. Sociologically, the future belongs to life-lovers. I try to say a bit more about my reservations in Anti-natalist ethics and selection pressure. A non-doctrinaire “suffering-focused ethics” is (IMO) the strongest policy framework and brand for NU and NU-leaning effective altruists. Advocacy of suffering-focused ethics allows forging alliances with secular and religious life-lovers alike. After all, global catastrophic and existential risks, especially risks from artificial intelligence (cf. the Intelligence Explosion), are a preoccupation of a significant strand of the effective altruist community – an inversion of existential risk as conceived by negative utilitarians, some of whom regard a universe tiled with paperclips as utopian (cf. The World Destruction Argument). Nietzscheans aside, life-lovers do usually give some moral weight, and often a lot of moral weight, to reducing suffering. It’s just not their raison d'être. Either way, in the long run – the very long run – intelligent moral agents will need to assume responsible stewardship of our entire Hubble volume.

    A radical anti-natalist / efilist can reply with some justice that transhumanist talk of e.g. abolishing suffering by reprogramming the biosphere, creating post-Darwinian life based on gradients of intelligent bliss, paradise engineering (etc), is fantastical. Eliminating all experience below “hedonic zero” sounds a pipedream. Any claim to greater “realism” rings hollow. And yes, the socio-political obstacles to the abolitionist project and status quo bias are daunting. At best, centuries of misery and malaise still lie ahead. But accelerating mastery of our genetic source code, and the promise of total mastery of our reward circuity, mean that we are living in the final century of life on Earth when suffering is biologically inevitable. CRISPR genome-editing is revolutionary. Negative utilitarians have to accept that, rightly or wrongly, information-bearing self-replicators (“life”) are going to persist in the cosmos indefinitely. Once life gets going, life is almost impossible to stop. All we can hope for is to ensure that sentient life isn’t the product of genetic malware as now, but is always subjectively wonderful. Most likely, future life will be wonderful – incredibly wonderful (cf. Life in the year 3000). Are the cruelties of Darwinian life a price worth paying for such delights? Ethically, no, IMO, though I’d love to be persuaded otherwise. Either way, we haven’t a choice in the matter. None of us asked to be born. None of us gave prior consent to the coercive suffering that Darwinian life entails. Not all of us are capable of the twisted rationalisations such suffering demands. Let’s at least ensure that future sentient beings don’t undergo the same fate.

  • Can everything we know possibly be false?
  • This would imply the truth of semantic notions such as propositional content and falsity. The inclusive “we” also implies an ability successfully to refer to other minds. However, might our conception of ourselves and the world be hopelessly misconceived? Yes IMO. For example, just as we spend a tenth of our lives more-or-less completely psychotic, i.e. “dreaming”, maybe our ordinary waking consciousness will be viewed by post-humans as a quasi-psychotic state whose nature can’t adequately be grasped “from the inside”.

  • Is our universe the only possible one?
  • Our”, “universe” and “possible” (cf. Actualism) need to be defined carefully here. In the most inclusive sense of “us”, and “universe” in the sense of Everett’s multiverse, IMO yes: Why is there something rather than nothing?
    In any other scenario, the net information content of reality would exceed zero.

    What about other possible multiverses?
    In 2011, Raphael Bousso and Leonard Susskind wrote “The Multiverse Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1105.3796.pdf) proposing that the string theory landscape and Everettian QM are the same. Sean Carroll discusses the conjecture on his http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2011/05/26/are-many-worlds-and-the-multiverse-the-same-idea/">blog: "Are Many Worlds and the Multiverse the Same Idea?"
    The quantum Library of Babel may have other surprises in store.

  • If one wished to devote their life to it, which occupation would best serve the goal of increasing the human happiness set-point?
  • A great question – and not easy to answer. The obvious answer might seem a career in medical genetics. Twin studies and molecular biology are beginning to tease out the genetic basis of a predisposition to a high or a low hedonic set-point – and the huge difference in quality of life such genetic loading confers. In addition, the CRISPR revolution in genome-editing promises a future where existing humans can edit their own genetic source code and native reward circuitry.
    [cf. http://www.nature.com/news/first-robust-genetic-links-to-depression-emerge-1.17979
    ("First robust genetic links to depression emerge")
    http://www.medicaldaily.com/pessimism-genetic-research-shows-your-outlook-might-be-cloudy-genetic-design-259573
    ("Is Pessimism Genetic? Research Shows Your Outlook Might Be Cloudy By Genetic Design") (ADA2b deletion variant)
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17687265
    ("The catechol-O-methyl transferase Val158Met polymorphism and experience of reward in the flow of daily life.") (COMT)
    ("Danish DNA could be key to happiness") (serotonin transporter gene)]

    A career in clinical psychopharmacology might be another option. Learning that our genetically-enriched descendants may enjoy lives animated entirely by gradients of intelligent well-being gives cold comfort to people suffering right now. Tomorrow's designer drugs to modulate hedonic set-point offer a finer-grained and more readily reversible control of mood and motivation than genetic source code editing. Will the first safely and sustainably mood-enriching wonderdrug come from Big Pharma or the scientific counter-culture? I don't know.

    However, perhaps pursuing a career in advertising and marketing could – potentially – make the biggest global impact. The most formidable obstacles to radical hedonic recalibration and mood enhancement – let alone an entire civilisation based on biological gradients of superhuman bliss (cf. Superhappiness?) – are ethical-ideological, and above all, status quo bias. Are you a good public speaker, writer, website designer or copy editor? How can such a message be delivered most effectively to a sceptical and often bioconservative audience? Most people, including most prospective parents, still find the idea that intelligent agents should choose their optimal hedonic range – both the upper and lower bounds of our well-being, and the typical hedonic set-point around which we fluctuate – a quite alien concept. Thus ask most rich or poor people alike whether they'd prefer a lottery win or a modestly enhanced hedonic set-point and a majority will say a lottery win – even if they are familiar with the concept of the hedonic treadmill.
    (cf. http://www.psychwiki.com/wiki/Hedonic_Treadmill)
    On this analysis, even the admirable Effective Altruist movement should focus on long-term genetic solutions to the problem of suffering.

    At the very least, universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling would be cost-effective and enhance the quality of life of our future children and grandchildren. A predisposition to low mood can be at least as devastating to quality of life as, say, cystic fibrosis. Like cystic fibrosis, the genetics of low mood can potentially be purged from the human germ-line – and perhaps eventually from life itself.

  • What would be more difficult to explain: consciousness or existence?
  • Two mysteries or one?

    Our reason for supposing there are two distinct mysteries is an exceedingly plausible metaphysical assumption. Quantum field theory (QFT), our best formal description of the natural world, describes fields of insentience (cf. http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~hooft101/lectures/basisqft.pdf). The mysterious “fire” in the equations is non-experiential. Yet some 540 million years ago, a world devoid of experiential properties underwent an unexplained transformation – the world’s earliest first-person fact!
    The Hard Problem was born.

    This same ontological change in the world’s fundamental fields recapitulates itself every time a bunch of insentient cells develops in the womb. Why aren’t we p-zombies? Alternatively, why aren’t we just micro-experiential zombies – a pack of decohered classical neurons? Where does the information come from to generate our fabulous diversity of conscious experience? (cf. https://philpapers.org/archive/ROEPBA-2.pdf) By what causal mechanism does consciousness endow us with the physical and functional capacity to talk about its existence? The only thing one ever knows, except by inference, is the content of one’s own conscious mind and the real-time world-simulation it runs. Yet if the ontology of materialist metaphysics is correct, then none of this empirical evidence should exist. Neither should you – just your zombie doppelgänger.

    So is the Hard Problem insoluble by Homo sapiens? Are “mysterians” like Colin McGinn right?

    Lovers of down-to-earth commonsense should probably stop reading here.
    Non-materialist physicalism drops the metaphysical assumption. Consciousness is 13.82 billion years old. QFT describes fields of sentience. The solutions to the equations are its values. All consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy because consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. The superposition principle of QM doesn’t break down in one’s head or anywhere else. Without it, one couldn’t experience determinate experimental outcomes (e.g. “Behold, a phenomenally bound live cat!”) or derive the Born rule from the unitary dynamics. Your mind is a quantum computer simulating a quasi-classical world.

    Note that non-materialist physicalism isn’t property-dualist panpsychism or Russell’s neutral monism. It’s not scepticism, or anti-realism, or the idea that “consciousness collapses the wavefunction”. And it’s not Berkeleyan idealism. Bishop Berkeley was right in a sense. The robustly classical world you experience beyond your body-image is mind-dependent. Or as Emily Dickinson puts it,

    "THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
    For, put them side by side,
    The one the other will include
    With ease, and you beside."
    Yet beyond the world-simulation run by your mind, a vast reality exists – the multiverse outside your transcendental skull. Fields of primordial experience are mind-independent – and coextensive with reality itself.

    Heady stuff. Is it true? I don’t know. Most of the scientific community favours the “materialist” version of physicalism. Yet if subjective experience is the “fire” in the equations, the essence of the physical, then there is only one fundamental mystery. What explains why anything exists at all?
    I have a stab at answering: Why does the universe exist?
    In a nutshell:
    Quantum physics = maths = patterns of qualia = information = 0.
    Or in other words, an informationless zero ontology. Our pre-theoretic conception of “nothing” needs tightening.
    Alas, at heart I agree with J. B. S. Haldane, “The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

  • How much good do you do in the world?
  • “No man is clever enough to know all the evil he does.”
    (Francois de La Rochefoucauld)
    The size of reality makes me sceptical one can be more than a rounding error in the great scheme of things. I write in the off-chance I’m mistaken – which involves taking oneself more seriously than the evidence warrants.

  • How does the utilitronium shockwave (by David Pearce) maximize happiness? Does it also abolish suffering? How does the shockwave work?
  • Utilitronium shockwave (by Jeremy Bentham) might be more apt (cf. What is the secret of eternal happiness?). This disguised apocalyptic implication of a classical utilitarian ethic hasn’t yet received much treatment in the scholarly literature, which tends to focus more on homely dilemmas like the Trolley problem or Nozick’s Experience Machine. But classical utilitarianism plus AGI is a potential existential risk to civilisation – or alternatively, an ethical opportunity to maximise the abundance of positive value within our cosmological horizon.

  • How many infinities exist?
  • None, at least to our knowledge, though mathematical platonists would disagree. "I believe because it is absurd", said Tertullian's in De Carne Christi (203-206). Most mathematicians have faith in the existence of abstract objects, notably number (cf. Nominalism in the Philosophy of Mathematics: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nominalism-mathematics/). If we are willing to reify (“turn into a thing”) abstract objects, then we can “prove” (cf. Cantor's diagonal argument) the existence of an infinite hierarchy of infinities – poetic license run amok. Cantor himself believed he had proved the existence of God, whom he identified with the Absolute Infinite. Conceptions of proof historically vary.

    Mathematical poetry aside, see “Infinity’s End: time to ditch the never-ending story?” and Scott Aaronson’s “Is 'information is physical' contentful?".

    Perhaps note that scepticism about infinity isn't the same as a plea for a return to down-to-earth commonsense. For instance, if one takes seriously (and I do) the non-materialist physicalist idea that reality may be described as patterns of qualia in finite-dimensional Hilbert space, then one isn’t exactly following in the footsteps of Dr Johnson.

  • Why do people with very high I.Q.s dismiss the possibility of a higher power, while people of average intelligence are more likely to believe in God?
  • Would the same correlation hold if we control for AQ?

    IQ tests are mind-blind. They measure only the "autistic" component of general intelligence. People with abnormally high IQ are typically male and record high AQ scores. High IQ/AQ males are less likely to believe in God than neurotypical women. Suggestively, Ashkenazi Jews record the world's highest IQs, highest incidence of Aspergers syndrome, and highest rates of atheism world-wide (cf. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/new-poll-shows-atheism-on-rise-with-jews-found-to-be-least-religious-1.459477). Conversely, Africa records the lowest IQ scores (not to be confused with general intelligence); lowest prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (cf. http://jerobison.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/myth-of-black-aspergian.html); and the highest rates of religious belief. Perhaps see, "Mentalising Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God": http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0036880.
    Naturally the full story is much more complicated.

    Biases of cognitive style aside, is belief in a Creator destined to wither with the growth of modern science? Not necessarily. For example, very high IQ/AQ males are more likely to believe in the most recent incarnation of theism, the Simulation Hypothesis (cf. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulation_hypothesis) although the originator of the Simulation Argument (cf. http://www.simulation-argument.com) is a neurotypical.

  • Is your most upvoted answer your best answer?
  • Authors are rarely the best judges of their own work. This is as true on Quora as anywhere else. Most writers are also secretly convinced they are underappreciated. I might think solving the riddle of existence, wrapping up the Hard Problem of consciousness, and evoking our glorious transhuman future are topics worthy of fifteen minutes of fame. Alas not. My most upvoted answer is a response to a question about, who else, Hitler.
    Will humans ever become more fascinated by goodness than evil?

  • Can consciousness be destroyed?
  • On the conventional scientific view, yes. Consciousness pops in-and-out of existence for no discernible reason, and via no known mechanism – a bit like the tooth fairy.

    If non-materialist physicalism is true, no. Consciousness can neither be created nor destroyed: it's the essence of the physical, the "fire" in the equations. However, non-materialist physicalism isn't a license for animism, or the view that rocks or plants or digital computers are subjects of experience. What makes biological minds special is how our consciousness is bound in seemingly classically impossible ways.

    Just how phenomenal binding is physically possible is a deep question that I won't explore here. But when you fall into a dreamless sleep, your mind falls apart. For all practical purposes, your consciousness had been obliterated. A "micro-experiential zombie" is a zombie in all but name.

  • Should we change carnivores into herbivores to make the world more moral?
  • Ultimately, yes. The entire biosphere will shortly become programmable. What is the optimal level of suffering in the living world? (cf. gene-drives.com) Do intelligent ethical agents want a world where sentient beings hurt, harm and kill each other or not? Recall how ethical traditions as venerable as Buddhism and Christianity have long conceived a nonviolent future where the lion and the wolf will lie down with the lamb. Yet without access to CRISPR genome-editing, synthetic gene drives, and cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception (etc), such idealistic visions of a happy and peaceful world were just utopian dreaming – and ecologically illiterate too.

    The CRISPR revolution is a game-changer. If we accept responsibility for compassionate stewardship of the biosphere, then yes, obligate predators should be genetically-behaviourally tweaked so they no longer terrorise, disembowel and asphyxiate their victims. (cf. Reprogramming Predators) However, while humans systematically abuse and kill billions of sentient beings in the death factories, maybe it’s naïve to imagine that Homo sapiens will comprehensively help nonhuman animals any time soon.

  • What did really happen with Schrödinger's cat?
  • A very deep question. We've no evidence the superposition principle breaks down in a cat, the human mind, or anywhere else (cf. Why does 'anything' exist?). So the superposition principle must extend to the brain states we call "observation".

    Yet how is this possible? According to QM, the state vector exhaustively describes the state of the human observer, the cat and the laboratory. The state vector evolves unitarily according to the linear and deterministic Schrödinger equation. So why are superpositions never experienced? Why do observations always seem to have definite outcomes? (cf. Klaus Colanero's "Decoherence and definite outcomes" – http://arxiv.org/pdf/1208.0904v1.pdf) All we see are the consequences of their existence after individual waves of a superposition interfere with each other. (cf. the Born rule: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_rule) So why is the environment seen in one definite state rather than in a superposition of states?

    We need to unpack our concepts of "observation" and "observer". Let's discount hidden variables or "dynamical collapse" stories of QM: the decoherence program (cf. http://www.decoherence.de/ & http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/5439/1/Decoherence_Essay_arXiv_version.pdf) in post-Everett quantum mechanics explains how the emergence of quasi-classicality proceeds in an observer-independent manner, i.e. without sacrificing the unitary dynamics and invoking an unphysical "collapse of the wave function" (cf. http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/scientists/zurek/Quantum_Darwinism.pdf). Yet applied to the c. 86 billion neurons of the CNS, decoherence (cf. Maximilian Schlosshauer – http://arxiv.org/pdf/1404.2635v1.pdfg) makes the existence of observation and observers seemingly impossible.
    Here's the dilemma.
    On the one hand, if (1) neurons in the CNS were discrete, decohered, membrane-bound, effectively classical objects, as assumed by connectionist neuroscience, then organic brains should be, at most, micro-experiential zombies – patterns of classical Jamesian “mind-dust” with no more experiential unity than a termite colony or the population of China. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible (cf. Sam Coleman's "Mental Chemistry: Combination for Panpsychists" – http://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/9672/Combination_for_Panpsychists.pdf).
    On the other hand, (2) applying the superposition principle to the CNS, i.e. if conscious observers and conscious observations are coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors, then timescales come out wrong: femtoseconds, maybe even attoseconds or less before ordering of the phase angles between the components of an individual neuronal superposition is effectively lost to the extra-neural environment. Decoherence would seem simply too fast, powerful and uncontrollable for selection pressure ever to get to work and create robustly bound conscious minds – either over the course of evolutionary history or the lifetime of the organism (cf. "Quantum Darwinism and the Nature of Reality" | MIT Technology Review: http://www.technologyreview.com/view/417039/quantum-darwinism-and-the-nature-of-reality).
    In short, neither classical nor quantum physics seem able to explain phenomenal binding. The structural mismatch between the phenomenal world-simulations run by our minds and the neuronal microstructure of the brain seems inescapable. Hence Chalmersian dualism (cf. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf).

    Well, let's not give up monistic physicalism – yet. Some "obvious" background assumption(s) or taken-for-granted presupposition(s) we are making must be mistaken. But which one(s)? Some folk don't see phenomenal binding as a problem at all (cf. Max Tegmark 4.4.3: https://www.hedweb.com/physicalism/quantum-computer.pdf 4.4.3). Others abandon physicalism and invoke "strong" emergence – a non-explanation of conscious mind scarcely better than vitalism. Some researchers favour "psychophysical parallelism", or assume epiphenomenalism, or lump phenomenal binding with the rest of the mysterious Hard Problem, or take refuge in shut-up-and-calculate positivism. A few philosophers favour perceptual direct realism (cf. John Searle, "Vision Science" – The Los Angeles Review of Books: https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/vision-science) – which offers all the advantages of theft over honest toil. Here let's stick to physicalism and the unitary dynamics of QM. The following conjecture is weird – seriously weird – but leads to (very) novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions. A positive experimental result would solve the mind-brain problem and settle the nature of the physical.

    First, some background. A minority tradition in philosophy stretching back via Michael Lockwood, Grover Maxwell, Bertrand Russell (on some interpretations: Amazon.com: "Consciousness in the Physical World: Perspectives on Russellian Monism" (Philosophy of Mind) (9780199927357): Torin Alter, Yujin Nagasawa: Books: http://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Physical-World-Perspectives-Russellian/dp/0199927359) and ultimately Schopenhauer views experience as disclosing the intrinsic nature of the physical - the mysterious "fire" in the equations on which physics is silent (cf. Amazon.com: "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?" (9781845400590): Galen Strawson, Peter Carruthers, Frank Jackson, William G. Lycan, Colin McGinn, David Papineau, Georges Rey, J.J.C. Smart, et al., Anthony Freeman: Books: http://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Its-Place-Nature-Physicalism/dp/1845400593). Non-materialist physicalism is normally reckoned untestable. It supposedly cannot solve the phenomenal binding/combination problem, or the "palette problem" (cf. "Phenomenal Blending and the Palette Problem": https://www.academia.edu/7138420/Phenomenal_Blending_and_the_Palette_Problem). Non-materialist physicalism is also absurd insofar as if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the fundamental “psychon” of experience is not just ludicrously small, but (less obviously) ludicrously short-lived.

    However, maybe here's the clue to unsnarling the World-Knot.
    If experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, and if all that exists is the time evolution of the state vector in accordance with the Schrödinger equation, then phenomenal binding isn't optional: it's inescapable. Wavefunction monists instead face the phenomenal unbinding problem: superpositions are not mere aggregates of their components. If reality is one gigantic superposition, and if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then why isn't the multiverse one big mega-mind? (cf. Jan-Markus Schwindt on the factorisation problem in Everettian QM: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf) On this view, it's a mistake to claim that superpositions aren't ever experienced. Only superpositions can ever be experienced. But not superpositions of e.g. extra-cranial live-and-dead cats, smeared-out chairs and tables, or fuzzy pointer-readings, but rather superpositions of neurons – not least, superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors comprising the phenomenally bound macroscopic objects populating the classical world of our everyday experience. It's a physics textbook myth that we don't experience interference effects; rather, only macroscopic quantum coherence allows the simulator (i.e. neuronal superpositions, an “observer”) to run robustly classical phenomenal world-simulations tracking (when we're awake rather than dreaming) fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment. You or a cat do not directly "see" the extra-cranial environment – or indeed see your extra-cranial body – only undergo a phenomenal simulation run by the neurons of the CNS. Only the existence of “Schrödinger's cat” states – “Schrödinger's neurons”, so to speak – allows us to observe ostensibly single definite outcomes within our classical world-simulations. The superposition principle allows (what would otherwise be) discrete, decohered neuronal "mind-dust" to run a classically impossible phenomenally bound world-simulation where macroscopic systems obey – when we're not dreaming or tripping on LSD – an approximation of the laws of classical physics. Thanks to Nature's 540 million year research-and-development program, the superposition principle lets the Schrödinger's neurons of the CNS simulate a classical world populated by well-defined classical objects, classical pointer-readings (cf. http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/10757/1/Einselection_and_HThm_Final.pdf), and classical body-images. For if we were just a pack of decohered classical neurons, you couldn't see a classical cat; a cat couldn’t observe a classical cat. It's the principle of superposition that allows you to "see" (i.e. undergo successive individual neuronal superpositions experienced as) either a classical live cat or a classical dead cat. Both e.g. an “observed” classical cat and the “observed” result of a double-slit experiment (cf. Double-slit experiment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-slit_experiment) such as electron arrivals at a scintillation detector exemplify not collapsed superpositions, but coherent superpositions – neuronal superpositions of an "observer" running a classical world-simulation. Confusion of vehicle (quantum mind) and content (classical world-simulation) is endemic to the literature. If neurons were discrete, decohered classical objects, then even if monistic idealism or panpsychism in its Strawsonian physicalist guise is true, you or a cat would be a micro-experiential zombie. A quantum brain can run a phenomenally classical world-simulation; but a classical brain couldn’t run a phenomenally classical world-simulation.

    Intuitively, a “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture is nonsense. Recall that approximate thermally-induced decoherence timescales of superpositions of neuronal feature-processors in the CNS can be calculated. Femtoseconds or less elapse before the relative phase coherence of their components is scrambled, i.e. lost in a thermodynamically irreversible way, subsumed within a global superposition of the wider environment. By contrast, the phenomenally bound perceptual objects of our everyday conscious states somehow "emerge" [we naively assume] on a timescale of [we naively assume] scores of milliseconds via – somehow – patterns of neuronal firings. So the dynamical timescale of any "Schrödinger’s neurons" conjecture is off by around a dozen orders of magnitude. Quantum systems in the brain decohere at sub-femtosecond timescales normally assumed to be too short to have any conceivable relevance to brain function.

    Well, maybe. No doubt, you don't feel like you are a succession of individual neuronal superpositions. But then movies don't feel as though they are composed of a sequence of static frames. The Earth doesn’t feel as though it’s spinning. If instead of neuronal superpositions, you were a classical ensemble of distributed neuronal pixels of experience, then there would be no “you” and it wouldn’t feel like anything – no more than it feels like anything to be a Mexican wave or the population of the USA. Quantum-mind debunkers dismiss the "warm, wet and noisy" brain; but such language is anthropocentric if not parochial. Compared to the fundamental Planck scale, coherent superpositions of neurons in the brain are exceedingly long-lived – over twenty orders of magnitude longer-lived in the relatively cool, wet and well-structured environment of the CNS. Philosopher David Chalmers embraces dualism because of the manifest structural mismatch between the phenomenology of mind and the gross micro-structure of the brain. Yet the perfect structural match we should be hunting for is not between our minds and the homely three-dimensional space of folk physics, but rather between our minds and the high-dimensional space of the wave function (cf. Jill North's "The Structure of a Quantum World" https://courses.cit.cornell.edu/north/Final_QM_for_volume.pdf).

    And what about the selection mechanism? Surely sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions are functionless psychotic “noise”?

    Intuitively, yes. Yet consider the outcome of Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism” (cf. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf) applied to the CNS. No new principle of physics, no non-unitary transformation of the state vector, just the remorseless action of the most powerful Darwinian selection mechanism that the human imagination has ever conceived.

    Enough philosophising. Any theory of conscious mind that isn’t Chropra-esque quantum woo – or worse, classical woo – should offer novel and precise experimentally falsifiable predictions – replicable, and acceptable to quantum-mind friend and foe alike. We can't directly interrogate the CNS of live subjects with the primitive tools of twenty-first century interferometry. However, we can "train up" in vitro neuronal networks and probe them instead. When you or a cat observe yourself or the environment, is the neuronal feature-detecting synchrony (cf. Neural binding: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_binding#Interdisciplinary_correlates) of orthodox neuroscience merely a classical parallelism – or coherent superpositions? The following conceptually simple if technically demanding experiment should tell us: An experimentally testable conjecture.

    Robust commonsense says, preposterous; all we'll discover from molecular matter-wave interferometry at such fine-grained temporal resolutions is either (1) no interference [Copenhagen, GRW, Penrose, etc] or alternatively (2) meaningless noise of no more functional, computational or phenomenal significance than the notional non-classical interference pattern of, say, a sub-zeptosecond superposition of white and black pawns on a chess board – or a sub-zeptosecond superposition of a live-and-dead cat. The historical record suggests commonsense is almost invariably mistaken. Applying the principle of counter-induction – it's never worked before, so this time it will – commonsense will be vindicated. Perhaps so. But let’s do the interferometry experiment – or something like it – just to make sure.

  • Why can't we be happy for other people's success?
  • “It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
    (Gore Vidal)
    Why can’t we be happy that our colleague has just had a bigger pay increase, the other team has just scored, and a neighbour is enjoying the pleasure of one’s wife company? Because a predisposition to be discontented, envious and jealous has been genetically fitness-enhancing. Evolution didn’t design humans to count their blessings.

    What about us all taking empathetic hug-drugs and getting “loved up”? Alas, short-cuts such as MDMA merely kick into gear the negative feedback mechanisms of the CNS.

    However, there is no technical reason why post-Darwinian life on Earth can’t be genetically reprogrammed on the principles of Peace, Love, Unity and Respect (“P.L.U.R.”) – and a bedrock of gradients of superhuman bliss.

  • Is consciousness provable?
  • The existence of anything beyond one’s conscious mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs is theoretical. Like most people, I think it’s a good theory with immense explanatory and predictive power – but it’s a speculative theory nonetheless.

    In recent years, however, a small minority of researchers have attempted to turn traditional Cartesian epistemology on its head. Assume (don’t ask me how) that you are directly acquainted with the mind-independent physical world, including other living organisms. Assume (don’t ask me how) that these other living organisms are also directly acquainted with the mind-independent world in some kind of common arena. A philosophical question now arises. Within such a shared public arena, how can we “prove” to each other that we are conscious, or that first-person experience exists at all?

    This kind of inverted Cogito is found among radical eliminativists about consciousness (cf. Are radical eliminativists about consciousness P-zombies? Or do they misinterpret the nature of their own consciousness?). Yes, it’s insane, but our supposedly best theory of the world, scientific materialism, says we should be p-zombies. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

  • Does anything really matter?
  • “Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all.”
    (Arthur Balfour)
    Yes. Pleasure and pain really matter – immensely. The pain-pleasure axis creates (dis)value. Without the pain-pleasure axis, nothing would have any significance. Anyone sceptical that e.g. agony or despair really matter can put their intuitions to the test by holding their hand in the fire.
    Just how first-person facts (e.g. I’m-in-desperate-agony) are possible if physicalism is true is a deep question. Yet scepticism about their importance isn’t possible if you are (un)lucky enough to instantiate any of the states in question.

    One category of first-person states that matter are the symptoms of subclinical depression. A sense of meaninglessness, emptiness and futility, and a sense that “nothing really matters”, are bound up with feelings of failure and inadequacy, together with a lack of motivation and frequently sadness. Conversely, enhancing mesolimbic dopamine function lends a sense of urgency: things-to-be-done.

    Do the subjective experiences of other sentient beings really matter? After all, you can’t directly access their joys and woes.

    An anti-realist about value would say “No” (“There Is Nothing Either Good or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So” – Hamlet).

    My response would be “Yes”. Don’t mistake an epistemological limitation of the human mind for a metaphysical truth. Such a question demands a treatise rather than a Quora answer.

    Either way, a thousand years from now your question may be inexpressible and inconceivable.

  • Does consciousness exist on the Planck scale?
  • “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as a derivative of consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness.”
    (Max Planck)
    We don't know.
    If materialist physicalism is true, no.
    If non-materialist physicalism is true, yes.
    The problem with the blindingly obvious answer (no!) is that consciousness on any scale is physically impossible if quantum field theory – or rather its speculative successor that encompasses the Planck regime – describes fields (or strings/branes etc) of insentience. If our current understanding of the fundamental stuff of the world is correct, then Planck energy experience is neither more nor less miraculous than experience in room-temperature neural porridge.

    Intuitively, you’ve posed a philosophical rather than scientific question. But whether we explore science casually or professionally, most of us study physics because we want to understand the properties of matter and energy, not just to master an instrumentalist toolkit. Whether the minimum “psychon” of consciousness is the Planck scale, a neuron, or an entire neural network is a question with an objective answer. Tough-minded scientists sometimes take refuge in denying or dismissing the Hard Problem because consciousness isn't well defined or operationalised. Yet consider, say, the first-person experience of pain. For sure, the “raw feels” of pain are difficult to put into words, let alone cast into equations or program in computer code. But the subjective experience of pain is just as objectively real as, e.g. the rest mass of the electron. And the first-person experience of pleasure and pain can be operationalised in human and non-human animals alike by e.g. determining how hard an organism will work to obtain or avoid a given rewarding or noxious stimulus. Moreover, one is obliquely talking about consciousness most of the time, just under another description. Compare how when you are dreaming, you use concepts such as chairs, tables and rocks to pick out (ostensibly) physical features of your conscious mind internal to your world-simulation. Barring perceptual direct realism, waking life is analogous to a lucid dreamworld. Virtual chairs, virtual tables, and virtual rocks don’t cease to be facets of your consciousness when they causally co-vary with patterns in inferred external reality.

    So is your question metaphysical?
    Surprisingly, no. What makes a claim unscientific isn't that it’s individually untestable, but rather that it stems from a conjecture that itself makes no novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions. Traditional forms of panpsychism fall into this category. Critics make similar objections landscape of flux vacua in string theory. Naively, raising the possibility of Planck-scale consciousness is unscientific, or at least non-scientific. But non-materialist physicalism entails Planck-scale consciousness. It’s also an experimentally falsifiable conjecture. Thus if we can definitively identify even a single aspect of experience that is not (ultimately) captured in the solutions to the equations of physics, then physicalism of any kind is falsified. Anti-physicalist philosophers such as David Chalmers are confident they have identified such a feature: phenomenal binding in biological minds. Can physicalists rise to the challenge?

  • What will happen to us if we eliminate boredom? How will it affect our creativity?
  • “Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
    (Susan Ertz)
    Our ethical focus should be on eradicating the worst forms of suffering in human and nonhuman animals alike. But what is the future of mediocre states of consciousness? What might be the scientific and artistic impact of abolishing the biology of boredom? (cf. Psychology: Why boredom is bad... and good for you) In tomorrow’s post-CRISPR world, any form of experience below “hedonic zero” will be optional.

    One scenario for post-boredom civilisation is indiscriminate fascination by everything. Such indiscriminate fascination would be hard to reconcile with intellectual discernment or artistic creativity. Perhaps compare the lack of critical insight of people who are euphorically manic. Everything is interesting if you’re manic. Bipolar people with hypomania can be prodigiously creative (cf. Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison). The much rarer condition of unipolar mania is not a recipe for artistic or scientific achievement.

    A more sociologically credible scenario for a post-boredom world involves retaining the functional analogues of tedium, but not its unsatisfying “raw feels”. Most everyday transhuman experiences may be enthralling. Others may just be fascinating. These dips in fascination can still potentially be more awesome than contemporary “peak experiences”. Ethically, I think that a civilisation underpinned by information-sensitive gradients of fascination is preferable to today’s mix of excitement and tedium – and not just for reasons of high culture. For example, in future maybe no one will think unpleasant Darwinian thoughts such as I-find-you-boring – ugly sentiments towards fellow sentient beings that express one’s own biological limitations. After all, not everyone can be a spellbinding raconteur (cf. The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller), and even the most scintillating human conversationalists will soon be surpassed by world-class chatbots and robolovers. And by artistic geniuses who are digital zombies.

    Either way, critical appreciation, intellectual progress and aesthetic excellence can be conserved and enriched if we use biotechnology to relegate the biology of boredom to history. Eternally youthful transhuman life can potentially be exhilarating indefinitely. But ethically, ending the horrors of Darwinian life comes first.

  • How should gene drives be regulated in the U.S. and beyond?
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky once remarked, “Every eighteen months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point.” Witty but hyperbole, or so I’ve always assumed; but the nasty stuff that could in theory be done with multiple “weaponized” gene drives is quite scary. In my view, a total blanket ban on their use except under strict WHO auspices is desirable.

    The problem with drafting detailed regulatory safeguards, e.g. mandatory prior preparation of “reversal” and “immunizing” drives and so forth, is that writing too many specifics into legislation simply alerts the bad guys/disturbed idealists to where the worst conceivable dangers lie. The real worry isn’t biosafety but bioterrorism. I tried mentally “war-gaming” some of the nastier scenarios prudently omitted from my reply to "Is genetic engineering advanced enough to kill or save billions of people?" – weighing possible counter-measures, counter-countermeasures and so on. Even with Orwellian levels of state surveillance, a sufficiently resourceful and determined team of smart postdocs could (probably) prevail against all possible biodefense efforts.

    Right now, anything done by, e.g. a disturbed loner with messianic delusions would probably be a damp squib. Five or ten years from now? I don’t know. If THE GAME OF LIFE were a software title, there’s a fairly high likelihood that the extinctionists would win – or at least cause global catastrophic harm.

  • Through what mechanism could consciousness be causally effective?
  • No one knows. On the face of it, any causal role for consciousness is physically impossible. The Standard Model in physics is exceptionally well tested. Complications aside, physics is causally closed and complete. All of chemistry and neurobiology can in principle be derived from the Standard Model (cf. http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/23/the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-are-completely-understood/). Even if consciousness could (somehow) “emerge” from insentient matter and energy, then any role for the “raw feels” of first-person experience would seem redundant – unexplained causal over-determination.

    Out of desperation more than conviction, a few scientifically-minded philosophers and philosophically-minded scientists have flirted with non-materialist physicalism. According to non-materialist physicalism, consciousness is the essence of the physical, the elusive “fire” in the equations of QFT on which physics is silent. This role would explain the causal efficacy of consciousness. All consciousness, and only consciousness, is causally effective because all physical phenomena, and only physical phenomena, are causally effective. Mathematical physics yields an exhaustive description of the relational-structural properties of the world (cf. https://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Physical-World-Perspectives-Russellian/dp/0199927359). Yet all causal power derives from the primordial fields of experience that the equations describe. Perhaps contrast non-materialist physicalism with property-dualist panpsychism (cf. https://www.amazon.com/Panpsychism-Contemporary-Perspectives-Philosophy-Mind/dp/0199359946).

    However, what non-materialist physicalism doesn’t do – again on the face of it at any rate – is explain the functional efficacy of consciousness in causing our bodily behaviour. Compare a programmable digital computer or a “trained up” connectionist network. Even if fields of experience are ontologically fundamental, as non-materialist physicalism proposes, the “raw feels” of micro-experience are just implementation details, an incidental property of bits and bytes that’s functionally irrelevant to the execution of the programs your PC is running. The behaviour of information processing systems is explained by the execution of algorithms, not the particular substrate on which they run. Whether a universal Turing machine is implemented in a substrate of silicon or gallium arsenide, sentient or insentient fermionic and bosonic fields – or a ticker-tape made of pixie-dust – makes no functional difference (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church%E2%80%93Turing_thesis). By contrast, the nasty “raw feels” of pain in biological minds don’t just cause you to cry out in distress if you catch your hand in the door. The “raw feels” also induce you to behave adaptively, for example to bathe the injury, and perhaps take some painkillers to make the pain go away. The consciousness of biological minds is also functionally capable of allowing us to talk and write about its own existence. If consciousness doesn’t play a computational-functional role in our behaviour, then it’s hard to see how you could even intelligibly pose your question.
    In short, causal efficacy alone is not enough to explain the action of conscious biological minds on the rest of the world.
    Not for nothing is the existence of consciousness called the Hard Problem.

    My own tentative answer is probably too idiosyncratic to be of general interest; but here goes. Assume non-materialist physicalism is true. Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. The distinctive computational-functional role that makes biological minds special isn’t consciousness per se, or even causally effective consciousness, but rather the classically impossible ways that our consciousness is functionally bound. Except in a dreamless sleep, you’re not a micro-experiential zombie, 86 billion pixels of membrane-bound neuronal micro-qualia. Instead, you’re a unitary subject of experience. Our minds exhibit both “local” binding, apparently mediated via the synchronous firing of distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects, and also “global” binding, i.e. the unity of perception and the phenomenal self (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/intelligence-explosion/binding.pdf). Phenomenal binding is immensely computationally powerful. Phenomenal binding is also hugely fitness-enhancing, as rare neurological deficit syndromes like simultanagnosia (cf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3627977/) and cerebral akinetopsia (“motion blindness”) illustrate. Here we glimpse the evolutionary explanation of what consciousness is “for”.

    The problem, as researchers from William James to David Chalmers have recognised, is that phenomenal binding is neurologically impossible for a pack of neurons on pain of spooky “strong” emergence – irrespective of their connectivity or connection weights, and irrespective of whether neurons are “pixels” of micro-experience or insentient biomolecules. “Strong” emergence would be inconsistent with monistic physicalism and the ontological unity of science. Of course, we know that classical physics is a false theory of the world. Both quantum theory and phenomenal binding implicate a classically impossible holism (cf. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal). Lots of investigators have wondered if the two kinds of holism somehow “cancel out”, and been widely ridiculed for their pains (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mind). Let’s be conservative and assume that quantum mechanics is formally complete. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then the properties of our phenomenally bound world-simulations would be beautifully explained if the lifetime of coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS were milliseconds. Quantum superpositions are individual states, not classical aggregates. Here would be a candidate for the perfect structural match between phenomenally bound mind and the formalism of physics whose ostensible absence drives David Chalmers to dualism.

    Unfortunately, such a timescale is wrong. The theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions (“cat states”) of distributed feature-processors can be calculated to a good approximation. In an environment as “warm, wet and noisy” as the CNS, it’s femtoseconds or less. Decoherence is exceedingly fast and hard to control even in lab settings. According to no-collapse QM, neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors are indeed all “legal”, i.e. they must all fleetingly exist on pain of a failure of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Yet intuitively, such superpositions are functionless psychotic noise, of no more relevance to our minds and the classical world-simulations they run than are, say, sub-zeptosecond superpositions of black and white pawns to the gameplay in a chess match.
    Decoherence is so rapid that experimentally demonstrating the irrelevance of neuronal macro-superpositions to phenomenal binding might seem superfluous (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/quantum-computer.pdf).
    Perhaps so.
    Yet what if there existed a selection mechanism so insanely powerful that it crammed selection pressure equivalent to four billion years of Darwinian natural selection into every microsecond of our lives?
    Well, incredibly, such a selection mechanism exists. “Quantum Darwinism” isn’t some pop-science metaphor (cf. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf). It’s a selection mechanism that explains the emergence of quasi-classicality from quantum reality in the mind-independent world. Wojciech Zurek’s “environment as witness” formulation of decoherence theory explains the emergence of “objective”, observer-independent classicality in terms of the selective proliferation of information. (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0505031.pdf) The success of the decoherence program in no-collapse QM – though contested (cf. http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/10757/1/Einselection_and_HThm_Final.pdf) - has persuaded many / most theoretical physicists that the measurement problem in QM is soluble if not solved (cf. Decoherence: and the Quantum-To-Classical Transition (The Frontiers Collection): Maximilian A. Schlosshauer: 9783642071423: Amazon.com: Books).

    What happens when the selection mechanism of quantum Darwinism is applied inside your head?
    If you’re in a dreamless sleep, or undergoing general anaesthesia, then thermally (etc)-induced decoherence leads to the emergence of a pack of quasi-classical neurons inside your skull. If non-materialist physicalism is true, falling asleep turns you into a micro-experiential zombie. No surprises here. Quantum Darwinism explains why “you” are effectively classical or phase-scrambled neuronal mind-dust each night. Now compare the state of consciousness we call being awake. What follows is pure conjecture. The same inconceivably powerful and unremitting Darwinian selection-mechanism sculpts quadrillions of coherent neuronal superpositions into the classically well-behaved world-simulation that your CNS is running right now. On this story, only the universal validity of the superposition principle of QM allows us to experience the everyday classicality of a macroscopic world. Our minds consist of nothing but “cat states”. Your egocentric classical world-simulation is what a naturally evolved quantum information processor feels like “from the inside”. No fancy new physics, no violation of unitarity, just the bare formalism of unmodified and unsupplemented QFT.

    What’s more – and this is the twist – such a conjecture should in principle be objectively experimentally testable via molecular matter-wave interferometry.
    If neuronal superpositions are masquerading as classical synchrony, then the non-classical interference signature will tell us.
    As I said, crazy stuff – but (IMO) not too insane to be worth experimentally falsifying (cf. Schrödinger’s Neurons).

  • Could there be an entirely unknown field of science – biology, physics, chemistry – that we've yet to discover, and if so, what might it cover?
  • Yes. Here are a few possibilities…

    1) Astrobiology. What Eric Drexler calls the "thermodynamic miracle" of life's origin lends weight to a Rare Earth hypothesis. Life-supporting Hubble volumes where primordial life arises more than once may be exceptional. If so, then astrobiology might stay an entirely speculative discipline. Or maybe we’re in for a shock.

    2) Superintelligence. Humans will become transhumans who will most likely become posthumans. At present, talk of the "science of posthuman superintelligence" doesn’t mean much. No one understands what full-spectrum superintelligence entails, or how superintelligence will scientifically study itself. Today’s AI digital zombies have no self-insight into their zombiehood, or a self to lack insight into. However, such ignorance may not last. Will mankind's successors be (a) our AI-augmented biological descendants, or (b) a seamless Kurzweilian fusion of humans and non-biological artificial intelligence, or (c) machine superintelligence, as argued by believers in recursively self-improving software-based AI (the “Intelligence Explosion”)?

    3) New special sciences. Physics gives rise to quantum chemistry which gives rise to molecular biology which gives rise to biopsychology which gives rise to sociology which gives rise to...galactic social science? For sure, galactic civilisation is an uncertain prospect. The timescales of interstellar communication, let alone galactic governance, are daunting. But special sciences of a higher level than sociology are possible. Ultimately, everything that happens supervenes on the underlying quantum physics. To be sure, we can’t directly explain the causes of e.g. World War Two by means of relativistic quantum field theory. Such human cognitive frailty doesn't challenge the ontological unity of science. Scientists know "in principle" how to do the reduction. Maybe in the mind of God, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting”, as Rutherford put it. The methodological autonomy of the special sciences will persist for most practical purposes – and likewise, for new special sciences that may one day arise.

    4) VR. As virtual reality matures, humans and our successors will spend more of our lives in immersive virtual worlds, governed by different laws and studied by different sciences – or perhaps virtual academies of "magic". Once again, ultimately everything derives from physics in basement reality: the Standard Model or its speculative extension. New scientific disciplines may nonetheless be born in mature VR. Believers in the Simulation Hypothesis (to be distinguished from the Simulation Argument) reckon that this scenario has already come to pass. All science is just virtual science. (Intriguing; but I’m sceptical.)

    5) Mind-melding. Today, only the conjoined Hogan twins can even partially mind-meld. The Hogan sisters share a thalamic bridge. Borg-like consciousness is science-fiction – unless we include the billions of supposedly decohered membrane-bound neurons of the CNS that commune to create the unity of consciousness when we're not dreamlessly asleep. However, designing more sophisticated analogues of reversible thalamic bridges may foreshadow the discipline of cross-species mind-melding. Borg science? Scarcely, but not science as we know it.

    6) Compassionate biology. In an era of ubiquitous AI and CRISPR-based gene drives, perhaps the normative discipline of conservation biology will be replaced by a pan-species welfare state and a new discipline of compassionate biology. What are the credible outer limits of “The Expanding Circle” of compassion?

    7) Post-cryonic reanimation. “Last-in, first-out” is a plausible scenario. How faithfully should the notional identity of suspended patients be restored? What kinds of physical, cognitive and emotional remediation (what humans call "enhancements") should be performed on reanimated primitives?

    8) Computational ethics. Intuitively, ethics is not a science, computational or otherwise. Hume’s guillotine (supposedly) can’t be cheated. Yet the computational challenge of deciding how matter and energy in the accessible cosmos can be optimised if we assume, say, an ethic of classical utilitarianism is a task for artificial general superintelligence, not egocentric biological minds.

    9) Quantum Darwinism. Once again, the emergence of quasi-classicality from quantum reality via a Darwinian selection mechanism (cf. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf) is "ultimately" just physics: the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics. Quantum Darwinism is currently a speculative proposal rather than a discipline in its own right (cf. New evidence for quantum Darwinism found in quantum dots: https://phys.org/news/2010-05-evidence-quantum-darwinism-dots.html). Yet in future, quantum Darwinism may be integrated with the Modern Synthesis (i.e. the fusion of Mendelian genetics with traditional Darwinian evolution) that the emergence of quasi-classicality entails. Quantum Darwinism may also be applied to the CNS to derive the emergence of quasi-classical neurons – or perhaps something more sophisticated than today’s perceptual artifacts. More intense selection pressure in the Zurek sense is crammed into every millisecond of your life than the whole of evolution via natural selection as conceived by Darwin. What does such selection pressure entail for a true science of mind?

    10) Multiverse science. There are quasi-classical branches of the universal wavefunction where the Roman Empire still rules, but none where Jesus is the Son of God; branches where an asteroid didn’t wipe out the non-avian dinosaurs, but (probably) none where a Richard Dawkins is Pope. As progressively more ambitious interferometry experiments demonstrate that the superposition principle of QM never really breaks down, theoretical research will be devoted to studying what is – and what isn't – physically possible and hence actual; and determining its measure (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1511.08881.pdf). Of course, maybe future experiment will demonstrate that above some unknown threshold, unitarity is violated – the ill-motivated (cf.GRW) “collapse of the wavefunction”. If so, then the whole edifice of post-Everett QM will crumble like the proverbial pack of cards. I'm not holding my breath.

    11) Existence. The “fire” in the equations. Today, the question of why there is something rather than nothing tends to be treated as merely philosophical. Will existence ever be studied scientifically, as a discipline in its own right? I don't know. IMO we have a possible explanation-space, but not an explanation, for why we’re here at all: an informationless zero ontology. At any rate, Philosophy as a discipline may disappear if-and-when science subsumes everything. We’ve a long way to go before that happy day. For example, consider the challenge of naturalising semantics. How can any physical state really be "about" another physical state? An obvious answer is that it can't, not really. Yet if so, then semantic solipsism beckons, followed by an uninteresting solipsism. The predicament of perceptual direct realists isn't so dire because naïve realists believe they enjoy shared access to a common macroscopic world, thereby robbing semantic anti-realism of its sting. Sadly, perceptual realism is an adaptive illusion that promotes the inclusive fitness of our genes. A world-simulation model is more viable, with all the semantic challenges that running a simulation poses to wretched skull-bound biological minds like us. Which takes us to consciousness…

    12) Qualia science. The Hard Problem of consciousness is often treated as though it were just one big mystery. How can the existence of subjective experience be reconciled with what we think we know about the properties of (presumably) non-sentient matter and energy as formalised in the Standard Model? If physics is closed and complete, then how can consciousness exert the causal efficacy to allow us to discuss its existence? How can our world-simulations be phenomenally bound in classically impossible ways? Much less discussed is the Palette Problem. The world’s fundamental bosonic and fermionic fields are normally accounted extremely simple. Even if consciousness is primordial, as non-materialist physicalism proposes, what accounts for the fabulous diversity of phenomenal experience? [The answer? No one knows. I explore the idea that mathematical physics is really about patterns of qualia in Hilbert space; and the solutions to the equations of QFT are the values of qualia. Yes, crazy stuff.]Whatever the explanation, psychonaut chemist Sasha Shulgin paved the way for a revolutionary scientific discipline. Shulgin pioneered a methodology for systematically investigating psychedelia and designing novel pharmacological tools (cf. PiHKAL) for us to explore alien state-spaces of consciousness. More radically, post-CRISPR genome-engineering will open up transhuman and posthuman state-spaces of experience; and more radically still, the sciences of transhuman and posthuman psychedelia...

    13) Paradise engineering. Mastery of our reward circuitry promises the creation of a programmable biosphere based on gradients of intelligent bliss. Instead of today’s disciplines of e.g. biological psychiatry, criminology and economics (“the dismal science”), we need a science of superhappiness and a civilisation to match.

    14) Unknown unknowns.


  • I'm 69 years old and I cry everyday knowing that I'll die soon and get erased forever or will not have consciousness. What can I do to get mental peace?
  • No one ever gets deleted from space-time. So you and your loved ones will always (tenselessly) occupy the coordinates you do (cf. Eternalism).

    However, if you love life, perhaps consider signing up for cryonics. Just as it’s physically difficult irretrievably to destroy information on your computer hard disk, likewise, if you are professionally suspended, then there is a good chance that you will be reanimated next century.
    (cf. Girl, 14, who died of cancer cryogenically frozen after telling judge she wanted to be brought back to life 'in hundreds of years')

    The prospect of reanimation still strikes many older people as science fiction. Yet the exponential growth of medical knowledge and computer power is hard to overstate. IMO, there is an ethical case for making cryonics opt-out rather than opt-in. Visiting older relatives in the cryonics tank prior to future reanimation is more appealing than visiting their graves. I can understand that if you are also depressed, then the idea of cryonics will intuitively strike you as hopeless. So perhaps I should add that some of the very smartest people I know – including Oxford professors – are now persuaded and signed up. Good luck!

  • Are effective altruists nicer than most people?
  • Maybe. But ineffective altruists are probably nicer. If you believe that ethics should be computable, or go into investment banking to maximise your giving potential, or think that we should genetically reprogram the biosphere to abolish suffering (etc), then you are more likely to be a male utilitarian hyper-systematiser than a tender-minded cat lover who donates her widow’s mite to the local animal-rescue shelter. Statistically, women tend to rate more highly on the personality dimension of agreeableness than men. However, in the words of Alexandre Dumas, "All generalizations are dangerous, even this one."

  • If there was no gravitational force then what would the world and universe be like?
  • Einstein's theory of general relativity unified space and time into a single geometric entity called space-time. So no gravity, no space-time. However, most physicists believe that Einstein's theory of gravity must be reformulated as a quantum theory. For reasons unexplained, at the end of the Planck epoch, some 10-43 seconds or so after the Big Bang, the gravitational force separated from the grand unified force. This grand unified force eventually became the other three interactions.

    What would the world be like if the Planck epoch had never ended? Much improved, IMO, but you're asking a negative utilitarian.

  • What are some possible answers to the Hard Problem of consciousness?
  • Physicalism is true. Quantum field theory (QFT) describes fields of sentience. The solutions to the equations of QFT yield the diverse values of qualia. The universal validity of the superposition principle of QM explains why biological minds are phenomenally bound. Decoherence theory explains both why our minds don’t stay bound and why e.g. classical digital computers are effectively micro-experiential zombies. All consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy because consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. “P-zombies” are impossible: they are unphysical.

    OK, I find non-materialist physicalism hard to take seriously too. The conjecture has one saving grace. Non-materialist physicalism should be independently falsifiable with the tools of next-generation molecular matter-wave interferometry (cf. What is the Quantum Mind?).

  • How did you find out about effective altruism?
  • Like Molière’s delighted Monsieur Jourdain, who learns to his surprise he has been speaking prose all his life without realising it, I was pleased to discover I had long been an (aspiring) effective altruist. This response among EAs is probably quite common.

    My first introduction to the label was via classical utilitarian philosopher Toby Ord, founder of the admirable Giving What We Can. A significant overlap exists between the effective altruist and transhumanist communities, as well as with more traditional forms of utilitarianism. Naturally, conceptions of what effectiveness dictates may vary, depending on whether one is a classical, negative (i.e. suffering-focused), or preference utilitarian.

  • What is the current state of affairs in philosophy concerning the symbol grounding problem?
  • “How can the semantic interpretation of a formal symbol system be made intrinsic to the system, rather than just parasitic on the meanings in our heads? How can the meanings of the meaningless symbol tokens, manipulated solely on the basis of their (arbitrary) shapes, be grounded in anything but other meaningless symbols”.
    (Steven Harnad, The Symbol Grounding Problem, 1990)
    If physicalism is true, then how is semantic meaning possible? How can one physical token or state of affairs be “about” another state of affairs? The problem of naturalising meaning is especially intellectually urgent if perceptual naïve realism is false, i.e. if our minds run phenomenal world-simulations rather than share common access to an external world. For if you are using language only within a world-simulation, then what prevents semantic solipsism from collapsing into an uninteresting solipsism?

    The author of the Wikipedia entry on the symbol grounding problem states, “grounding is not meaning. Grounding is an input/output performance function. Grounding connects the sensory inputs from external objects to internal symbols and states occurring within an autonomous sensorimotor system, guiding the system's resulting processing and output.”
    Maybe so. Yet the meaning of “sensory inputs” is problematic for organic and silicon robots alike.

    By way of a thought-experiment, imagine a possible world where everyone has chronic REM sleep behavior disorder. Recall how people with REM sleep behavior disorder lack the paralysing muscular atony that prevents neurotypicals from “acting out” their dreams. Victims of REM sleep behavior disorder don’t simply “act out” their private dramas. They also unwittingly verbalise their dream-content too, although the vocalisations they emit as a byproduct of private language use within their dreams aren’t correlated with the external environment other than by chance. Running with our thought-experiment, let’s suppose that selection pressure acts on the chronic dreamers and their dreamworlds. Weakly and at first fortuitously, some dreamworlds track and causally co-vary with genetic fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent world.

    As a result of chronic dreamers “acting out” their dreamworlds, an entire civilisation eventually emerges. Dreamworld byproducts include everything from houses to skyscrapers to mobile phones to digital computers. To stress, in this possible world, dreamers never “wake up” – whatever “awakened” consciousness might be. The chronic dreamers never gain access to extra-cranial reality. Yet the more lucid dreamers tend to produce more copies of their dreamworlds than the perpetually psychotic dreamers (cf. sexsomnia).

    In this possible world, the complex vocalisations uttered by the dreamers don't really latch on to anything external to their skull-bound dreamworlds. The symbols used internal to their dreamworlds aren’t literally externally grounded. Such reference would be non-naturalistic, indeed magical. Nonetheless, over millions of years the functional analogues of “magical” reference arise in this possible world as a spin-off of lucid dreamers acting out their solipsistic dreamworld dramas.

    A minority of sophisticated dreamers go on to discover what physicist Eugene Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”. Such dreamworlds are unusually fertile.

    One epistemic advantage that biological dreamworlds seem to enjoy over insentient digital computers is their experience of intrinsic intentionality: the “aboutness” or object-directedness of thought. Thus a dreamer can think about his dreamworld iPhone and his desktop PC, with which he seems directly acquainted. Intrinsic intentionality isn’t some magical ability of physical thought-episodes to alight onto anything external to the transcendental skull within which each dreamworld plays out.

    Note how in this possible world, language plays the functional role of a second-order representation, and meta-language the role of a third-order representation. For when a dreamer refers to his iPhone, his phenomenal iPhone lies within his dreamworld. The functional role of dreamworlds is first-order representation.

    The simulacrum of “magical” reference within this possible world is far from perfect. Quine speaks of the indeterminacy of translation and the inscrutability of reference. Within our thought-experiment, the same is true of perceptual experience. Perception is not really about anything external to the skull-bound minds of dreamers. For chronic dreamers never “wake up”. What naïve dreamers apprehend as the external world is just a toy world-simulation their CNS is running.

    With a few variations, does the thought-experiment above capture the human predicament?
    I don’t know.

  • I had sex with my girlfriend while she was asleep. Was this rape?
  • The word "rape" is best reserved for sex with the use or threat of coercion. Well-meaning attempts to extend usage of the term run the risk of trivialising an extremely serious offence. The range of sexual behaviour that doesn't qualify as rape under the above restrictive definition extends from the ethically deplorable to the insensitive to the harmless. Either way, turning sexual relations into a branch of contract law is probably unwise. (cf. "'Sexual consent contracts' are now a thing. Would you sign?": http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/11738202/Sex-consent-contracts-for-university-students-Would-you-sign.html)

  • Why are some people more interested in improving animals' lives than human lives?
  • The nonhuman animals in human factory-farms and slaughterhouses are as sentient as human infants and toddlers. If human infants and toddlers were treated the way humans treat nonhuman animals, then uncontroversially, the perpetrators would be locked up for life. The plight of the victims would be the defining issue of our age. Of course, the flesh of the victims ("meat") gives some humans pleasure; but so does the flesh of human victims. Is such pleasure a morally relevant consideration? If so, how should we weigh the comparative moral importance of the suffering of the victims against the pleasures of those who harm them?

    Recall that nonhuman animals in factory-farms are de-beaked, declawed, tail-docked, castrated (etc) because otherwise in their desperation they mutilate themselves and each other. Only profoundly distressed humans self-mutilate. Statistically, vegetarians tend to be slimmer, longer-lived and record higher IQ scores than meat eaters. A world where factory-farms and slaughterhouses were shut and outlawed would be better for human and nonhuman animals alike. Impartial benevolence suggests that we should act accordingly.

  • What is the most fundamental principle of quantum physics?
  • The superposition principle is the fundamental principle of quantum theory:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_superposition.
    The first person to expound this view was Paul Dirac:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Principles_of_Quantum_Mechanics.

    If the superposition principle never breaks down, then what explains the observer-independent emergence of (something akin to) classicality?
    Perhaps see Wojciech Zurek and his collaborators on the decoherence program:
    Quantum Darwinism

  • Are there any observations of evolving intelligence in animals by natural or human selection?
  • Engineering nonhuman animals with e.g. a human version of the FOXP2 gene (cf. Human ‘language gene’ makes mice smarter: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26216-human-language-gene-makes-mice-smarter/) and propagating such modifications via CRISPR/Cas9-based "gene drives" could "uplift" entire species of free-living nonhumans. Whether intelligence-amplification or preventing suffering is more morally urgent is debatable; but thankfully these options aren’t mutually exclusive. CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene drives are powerful tools in the wrong hands, so let's hope we use our new-found powers responsibly.

  • Do you sometimes get overwhelmed / saddened by the knowledge that countless number of sentient beings go through an immense amount of suffering every second? How do you handle and/or overcome it?
  • Yes. Reality horrifies me. Some people love knowledge. My long-term goal is ignorance, both personally and for civilisation as a whole. Or at least, selective ignorance. I hope we can build a world where any experience below “hedonic zero” is literally inconceivable. Our descendants shouldn’t need to know what we know. Knowledge in today’s sense is a necessary evil. Mastery of life’s genetic source code promises a biosphere based on gradients of bliss. Darwinian life may now have only a few centuries left to run its course.

    Aiming for selective ignorance carries risks. Perhaps the biggest ethical risk of paradise engineering is premature defeatism about suffering elsewhere. We need to understand the theoretical upper bounds of intelligent moral agency in the cosmos. What are our ultimate cosmological responsibilities? (cf. Suffering In The Multiverse) For example, if ethics is computable, should we offload stewardship of the rest of our Hubble volume onto artificial intelligence?

    Personally?
    As a lonely teenager, I sometimes looked forward to becoming senile so I could become a perceptual naïve realist again. I now sometimes look forward to my dotage for a different reason. When I can no longer do useful intellectual work, I’d like to surrender to a haze of opiated bliss. “God's in his Heaven / All's right with the world!" said poet Robert Browning. Mental health in a Darwinian world depends on a high capacity for self-deception.

  • What is the difference between a theoretical physicist and an armchair physicist?
  • Could there ever be another Michael Faraday? Faraday knew no maths beyond arithmetic and some basic algebra: he modestly described himself as "amathematical". Yet Maxwell writes that Faraday's uses of lines of force show him "to have been in reality a mathematician of a very high order – one from whom the mathematicians of the future may derive valuable and fertile methods." So could Ed Witten fruitfully draw inspiration from the works of, say, Deepak Chopra? This remains to be shown.

  • What will life be after the Transhumanism (humanity+) project is finished?
  • Think of your most sublime peak experience. Conjure up your own personal ideal fantasy. Everyday post-Darwinian life will be better. The world's last experience below “hedonic zero” in our forward light-cone will mark a major evolutionary transition in the development of sentience. The squalor of Darwinian life will be superseded by a motivational architecture of gradients of bliss. A hedonic range orders of magnitude richer than today’s crude pleasure-pain axis will be genetically hardwired. Eternal youth and superhuman vitality will be taken for granted. In the reprogrammed post-CRISPR biosphere, all sentient beings will feel "better than well". Moreover, that’s just the beginning. Transhuman civilisation is only a stepping-stone to full-spectrum superintelligence.

    A somewhat rosy vision?
    Perhaps. I’m personally a negative utilitarian, more likely to quote Heinrich Heine (“Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all.") than Dr Pangloss. Human society is based on the industrialised abuse of sentient beings. The death factories still grind. The death-spasms of Darwinian life will be ugly and prolonged. Yet for technical reasons, IMO the future of life in the universe probably lies in paradise engineering, and bliss beyond the bounds of human experience.

  • What is the latest view on the Hard Problem of consciousness? Is there really a hard problem or are we simply getting it wrong?
  • “The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”
    (Bertrand Russell)
    Let’s assume physicalism, i.e. no “element of reality” is missing from our best mathematical description of the physical world. The Hard Problem of consciousness arises if we make another intuitively plausible assumption. The formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of insentience rather than sentience.

    In one sense, scientific materialism has been a triumph. From the practical wonders of medicine and technology, to the Modern Synthesis in biology uniting Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolution, to the Standard Model in physics, we see uninterrupted progress. Moreover, the “special sciences” all reduce to the Standard Model plus gravity. Thus molecular biology reduces to quantum chemistry which is derivable from quantum field theory (QFT). Maybe all science will be subsumed by the mathematical formalism of M-theory. Either way, the unity of science forms an epic narrative.

    In another sense, materialism has been an intellectual catastrophe. Calling consciousness the “Hard Problem” for a materialist ontology doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of the disaster. Science is supposedly founded upon the empirical method. If nothing else, our account of the world should be empirically adequate. Perceptual direct realism is false. All that one can ever access, except by inference and conjecture, are the contents of one’s own mind, including the subjectively classical world-simulation that one’s mind is now running. Yet if the properties of matter and energy are as physicists propose, then this evidence should not exist. None of it. You should be a p-zombie. We all should be p-zombies.

    Inconsistency with all the empirical evidence might be viewed as just an anomaly. Sadly, the Hard Problem of consciousness gets worse. Physics is supposedly causally closed and complete. The search for “hidden variables” in QM has been a wild goose chase. Tampering with unitarity is a recipe for nonsense. Yet as endless books, discussions and academic papers attest, consciousness exerts the causal power to generate prolific discussions of its own nature. If materialism is true, then even if the insentient fields of matter and energy described by QFT could (somehow) generate first-person facts, then such subjective “raw feels” would be causally impotent, mere epiphenomena that are (somehow) spun off from causally sufficient physical processes. Or if not epiphenomena, then redundant because causally over-determined. So p-zombies would allegedly be answering Quora questions on consciousness too. By the same token, on a causal over-determination story, the raw nastiness of pain is causally superfluous to its propensity to induce you to your withdraw your hand from the fire.

    So the mystery deepens. Faced with the insoluble Hard Problem of consciousness, some otherwise tough-minded scientists have toyed with property-dualist panpsychism – generally without using the scientifically taboo “dualist” word. Panpsychists believe that experience is fundamental to the world, on a par with the physical properties recognised by natural science. Experience is (somehow) associated with these fundamental physical properties. On this story, however, even if each of your billions of membrane-bound neurons supports rudimentary consciousness, then you should be a micro-experiential zombie, composed of what William James christened “mind-dust”. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible.

    What about quantum physics? Can the unity of consciousness be explained by invoking “quantum holism”? The sub-femtosecond decoherence times of neuronal superpositions in the CNS make non-classical resolutions of the structural mismatch between mind and “warm, wet and noisy” brain intuitively far-fetched.

    Even worse, consciousness isn’t a single homogenous anomaly. Subjective experience comes in a diverse multitude of flavours. Materialist metaphysics has no explanation of how or why this phenomenal diversity is generated from its primitive atomic building blocks of insentience. By analogy, imagine if some spiritualist guru, ignorant of atomic theory, was content to allude to the “Hard Problem of matter”, as though the different elements of the periodic table were just amorphous “stuff”. We might as well be living in the era of the pre-Socratics.

    Materialism isn’t merely inconsistent with all the empirical evidence. The ideology of materialist metaphysics also contributes to a stunted evidential base. Admittedly, honorable exceptions exist. Psychonauts from the scientific counterculture use entactogens to enrich their introspective consciousness. More radically, adopting the experimental method discloses uncharted state-spaces of consciousness that have never been recruited by natural selection for any information-signaling purpose. Drug-naïve scientific materialists are prone to dismiss such exotic states as psychotic “noise”. Indeed, such states-spaces of consciousness mostly are psychotic noise, as useful as drug-induced visual hallucinations to the congenitally blind. Yet in order to understand consciousness – and to understand the intrinsic properties of matter and energy as distinct from the usual fairy-tale spun by physicists – investigators will need to expand and enrich our evidential base. A mature post-Galilean science of mind is currently a distant prospect. The existence of consciousness is an embarrassment for scientific materialism. Therefore, first-person experience tends to be quarantined off and explained away (cf. “Consciousness Explained” by Daniel Dennett). Yet can the medium of thought by which scientific knowledge is expressed really be so quarantined? For sure, the cognitive phenomenology is subtle, elusive and hard to articulate. But believing that e.g. we live in a world approximately described by Newton's inverse square law of gravity is subjectively different from the experience of believing in, say, the existence of a fanciful inverse cube law. How are the properties of the medium shaping its propositional content? Is a clean dichotomy between vehicle and content sustainable? Unless we experiment with pharmacological tools to modulate our medium of thought, then we won’t know. We might be surprised.

    So what is to be done? Should we surrender to mysterianism, or the “naturalistic” dualism of philosophers like David Chalmers?

    No surrender – in my view.
    Monistic physicalism is still the best game in town.
    All science rests on metaphysical assumptions. For as long as we continue to make the intuitively plausible assumption that our best mathematical description of the world, quantum field theory, describes fields of insentience, then yes, we face the Hard Problem of consciousness.

    What happens if we drop the metaphysical assumption? In other words, what if the entire mathematical machinery of quantum field theory is transposed to an idealist ontology? Subjective experience discloses, not some ontological novelty erupting into the fabric of reality, but rather, the intrinsic nature of the physical. The conceptual framework of non-materialist physicalism potentially offers answers to all of the mysteries described above and more.
    The snag?
    Non-materialist physicalism is desperately implausible, to my mind at any rate. Despite canvassing the option at length, I think non-materialist physicalism is quite likely false.
    But I am sure that “materialist” physicalism is false.
    And if you are not a p-zombie or a micro-experiential zombie, then you should be sure that materialism is false too.
    If materialism is false, then there is no Hard Problem of consciousness.
    What if physicalism is false, too?
    I don’t know.

  • Do you think computer game characters have a consciousness? Or one day we will create characters with consciousness?
  • No. I have slaughtered tens of thousands of digital zombies (cf. Modern Combat), but I rescue distressed earthworms and ants.

    What about possible future sentient characters? Again, no IMO. On theoretical grounds, I don’t believe that future video-game characters will ever be phenomenally bound subjects of experience. But we must get our theory of mind right in order to avoid the risk of ethically catastrophic mistakes. Recall how the Cartesians vivisected unanaesthetised dogs in the belief that the poor creatures’ howls of pain were merely the vocalisations of insentient automata. Sadly, knowledge by itself is no guarantee of virtue. Let’s suppose we discover video game characters are subjects of experience (cf. This guy thinks killing video game characters is immoral). How many young male gamers would then stop harming their digital “enemies” accordingly? From the behaviour of contemporary “sportsmen” to the motivated cognition of meat eaters, the omens aren’t good (cf. Carnivores Make Low Estimates of Animal Minds).

    Why be sceptical about digital sentience?
    Here we confront the Hard Problem of consciousness. Unlike many researchers, I take seriously the possibility that subjective experience could be fundamental. Maybe experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the essence of what the quantum field-theoretic equations of physics formally describes. Philosopher Galen Strawson calls this position “real materialism”; I (following Grover Maxwell) call this position non-materialist physicalism; critics call it idealism. However, this conjecture doesn’t mean that minds are everywhere. In order for video game characters – and organic and inorganic robots – to be unitary subjects of experience, the world’s primitive “psychons” of experience must somehow be phenomenally bound. Perhaps compare biological information processors. Suppose the 200 million-odd neurons of your enteric nervous system (the “brain-in-the-gut”) each supports rudimentary consciousness. This speculative possibility doesn’t entail that a miniature person lives inside your viscera (though see Giulio Tononi’s Integrated information theory: IIT). Or imagine if the digital ones and zeros of a classical Turing machine were replaced by simple “pixels” of experience. Regardless of how fast the program is executed, and however sophisticated the program, no phenomenally bound subject of experience will be generated on pain of philosophically objectionable “strong” emergence. “Strong” emergence would be a catastrophe for the ontological unity of science.

    If so, then an obvious question now arises. If digital zombies can’t become unified subjects of experience, then how are biological nervous systems any different? Doesn’t “strong” emergence demonstrably occur in the CNS? Dualist philosopher David Chalmers would tell us that science cannot explain phenomenal binding. The “structural mismatch” is unbridgeable even if panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true. Here we enter (very) controversial territory. Alas, the Hard Problem of consciousness probably won’t be solved on Quora.

    The take-home message?
    Ethically speaking, IMO playing shoot-’em-ups is safe. But if injured characters spontaneously start asking for digital morphine, then it’s time to reconsider.

  • I feel like a lot of evil actions in the world have supporters who justify them (like Nazis). Can you come up with some convincing ways in which some of the most evil actions in the world could be justified?
  • “Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner.”
    (Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace)

    "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart."
    (Anne Frank)

    The risk of devising justifications of the worst forms of human behaviour is there are people gullible enough to believe them. It’s not as though anti-Semitism died with the Third Reich. Even offering dispassionate causal explanation can sometimes be harmful. So devil’s advocacy is an intellectual exercise to be used sparingly.

    That said, the historical record suggests that human societies don’t collectively set out to do evil. Rather, primitive human emotions get entangled with factually mistaken beliefs and ill-conceived metaphysics with ethically catastrophic consequences. Thus the Nazis seriously believed in the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy against the noble Aryan race. Hitler, so shrewd in many respects, credulously swallowed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And as his last testament disclosed, obliquely, Hitler believed that the gas chambers were a “more humane means” than the terrible fate befalling the German Volk. Many Nazis (Himmler, Höss, Stangl, and maybe even Eichmann) believed that they were acting from a sense of duty – a great burden stoically borne. And such lessons can be generalised across history. If you believed, like the Inquisition, that torturing heretics was the only way to save their souls from eternal damnation in Hell, would you have the moral courage to do likewise? If you believed that the world would be destroyed by the gods unless you practised mass human sacrifice, would you participate? [No, in my case, albeit for unorthodox reasons.]

    In a secular context today, there exist upstanding citizens who would like future civilisation to run “ancestor simulations”. Ancestor simulations would create inconceivably more suffering than any crime perpetrated by the worst sadist or deluded ideologue in history – at least if the computational-functional theory of consciousness assumed by their proponents is correct. If I were to pitch a message to life-lovers aimed at justifying such a monstrous project, as you request, then I guess I’d spin some yarn about how marvellous it would be to recreate past wonders and see grandpa again.
    And so forth.

    What about the actions of individuals, as distinct from whole societies? Not all depraved human behaviour stems from false metaphysics or confused ideology. The grosser forms of human unpleasantness often stem just from our unreflectively acting out baser appetites (cf. Hamiltonian spite). Consider the neuroscience of perception. Sentient beings don’t collectively perceive a shared public world. Each of us runs an egocentric world-simulation populated by zombies (sic). We each inhabit warped virtual worlds centred on a different body-image, situated within a vast reality whose existence can be theoretically inferred. Or so science says. Most people are still perceptual naïve realists. They aren't metaphysicians, or moral philosophers, or students of the neuroscience of perception. Understandably, most people trust the evidence of their own eyes and the wisdom of their innermost feelings, over abstract theory. What “feels right” is shaped by natural selection. And what “feels right” within one’s egocentric virtual world is often callous and sometimes atrocious. Natural selection is amoral. We are all slaves to the pleasure-pain axis, however heavy the layers of disguise. Thanks to evolution, our emotions are “encephalised” in grotesque ways. Even the most ghastly behaviour can be made to seem natural – like Darwinian life itself.

    Are there some forms of human behaviour so appalling that I’d find it hard to play devil's advocate in their mitigation – even as an intellectual exercise?

    Well, perhaps consider, say, the most reviled hate-figures in our society – even more reviled than murderers or terrorists. Most sexually active paedophiles don’t set out to harm children: quite the opposite, harm is typically just the tragic by-product of a sexual orientation they didn't choose. Posthumans may reckon that all Darwinian relationships are toxic. Of course, not all monstrous human behavior stems from wellsprings as deep as sexual orientation. Thus humans aren’t obligate carnivores. Most (though not all) contemporary meat eaters, if pressed, will acknowledge in the abstract that a pig is as sentient and sapient as a prelinguistic human toddler. And no contemporary meat eaters seriously believe that their victims have committed a crime (cf. Animal trial - Wikipedia). Yet if questioned why they cause such terrible suffering to the innocent, and why they pay for a hamburger rather than a veggieburger, a meat eater will come up with perhaps the lamest justification for human depravity ever invented:
    “But I like the taste!”
    Such is the banality of evil.

  • Is transhumanism compatible with Islam?
  • Nothing in the Quran or the Hadith prohibits the use of technology to create a transhumanist civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. For sure, transhumanists are more likely to speculate about the motivations of a Simulator than the will of Allah; but either way, issues of theodicy arise.
    In the absence of direct Quranic guidance, how should the devout Muslim respond to the transhumanists movement?

    Here I should probably defer to Islamic scholars. Yet what would a benevolent Simulator, or Allah “The Exceedingly Compassionate, The Exceedingly Beneficent, The Exceedingly Gracious (to all of humanity and all creatures)”, credibly want mankind to do with technologies that promise “the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise"? (The Transhumanist Declaration, 1998, 2009)

    An “all-merciful” Creator will presumably expect us to put these technologies to good use – not just to benefit just the rich or the powerful, or a single species or ethnic group, but ultimately all sentient beings. Alas the devil is in the details.

  • Is all that we see just a manifestation of our consciousness?
  • Yes. Whether you are awake or dreaming, the inside of your transcendental skull lies beyond the horizon of the conscious world-simulation your CNS is running. Perhaps compare the empirical skull nominally visible in the mirror. Your world-simulation is populated by zombies. When you are awake, the behaviour of these zombies causally co-varies with sentient beings beyond your transcendental skull who run egocentric world-simulations of their own.

    The ability of a pack of allegedly classical neurons to run a phenomenally bound world-simulation in almost real time is genetically adaptive. The computational power of our phenomenal world-making since the Cambrian leaves digital computers and silicon robots for dust.
    So how does the CNS carry it off?
    For one stab at an answer, see: What is a Quantum Mind? Unlike e.g. the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory, IMO the explanation of phenomenally bound biological minds needn’t invoke any new principle of physics, the mythical “collapse of the wavefunction”. Complications aside, quantum field theory or its generalisation is formally complete. Only a coherent quantum mind can phenomenally simulate a decohered classical world.

  • Does the multiverse theory include an explanation for the origination of something out of nothing?
  • What do we mean by “nothing”? Everettian quantum mechanics, i.e. QM without a non-unitary transformation of the state vector upon measurement, is the only scientific theory consistent with a zero ontology, i.e. the net information content of reality is zero. What is often reckoned a theoretical vice of assuming only the “bare formalism” of QM is a theoretical virtue: no creation of information ex nihilo, now or ever (cf. Jan-Markus Schwindt, “The state vector of QM per se does not contain any information or substructure”– “Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation”: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447.pdf).

    With no information ever created or destroyed, the entropy of reality = 0 too. A pure state remains a pure state on pain of violating unitarity (cf. Max Tegmark, "the entropy of the entire universe may well equal zero, since if it started in a pure state, unitarity ensures that it is still in a pure state" – “How unitary cosmology generalizes thermodynamics and solves the inflationary entropy problem”: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1108.3080.pdf).

    Naively, timeless Everettian QM sounds hopelessly permissive: "Anything goes!" In reality, forbidding the destruction or creation of information is an extraordinarily tight constraint on any theory, including a future TOE that incorporates gravity. For every other interpretation or modification of QM, and every other non-scientific belief system, is impossible in virtue of conjuring up information out of nowhere.

    This argument is (very) frustrating. Intuitively, one agrees with the critical response, "Pure nothingness is imaginable without any existence" (cf. How the Universe appeared from nothing for a useful typology of theories). But is it imaginable? Technically, our existence is formally entailed by a pure state of nothingness. The challenge is to bridge the gulf between our pre-theoretic conception of "nothing" and the linear superposition of states that formalises "nothing" according to quantum cosmology.

    Perhaps our predicament is analogous to a philosopher mystified why anything exists beyond the empty set. A set-theorist might respond that a disguised implication of the empty set is the whole of mathematics. Maybe so; but alas (to human minds if not posthuman superintelligence), the derivation isn’t trivial.

  • What is a quantum mind?
  • "There is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it."
     (Cicero)
    All minds are quantum minds. The classical-looking world-simulation you're experiencing now is what a quantum mind feels like from the inside. The same selection mechanism (Zurek's "quantum Darwinism": https://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082.pdf) that explains the emergence of classicality in the mind-independent world also acts on quadrillions of coherent neuronal superpositions ("cat states") in the CNS. This insanely powerful, unremitting Darwinian selection mechanism sculpts what would otherwise be fleeting psychotic noise – i.e. individual sub-femtosecond superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors – into a phenomenally bound world-simulation described from within by an approximation of classical physics. Only a quantum mind can phenomenally simulate a classical world. Decohered classical neurons would just be "mind-dust”, as you are in a dreamless sleep.

    Investigators working on the foundations of quantum mechanics wonder why experiments ever have definite outcomes at all (cf. Decoherence and the foundations of quantum mechanics by Maximilian Schlosshauer and Arthur Fine). Why do we never observe smeared-out pointer-readings or live-and-dead cats? Why are superpositions never experienced, only inferred?

    Unanswerable questions usually turn out to be ill-posed.

    Alternatively, only superpositions are ever experienced. Your experience of determinate experimental outcomes (and live or dead cats) consists of coherent neuronal superpositions. It’s precisely the fact that the superposition principle of QM never breaks down that allows you phenomenally to simulate a well-behaved classical world where it does. The vehicle of simulation is quantum-coherent; the experiential content of the simulation is robustly classical. Perhaps think of Schrödinger’s neurons, not Schrödinger’s cat. The classical world-simulations run by our minds have been throwaway quantum computers for the last c. 540 million years.

    Note this is a theoretically-conservative story. Its background assumptions involve no new principle of physics, no inexplicable violation of unitarity, no observer-induced "collapse of the wavefunction", just the bare formalism of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics.

    Naturally, dualist philosophers of mind like David Chalmers disagree. According to Chalmers, neither classical or quantum physics can explain phenomenal binding even if some form of panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true. The “structural mismatch” between the formalism of physics and our phenomenally bound classical world-simulations can’t be bridged.
    Maybe Chalmers is right.
    Yet to prove his case, it’s not enough for the dualist to demonstrate a structural mismatch between our minds and some cheesy wet lump of neural porridge occupying the four-dimensional space-time of classical physics. The dualist must demonstrate a structural mismatch between the bound phenomenology of our minds and the fundamental high-dimensional space required by the dynamics of the wavefunction.
    Whether such a structural match does or doesn’t exist isn’t a “philosophical” opinion.
    It’s an empirical question to be settled by tomorrow’s molecular matter wave-interferometry.
    What will the non-classical interference signature reveal?
    As a non-materialist physicalist, I predict – tentatively – that interferometry will yield a perfect structural match, and the Hard Problem of consciousness will be solved.
    Perhaps Cicero had a point.

  • Is it possible for a person to survive with only one (left or right) hemisphere of the brain?
  • Yes. For example, a hemispherectomy is sometimes used to treat the autoimmune disease Rasmussen's encephalitis.
    Right hemispherectomy has never been used to treat depression, but the operation would probably be effective.
    (cf. “Depression and the hyperactive right-hemisphere” – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168010210001707)
    Functional rather than anatomical right hemispherectomies pose especial ethical challenges, IMO (cf. David Chalmers’ Reddit AMA).
    You can effectively shut down one hemisphere of your brain and then the other with intracarotid sodium amobarbital – a Wada test – although the risk of medical complications deters routine use.

  • Are radical eliminativists about consciousness p-zombies? Or do they misinterpret the nature of their own consciousness?
  • A good rule of thumb is to try to set out a position with which you disagree more powerfully than its proponents and then critique it. As a consciousness realist, I find radical eliminativism almost incomprehensible. This makes devil's advocacy rather difficult. Trying to imagine what it's like to suppose one is a zombie (e.g. Daniel Dennett, "From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds": https://www.amazon.com/Bacteria-Bach-Back-Evolution-Minds/dp/0393242072, p. 363) feels more alien than imagining one has Cotard's syndrome (cf. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/zombie-disease-makes-people-think-they-have-died/2015/10/30/ca8ab52c-532f-11e5-933e-7d06c647a395_story.html), or what it's like to be a bat. For the only thing I've ever known, except by inference, has been my own conscious mind. Both the scientific world-picture and the principle of mediocrity suggest I'm in no way special.
    However, here goes...

    Radical eliminativists regard natural science as our best story of the world. Ultimately, all science derives from physics. Physics is causally closed and complete. The Standard Model is extraordinarily accurate and well-tested. The field-theoretic ontology of physics has no place for first-person experience. Therefore consciousness can't exist.

    Radical eliminativists tend to be:

    1. drug-naive ("What does a fish know of the water in which he swims?"). Compare researchers who experiment with consciousness rather than just philosophise. e.g. https://erowid.org/experiences/

    2. high IQ / AQ (cf. https://www.wired.com/2001/12/aqtest/). People high on the AQ spectrum don't just read other minds differently from neurotypicals. High-AQ folk understand their own minds differently too. The human faculty of introspection is more variable than exteroception. (cf. "The Unreliability of Naive Introspection": http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzPapers/Naive1.pdf) High-AQ eliminativists don't have an introspectively accessible phenomenology of thoughts and feelings in the same way as do consciousness realists. Perhaps compare Dennett's "heterophenomenology": https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heterophenomenology

    3. perceptual naive realists. Direct realists about perception believe they are directly acquainted with the physical properties of medium-sized macroscopic objects as described by an approximation of classical physics. Compare a world-simulation model of perceptual experience in which sunsets and symphonies are as much features of conscious mind as the subtle, thin and elusive cognitive phenomenology of our thought-episodes (cf. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/inner-presence).

    and
    4. don't lucid dream (cf. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucid_dream), or even remember their dreams. If one is having a lucid dream, then one's entire world-simulation is manipulable at will – and manifestly consciousness-dependent.

    And yet...
    Before major surgery, the eliminativist materialist insists on general anaesthesia, rather than mere muscle-paralysing agents like curare (cf. "Awareness during Anaesthesia": http://www.anesthesiaweb.org/awareness.php), just like ordinary patients. Why, exactly? This isn't a rhetorical question. Like consciousness realists, radical eliminativists take analgesics for pain-relief – although their pain thresholds may be higher than neurotypicals (cf. the "extreme male brain" theory of ASD. Testosterone has both an anti-introspective and painkilling action.) Here I really do struggle to make sense of eliminativism. My guess is that a radical eliminativist would respond that pain is real, but consciousness realists radically misunderstand its nature: we should reject Sellars' "Myth of the Given" (cf. https://sites.google.com/site/drtimthornton/courses/epistemology/sellars-and-the-myth-of-the-given). All experience is contaminated by theory. What consciousness realists call the "raw feels" of agony, e.g. the subjective first-person experience of a nasty migraine, should be instead be reinterpreted as a purely physical phenomenon.

    If so, then I'd agree – in a sense. Only physical properties are real. First-person facts are real. Yet if subjective pain and pleasure are really physical properties, then the ontology of physics – ultimately the mysterious "fire" in the equations of QFT - is radically different from our naive materialist intuitions about the intrinsic nature of the physical. Here we enter very different territory indeed: https://www.physicalism.com/abstract.html

  • Why do some men get off by abusing women?
  • All Darwinian relationships are dysfunctional. We are here today only because some of our ancestors practised sexual coercion and thereby enhanced the inclusive fitness of their genes. Behaviours that increased reproductive success in the ancestral environment of adaptation tend to be subjectively rewarding. For sure, significant differences exist between male humans and e.g. male baboons (cf. "Male baboons abuse females to increase their mating success": http://www.newsweek.com/male-baboons-sexual-violence-control-evolution-human-behavior-632890). Genes and culture have co-evolved. Yet perhaps the only long-term solution to dysfunctional Darwinian relationships involves not just better education, but tackling the biological-genetic roots of abuse.

  • Can someone explain what I believe to be the silly crossover of "consciousness" into quantum physics or mechanics? It seems like a lot of woo to me.
  • The emergence of consciousness and the emergence of classicality are both mysterious.
    (cf. Wojciech Zurek's "Quantum Darwinism, Decoherence, and the Randomness of Quantum Jumps: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1412.5206.pdf)
    Will the two mysteries somehow cancel each other out? Many philosophers believe so. Unfortunately, they don’t explain why or how.

    If the neurons of the CNS were discrete, decohered classical objects, then the quasi-classical world-simulations of our everyday experience would be impossible. For instead of supporting classically well-described objects obeying an approximation of Newtonian physics, we’d be so-called micro-experiential zombies, i.e. an aggregate of 86 billion neuronal pixels of membrane-bound “mind-dust” with no more unity of experience than an ant colony. The significance of the Binding Problem was first fully recognised by William James in "The Principles of Psychology" (1890). “Local” phenomenal binding, i.e. the combination of distributed neuronal feature-processors into individual perceptual objects, and “global” binding, i.e. the unity of perception and the fleeting unity of the self, are equally unexplained by classical physics. In recent years, the impossibility of either a classical or (apparently) a quantum-theoretic explanation of phenomenal binding has been invoked by philosopher David Chalmers to argue for dualism.
    (cf. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf)

    Dualism is widely reckoned a counsel of despair. Let us provisionally assume that physicalism is true: no irreducible “strong” emergence exists in Nature. What exactly is the mystery? Textbook neuroscience and routine neuroscanning suggest that when one experiences a perceptual object in one’s visual field, distributed neuronal feature-processors – e.g. edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour neurons, and so forth – are synchronously activated. The problem is that mere synchronous firings of membrane-bound classical “pixels” of experience could no more create a phenomenally bound object than, for example, the discrete pinpricks of several million skull-bound minds could create a continent-wide migraine, or lots of individual musical notes in interconnected skull-bound American minds could create the pan-continental experience of a musical symphony. Somehow, membrane-bound neurons can do what individual skull-bound minds can’t, namely bind “pixels” of experience into a composite experiential whole.

    If classical physics can’t explain phenomenal binding, can quantum theory do better? Unlike classical physics, quantum physics has the advantage of being true, to the best of our knowledge at any rate.
    On the face of it, no. The dynamical timescales are wrong. Quantum superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors (“Schrödinger’s cat states”) in the CNS are effectively too short-lived to be phenomenally or computationally relevant to our minds: thermally-induced decoherence in the “warm, wet and noisy” CNS is intuitively too strong for natural selection to get to work. More technically, the phase coherence of our complex amplitudes is scrambled too fast to be computationally useful.
    (cf. Max Tegmark: https://www.physicalism.com/quantum-computer.pdf: “Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer”)
    Robins may be quantum computers.
    (cf. http://www.nature.com/nphys/journal/v9/n1/full/nphys2474.html)
    But humans are not robins.

    However, unless the unitary Schrödinger dynamics breaks down in the brain, neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors must occur. Their tell-tale non-classical interference signature should be detectable via molecular matter-wave interferometry. Moreover, the binding of quantum “glue” is quite unlike classical glue. Hypothetical individual quantum superpositions of neuronal feature-processors cannot be treated as classical aggregates or ensembles of separate non-interfering biomolecules: they are individual physical states. Naïve commonsense says that bound phenomenal consciousness “emerges” over a timescale of milliseconds rather than femtoseconds via (somehow) patterns of classical firings of action potentials. But this powerful intuition is not a scientific discovery but rather an experimentally untested assumption.

    Fortunately, molecular matter-wave interferometry will decide the issue.
    (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6)
    What will experiment detect?

    (1) No interference. The superposition principle breaks down in the CNS. “Dynamical collapse” theorists
    (cf. Orch-OR: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1571064513001188) predict this outcome.

    (2) Functionally irrelevant noise. Fleeting neuronal superpositions are real, just as post-Everett quantum mechanics suggests, but after all, so are e.g. fleeting quantum superpositions within the CPU of a classical serial digital computer. This “noise” doesn’t make one’s desktop PC a quantum computer.

    (3) A perfect structural match between the bound phenomenal content of our minds and the formalism of QFT. Monistic physicalism is true.

    My hunch is (3). But what counts will be experiment. To quote Daniel Boorstin, "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”.

  • After an irreversible transition to a blissful existence with boundless cognitive, physical and transcendental euphoria, what would you do?
  • A chrysalis has limited insight into the nature of life as a butterfly. The metamorphosis you propose is more profound. Even so, intelligent bliss differs from being "blissed out". Therefore let's assume that life based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss also enhances our motivation to act and our sense of social responsibility.

    What next?

    If there still exists the slightest distress in even the humblest marine invertebrate, then intelligent moral agents aren’t entitled to rest. Even after we’ve reprogrammed the biosphere to eliminate experience below “hedonic zero”, we mustn’t risk abandoning ourselves prematurely to escapism, i.e. “hedonism” in the baser sense. Ethically speaking, mankind needs to discover the theoretical upper bounds to intelligent moral agency in the cosmos. What are our ultimate cosmological responsibilities? Perhaps the “thermodynamic miracle” (Eric Drexler) of life’s genesis means that cosmic rescue missions are impossible or redundant. We may well be alone in our Hubble volume. If so, we don't yet know this.

    However, let us assume that all our cosmological duties have been discharged. Nothing exists in our forward light-cone beyond life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss.
    What would I do personally?

    1) I’d explore psychedelia.

    Mapping out the boundaries of one's personal ignorance of the varieties of conscious experience is dauntingly difficult. Compare how even lucid dreamers have only limited insight into the nature of dreaming consciousness – of what it means to be “asleep”, let alone to be “awake”. Likewise, each of us while awake has only limited insight “from the inside” into what we’re lacking and into the nature of ordinary waking consciousness itself. What humans naively call ordinary waking consciousness is just one small state-space of experience among billions of state-spaces. A Mendeleev table for state-spaces of qualia is a distant prospect. In what God-like state of mind could it ever be surveyed? Until then, we’re as knowledgeable as earthworms – to a good approximation at any rate.

    The remedy for such ignorance might seem self-evident. Use the experimental method! Sadly, most dark Darwinian minds are not robust enough to explore the wilder shores of psychedelia, let alone cope with the alien state-spaces of experience opened up by tomorrow’s CRISPR genome-editing. Heaven knows what outlandish state-spaces of psychedelia can be generated with novel genes, alleles and exotic gene-expression profiles. Such “unknown unknowns” needn’t scare us. Granted the biology of invincible well-being that you propose, we could all safely become psychonauts. Mastery of our reward circuitry can make “bad trips” on novel designer drugs not just physiologically impossible but also literally inconceivable.

    Lest all this sound too breathless, IMO we shouldn’t imagine that taking psychedelics is the route to instant wisdom – even when it’s safe for us all to become psychedelic investigators. By analogy, imagine a primitive savage who stumbles across a TV with hundreds of different channels. Alas, the TV set is faulty. The channels display only “noise”. Likewise, most physically possible state-spaces of experience have never been recruited by natural selection for any information-signalling purpose in living organisms – let alone shared in common by language-users to allow intelligent communication about their properties. Taking psychedelics today typically leads to psychosis or “enlightenment” rather than far-reaching discoveries that stand the test of time. By analogy again, a congenitally blind child who is surgically given the gift of sight is “enlightened”. Wow! (S)he is also bewildered. Mature visual intelligence takes years, if not decades, to acquire. The same is true of navigating alien state-spaces of consciousness.

    Despite these caveats, I think life based on gradients of genetically preprogrammed bliss will lead to a true cognitive revolution – a post-Galilean science of consciousness.

    2) I’d aim higher.

    Darwinian consciousness is polluted by misery and malaise. By contrast, the biology of lifelong well-being you propose seems almost magical. Yet why stop there? Strip away the considerations of prudence and morality that constrain our personal exploration of pleasure today (“Pleasure is the greatest incentive to evil.” - Plato). Artificial intelligence and genome-editing promise to make such practical problems soluble. Empirically, for reasons we don’t understand, there is an intimate link between pleasure and value. The experience of lifelong superhuman pleasure will yield the experience of lifelong superhuman value too. Biotech can make everyday life sublime.

    The following example may seem homely. I hope it nonetheless makes the point. If like me you star your music collection from 1 to 5 for excellence, then a music collection that yielded a star-rating of 6 to 10 would induce tingles down your spine all day. What if our reward circuitry could be redesigned to yield a default hedonic range of 95 to 100? Critical discernment could be retained. Yet our musical pleasure and capacity for musical appreciation would be out of this world. Today we don’t know what we’re missing. The same holds for art, beauty, sexuality, introspection, spirituality – and personal relationships.

    Trapped in the squalor of Darwinian life, most of us find the prospect of such an elevated hedonic range is fantastical at best. Yet neuroscientists are already homing in on the molecular signature of pure bliss in our twin “hedonic hotspots” in the CNS (cf. "Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being": http://psywb.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2211-1522-1-3). In principle, we can amplify subjective well-being by orders of magnitude beyond today’s “peak experiences”. Artificial intelligence researchers sometimes speculate on a future of recursively self-improving software-based AI that bootstraps itself to full-spectrum superintelligence (cf. Intelligence explosion). Why not create recursively self-improving happiness too? Rational value-maximisers, at least, should aim for an analogue of Moore’s law that embraces recursively self-improving subjective well-being.

    Right now, yes, the molecular biology of such hedonic enrichment seems a utopian pipedream. I think our overriding ethical focus should be on mitigating, preventing and eventually abolishing outright the biology of suffering. Human civilisation is based on the exploitation and abuse of sentient beings. Talk of creating a living world based on gradients of superhuman well-being rings hollow. But coming into existence needn't be harmful indefinitely. Mastery of the molecular machinery of bliss promises an exponential growth in intelligent well-being – a major evolutionary transition in the development of life.

    Transhumanists believe we should be working for a “triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity, and superhappiness.
    The welcome gift of personal bliss wouldn’t (I hope) change this goal.

  • What is the difference between level of consciousness and level of intelligence?
  • The artificial intelligence (AI) revolution promises to decouple consciousness from intelligence. Neither serial digital computers nor massively parallel connectionist systems are subjects of experience. Even if panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, the tape of a notional universal Turing machine, if physically constructed and executed as Turing envisaged, would not be a unitary subject of experience. Programmable digital zombies can now outperform sentient beings in an ever-widening range of cognitive domains. Extrapolation in the guise of futurology heralds an posthuman era of nonbiological machine superintelligence. First-person experience is computationally redundant. The connection between consciousness and stupidity is deepening.

    Or so one story goes. Researchers differ over the adaptive role of consciousness in biological organisms. Scientists and philosophers are mystified by how subjective experience and phenomenal binding are physically possible, short of abandoning monistic physicalism and the unity of science. AI researchers sometimes decry “carbon chauvinism”. Is there something physically and/or functionally special about the low-level valence properties of carbon and liquid water? Compare how the “brain-in-the-gut” is a functionally integrated (cf. Integrated Information Theory), immensely sophisticated information processing system. Barring an unphysicalist “strong” emergence, your enteric nervous system isn’t a subject of experience either.

    My view?
    Digital triumphalists have lost the plot.
    Classical information processors can never be minds, whether intelligent or stupid, symbolic AI or connectionist, highly aware or minimally conscious. Belief in the sentience of digital computers is naïve anthropomorphism. Without phenomenal binding, there can be no mind, no self, and no phenomenally-unified world-simulations. How a pack of allegedly decohered biological neurons in the skull carries off this classically impossible feat of world-making is controversial. Certainly, anyone familiar with decoherence theory in QM will find my ideas on the quantum supremacy of biological minds far-fetched. But whatever the true explanation of phenomenal binding, not being a micro-experiential zombie is vastly genetically adaptive.

    Perhaps your question is really focused on comparisons within biological life. Humans, dogs and pigs, for instance, are smarter and more sentient than, say, ants. Are highly intelligent sentient beings inherently more conscious than their simple-minded cousins? Are “high-IQ” people inherently more conscious than “low-IQ” scorers?

    No, IMO. Humans are fond of the dimmer-switch metaphor of consciousness, especially when we want to rationalise our abominable treatment of nonhuman animals. Yet the dimmer-switch metaphor, as misused today, doesn't “carve Nature at the joints”. Pilot-whales, for example, will never write treatises on quantum mechanics; but big-brained cetaceans may be more sentient than Homo sapiens.

    These reflections might suggest a modest conception of the future of consciousness. Consciousness matters ethically on this view; but intellectually, subjective experience is largely or wholly incidental. Logico-linguistic thought, solving equations, and other distinctively human cognitive capacities are indeed mostly opaque to introspection. However, prophecies of a negligible role for consciousness in the cosmos express a narrow and impoverished conception of intelligence – typically an extension of the glorified puzzle-solving promoted by autistic “IQ” tests. Only sentient beings can aspire to understand reality. Thus the exploration of alien state-spaces of consciousness, and discovery of the intrinsic experiential properties of matter and energy, can be undertaken only by phenomenally-bound minds, not by digital zombies. Digital zombies are invincibly ignorant of sentience: regardless how they are programmed, they can’t comprehend what they lack.

    Our supersentient descendants won’t merely be smarter than archaic humans. The intensity of posthuman awareness will surpass Darwinian life by orders of magnitude. On this transhumanist scenario, everyday post-Darwinian life will be superhappy, subjectively ultra-meaningful, and superhumanly intense. By comparison, contemporary humans tend to sleepwalk through life, trapped in a nameless trance. By the same token, what today passes for scientific understanding is a thin, shallow affair: the phenomenology of human cognition is subtle and elusive. Posthuman thought-episodes will be richer than sunsets.

    The sleepwalking analogy only goes so far. The suffering of Darwinian life is vile. Even “normal” malaise is grim. What passes for superior intelligence is commonly used to harm rather than help sentient beings. "Life preys upon life. This is biology's most fundamental fact”, physician Martin Fischer observed. Our successors may recognise Darwinian consciousness as virulent malware. Fortunately, our genetic source code contains the seeds of its own destruction. Post-Darwinian consciousness will be inconceivably sublime.

  • What is the difference between materialism and physicalism?
  • Matter as conceived by classical physics doesn’t exist. So in that sense, materialism is trivially false. Nonetheless, most scientists believe that reality can be exhaustively described by the equations of mathematical physics. Hence, physicalism. The equations describe a universe that exists independently of, and long predates, human minds. Perhaps contrast traditional forms of idealism, mind-body dualism, or the idea that “consciousness collapses the wavefunction” (cf. Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation).

    Two forms of physicalism may be distinguished. “Materialist” physicalists believe that the stuff of the world is non-experiential. Quantum field theory (QFT) describes fields of insentience. “Non-materialist” physicalists, e.g. Galen Strawson, believe that the stuff of the world is experiential. Quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. If so, then the entire mathematical machinery of modern physics should be transposed to an idealist ontology.

    The biggest challenge to “materialist” physicalism is the Hard Problem of consciousness. The biggest challenges to non-materialist physicalism are often reckoned the palette problem and the phenomenal binding / combination problem.

    Two related distinctions are worth noting.
    1. Perceptual direct realists believe that during waking life, we are directly acquainted with the mind-independent physical world. Inferential realists about perception believe that each of us is running a skull-bound world-simulation. Belief that one’s macroscopic world-simulation is mind-dependent should be distinguished from non-materialist physicalism. In my view, we have strong grounds for believing in a world-simulation model of perception; non-materialist physicalism is an interesting conjecture.

    2. Traditional materialism and (“materialist” and non-materialist) physicalism are often associated with reductionism. Molecular biology reduces to quantum chemistry reduces to quantum field theory. Everything that happens supervenes on the underlying physics. However, if quantum physics is complete (i.e. no “hidden variables”), then reductionism is false. Wavefunction monism is true. Reality may be described by the universal Schrödinger equation or its relativistic generalisation. Most – but not all – wavefunction monists are also “materialist” physicalists. Even if non-materialist physicalism is true, wavefunction monism is not the recipe for a cosmic mega-mind.
    Decoherence threatens the integrity of humble human minds, let alone a deity

  • Why do some physicists want to "rebuild quantum mechanics from scratch"?
  • To stay sane? From the shifting historical records of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel “The Man in the High Castle” to contemporary "post-truth politics", any narrative that messes with our conception of truth and reality is disturbing. By contrast, mathematical physics yields, we hope, timeless truth.

    Yet what if the superposition principle of QM never breaks down? Ever fewer physicists expect that future experiment will detect the slightest collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. "Dynamical collapse" theorists like Roger Penrose are out on a limb. Penrose is explicit: the alternative to an objective collapse modification of the unitary dynamics is Everettian QM and the decoherence program.

    According to the unitary-only dynamics, there are googols of quasi-classical Everett branches of the universal wavefunction where a Donald Trump did win the popular vote, where an Adolf Hitler triumphed in WW2, where non-avian dinosaurs roam, where your doppelgängers languish in jail and count their lottery winnings, where life is heaven and where life is hell, and vastly more surreal realities besides – all placed on a mathematically rigorous footing. "Craziness" can't be quarantined.

    Are there branches where maverick physicists have been able to “rebuild quantum theory from scratch”?
    I’m pessimistic; I’d be overjoyed to be mistaken.

  • Do you think consciousness is physical or non-physical? How about causally potent or impotent?
  • Am I special? Or do the quantum fields that make up my mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs have exactly the same intrinsic nature and causal power as the quantum fields making up extra-cranial reality? The principle of mediocrity suggests the latter, i.e. non-materialist physicalism. According to non-materialist physicalism, quantum physics – more strictly, tomorrow’s physics beyond the Standard Model – is casually closed and complete. A generalisation of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience, including phenomenally-bound organic minds. The hypothetical fields of extracranial insentience assumed by materialist metaphysicians and (most) contemporary physicists are redundant, a bit like luminiferous aether, just superfluous gunk that spawns the insoluble Hard Problem of consciousness. Stephen Hawking’s mysterious non-experiential “fire” in the equations sounds more poetic; it’s still metaphysical gunk. Recall Heinrich Hertz’s “Maxwell’s theory is Maxwell’s equations”. Maybe likewise with the mathematical formalism of QFT and string/M-theory. Unlike “materialist” physicalism, non-materialist physicalism explains the existence, phenomenal binding, diverse values and causal power of consciousness. And it’s testable too.

    Crazy stuff. Perhaps compare mad-dog eliminativism. Eliminative materialists deny the existence of consciousness altogether, i.e. the polar opposite response to the Hard Problem. Yet unlike traditional idealism, or animism, or property-dualist panpsychism, non-materialist physicalism is an empirically falsifiable conjecture. If it's true, then at fine-grained temporal resolutions our CNS can't straightforwardly consist of the 86 billion decohered classical neurons of textbook neuroscience: the phenomenal binding problem that drives David Chalmers to dualism. The insanity of non-materialist physicalism is nonetheless so self-evident to most scientific minds that few researchers consider the conjecture worth falsifying experimentally. I share their intuition. I just intellectually worry that the alternatives, i.e. “naturalistic” dualism and not-even-wrong waffle about “complexity”, “emergence”, (etc) are worse. Either way, let’s use interferometry, not philosophy or the incredulous stare, to settle the issue. For sure, molecular matter-wave interferometry isn’t like dropping cannonballs off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You can’t perform a “Schrödinger’s neurons” experiment at home: conceptually simple experiments can be technically demanding. But how many theories of consciousness currently on the market (e.g. “Integrated information theory”) make precise, novel, “risky”, and empirically falsifiable predictions that distinguish them from rival conjectures?

    So in answer to your question: if materialism is true, then no one has the slightest idea how consciousness can exist at all, let alone how the “raw feels” of experience can physically generate discussion as here about their relative causal power or impotence. On a materialist ontology, we should be p-zombies – on pain of unphysicalist “strong” emergence. By contrast, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then all and only the physical has causal efficacy. Hence all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy.

    However, what kind of causal efficacy are we talking about? Only a small proportion of the world’s hypothetical fields of sentience have any causal-functional efficacy, for example the ability to inspire intelligent questions about the physical status and causal power of consciousness. Compare how a programmable digital computer, or a silicon robot, or a classically parallel connectionist system (etc) are not unitary subjects of experience even if non-materialist physicalism is true. The hypothetical micro-qualia of their components are causally effective but functionally incidental to the system’s collective behavioural output. Classical digital computers are no more conscious entities than rocks. Nor indeed is the multiverse a cosmic mega-mind – any more than you’re a unified mind when dreamlessly asleep. Decoherence is the ultimate mind-killer.

    So what does distinguish awake organic minds from the rest of reality, i.e. what is the basis of our functional capacity to outshine invincibly ignorant digital zombies and investigate consciousness? After all, organic minds are not universal quantum computers, any more than they’re classical universal Turing machines: the CNS is much too warm.
    Well, perhaps see What is a quantum mind?

    Alas, after making the case for non-materialist physicalism, it’s time for a sanity-check.
    The real answer to your question is predictably boring.
    No one knows.

  • What did Hitler think about the Jews that were crying during the Holocaust?
  • Few people dared personally to confront Hitler about the suffering of Jewish people. One exception was Henriette von Schirach, wife to Baldur von Schirach, Gauleiter of Vienna. When visiting Holland in 1943, Henriette was woken in her hotel by the screams and crying of Jewish women and children outside who were being deported. A sympathetic German soldier explained what was happening. Henriette promised to take the matter up with Hitler. She broke off her visit to the Netherlands. Hitler's secretary Christa Schroeder recalls the row that followed at the Berghof on Good Friday.

    "'Be silent, Frau von Schirach, you understand nothing about it. You are sentimental. What does it matter to you what happens to female Jews? Every day tens of thousands of my most valuable men fall while the inferior survive. In that way the balance in Europe is being undermined,' and here he moved his cupped hands up and down like a pair of scales.

    'And what will become of Europe in one hundred, in one thousand years?' In a tone which made it evident that he considered the matter closed, he declared: 'I am committed by duty to my people alone, to nobody else!'"
    (“He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler's Secretary” by Christa Schroeder, Frontline Books, 2009)

    Henriette and her husband were never invited to the Berghof again.

    For the most part, Hitler seems to be have been hard-hearted rather than sadistic. Hitler didn't want to dwell on the suffering he caused any more than, say, factory-farm owners or consumers of meat products want to dwell on the suffering of their victims today.

  • Is suffering a necessary part of the human condition? What would people who never suffer be like?
  • There is no technical reason why we can't use CRISPR genome-editing and preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) to create human and nonhuman animals without the capacity to suffer. If “Life is suffering” (Buddha), then we need a definition of post-Darwinian life.

    The real ethical challenge in the era of CRISPR babies is responsibly weighing risk-reward ratios. Critically, getting rid of suffering means "informational sensitivity" to good and bad stimuli must be preserved. For example, engineering nonsense mutations of the SCN9A gene induces congenital analgesia – a lifelong inability to experience physical pain. Congenital analgesia demands a cotton-wool existence at best. However, benign versions of SCN9A confer an unusually high pain-threshold and an active life. Recall those abnormally pain-tolerant people today who blithely report they find pain “just a useful signalling mechanism”. They don’t suffer. Unless humans are willing to become “cyborgs”, genetically endowing our future children with ultra-high pain-tolerance rather than congenital analgesia is prudent.

    What about a lifelong absence of “psychological” suffering?
    Creating humans predisposed to unipolar euphoric mania, for instance, would be technically feasible. Unipolar euphoric mania is also socially disastrous. By contrast, engineering “hyperthymic” children with an exceptionally high hedonic set-point by combining benign versions of e.g. COMT, the serotonin transporter gene, the ADA2b deletion variant and so forth could promote a marvellously high quality of life for everyone. Recalibrating the hedonic treadmill needn’t impair intellectual acumen or social responsibility.

    But what about compassion? Can we be superhappy and empathetic?
    Against all expectation, yes. Compare euphoriants like the empathetic "hug-drug" MDMA (Ecstasy). In future, we may genetically create children blessed with exceedingly high hedonic set-points together with e.g. benign pro-social alleles of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR).

    Does the creation of better-than-well “designer babies” entail risky genetic experimentation?
    Yes. This Quora answer glosses over the pitfalls and complications of rewriting the genome. Safe baby-making isn’t feasible this century. Sexual reproduction means that all babies are reckless genetic experiments.

    Creating intelligently superhappy life carries one foreseeable risk: the optimistic information-processing bias conferred by a high hedonic set-point. The corrective to excessively rose-tinted spectacles might be to program “nanny AIs” with the functional analogues of depressive realism, while sentient beings enjoy life based entirely on gradients of bliss. “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind”, said Aristotle. Perhaps the advent of intelligent digital zombies will spare our minds for higher pleasures.

    Will designer superbabies be truly human?
    That depends on our conception of humanity. Tomorrow’s superbabies will grow up able to breed with malaise-ridden primitives. So yes, they’ll be “human” according to the standard biological definition of species membership. In another sense, superbabies will be “transhumans” – the dawn of a major evolutionary transition in the development of life.

  • Do you believe that consciousness is emergent from the brain or that we are emergent from consciousness?
  • “...is impossible to specify what [consciousness] is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.” (Stuart Sutherland)
    Let us assume physicalism. Does quantum field theory (QFT) formally describe fields of sentience or insentience? Are you ontologically special, i.e. different in nature as well as information architecture from the inorganic world? Or does experience disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical?

    Maybe compare the Eucharist. According to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, "the signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ" (cf. Transubstantiation). According to the received wisdom of the scientific community, the signs of a pack of neurons may become, in a way surpassing understanding, first-person subjective experience. Whereas the Catholic Church relied on the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the scientific community has peer review. This parallel should not be pressed too far.

    As a (undogmatic) non-materialist physicalist, I too have faith of sorts. Wavefunction monism is true. Mathematical physics will deliver a complete description of the world. Yet is the human mind smart enough to understand the solutions to the equations? Acquaintance with even the paddling-pool end of psychedelia encourages scepticism.

  • Have you ever thought about how other people saw your existence?
  • “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.”
    (Bertrand Russell)

    As a low-AQ male, I’ll have to answer, yes.
    In a more philosophical vein, I’m a world-simulationist about perception. So I assume I have a zombie avatar in the world-simulations of a minority of other sentient beings. My zombie namesakes typically play a walk-on part in the everyday dramas of their lives. In a few of these skull-bound world-simulations, perhaps my zombie avatar also enjoys a dedicated neuron (cf. "Why your brain has a ‘’Jennifer Aniston cell’"). If so, such a privileged neurological role is rare. Whether or not one views social interactions via the lens of Nature’s immersive VR, a social primate naturally experiences personal anxiety at times. I’m quite normal. However, I usually take comfort in the thought that most folk are too wrapped up in their own lives to dwell much on mine. Also, in the quantum library of Babel, there’s nothing to pick out “me”. Further, my conception of personal identity is what philosophers describe as “thin”.

    That said, I’ve a bunch of transhumanist ideas and values that I would like to see gain wider currency: in essence, a vision of using biotechnology to phase out suffering across the tree of life in favour of gradients of superhuman bliss. Such an aspiration involves – sometimes – paying attention to a personal brand that I would otherwise be inclined to shun. This kind of behaviour is both painful and paradoxical (cf. ”Attention economy”). For becoming posthuman entails escaping the primitive zero-sum status-games of Darwinian life.

  • Can AI surpass human intelligence without showing any mark of consciousness?
  • Can a digital zombie investigate the nature, varieties, causal efficacy and phenomenal binding of consciousness? Can a digital zombie explore psychedelia and systematically map out alien state-spaces of experience? (cf. Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin’s PiHKAL) Classical digital computers and connectionist networks will soon be able to surpass humans in many cognitive domains: “narrow AI”. But in one sense they are invincibly ignorant.

  • Are there physicists who have gone mad from learning about quantum mechanics?
  • "Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature."
    (Michael Faraday)

    “If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others.”
    (Philip K. Dick)

    Is it medically possible to understand quantum mechanics and stay sane? Pioneer of the unitary-only dynamics, Hugh Everett, spent many of his lives targeting thermonuclear weapons used to kill insane numbers of sentient beings (cf. "The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett", https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/hugh-everett-biography/).
    Mad, bad, or both?
    Although most physicists now talk of decoherence rather than "splitting", Bryce DeWitt is still apt:
    “I still recall vividly the shock I experienced on first encountering the multiworld concept. The idea of 10100+ slightly imperfect copies of oneself all constantly splitting into further copies, which ultimately become unrecognizable, is not easy to reconcile with common sense. This is schizophrenia with a vengeance!”
    (“Quantum Mechanics and Reality”, Physics Today, Sept. 1970).

  • Does Nozick's experience machine prove anything?
  • Perhaps consider Robert Nozick's thought-experiment in conjunction with Felipe De Brigard's "inverse experience machine argument",
    http://people.duke.edu/~fd13/De_Brigard_2010_PhilPsych.pdf
    ("If you like it, does it matter if it's real?")

    For sure, many subjects say they wouldn't plug into Nozick's Experience Machine; but conversely, many of these same respondents claim they wouldn’t want to unplug from an Experience Machine if told their existing lives were based on a lie.
    In short, maybe what is really being measured is not simply our (lack of) commitment to hedonism or realism, but rather status quo bias.

    Back in the real world, does the imminence of utopian designer drugs and technologies of immersive VR mean we must shortly choose between the Red Pill and the Blue Pill, so to speak, i.e. between sordid reality and escapist fantasy worlds of delusion?
    Not necessarily. A revolution in genomic medicine is brewing. Enrichment of your reward circuitry, and radical recalibration of the set-point of your hedonic treadmill, promise life based on gradients of intelligent bliss – and without sacrificing your existing preference architecture and core values.

    Perhaps take the Purple Pill instead?
    (cf. Superhappiness?)

  • Is it correct to use quantum theory to explain spirituality?
  • “It’s not hard to hear voices, it’s knowing whether they tell you the truth.”
    (anonymous hippie)
    To the best of our knowledge, quantum theory is formally complete (cf. hidden variable theories). So in that sense, quantum theory explains spiritual experience – and everything else. If not, then dualism is true. However, folk who invoke quantum theory to legitimate their spiritual beliefs have their work cut out. For a start, there is no evidence that consciousness (or anything else) “collapses the wavefunction”. Nor does quantum theory vindicate free will; the evolution of the universal wavefunction is continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic. Wavefunction monism seemingly corroborates the timeless wisdom of the ancients that “All is One”; but decoherence rules out a Universal Mind. In more practical terms, casino bosses welcome quantum parapsychologists but not card-counters. Quantum healers grow old and die just as fast as their classical counterparts, albeit in better financial health.

    So is the conventional wisdom of the scientific community correct?
    Maybe. The snag is that if “materialist” physicalism is true, and if quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, then you should be a p-zombie. “Materialist” physicalism cannot explain the existence, causal efficacy, diverse textures and classically impossible phenomenal binding of your conscious experience, i.e. the entirety of the empirical evidence. The triumph of the Standard Model rings hollow.

    Acknowledging this unfortunate anomaly can put one in embarrassing company (cf. Quantum mysticism). Most scientific revolutions are messy. Solutions? I personally don’t discount non-materialist physicalism – an implausible conjecture, but consistent with the empirical evidence, unlike its materialist cousin. Alas, the principle of mediocrity suggests that one talks as much nonsense about consciousness as everyone else.

  • If you had a chance would you destroy the world?
  • “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering."
    (Gautama Buddha)
    Existential risk takes many guises. If our overriding obligation is to end suffering, then an obligation to launch a “nirvana shockwave” is arguably implicit in Buddhism. Compare the obligation to launch a utilitronium shockwave implicit in classical utilitarianism. Any sovereign ethic focused entirely on the pleasure-pain axis has potentially apocalyptic implications that its founders may not have had in mind. A negative utilitarian may be ethically satisfied with a future civilisation based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss. Yet to a classical utilitarian, even gradients of intelligent bliss are still sub-optimal. In the long run, converting the accessible cosmos into utilitronium is morally obligatory for a classical utilitarian superintelligence.

    Personally?
    On indirect utilitarian grounds, I favour enshrining in law the sanctity of life to safeguard the interests of human and non-human animals alike.

  • What is the link between mind, brain and consciousness?
  • a) The materialist answer:
    Physicalism is true. Quantum field theory (QFT) describes fields of insentience. Around four billion years ago, the thermodynamically improbable origin of information-bearing self-replicators led to the evolution of life on Earth. After another c. 3.4 billion years of evolution via natural selection, the first simple nervous systems arose. Wormlike creatures that appeared in the Ediacaran period, some 550–600 million years ago, evolved an enlarged cephalic ganglion (a “brain”).

    A momentous event then occurred: the world’s first subjective experience. How? Why? Science currently has no answer. The precise date of the world’s primordial experience will presumably be forever unknown. Perhaps compare the evolutionary origin of life with the evolutionary origin of consciousness. The date of the genesis of life is not just unknown, but ill-defined. The answer science eventually gives will be partly conventional, though not arbitrary. Dating life’s genesis depends on our stipulative definition of what counts as “alive”. No analogous ambiguity exists with consciousness. There is an objective fact of the matter. For sure, intensity of consciousness comes in degrees. Yet the world’s first conscious experience must have a definite date – down to a fraction of a second. Indeed, the same discontinuity is recapitulated in the womb or the egg to this day. An insentient pack of undifferentiated nerve cells, i.e. biomolecules whose properties and behaviour are exhaustively describable by quantum field theory, undergoes an unexplained ontological transformation.

    In summary, science cannot yet explain the (1) existence, (2) classically impossible phenomenal binding, (3) richly diverse textures, and (4) causal efficacy of consciousness. If our understanding of the fundamental properties of matter and energy is correct (cf. the Standard Model), then first-person facts ought not exist. The Hard Problem of consciousness is hard. Nonetheless, scientific materialism is our best story of the world. The only alternative to scientific materialism is superstition, religion, or mystical obscurantism.

    b) A non-materialist answer:
    Physicalism is true. Quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Around four billion years ago, the thermodynamically improbable origin of information-bearing self-replicators led to the evolution of life on Earth. After another c. 3.4 billion years of evolution via natural selection, the first simple minds arose. Wormlike creatures that appeared in the Ediacaran period some 550–600 million years ago had an enlarged cephalic ganglion (a “mind”). No momentous ontological eruption into the fabric of physical reality occurred (“Natura non facit saltus.”). Instead, millions of years of selection pressure, in both Darwin and Zurek’s sense, led to the proliferation of non-psychotic phenomenal binding in organic nervous systems. The adaptive ability of organic minds to run phenomenally bound and cross-modally matched world-simulations in almost real time is the greatest computational achievement of biological life over the past c. 540 million years (cf. Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose?).

    Non-materialist physicalism explains the (1) existence, (2) classically impossible phenomenal binding, (3) richly diverse textures, and (4) causal efficacy of consciousness. The downside of non-materialist physicalism is that it’s not credible.

    Is a) or b) essentially correct?
    I honestly don’t know.

    Naively, these questions are philosophical rather than scientific. After all, where is a single novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable prediction that we can extract from this turgid philosophising? Panpsychism may or may not be true. Either one finds panpsychism incredible, or one doesn’t.

    Quite so. But property-dualist panpsychism and non-materialist physicalism are distinct conceptual frameworks. Whereas panpsychism is untestable, non-materialist physicalism is a falsifiable conjecture.

    In fairness, I should mention that there are philosophers who think that we’re all barking up the wrong tree: eliminativists.

  • Where should I start to understand David Pearce's philosophy from the "beginning"?
  • In short: humanity should phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world in favour of genetically programmed gradients of bliss. (cf. Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering? - Kindle edition)

    Shorter still: let’s reprogram the biosphere and create a transhumanist “triple S” civilisation of superhappiness, superlongevity and superintelligence. (cf. Life in the year 3000 AD)

    My focus has been on the well-being of biological sentience. From The Hedonistic Imperative (1995) to Genetically designing a happy biosphere (2016), I’ve discounted the prospects of digital sentience that some researchers anticipate dominating the cosmos. IMO, classical digital computers are incapable of phenomenal binding or being unified subjects of experience on pain of spooky “strong” emergence. Classical information processors aren’t minds. They can’t suffer.

    Could I be mistaken? Yes, naturally. But for a summary of grounds for scepticism, and my speculative attempts to reconcile the first-person properties of our minds with physicalism, perhaps see DP on Consciousness, materialism, and quantum physics.

  • Why are there physicists who explore the link between quantum mechanics and consciousness when there is none?
  • “Where misunderstanding dwells, misuse will not be far behind. No theory in the history of science has been more misused and abused by cranks and charlatans—and misunderstood by people struggling in good faith with difficult ideas—than quantum mechanics.”
    (Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, 2016)
    As far as we know, the formalism of quantum physics, if correctly interpreted, explains everything. So what would be truly extraordinary is discovering that the properties of our minds aren’t derivable from our best mathematical description of the world. Imagine learning that the properties of your desktop PC weren't derivable from the machine code it was running. Or imagine if the properties of organic molecules couldn’t be explained via quantum chemistry. If quantum mechanics can’t explain our minds, then dualism is true. David Chalmers would disagree; but dualism is generally accounted a fate worse than death.

    My guess is that you are thinking of one class of “dynamical collapse” modifications of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Whereas the Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber (GRW) theory gives no special role for consciousness or observers, the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory proposes a quantum gravity threshold stemming from instability in Planck-scale superpositions in space-time geometry. This “objective reduction” is supposedly neither wholly deterministic nor wholly random, but (somehow) influenced by a non-computable factor ingrained in fundamental space-time (cf. Roger Penrose On Why Consciousness Does Not Compute: http://nautil.us/issue/47/consciousness/roger-penrose-on-why-consciousness-does-not-compute).

    If so, then I share your scepticism. Nonetheless we should be indulgent, IMO, towards any theory of consciousness that makes novel, precise and experimentally falsifiable predictions that critics and proponents alike can agree will settle the issue (cf. What do quantum physicists say about the microtubules quantum mind theories?). The Hard Problem of consciousness has defeated everyone to date.

    My view? Modification of the unitary dynamics is ugly and ad hoc. Dirac located the superposition principle at the heart of QM. I know of no good reason to believe that the superposition principle breaks down in biological minds or anywhere else. Such a conservative approach can still have highly counterintuitive implications (cf. What is quantum mind?).

  • If you could gradually replace your brains neurons with prosthetics, one neuron at a time, would you be the same person when the process was completed?
  • Personal identity over time is a convenient fiction. Human society, the legal system, world financial markets, and personal relationships would all collapse without such a convention. We’ve no grounds for supposing enduring metaphysical egos really exist. However, waking up in the morning doesn't normally trigger an existential crisis: am I the same person as my namesake who fell asleep the night before? So, running with your question, let’s suppose that an advanced civilisation were one night to replace your biological neurons and your entire connectome with silicon counterparts. The next morning, someone who answers to your name wakes up with autobiographical memories, familiar consciousness, and everyday world-simulation seemingly intact. Would this person be you?

    In the loose, popular sense of identity noted above, the functionalist answer would be “Yes”.
    The interesting question here is whether such a replacement procedure is theoretically feasible.
    Unlike many transhumanists and AI researchers, I argue "No”.
    Digital computers are zombies. Classically parallel connectionist systems are zombies. Silicon (etc) robots are zombies. For sure, future neuroprosthetics will enhance our biological minds, and perhaps automated online back-ups may one day protect our minds, but neither attempted non-biological duplication nor functional replication in silico (“mind uploading”) will yield a phenomenally-bound subject of experience, i.e. a person.

    Unlike e.g. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff (cf. Orch-OR), the conjecture I explore doesn’t rest on any new physics, but rather on what is intuitively the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind theories. The credible timescales of neuronal superpositions (“cat states”) of distributed feature-processors in the warm CNS are femtoseconds or less. Compared to the threescore years and ten of folk chronology, this isn’t much of a lifetime.

    It’s worth stressing that no consensus on an answer exists among researchers. Strong opinions are common. But conjectures that yield novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions are exceptionally rare – and those that do are insane. An affirmative answer to your question depends on the solution to (1) the Hard Problem of consciousness, and (2) the phenomenal binding / combination problem. The Hard Problem of consciousness arises if we make two plausible assumptions. Monistic physicalism is true, and quantum field theory (QFT), our best mathematical description of the physical world, describes fields of insentience rather than sentience. The binding / combination problem arises if we again assume physicalism, i.e. no “strong” emergence, and also make the plausible assumption that the membrane-bound neurons of your CNS may be treated as effectively decohered classical objects. In other words, even if panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, why aren’t you just a micro-experiential zombie?

    Alas, I’m much more confident of this diagnosis of the problem than any attempted solutions, including mine:
    What is the evolutionary selective advantage of consciousness?

  • Is it immoral to kill an ant?
  • Like a minority of humans, some ants fail the mirror test (cf. “Are Ants (Hymenoptera, Formicidae) capable of self-recognition?” http://www.journalofscience.net/File_Folder/521-532%28jos%29.pdf). Yet like humans, ants are sentient beings with a pleasure-pain axis (cf. “Morphine addiction in ants”) and a capacity to suffer. Insofar as it’s immoral to harm any sentient being, regardless of race or species, then yes, it’s immoral gratuitously to harm an ant. In the long run, intelligent moral agents may practise high-tech Jainism (cf. High-tech Jainism).

    Of course, like most people I think mankind has more important issues to worry about than the well-being of an individual ant. So is one really morally bound to step aside when some humble invertebrate crosses one’s path? Get real!

    It’s a powerful intuition. However, let’s bear in mind that compared to posthuman superintelligence, humans will probably be as sentient and sapient as ants. Is superintelligence morally bound to respect the interests of cognitively humble beings like us?

    Fortunately for Homo sapiens, full-spectrum superintelligence will presumably enjoy a superhuman capacity for perspective-taking and empathetic understanding. IMO it’s a capacity humans should aspire to emulate.

  • Why do transhumanists have a bright view of the future?
  • Transhumanists anticipate a future of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness for all sentient beings in our forward light-cone. Our experience of darkness and illumination will itself shortly be controllable via the molecular equivalent of a dimmer-switch. Biotechnology makes the dark side of life technically optional.

    If today’s hedonic range is, schematically, -10 to 0 to +10, the hedonic range of post-Darwinian life can be, say, +70 to +100. Art, poetry, literature, beauty, critical insight, social responsibility, intellectual progress: nothing valuable need be lost (cf. gradients.com: "An information-theoretic perspective on life in Heaven").

    Could it all go horribly wrong?
    Yes. Some transhumanists, e.g. Ray Kurzweil (cf. http://time.com/3641921/dont-fear-artificial-intelligence/">Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence) are indeed boundlessly optimistic. But most transhumanists recognise that what passes for civilisation faces existential and global catastrophic risks (e.g. The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse: Phil Torres, Russell Blackford).

    My view?
    The suffering of Darwinian life is obscene. If reality had an OFF switch, I’d press it (cf. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas - Wikipedia).
    Alas, it doesn’t.
    But for what it’s worth, future life will probably be sublime beyond the bounds of human imagination: Life in the Year 3000 AD.

  • Do you believe physical pain could be eliminated as you profess psychological suffering will cease to exist in sentient beings?
  • Health: "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
    (The World Health Organization constitution)
    Nociception is vital. Pain is optional. Physical pain can, should and (probably) will be eliminated globally in favour of a more civilised signalling system for noxious stimuli. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution means the whole biosphere is programmable. Intelligent moral agents will shortly decide the optimal level of suffering in the living world. Mankind now has the technical tools to implement the World Health Organization’s definition of health, i.e. “complete” well-being. Good health for all sentient beings means phasing out the biology of pain.

    Yet how can fine words and sloganeering most effectively be translated into political policy? Before designing a “no pain” biosphere, we’ll first need to create a “low pain” biosphere.

    Unlike psychological pain, physical pain has a master switch. Hundreds of genes are involved in modulating pain experience. Yet the role of the sodium voltage-gated channel alpha subunit 9 (SCN9A) gene is critical (cf. How a Single Gene Could Become a Volume Knob for Pain). Dozens of variant alleles of SCN9A are known. Nonsense mutations of SCN9A induce complete insensitivity to pain. Free-living non-human animals born with nonsense mutations soon die. Humans born with congenital pain-insensitivity must lead a “cotton wool” existence or else meet a similar fate. Other mutations of SCN9A induce exceptionally high or exceptionally low pain thresholds.

    Here lies the key. Recall today’s high-functioning genetic outliers who report they find pain “just a useful signalling mechanism”. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) and counselling for all prospective parents can potentially ensure that future children are born with benign “low pain” variants of SCN9A. Unlike genetic engineering, PGS is “natural” insofar as screening relies on Nature’s genetic experiments, i.e. sexual reproduction, rather than rational human design. Many people still fetishise the “natural”, despite showing e.g. a marked fondness for wearing clothes. For reasons of ideology, religion and status quo bias, the transition to a transhuman civilisation of genuinely healthy “designer babies” may be painfully slow.

    Pitfalls?
    Here are three.

    1) We need to be careful that dramatically reducing the burden of pain in the world doesn’t also dramatically reduce human empathy. For example, high-AQ males with high pain-tolerance may underestimate the awfulness of severe pain in sentient beings who are not so blessed. Testosterone is a powerful painkiller. This observation isn’t intended to disparage high-AQ hyper-systematisers. Effective altruism (EA) depends on applying a systematising cognitive style to ethical problem-solving no less than on displaying deeper compassion.

    2) Animal agriculture is perhaps the worst source of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today. Yes, genetic engineering can potentially reduce the misery of our victims (cf. The Future of Farming Is Brain-Dead Chickens?). Other things equal, less suffering is clearly ethically desirable. Yet mitigating the worst of industrialised animal abuse is a potentially disastrous detour on the route to a cruelty-free world. Somehow, humanity needs to make the ethical transition from systematically exploiting sentient beings to systematically helping them. Commercialised cultured meat is the most technically efficient solution to our depraved appetite for animal flesh. Unlike the creation of “low pain” non-human animals, in vitro meat needn’t be genetically engineered. So again, cultured meat products are marketable as “natural” or “naturally-inspired” to folk who worry about such distinctions – more “natural” than the antibiotic-ridden products of factory-farming. Civilisation will be invitrotarian and/or vegan.

    3) Synthetic gene drives can rapidly spread benign “low pain” versions of SCN9A across the living world (cf. Genetically designing a happy biosphere). However, CRISPR-based gene drives can potentially be abused too – horribly so. And extensive pilot studies in miniature self-contained biospheres will be prudent. Are humans really wise enough to get this right?

    Above I’ve discussed a “low pain” biosphere.
    What about engineering a “no pain” biosphere?
    Are smart neuroprostheses or information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss the wisest long-term policy option? Or both?
    (cf. https://io9.gizmodo.com/5946914/should-we-eliminate-the-human-ability-to-feel-pain">Should we eliminate the ability to feel pain?)
    Will any kind of experience below “hedonic zero” still exist in the Year 3000?

  • What is transhumanism?
  • Transhumanists support using technology to overcome our biological limitations. In principle, we can create a "Triple S" civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness.

    The transhumanist movement has many different strands. For example, some transhumanists believe posthuman superintelligence will be our biological descendants; others foresee a Kurzweilian fusion of humans and machines; and others (e.g. the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and Nick Bostrom's FHI) believe the future lies with machine superintelligence. Among transhumanists who focus on radical life extension, some favour "mind uploading"; others promote Aubrey de Grey's biologically-based SENS strategy; and others support cryonics, notably Alcor – currently run by one of the pioneers of the modern transhumanist movement, Max More. My own work focuses on the use of biotech to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering.

    How do all the pieces of the transhumanist jigsaw fit together? Well, that's complicated. But the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) sets out some core principles on what (I hope) unites us:
    http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/

  • Is it possible that the Hard Problem of consciousness has a simple answer?
  • Yes. The Hard Problem of consciousness arises if we suppose quantum field theory – or its speculative extensions – is about fields of insentience. The conjecture that the essence of the physical – the "fire" in the equations – is non-experiential is intuitively plausible. But is it true? Does the conjecture lead to any novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions? Does positing a non-experiential metaphysical essence of the physical explain the existence, rich palette, classically impossible phenomenal binding, and causal efficacy of consciousness? Or is materialist metaphysics a degenerating research program that fails the test of empirical adequacy?

    Non-materialist physicalism drops this foot-stampingly “obvious” assumption. Non-materialist physicalists transpose the entire mathematical machinery of modern physics onto an idealist ontology. Note that the conjecture that quantum field theory is about fields of sentience should not be confused with the experimentally unsupported notion that "consciousness collapses the wavefunction": the seemingly non-unitary transformation of the state vector into a definite state upon measurement is better explained by the decoherence program of post-Everett QM. (cf. https://arxiv.org/ftp/quant-ph/papers/0306/0306072.pdf) Nor should non-materialist physicalism be confused with Bertrand Russell’s neutral monism, or property-dualist panpsychism – or Deepak Chopra...

  • What earthly animal comes closest to human levels of sentience?
  • Any answer must be speculative. But members of some species of whale may be more sentient than humans. The long-finned pilot whale neocortex, for example, has over 37 billion neurons (cf. Quantitative relationships in delphinid neocortex) – almost twice as many as the average human primate. Similar disparities can be found in more phylogenetically ancient structures that mediate the most intense forms of experience.

    Sentience should be distinguished from sapience. Although whales possess some cognitive capacities humans lack, only humans have the rich generative syntax that facilitates "general" intelligence, co-operative problem-solving, and modern technological civilisation.
    (That said, see https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8886-whale-song-reveals-sophisticated-language-skills/ - "Whale song reveals sophisticated language skills".)

  • What is David Pearce's current supplement regimen?
    • amineptine c. 200mg,
    • selegiline 2 x 5mg,
    • resveratrol 2 x 250 mg,
    • turmeric,
    • blueberry,
    • green tea extract,
    • acetyl-l-carnitine,
    • flaxseed oil,
    • inositol,
    • melatonin,
    • rice protein isolate,
    • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA),
    • creatine,
    • l-carnosine,
    • l-methylfolate,
    • quercetin,
    • l-theanine (150mg with coffee),
    • LEF "Life-Extension" mix, and a selection of various Linwoods products added to my black coffee (8 or 9 cups daily),
    • zero-calories Red Bull.
      (2015, 2018)

  • Is it possible to 'exist' but not be aware of one's existence?
  • People with Cotard's delusion ("walking corpse syndrome") may believe they are dead, quite literally denying their own existence...
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotard_delusion
    More generally, most sentient beings lack a self concept and can't pass the mirror test:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test
    However, they still have a profound capacity to suffer.

  • What makes a quantum field?
  • Physics is silent on the essence of the physical. What is a field? If physicalism is true, and if perceptual naïve realism is false, then the only direct knowledge you have of the intrinsic nature of a quantum field is your first-person experience. Use of the experimental method allows exploration of non-obvious solutions to the equations.

    A more familiar approach in the scientific community is metaphysical. Start by hypothesising the existence of some kind of non-experiential “stuff”, described by a field (“numbers in space”) representing scalar, vector, spinor or tensor quantities. This “stuff,” i.e. the metaphorical fire in the equations, is somehow different inside and outside the mind-brain of biological organisms – for reasons we simply don’t understand. Either that or dualism is true. Then use the tools of mathematical physics formally to describe the behaviour of this field-theoretic “stuff” from the Big Bang to the indefinite future. Perhaps see e.g. Matthew Schwartz’s Quantum Field Theory and the Standard Model. Physicists recognise that relativistic quantum field theory is formally incomplete; it’s just a low-energy approximation of a unified field theory that includes gravity.

    If non-materialist physicalism is true, then a unified field theory that includes gravity will be a complete Theory of Everything. By contrast, if QFT or its generalisation describes fields of insentience, then a “Theory of Everything” is nothing of the kind. Instead, we face the Hard Problem of consciousness, the spectre of Chalmersian dualism, and other horrors intellectually too dreadful to contemplate.

  • What is the secret of eternal happiness?
  • A utilitronium shockwave.

    Utilitronium, also known as hedonium, is a currently hypothetical state of matter and energy optimised for pure bliss. The “shockwave” alludes to its velocity of propagation. Near light-speed velocities of propagation across our galaxy and beyond are theoretically conceivable with the aid of artificial intelligence. A superintelligence with the utility function of classical “hedonistic” utilitarianism, and any advanced civilisation committed to maximising the long-term cosmic abundance of bliss, would presumably launch a utilitronium shockwave.

    Negative utilitarians, or more generally, effective altruists who believe in suffering-focused ethics, might launch a utilitronium shockwave. Engineering a vacuum phase transition could solve the problem of problem too, minus the bliss. More bioconservative solutions are feasible for life-lovers. The use of biotechnology and AI to prevent an ethically catastrophic recurrence of hedonically sub-zero states in our Hubble volume is more realistic than apocalyptic scenarios. One example of compassionate biology would be designing minds based entirely on genetically programmed gradients of superhuman well-being. More modestly, a biohappiness revolution across the tree of life on Earth is possible later this century with CRISPR genome-editing. Or we might re-engineer our reward pathways to run on utilitronium, but retain prettified versions of our legacy world-simulations. Thus some people worry that their matter and energy converted into utilitronium “wouldn't be me”, despite a relaxed attitude to any notional loss of personal identity during orgasm. The promise of conserving the bric-à-brac of our minds and their world-simulations might be reassuring to the faint-hearted. For my part, I’d love to forget the squalor of Darwinian life altogether.

    The molecular signature of pure bliss is still unknown. We have clues where to look. Neuroscanning reveals multiple “hedonic hotspots” in the brain. The neural region where the ultimate answer may lie has been narrowed to a small area in the basal ganglia. Mu-opioidergic activation of a hedonic hotspot in the posterior ventral pallidum is the lifeblood of raw pleasure (cf. Pleasure Systems in the Brain by Kent Berridge and Morten Kringelbach). Speculatively, a tiny intracellular structure in the neurons of the ventral pallidum may encode the secret of eternal happiness – and the key to the future of the cosmos.

    Complications to consider:

    1) Eternity. Strictly speaking, everlasting bliss may be physically impossible. The ultimate fate of the universe is an open question in cosmology. In another sense of “eternal”, everlasting bliss may be possible. Spacetime/Hilbert space just (tenselessly) exists. I won’t explore the nature of time here.

    2) Binding. The maximum abundance of positive value that can be subjectively experienced in any given Hubble volume is constrained by the Bekenstein bound. Policy-makers will need to deal with thornier issues in the meantime. A utilitronium shockwave sounds like an all-consuming cosmic orgasm, and the poetic metaphor seems apt. Mystics have long reckoned that the multiverse is a vast mega-mind. But presumably, tomorrow’s superhappiness won’t be undergone by a single subject. The theoretical upper bounds to the size of a unified mind are unclear. Phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors is classically impossible, but quantum explanations are widely reckoned implausible, too, on account of ultra-rapid thermally-induced decoherence. The ostensible “structural mismatch” between mind and CNS threatens dualism or worse. Let’s here assume that future science solves the binding problem. The ethical binding question for utilitarianism remains. Is a classical utilitarian committed to optimising matter and energy for orgasmic micro-minds or orgasmic mega-minds? Negative utilitarians must wrestle with an analogous issue. Compare how agony and a pinprick have something in common – they are both aversive – but also how agony and a pinprick are both quantitatively and qualitatively different. A whale can suffer more than a worm. A whale can also enjoy life more than a worm. What should be the population ethics – or granularity of pure bliss – in our forward light-cone?

    3) Intentionality. Humans are prone to fetishise lots of intrinsically worthless objects. The term “fetish” conjures up some kind of overvalued sexual kink. Yet countless arbitrary stimuli may be equally overvalued. Evolution has designed us not to value pleasure per se – cultures celebrating pure hedonism are rare – but instead to value what philosophers call intentional objects, especially intentional objects that promote the inclusive fitness of our genes. Intentionality is the “aboutness” of thought within your world-simulation, and, no less problematically, the “aboutness” of thought directed at the mind-independent world: so-called extrinsic intentionality. If classical utilitarianism is correct, then the classical utilitarian is constrained to act so as to bring about the political and sociological preconditions for launching a utilitronium shockwave. It’s not enough to make the intellectual case for universal happiness and assume that its truth will seem luminously self-evident. Likewise, the negative utilitarian is constrained to act so as to bring about the sociopolitical preconditions for, e.g. paradise-engineering, based on gradients of bliss. Critically, urging “mere” hedonic recalibration doesn't involve asking people to give up their existing preferences and values, unless those attachments include conserving their low hedonic set-point. The practical need for consent and collaboration entails making other superficially non-utilitarian compromises. “Utilitronium” is a hard sell under that brand label (cf. Does Nozick's experience machine prove anything?), even marketed as fuel for your reward circuitry, though at least the name is not polluted like “eugenics”. A few centuries ago, the Christian world was agreed on seeking eternal happiness in Heaven. We need to build a workable consensus on the recipe for its secular counterpart.

    A Possible Compromise?
    Imagine a bubble of complex civilisation surrounded by an expanding sphere of utilitronium. The overall cosmic density of happiness would be negligibly less than its maximum feasible cosmic abundance. Using the metric of classical utilitarianism, a small bubble of posthuman civilisation – perhaps a transhumanist civilisation of based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss – would strictly be accounted the least valuable part of the post-Darwinian world. The sub-utilitronium bubble would still be immensely more valuable than the pain-ridden era that spawned it.

    An advantage of such a compromise would be that most non-utilitarians are indifferent whether a lump of inert matter on Alpha Centauri is converted into utilitronium or left untouched. Psychologically, most utilitarians don’t actively care either; insofar as they are rational, utilitarians just believe that such a conversion is ethically mandatory. The majority of classical and negative utilitarians are hyper-systematising high-AQ/IQ males. Even some non-utilitarian or morally apathetic males find the prospect of a utilitronium shockwave exciting. A “utilitronium shockwave” sounds like a new DARPA superweapon, primed to blast your enemies to oblivion. Where will “ground zero” be in the trial 100-megahedon blast? Do your friends or your enemies most deserve to be converted into pleasure-plasma? I guess the ethical answer calls for impartial benevolence.

    What does utilitronium feel like?
    Alas, I don’t know, though I’d be willing to submit to the experimental method.
    Comparisons with the sort of whole-body orgasm induced by mainlining heroin won't begin to do it justice.
    A few grams of utilitronium may be more valuable than all the world’s valuable experiences to date.

  • Are claims about consciousness being connected to quantum mechanics quantum flapdoodle?
  • Typically. Yet are claims about consciousness being connected to classical physics more illuminating? Why and how is the emergence of quasi-classicality from quantum reality supposed to explain consciousness? Two mysteries. Maybe they cancel out! Yet how?

    Let’s assume that physicalism is true. By what mechanism is decoherence – i.e. the effectively irreversible scrambling of phase angles of the components of a quantum superposition – and the emergence of quasi-classical neurons supposed to generate first-person experience from fields of matter and energy? We normally assume, plausibly, that quantum field theory describes fields of insentience rather than sentience. Even if we relax this assumption (cf. "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?" http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/consciousness-and-its-place-in-nature-does-physicalism-entail-panpsychism/), then how can emergent classical physics and emergent classical neuroscience explain the properties of our minds? For instance, one characteristic of our biological consciousness is local and global binding (cf. "The Cognitive Binding Problem: From Kant to Quantum Neurodynamics": https://www.neuroquantology.com/index.php/journal/article/viewArticle/33). The macroscopic world-simulation run by one’s mind is populated by phenomenally bound perceptual objects described – while one is awake – by an approximation of Newtonian physics. Using the decoherence program to explain the emergence of decohered and effectively classical neurons isn’t a recipe for creating unified subjects of experience who run unified phenomenal world-simulations populated with feature-bound perceptual objects. It’s is a recipe for creating micro-experiential zombies (cf. "Why panpsychism doesn't help explain consciousness": https://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness) – a pack of membrane-bound neuronal “pixels” of experience with no more ontological integrity than a termite colony or the skull-bound population of China (cf. "China brain": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_brain). Maybe we are micro-experiential zombies when dreamlessly asleep. Classical physics can’t explain the unity of consciousness when we’re awake. If quantum physics can’t explain the unity of consciousness either, then we face the spectre of dualism – just as David Chalmers argues.

    Not all believers in the classicality of consciousness are mystics and woo-merchants. Compare Scott Aaronson’s critique of the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory (cf. PHYS771 Lecture 10.5: Penrose: http://www.scottaaronson.com/democritus/lec10.5.html). Is your brain is a quantum computer?

    “Well, it might be, but…The problems for which quantum computers are believed to offer dramatic speedups -- factoring integers, solving Pell's equation, simulating quark-gluon plasmas, approximating the Jones polynomial, etc. -- just don't seem like the sorts of things that would have increased Oog the Caveman's reproductive success relative to his fellow cavemen.”
    Quite so. Our minds aren’t universal quantum computers (cf. "Quantum Turing machine" – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_Turing_machine).The CNS is too warm and wet. Nor does “consciousness collapse the wavefunction”; decoherence theory suggests neither does anything else (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0312059.pdf). Nor did Oog the Caveman spend his days contemplating the truth of Gödel-unprovable statements (cf. https://math.stanford.edu/~feferman/papers/penrose.pdf). Yet what did aid the reproductive success of Oog the Caveman is phenomenal binding. None of our ancestors were micro-experiential zombies. Phenomenal binding is hugely computationally powerful and fitness-enhancing. Information-processors that are mere aggregates of classical Jamesian “mind-dust”, and even information-processors that are poorly or psychotically bound, don’t fare well in a harsh and unforgiving natural environment. Compare the fate of Oog the Caveman’s neurologically handicapped cousin, who suffered from akinetopsia and simultanagnosia and ended up in the jaws of a sabre-toothed tiger.

    Unlike classical physics, quantum theory inescapably binds – whether we reckon the components of a quantum superposition are sentient or not. Like all superpositions, coherent neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors are individual states, not classical aggregates. Decoherence theory explains how and why such superpositions rapidly unbind, i.e. the progressive and effectively irreversible loss of ordering of phase angles to the extra-neural environment. Multiple sources of decoherence exist in the CNS. Ion-ion scattering, ion-water collisions, and long-range Coulomb interactions from nearby ions all contribute to the jumbling of phase angles (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0506199.pdf). Most powerfully of all, thermally-induced decoherence entails that neuronal superpositions are extremely short-lived – by the lights of folk chronology if not fundamental Planck-scale physics. Decoherence times for neuronal superpositions of femtoseconds or less are credible. Intuitively, this kind of “dynamical timescale” (cf. Max Tegmark’s “Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer”, https://www.physicalism.com/quantum-computer.pdf) is too short by orders of magnitude for the role of explaining the phenomenal world-simulations run by our minds. One reason that most of us struggle to take panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism seriously is that any such theory makes the primordial “psychon” of consciousness ludicrously small. Yet just as counterintuitively, non-materialist physicalism makes the primordial “psychon” of consciousness ludicrously short-lived.

    Cased closed against quantum mind? (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mind) After all, what computational use to Oog the Caveman are vanishingly short-lived neuronal superpositions? Such superpositions can be, at most, functionless noise. “Psychotic” binding is useless. No miraculous Divine Moviemaker sits inside one’s skull to string together quadrillions of phenomenally bound “cat states” into a well-behaved macroscopic world-simulation.
    Indeed. Yet suppose there were the functional equivalent of a Divine Moviemaker (cf. Watchmaker analogy – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchmaker_analogy) – an unimaginably powerful selection mechanism for sculpting non-psychotic neuronal superpositions that plays out every moment of our lives.

    Such a potential selection mechanism exists: Quantum Darwinism (Zurek video). Whether Nature has co-opted such a selection mechanism to sculpt our minds and the phenomenal world-simulations they run, I don’t know. That’s a question for experimentalists (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6), not philosophers.

    First, recall how decoherence theory (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_decoherence) explains the emergence of classicality from quantum substrate via a Darwinian paradigm – without invoking conscious observers, and without invoking a non-unitary collapse of the wave function. What happens when the same selection mechanism – Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism” (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082.pdf) – plays out within the skull? Naively, the upshot of such selective proliferation of information is decohered classical neurons. Coherent neuronal superpositions and other short-lived quantum exotica are selected against in favour of robustly stable neurons – the counterpart of Zurek’s “stable pointer states”. The snag? Classical neurons are a recipe for micro-experiential zombies. Micro-experiential zombies can’t phenomenally simulate a classical world.

    An alternative scenario can be sketched. What if the Darwinian selection mechanism that explains the emergence of classicality in the external world also sculpts the “cat states”, i.e. coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors, to simulate such emergent classicality in the CNS? (cf. "The World In Your Head": http://cns-alumni.bu.edu/~slehar/webstuff/book/WIYH.html) On this conjecture, phenomenal binding via classical synchrony (how?) is really binding via quantum superposition. The classically insoluble binding problem that drives philosophers like David Chalmers to dualism is just an artifact of our temporally coarse-grained tools of investigation. On the millisecond timescales captured by today’s crude neuroscanning, quasi-classical neurons robustly “emerge” (cf. http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/10940/1/Wallace_review_final_single-spaced.pdf) to be prodded and probed with microelectrodes. On a temporal scale of femtoseconds, however, perhaps one’s phenomenal world-simulation consists of neuronal superpositions. Each of the quadrillions of coherent neuronal superpositions of one’s world-simulation is “legal” according to unmodified and unsupplemented quantum field theory. No need to invoke any new physics – no collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, no violation of unitarity. And no “Problem of Definite Outcomes” that troubles theorists either. Our experiences of definite outcomes are themselves “cat states”. We are quantum minds phenomenally simulating classical worlds. The Divine Moviemaker is naturalised.

    Do I believe this crazy stuff? No, of course not: it’s a conjecture to be empirically falsified by molecular matter-wave interferometry. What will the non-classical interference signature tell us? Again, I don’t know. Yet if we don’t find a perfect structural match between our minds and the formalism of our best story of the natural world, i.e. quantum physics, then the true explanation of consciousness must be crazier still.

  • What is the strongest argument against David Pearce's The Hedonistic Imperative?
  • False theories of mind can be ethically catastrophic. Historically, one example of an ethically catastrophic mistake is the Cartesian belief that non-human animals are merely insentient automata. Weaker variants of this error are still rife. Yet what if the worst source of suffering in the world doesn’t turn out to be biological minds, as HI assumes, but future software run on non-biological digital computers, or indeed futuristic non-biological quantum computers?

    I won’t here rehash my sceptical arguments about the possibility of non-trivial digital sentience. They are fairly idiosyncratic. If I’m mistaken, then the creation of digital sentience doesn’t undercut the need to mitigate and (I hope) phase out suffering in basement reality. But any supporter of suffering-focused ethics (like researcher Brian Tomasik) who believes in the existence of non-biological suffering is likely to favour a different set of priorities than getting rid of suffering via genetic engineering.

  • Is there any literary/historical connection between Lewis' metaphysical modal realism and the many worlds interpretation of QM?
  • David Lewis signed out Everett's dissertation from Princeton University library (cf. "The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III, Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family" (2010) by Peter Byrne). Late in life, Lewis also wrote a paper on Everettian QM and the grim fate of "quantum struldbrugs" (cf. “How many lives has Schrödinger’s cat?” http://www.andrewmbailey.com/dkl/How_Many_Lives.pdf). One might imagine that Lewis would have used Everettian QM to help philosophers naturalise modality (cf. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/possible-worlds/).
    Maybe in some branches of the universal wavefunction, he did!

    However, in Everettian QM, quasi-classical “worlds” weakly emerge from the underlying formalism (cf. https://www.amazon.com/Emergent-Multiverse-Quantum-according-Interpretation/dp/0198707541). Decoherence (“splitting”) is never complete. By contrast, Lewis’ philosophical conception of possible worlds as (non-interfering) "real concrete things" (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Plurality_of_Worlds) may be viewed, uncharitably, as a metaphysical extravagance.

  • What are the drawbacks of transhumanism on different levels (physical, moral and ethical)?
  • Suppose that the transhumanist vision of a “Triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness really is technically and sociological credible. What could be the downside? Timescales – in my view. Like telling someone that science will cure aging after you're dead, or telling a depressive that our descendants will enjoy lives animated by gradients of bliss, the news isn't entirely heart-warming. Of course throughout history, successful prophets have almost always located salvation (or doom) within the plausible lifetimes of their audience. The transhumanist movement is no exception. I still believe a “Triple S” super-civilisation is ethically worth striving for – I'm just not convinced any of us will live to see it.

    On a brighter note, perhaps the joker in the pack here is cryonics. As various criminals who reformatted their hard disks have discovered to their cost, permanently erasing information isn't as quite easy as one might assume.

  • Can anyone produce a magnificent theory of physics without the use of advanced mathematics? Is mathematics really important? Can't we publish a theory on our intuition without mathematics?
  • “Mathematics is only a tool and one should learn to hold the physical ideas in one's mind without reference to the mathematical form.”
    (Paul Dirac)
    In a nutshell, no.
    BUT…
    The mathematical machinery of modern physics contributes to the illusion that physicists understand the properties of matter and energy. Likewise, compare experimental evidence such as Precision tests of QED with the kind of wordy philosophising that comes out of the humanities department.

    In a deeper sense, maybe contemporary physics is a false theory of the world. The only fields of matter and energy with which one is directly acquainted lie inside one’s skull. Waking, dreaming, and “altered” states of consciousness disclose that the intrinsic properties of quantum fields are completely at variance with materialist metaphysics. Fields of insentience can’t create first-person facts. The ontology of physics is wrong! Or rather, either the ontology of physics is wrong or dualism is true.

    The most elegant, concise and complete description of the properties of reality will be formally expressed – I believe – exclusively in the language of mathematical physics. Physicalism is true, just not our current conception of the physical. As far as I can tell, the conceptual framework of scientific materialism is untenable.

  • What is the evolutionary selective advantage of consciousness?
  • AlphaDog wouldn’t respond to noxious stimuli more adaptively if silicon robots could experience the qualia (“raw feels”) of pain. Nociception is vital; phenomenal pain is optional. Likewise, video game characters wouldn’t be more cunning or versatile if digital zombies mysteriously became sentient. Deep Blue wouldn’t play superior chess if capable of anxiety. Winning or losing causes no feelings of joy or disappointment to Watson or AlphaGo, nor would (fancifully) “painting on” qualia to the execution of their software lead to functionally enhanced computational performance. This list could be extended indefinitely. So it’s tempting to view subjective experience as some kind of spandrel or implementation detail of organic robots. Zombie AI will soon surpass conscious cognitive agents in all domains of expertise. Anything that sentient organic robots can do can be matched or computationally surpassed by insentient Turing machines. Any functional role or “program” that organic nervous systems can be described as running can be implemented in a different substrate. For sure, an explanation of why human and non-human animals aren’t p-zombies is elusive. Yet physical processes are causally sufficient for behaviour in biological and nonbiological information processors alike. In short (runs this fallacious line of argument) there is no evolutionary selective advantage to consciousness.

    I think this conception of biological consciousness is mistaken. What classical digital computers cannot do is phenomenally bind. Phenomenal binding is extraordinarily computationally powerful. Thus organic minds run unified world-simulations populated by phenomenally-bound objects experienced by a phenomenally unified self in almost real time. Binding lets us act accordingly. Our (unexplained) capacity for local and global binding is highly genetically adaptive. “I am my world”, said Wittgenstein; and virtual world-making is fitness-enhancing.

    Compare the conception of consciousness bred by commonsense naïve realism. Naïve realism is the false theory of perception that disguises the adaptive significance of consciousness. Naïvely, each of us is directly acquainted with macroscopic material objects in a shared public world. This supposedly shared public world can be described by an approximation of classical physics. On this story, consciousness consists merely of a thin serial stream of thoughts behind one’s eyes – a slow and inefficient virtual machine somehow generated by our massively parallel neural wetware. However, perceptual acquaintance with the local environment is a fitness-enhancing illusion. When organic minds are awake rather than dreaming, the phenomenal contents of our world-simulations do indeed tend to track fitness-relevant patterns in one’s extra-cranial surroundings. Even so, the solid and refractory material objects of everyday experience never cease to be phantoms of the mind. Seemingly lawful macroscopic worlds, and their phenomenally-bound objects and bodies, are autobiographical: the vividly realistic immersive VR of biological nervous systems evolved under pressure of natural selection. By way of contrast, a notional micro-experiential zombie composed of neuronal pixels of “mind-dust”, or a connectionist AI zombie composed of distributed silicon feature-processors without the ability to generate unitary percepts, would be hopelessly disadvantaged. Such a zombie or micro-experiential zombie would be handicapped compared to biological minds running phenomenally-bound world-simulations even if endowed with superhuman capacities of logico-linguistic reasoning – and even if augmented by, say, a Cray supercomputer on a neurochip. Without phenomenal binding, we’d all soon starve or get eaten.
    For more in this vein, see “Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose?

    Yet how is phenomenal binding possible? A talent for telekinesis, levitation, and the ability to create loaves-and-fishes on demand would all be fitness-enhancing too. What’s so special about the low-level valence properties of carbon or liquid water? If textbook neuroscience is correct, you are a huge pack of decohered classical neurons that communicate with each other across synapses, i.e. you should no more be a unified subject of experience than a termite colony. The binding problem for monistic physicalism is sometimes just lumped together with the Hard Problem of consciousness. Why does subjective experience exist at all? The two mysteries are related but distinct. Binding poses a challenge for materialist and non-materialist physicalism alike. Whether we regard experience as fundamental, i.e. non-materialist physicalism is true, or whether instead we assume that experience is a weakly emergent property of membrane-bound neurons, doesn’t explain the unity of consciousness.

    No one knows how biological nervous systems carry off this seemingly impossible fitness-enhancing feat. Some researchers don’t even recognise the problem, which doesn’t help.
    My own ideas on a solution are idiosyncratic – probably too idiosyncratic to be of general interest – but here you are:
    Is the brain a quantum computer?
    In my view, macroscopic virtual worlds, including the robustly classical-looking environment you are simulating now, are what a quantum mind feels like from the inside. The future doesn’t belong to classical digital zombies, but rather to post-Darwinian minds driven by gradients of superintelligent bliss. The quantum supremacy of biological minds will be enhanced by artificial intelligence. For better or worse, digital zombies aren’t going to replace us.

  • Is it insane to believe nothing exists?
  • Metaphysical nihilism is a strange belief, even by the exacting standards of philosophers. In common with solipsists, metaphysical nihilists are rare. They tend not to breed or proselytise. In a sense, yes, the belief is trivially false. Believers are deluded. Nonetheless, one wants to say that nihilism ought to be have been true. Inexistence is the default condition from which any departure must be explained.

    So how does one explain the inexplicable? Well, if the superposition principle of quantum mechanics is universal, then a state analogous to our pre-theoretic conception of “nothing” must be the case.

    I say a bit more about an informationless zero ontology here: Why does the universe exist?

  • Is quantum consciousness a phenomenon?
  • Barring dualism, yes. Classical physics is a false theory of the world. To the best of our knowledge, quantum mechanics is formally complete. If the superposition principle of QM broke down in the CNS, or if you were composed of effectively decohered membrane-bound "pixels" of neuronal experience, then you'd be at most a micro-experiential zombie with no more subjective unity of experience than a Mexican wave – just as you are when in a dreamless sleep.

    And yet your waking world looks classical. Experiments yield definite pointer-readings. You see live cats, and you see dead cats, but you don't see live-and-dead cats. Most of everyday life can be navigated using an approximation of Newtonian mechanics (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_principle). How is this possible?

    The short answer is no one knows. For what it's worth, in my view the classical-looking world-simulation run by your mind actually consists of quadrillions of neuronal "cat states" – i.e. individual coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors – sculpted by a unremitting selection mechanism of almost inconceivable power. “Quantum Darwinism” doesn’t just explain the emergence of quasi-classicality from quantum reality in the mind-independent world. Such a selection mechanism applied to the CNS explains why your waking consciousness isn’t just psychotic noise.

    Note this speculative proposal doesn’t involve any new principle of physics – unlike “dynamical collapse” theories of consciousness like Orch-OR. The one constraint worth stressing on unchecked theorising is that any decent scientific theory of consciousness should yield novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions.
    This winnows the field.

  • How do we live happy lives, in spite of vegans?
  • Vegans want everyone to enjoy a happy life, regardless of race or species. The dietary traditions of the Indian continent are vegetarian or quasi-vegan. There is no evidence that the average Indian is (un)happier than the average Western meat-eater (cf. Chilled out).

    How should we respond to people who derive pleasure from harming other sentient beings? At present, if the potential victims are human, then we normally prioritise the interests of the abused rather than the abuser. If the victims are nonhuman, our priorities are normally reversed. One way or the other, we are seriously morally confused.

    Many meat-eaters would respond indignantly. They don’t derive pleasure from harming anyone. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses are merely the regrettable price of the typical Western preference for the taste and texture of a hamburger over a veggieburger.

    The cash nexus and factory-walls do indeed protect sensitive eyes from seeing what they are paying for. So it’s true that most meat-eaters don’t derive any pleasure contemplating the suffering of their victims. Even meat-eaters who want their victims to suffer because tormented flesh tastes better typically do so because they prioritise their own taste preferences rather than from sadistic cruelty.

    So a question now arises. How would we respond to someone who used similar arguments to justify human child abuse?

    If some deep metaphysical gulf separated human and nonhuman animals of comparable sentience, then the analogy would break down. Yet a riposte of “But humans aren’t animals!” is pre-scientific and pre-Darwinian. If the level of pleasure someone derives in consequence of harming a nonhuman animal counts as a morally relevant consideration, then analogous moral weight should be given to the level of pleasure someone derives from harming a very young child or vulnerable human of comparable sentience. I hope we don’t want to go down this route.

    So what should be done? If leading a cruelty-free lifestyle entailed heroic self-sacrifice, then vegans should be saluted for moral heroism. If quitting meat and animal products merely involves modest personal inconvenience, then it’s simply common decency.

  • Would you rather be a male or female?
  • “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.”
    (William Golding, Lord of the Flies)
    Like horns or a tail, gender and other brutish features of Darwinian life should be relegated to evolutionary history. Alas, redesigning our legacy wetware will take time. Nature “designed” men to be hunters and warriors. Nature “designed” women to fall for dominant alphas who excel in both roles. One of my earliest memories is being informed, aged four, by my reincarnation-believing mother that I might be born again as a girl. God the Father-Mother didn’t think that gender mattered. I was mortified. Intuitively, girls were weak and defective.

    Girls and women tend to score more highly than men on the personality dimension of agreeableness. Testosterone poisoning is responsible for most of the world’s organised violence against human and non-human animals alike. Testosterone functionally antagonises oxytocin in the brain. Nonetheless, I guess that like my four-year-old ancestral namesake, I’m glad to have been born male, if only because of the statistically greater opportunities that a 21st century masculine identity offers to transcend the squalors of Darwinian life. Women could never have designed the death camps or the Gulag. Yet males are more likely to be high-AQ hyper-systematisers (cf. Empathizing–systemizing theory): transhumanists, utilitarians, and aspiring effective altruists. If intelligent moral agents are systematically to phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world via biotech and IT, then a “hypermasculine” cognitive style is needed that most – though not all – “female” minds find alien.

    Either way, until genetic rewrites make gender obsolete, I look forward to fast-acting and readily reversible human analogues of (1) "Switching a Gene in Adult Mice Easily Transforms Females Into Males", and (2) "For Fruit Flies, Gene Shift Tilts Sex Orientation".

  • If the many worlds theory is true, why is consciousness restricted to one cohesive timeline?
  • If Everettian QM is true, all your namesakes are equally real. Most of your namesakes are sceptical of the reality of you and their legion of doppelgängers in other effectively decohered (“split”) branches of the universal wavefunction. Quantum decoherence is one of the fastest, least controllable processes in physics. Nonetheless, we need to be careful about making weakly emergent “branches” of Everett’s multiverse too fine-grained. Barring dualism, your conscious states of mind, not least the quasi-classical world-simulation (“perception”) that you’re experiencing now, are individual physical states of your central nervous system. In a regime of ultra-rapid thermally(etc)-induced decoherence (“splitting”), how can your weakly emergent edge-detecting, motion-detecting, colour-mediating (etc) neurons get to know of each other’s existence, let alone mediate complex perceptual objects, e.g. “Behold: a live black cat!”? Assuming no-collapse QM, your motion-detecting neurons are unaware of their inert counterparts in decohered Everett “branches” that track deceased cats. Yet how do these active motion-detectors commune with other e.g. black-mediating colour neurons in an alive-black-cat experience? (cf. the phenomenal binding / combination problem: Angela Mendelovici http://publish.uwo.ca/~amendel5/combination.pdf) Neurotransmission is slow compared to decoherence timescales.

    The short answer is no one knows. I play around with some weird ideas. What happens when the most crazily powerful selection mechanism ever conceived, Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism”, plays out among the fleetingly coherent neuronal “cat states” (neuronal superpositions) entailed by the unitary dynamics? But here we pass from anything widely accepted in the scientific community, including the large minority of physicists who accept the unitary-only Schrödinger dynamics.

  • Is physics or mathematics more fundamental?
  • “If all of mathematics disappeared, physics would be set back by exactly one week.”
    (Richard Feynman)
    Physics. Only the world is fundamentally real.
    "God created the integers," wrote mathematician Leopold Kronecker, "All the rest is the work of Man." Yet maybe Kronecker was too bold. We've no evidence that even God could create abstract objects. If one aspires to understand the natural world, then one needs to pretend that abstract objects such as number and wavefunctions and propositional content are real. But this fruitful human fiction doesn't mean that mathematical Platonism is true. Perhaps see e.g. Hartry Field “Science Without Numbers: The Defence of Nominalism”, and the vast literature spawned by Benacerraf's dilemma.
    (cf. http://thatmarcusfamily.org/philosophy/Course_Websites/Math_S08/Readings/Benacerraf.pdf)

  • How could I experience the qualia of others?
  • Depending on one's theory of phenomenal binding, the construction of reversible thalamic bridges should allow "mind-melding" with other humans and indeed with members of other species. The ancient sceptical Problem Of Other Minds could finally be laid to rest. Perhaps see the NYT on the Hogan sisters, "Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind?"
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/magazine/could-conjoined-twins-share-a-mind.html
    However, the technical obstacles to be overcome are formidable.

  • Do you believe we'll ever know not only how the universe came to be, but why is there nature, instead of just nothing as a physicist?
  • In a sense, physics may already have given us the answer – if only we were smart enough to interpret the bare formalism of quantum theory correctly. First we need to firm up our pre-theoretic intuition of "nothingness", often mistakenly reified as some sort of timeless void.

    What exactly is this default state of zero information from which any notional departure would stand in need of an explanation? Then consider the formalism of our best scientific description of the world, post-Everett quantum mechanics. Strictly speaking, the universal state-vector of QM doesn't contain any information. See e.g. Jan-Markus Schwindt, "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation": http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf. The absence of any "preferred basis" is commonly viewed as a grievous problem for Everettian QM. Perhaps we'd do better instead to trust the bare formalism and view the absence of any such preferred basis as a compelling advantage. Of course, it's natural to assume that the universal state-vector must contain humongous amounts of information. Naively, we can imagine God (or someone) subtracting information from the quantum-coherent superposition formalised by the universal state-vector. If so, then the formalism wouldn't really describe a zero ontology. But like discarding books from the Library of Babel, the paradoxical effect of such notional subtraction would be to create information. And the creation or destruction of information is precisely what a zero ontology prohibits.

    Complications? I can think of one or two.

  • What are the assumptions of physicalism?
  • If physicalism is true, then the world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions. No “element of reality” is missing from the equations of (tomorrow's) physics – either relativistic quantum field theory or its currently speculative successor, M-theory. This formal claim is typically conjoined with an ontological assumption, namely that the mysterious “fire” in the equations – the intrinsic nature of the physical – is non-experiential. If this claim is true, then physicalism is a close cousin of classical materialism. If this claim is false, i.e. if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then physicalism becomes a scientifically literate variant of monistic idealism. The best known proponent of non-materialistic physicalism today is Galen Strawson (cf. "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?" by Galen Strawson et al. (2006)).

    Traditional “materialist” physicalists face the seemingly impossible Hard Problem of Consciousness. By contrast, Strawsonian physicalists must confront what David Chalmers calls the problem of microphysical simplicity and the problem of structural mismatch (the phenomenal binding/combination problem):
    http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf

    All varieties of physicalism are typically associated with – but should be distinguished from – reductionism. According to reductive physicalism, life can be reduced to molecular biology, molecular biology to quantum chemistry, and quantum chemistry to the most fundamental entities recognised by physics. The problem with reductionism is that physicists increasingly recognise that the superposition principle is universal. The decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics explains the illusion of wavefunction collapse. If indeed the unitary dynamics doesn't break down, and if physicalism is correct, then wavefunction monism is true, and reductionism is false. All that exists is a single gigantic cosmic superposition exhaustively described by the universal wavefunction. Both materialist and non-materialist physicalists may be wavefunction monists. (cf. Alyssa Ney and David Albert "The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics" Oxford University Press, 2013
    http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/ccallender/Ney_Albert_review.pdf)

    What's my view? Well, I take David Chalmers' challenge to physicalism seriously. If any element of our rich, bound phenomenal consciousness is unrepresented in the formalism of physics, then physicalism is false. Classical neuroscience suggests that organic minds are nothing but networks of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound, effectively classical neurons. If so, then we'd be nothing but patterns of classical Jamesian “mind-dust”. The existence of local and global phenomenal binding poses a huge challenge to physicalism and the ontological unity of science. Thankfully, experiment rather than armchair philosophising should decide the issue:
    https://www.physicalism.com/

  • I'm 17 and just realized that the universe is indifferent to our suffering. The universe still expands. Life goes on. What is the point?
  • “As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are.”
    (Peter Cook)
    Biological minds like ours are part of the universe. For sure, most of the universe is indifferent to suffering. But not all of it. Critically, one species on Earth has mastered its genetic source code. The entire biosphere will soon be programmable. Intelligent moral agents will shortly be able to choose how much suffering and malaise we want to exist in the living world (cf. https://www.abolitionist.com). In principle, biotechnology can abolish the biology of unpleasant experience in all sentient life.

    What is the point of it all?
    Well, recall a lot of the suffering in the world isn’t raw physical distress. The common experience of not-seeing-the-point-of-it-all is itself part of the problem of suffering. Low mood is associated with feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and futility. Life seems meaningless. Conversely, good mood is associated with a sense of purpose and significance. Compare how boosting mesolimbic dopamine function gives life urgency: a sense of things-to-be-done. Biological interventions can enhance your mood and motivation. Ultimately, the feeling of “pointlessness” can itself be abolished via CRISPR-based genome-editing. What’s its use?

    Right now we’re on the brink of a major evolutionary transition in the development of life. Transhumanists believe we should all have the opportunity to feel “better than well” – ideally, a “Triple S” civilisation based on superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness.
    Yet intuitively, technology can’t solve everything. What about the meaning of life? What’s it all about?

    Cracking that one is indeed a challenge. However, let’s leave “meaning” in some transcendent sense to theologians and metaphysicians. Empirically, for reasons we simply don’t understand, life based on gradients of intelligent bliss will feel significant beyond the bounds of normal human experience. Even today, no one says, “I feel blissfully happy but my life feels pointless”.
    Take care of happiness and the meaning of life will take care of itself.

  • Do you have an interesting explanation for any of the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, which might involve novel, or unconventional thinking (outside of the box)?
  • There is one “outside the box” conjecture that I’d like to see experimentally refuted via interferometry. Almost any scientifically-informed reader who appreciates the power of decoherence, and thus the theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS, will reckon the conjecture too absurd to be worth experimentally refuting.
    Two seemingly unrelated problems.

    1) The phenomenal binding / combination problem in neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Why aren’t we just networks of membrane-bound neuronal pixels of experience? Binding may be what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. Without phenomenal binding, your CNS couldn't run a unified, classical-looking world-simulation. But how is binding physically possible? Neuroscanning reveals tantalising hints of a structural match between mind and brain in the form of synchronous firing of distributed neuronal feature-processors during perceptual experience. But if the tools of neuroscience probe your CNS while you subjectively experience the perception of a cat, for example, then there is apparently no cat percept to be found, nor the neurostructural correlate of a cat, just networks of decohered classical neurons.

    2) The problem of definite outcomes in quantum mechanics (QM). If the superposition principle is universally valid, and a non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement (the collapse postulate) is rejected as ad hoc and unphysical, then why are superpositions (“cat states”) never perceived, only inferred? The decoherence program in unitary-only QM promises to explain the emergence of something resembling classicality in mind-independent reality. However, in the words of one leading expert on the foundations of QM,

    “…decoherence cannot solve the problem of definite outcomes in quantum measurement: We are still left with a multitude of (albeit individually well-localized quasiclassical) components of the wave function, and we need to supplement or other-wise to interpret this situation in order to explain why and how single outcomes are perceived.”
    https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0312059.pdf
    [“Decoherence, the measurement problem, and interpretations of quantum mechanics” (2005) by Maximilian Schlosshauer]
    The conjecture I’d like to see tested via interferometry is that only superpositions are ever experienced. Definite outcomes don’t exist. Only the universality of the superposition principle allows your awake CNS to solve the binding problem and phenomenally simulate a robustly quasi-classical world where definite outcomes do exist, where cats are alive rather than dead-and-alive, where coffee cups are well-localised, and where measurement outcomes tend to conform to the Born rule. In other words, a world-simulation like the macroscopic virtual reality that you’re experiencing right now.

    Practising physicists are often dismissive of philosophers and armchair physicists who don’t take the trouble to master the technicalia of their discipline. But one lesson of post-empiricist philosophy of science is the theory-ladenness of observation. Even our notions of an “observation” or “perception” are theory-saturated. Thus the falsity of the conjecture that only superpositions are ever experienced is rarely explicitly stated; rather, it’s normally treated as self-evident. If perceptual direct realism were true, then it would indeed be self-evident. But it’s not; perception is a genetically adaptive hoax.

    [You did ask for outside-the-box!]

  • What is David Pearce's response to Vegan Antinatalist's video "Why David Pearce is wrong about Anti-natalism"?
  • My view of Darwinian life on Earth is (if anything) darker than most radical anti-natalists (cf. What are your thoughts on anti-natalism?). So let's here focus on the purely technical question. Is the most effective way to minimise, prevent, and ultimately abolish suffering (1) human extinction via radical anti-natalism? Or (2) genetically reprogramming the biosphere?

    Clearly, there is no gene "for" natalism or anti-natalism – any more than there is a gene "for" belief in God (cf. God gene - Wikipedia). But this isn't what the Argument From Selection Pressure against extinctionist anti-natalism claims. There are fitness-enhancing genes / allelic combinations that predispose to, e.g. religiosity, and hence natalism (cf. God's little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide).

    Of course, not all religious traditions claim that we have a duty to "go forth and multiply". Yet compare the fate of celibate religious communities like the Shakers with the mass breeders. Selection pressure against anti-natalism is also far more direct. Before the advent of family planning, the question of whether a woman wished to have children was often academic. But “broodiness” (cf. Broodiness: The Need to Conceive) is a heritable trait under a high degree of genetic-biological control. Men as well as women are susceptible (cf. Falling in love makes men broody) – some studies have claimed to a similar degree (cf. Real men are just as broody as women). Other things being equal, the slightest genetic predisposition not to feel broody, or feel only weakly broody and hence more susceptible to anti-natalist ethics, will be strongly selected against. Thus today involuntary childlessness still causes terrible heartache. People will go to extraordinary lengths to have children (cf. "Indian woman who had baby at 72 says she has no regrets - but being a mother is harder than she expected"). If anything, the unfolding revolution in reproductive medicine means that selection pressure in favour of broodiness will intensify rather than slacken.

    I say more on anti-natalism here:
    What are the main differences between the anti-natalism / efilism community and the negative utilitarian / suffering-focused ethics wing of the effective altruism community?
    and:
    What are the arguments against anti-natalism?
    In short, I’d urge everyone not to bring more suffering into the world. Yet if you are determined to have children, then you can at least load the genetic dice in their favour. Strictly speaking, life and suffering aren’t synonymous. Post-Darwinian life will probably be wonderful.

  • Why can’t science explain consciousness?
  • Maybe for the same reason that science can’t explain luminiferous aether. If we make the plausible assumption that quantum field theory (QFT) describes fields of insentience, then science cannot explain the existence, diversity, causal efficacy and classically impossible phenomenal binding of conscious experience, i.e. the entirety of the empirical evidence. If we make the implausible assumption that quantum field theory describes fields of sentience, then science can explain the existence, diversity, causal efficacy, classically impossible phenomenal binding of conscious experience.

    Experiment holds the key – just as it did to discarding luminiferous aether. How compelling is the evidence for a hypothetical non-experiential "fire" in the equations that somehow spawns consciousness? Of course the challenge cuts both ways. Traditional forms of property-dualist panpsychism are untestable. Intuitively, non-materialist physicalism is untestable too. If the fundamental “psychon” of experience is ludicrously small and ludicrously short-lived, then commonsense suggests we’ll never know either way. How could we? So pre-reflectively, non-materialist physicalism is just as metaphysical as the more plausible assumption that an electron field, for example, is a field of insentience. However, unlike panpsychism, non-materialist physicalism is experimentally falsifiable. Physicalism, recall, is the working philosophical assumption of most scientists. No “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of our best theory of the world: QFT or its generalisation. Thus compare Eric Schwitzgebel’s claim that “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious”. We can’t prove Schwitzgebel’s conjecture is false. Yet proposing that the USA is a continental subject of experience isn’t consistent with physicalism. Irrespective of how they communicate, 320 million skull-bound minds can’t generate a unified experiential subject on pain of “strong” emergence.

    So in what sense is non-materialist physicalism testable? The problem – but also what makes non-materialist physicalism experimentally falsifiable – is that on the face of it your 86 billion membrane-bound neurons are in the same boat as the USA. A micro-experiential zombie is still just a zombie – not a unitary subject of experience. This structural mismatch between mind and neurobiology seemingly rules out any kind of physicalism: materialist and non-materialist alike. Right now, you are undergoing both “local” binding, i.e. experiencing individual perceptual objects – and “global” binding: the unity of perception and the unity of the self. Such phenomenal unity is impossible if your neurons are the discrete, decohered objects of textbook neuroscience. Classical “psychons” can form only aggregates. Likewise, if physicalism is true, then a classical Turing machine with discrete pixels of experience (instead of 0s and 1s) is just a micro-experiential zombie too, again on pain of “strong” emergence. So how are a pack of biological neurons different from the USA and a classical digital computer?

    Well, maybe textbook neuroscience is mistaken. You aren’t a pack of classical neurons. The temporal resolution of our neuroscanning is too coarse-grained: milliseconds, not femtoseconds. If non-materialist physicalism is true, and if quantum mechanics is complete, then molecular matter-wave interferometry will demonstrate that the superposition principle of QM never breaks down. At a temporally fine-grained resolution, molecular matter-wave interferometry can (dis)confirm a perfect structural match between phenomenal mind and the formalism of physics. You are a coherent, quantum mind simulating a classical world: What is a quantum mind?). Unlike philosophy, a non-classical interference signature cannot lie.

  • What are the promises of gene editing?
  • Will suffering, stupidity and senescence always be biologically inevitable? Or can humanity rewrite our genetic source code to create a “triple S” civilisation of superhappiness, superintelligence and superlongevity?

    Will the blessings of genetic medicine be confined to a rich power elite, or maybe a single species or ethnic group? Or will intelligent moral agents genetically reprogram the biosphere for the benefit of all sentience?

    Will Darwinian life’s path to salvation merely have speed-bumps? Or do we run the risk of unleashing genetic Armageddon? (cf. Is genetic engineering (CRISPR, gene drives, etc.) advanced enough to kill or save billions of people?)

    I’m personally a negative utilitarian (NU). I desperately wish reality had an OFF switch. In my view, philosopher David Benatar’s conception of life (“We are creatures that should not exist”) is unduly rosy (cf. The Case for Not Being Born), and his hopeful policy prescription, i.e. human extinction via anti-natalism, is infeasible on account of selection pressure.

    Any crumbs of comfort? Well, for a super-pessimist’s predictions for life in the Year 3000 see: Looking 1000 years into the future, what will society be like?

  • What do physicists think of quantum Darwinism?
  • Cautious respect.
    But can the charge of circularity be overcome?

    In recent years, the percentage of physicists who anticipate that future experiment will reveal a collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics has declined. Many working physicists believe that the decoherence program can potentially solve the measurement problem. Quantum mechanics isn’t essentially about measurements and observations. It’s about reality. The heyday of positivism has passed.

    A realistic interpretation of the formalism of unitary-only QM still poses formidable challenges.

    Two questions.

    1) If the superposition principle is ubiquitous, then how do anything resembling quasi-classical macroscopic branches emerge – weakly, non-spookily, emerge – within quantum reality? The Schrödinger equation is linear and deterministic. Realistically interpreted, the universal Schrödinger equation mandates countless “exotic” possibilities that are (apparently) never experienced: most notoriously, superpositions of live-and-dead cats, but also an infinite regress of superposed people (cf. Wigner's friend), smeared-out pointer states, and zillions of other exotica inconsistent with familiar classical physics (cf. the Correspondence principle). No doubt the influence of positivism has waned, but post-empiricist science mustn’t degenerate into post-empirical science. Or at least, not if we’re investigating sub-Planckian energy regimes.

    2) Let’s assume that life-supporting, quasi-classical branches do demonstrably emerge within the unitary-only dynamics. How does our skull-bound wetware represent such emergent classicality? Decoherence theorist Wojciech Zurek sounds a defeatist note:
    “the observer’s mind (that verifies, finds out, etc.) constitutes a primitive notion which is prior to that of scientific reality.”
    (Decoherence, einselection, and the quantum origins of the classical, W. Zurek, 2003).
    Maybe Zurek is correct. Scientific materialism cannot explain subjective experience. However, our phenomenal minds can be treated as “primitive” only on pain of dualism. The properties of our minds, not least the subjectively classical phenomenal world-simulations run by our minds, should ideally be derivable from our best tested scientific theory. That theory is expressed in the unmodified mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics. If QM is shorn of materialist metaphysics, then wavefunction monism explains not just the appearance of a quantum-to-classical transition, but also the classically impossible binding, rich diversity and causal efficacy of consciousness needed subjectively to represent that quantum-to-classical transition, i.e. both (1) the emergence of mind-independent quasi-classicality, and (2) the subjectively experienced representation of such mind-independent quasi-classicality in the awake CNS. Contrast empirically adequate non-materialist physicalism with its metaphysical cousin (cf. the Hard problem of consciousness). With or without the collapse postulate, “materialist” physicalism cannot explain the existence, classically impossible phenomenal binding, rich diversity and causal efficacy of consciousness, i.e. the empirical evidence.

    Let’s first tackle question 1), i.e. the explanatory role of quantum Darwinism in the emergence of quasi-classicality. Together with H. Dieter Zeh, theoretical physicist Wojciech Zurek is one of the pioneers of the decoherence program of post-Everett quantum mechanics. By “post-Everett” let’s mean the relative state formulation (RSI) of QM due to Hugh Everett, rather than its ontologically extravagant “many worlds” popularisation by Bryce DeWitt. Within our single, all-entangled and tenselessly existing multiverse, Zurek’s quantum Darwinism claims to explain the observer-independent emergence of quasi-classicality via an ultra-powerful selection mechanism. According to Zurek, massively redundant environmental encoding of information about any given system is separately accessible to arbitrarily many different observers. The proliferation throughout the environment of imprints of the state of a given system leads to what Zurek calls “environment as a witness”. Contrast an observer-induced “collapse of the wavefunction”. Zurek argues that this ultra-powerful selection mechanism explains how the countless physically possible quantum states are selected against in favour of dynamically stable pointer states, dynamically stable macroscopic objects, and – naively, at any rate – dynamically stable and effectively classical neurons in the CNS.

    Yet why the “Darwinism”? Isn’t this trope merely some tricksy metaphor? As summarised by John Campbell, in order to fulfil the criteria of a Darwinian selection process, what’s needed are (1) replication, (2) heritable variations amongst the copies, and (3) selective survival of the fitter copies in accordance with their variations. Zurek’s proposal allegedly satisfies all three criteria. Zurek argues that only quantum states that survive transmission and proliferate though the environmental information channel in the right kind of way are comparatively dynamically stable (cf. New evidence for quantum Darwinism found in quantum dots).

    To be sure, the Darwinian parallel isn’t perfect. The fleeting exotic physical possibilities “selected against” are all real. Ultimate reality of Hilbert space is unimaginably big; it can accommodate all such exotica and more. You are just exceedingly unlikely to witness, or find yourself instantiating, any of the exotics. The exotics are not dynamically stable.

    Problems?
    Yes. Doesn’t Zurek’s quantum Darwinism, and the whole decoherence program of unitary-only QM, covertly assume what it purports to derive, namely a partitioning of reality into separable localised substructures? How does a primordial distinction between any “system” and “environment” initially arise in order that selection pressure – in both Darwin’s and Zurek’s sense – can ever get to work? Perhaps see e.g. Chris Fields on decompositional equivalence.

    For now, I’m going to gloss over these difficulties. Let’s assume the existence of comparatively dynamically stable and effectively classical skulls enclosing our biological minds – “systems” and an environment. Consider question 2). How can organic nervous systems functionally represent, and phenomenally simulate in almost real time, an approximately classical environment in genetically fitness-enhancing ways, i.e. “fitness” in Darwin’s sense rather than Zurek’s? Extracranial reality cannot be accessed directly. Perceptual direct realism is false. The falsity of perceptual direct realism is vital for the classicality-generating selection-mechanism of Zurek’s quantum Darwinism to work. For it’s precisely the gulf between “observers” and notionally observed systems that allows the environment to “act as a witness”, so to speak, allowing vastly redundant environmental encoding of information about the notionally “observed” system that many “observers” can separately, indirectly, access via inputs to their skull-bound phenomenal world-simulations. Thus we don’t “see” objects via direct interaction, but rather by intercepting scattered photons that encode information about their spatial structure (cf. The quantum-to-classical transition and decoherence by Maximilian Schlosshauer). So two possibilities.
    Are humans
    a) a pack of comparatively dynamically stable and effectively classical membrane-bound neurons – decohered pixels of “mind-dust” that somehow solve the binding problem and phenomenally simulate classical worlds?
    Or
    b) quantum minds that run subjectively classical world-simulations?
    In my tentative minority view – not Zurek’s – only the vehicle of a coherent quantum mind can run the content of a phenomenally classical world-simulation, for instance, the seemingly robust classical reality that you are experiencing right now. Without a selection mechanism, the quadrillions of fleeting superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors comprising your CNS would just be functionless psychotic noise – either insentient psychotic noise if conventional materialist physicalism is true, or sentient and phenomenally bound psychotic noise if non-materialist physicalism is true. All are “legal” superpositions if QM is complete. But absent a selection mechanism, they would still just be computationally useless. Instead, we have functional binding. Functional binding is what consciousness is “for”. The phenomenally bound virtual worlds of awake organic minds seem well-ordered and classical, some more so than others.

    How? Who in tomorrow's neuroscience will play Mendel to Zurek’s Darwin? I don’t know.
    Quantum Darwinism in the CNS deserves a treatise of its own.

  • What should I do if I seem to have fallen in a nihilistic abyss?
  • “The point is there ain't no point.”
    (Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men)
    Don’t assume that you can philosophise your way out of the pit. Methodically explore different classes of mood-brightener, ideally with the guidance of a specialist. Whether success takes six weeks or six months, you are likely to succeed if you persevere. Speaking crudely, noradrenergic / dopaminergic agents such as bupropion (Wellbutrin) are useful for motivation. Serotonergics such as the SSRIs are useful for anxiety and stress, but not melancholia. Unselective MAOIs such as tranylcypromine (Parnate) sometimes work when all else fails. Tianeptine (Stablon) has an opioidergic mechanism and anomalously low abuse-potential.

    Fine-tuning takes time. Life will then seem satisfying and meaningful. Optimal diet, aerobic exercise and sleep discipline should help too. When you succeed, help others do likewise. One can do more good in this world if one takes care of oneself.

    Right now, this answer will feel unsatisfying. One wants some higher meaning or metaphysical purpose, not an empty, chemically-induced “happiness”. Intuitively, depressive realism shouldn’t be medicalised. When the barbarians are at the gate or the wolf is at the door, one feels an awful sense of danger; but life doesn’t feel meaningless: quite the reverse. By contrast, low mood is associated with social withdrawal, feelings of failure and inadequacy, and an overpowering sense of futility.
    So why bother?

    Like you, I feel the pull of the “nihilistic abyss”. Intellectually, at least, I think I know what needs to be done:
    How would you respond to Jordan Peterson's assertion that the answer to suffering is meaning, rather than eradication of suffering?

  • Can natural selection be a conscious endeavor?
  • "Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, ... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.”
    (Edward O. Wilson)
    Traditionally, no. Mercifully, the nature of selection pressure is about to change. Natural selection has no foresight: it’s “blind”. Traditional natural selection is based on effectively random mutations and the genetic shuffling of sexual reproduction. But intelligent agents will soon pre-select and design the genotypes of their children in anticipation of the likely behavioural-psychological effect of their choices. Selection pressure will be revolutionised. Tomorrow’s designer babies will typically be nicer, smarter, healthier and happier than the products of today’s genetic lottery. After all, if you’re not an anti-natalist, what sorts of traits would you like to see in your future children? Pain-sensitivity and hedonic set-points will shortly be adjustable parameters. Alleles and allelic combinations for nasty but previously fitness-enhancing traits will progressively be weeded out of the human genome. Later this century, the entire biosphere will be programmable via synthetic gene drives (cf. Genetically designing a happy biosphere). CRISPR-based gene drives cheat the “laws” of Mendelian inheritance.

    What could go wrong?
    A lot: Is eugenics moral?
    Yet suffering will soon be technically optional. In my view, the biosphere will be ethically better off without it.

  • Is Science intrinsically physicalist or materialist?
  • “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”
    (Richard Feynman)
    Science isn’t intrinsically materialist. Thus you can believe that the world is exhaustively described by a quantum wavefunction and be a monistic idealist (cf. non-materialist physicalism).

    Many scientists are epiphenomenalists rather than materialists, though typically they wouldn’t use that fancy philosophical label (cf. the Hard Problem of consciousness). Other researchers are willing to explore panpsychism, though not a pre-scientific animism. Some scientists view information as fundamental to mind and the universe (cf. Is the brain a quantum computer?). But what exactly is “information”? (cf. Scott Aaronson’s Is “information is physical” contentful?)

    Most scientists disbelieve that anything non-material could have causal efficacy. Thus the well-tested Standard Model in physics is normally reckoned empirically adequate, save at ridiculously high energy regimes, which seemingly excludes a non-redundant role for consciousness (cf. The Big Picture by Sean Carroll). However, if non-materialist physicalism is true, and hence only the physical has causal power, then all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. P-zombies are unphysical. Contrast the common scientific view that quantum field theory describes fields of insentience. If so, p-zombies should be ubiquitous (cf. How do I know that the humans around me actually possess consciousness?).

    So the short answer to your question is: no.
    But woe betide any armchair physicist who thinks he can start tampering with the formalism of unitary quantum mechanics.

  • Can plants be considered smarter than humans?
  • “If a potato or rutabaga can utilize quantum coherence, it's likely our brains could have figured it out as well.”
    (Professor Jack Tuszynski, University of Alberta)
    Plants are sophisticated information processors (cf. When It Comes to Photosynthesis, Plants Perform https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-it-comes-to-photosynthesis-plants-perform-quantum-computation/">Quantum Computation), capable of performing feats of computation that surpass humans, though their quantum supremacy has been challenged (cf. What is a quantum mind?). Some New Agers consider that plants are smarter than humans, so the answer to your question is, yes. Plants are not unitary subjects of experience, but then neither are digital computers: Deep Blue doesn’t need the unity of consciousness to beat us at chess. Unlike Deep Blue, plants are versatile problem-solvers. Perhaps see "Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence" by Stefano Mancuso.

    So should we be considering rights for plants?
    No, in my view.
    Speciesism is ethically unjustifiable, but not sentientism. Only subjects of experience deserve moral consideration. Thus it’s wrong to eat meat or deliberately tread on an ant, but not to mutilate a carrot.

    The historical record suggests that common sense is usually mistaken. Nonetheless, the consensus wisdom on plants is probably correct. Plants are “not even stupid.” Plants are not sentient. They may be treated accordingly.

  • Why isn't consciousness developed in any other species except human beings?
  • “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
    (E.M Forster).
    Several species of large-brained mammals may be more intensely conscious than humans (cf. What earthly animal comes closest to human levels of sentience?). Other non-human animals enjoy a wider and better-developed array of senses. Members of no other species of animal have the rich generative syntax of Homo sapiens, or at least typical mature humans, though the linguistic prowess of smart dogs, parrots and pigs exceeds some human adults. Not all language-users believe they are conscious, though the anti-realists are probably mistaken (cf. Are radical eliminativists about consciousness P-zombies? Or do they misinterpret the nature of their own consciousness?).

    As a moment’s introspection can confirm, we have little conscious access to the processes of language-production, and so-called higher-order intentionality is phenomenally thin. Some kinds of non-linguistic consciousness may be more intense than both logico-linguistic thought-episodes and our normal phenomenal world-simulations in human and non-human animals alike (cf. DMT takes users to a place that feels 'more real than real').

    A note of caution here might be wise. The conjecture that the sentience of some non-human animals may surpass all members of Homo sapiens is not equivalent to claiming that e.g. whales are repositories of the timeless wisdom of the ancients, or other New Age moonshine.

  • Why are vegans so cruel to vegetables?
  • cruel: adjective
    wilfully causing pain or suffering to others, or feeling no concern about it.”
    (Google Dictionary)

    How should we compare the level of compassion or cruelty of a meat-eater prepared to pay for e.g. Pig Care (Mercy for Animals video) with the level of compassion or cruelty of vegans who choose a plant-based diet?

    Studies suggest that meat-eaters selectively downplay minds, while affecting a touching concern for the emotional well-being of plants. Yet could vegans be guilty of self-serving bias too? Should botanists study plant psychology and vegetable psychiatry? Might a pre-scientific animism be true?

    Perhaps panpsychism, as distinct from animism, is defensible. Yet even if panpsychism is true, we have strong grounds to believe that unitary consciousness depends on a nervous system. A nervous system is energetically expensive. In the absence of a capacity for rapid, self-propelled motion, there could be no selection pressure for plants to evolve anything analogous to the CNS.
    In short, a lettuce cannot suffer.

    By contrast, a pig is as sentient and sapient as a prelinguistic human toddler. The rapid growth of veganism (cf. Over 3 million UK residents now identify as vegan) reflects compassion and cognitive consistency (cf. High IQ link to being vegetarian) rather than cruelty. Fanciful speculation about plant sentience should not be used as an excuse for child or animal abuse.

  • Is anti-natalism incompatible with Christianity?
  • The Bible is explicit. We should “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth”, though presumably not with the goal of Malthusian catastrophe. Believers tend to pick and choose their texts: the Bible is also explicit about many things that jar with contemporary sensibilities. Even the most devout Biblical literalists today are reluctant to endorse burning witches (cf. Exodus 22:18). But the life-affirming message of the Bible is clear. Compare the religions of the Indian subcontinent (cf. Moksha).

    So are devout Christians obliged to propagate? It would seem so. Man is made in God’s image, too, or so we are told (cf. Genesis 1:27), excluding the use of genetic technology for e.g. radical morphological freedom.

    However, some flexibility in baby-making is evidently ethically permissible. Ordinary sexual reproduction involves effectively random genetic shuffling: meiosis. Nothing in the Bible prohibits the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and counselling, or gene-editing to promote lifelong gradients of bliss, or a transhumanist civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. Indeed, perhaps designer genes could promote a greater propensity to spiritual experience and an entire hyperspiritual civilisation (cf. Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model). Generations of selective breeding and CRISPR genome-editing of existing humans (cf. Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA) could help bring us closer to God - or our gods (cf. Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God).

    Or so it might be claimed. Some scientists even predict that spiritual genotypes will prevail “naturally” (cf. Model predicts 'religiosity gene' will dominate society). I’m personally a secular scientific rationalist and a “soft” anti-natalist who advocates a suffering-focused ethics. Phasing out the biology of suffering will involve building a broad coalition of political support. If humans go on breeding “naturally” without mercy, then pain and misery will persist until Doomsday.

    Science has given us the tools to write good code (cf. Is eugenics moral?). Will humans be wise enough to eradicate the sinister biological malware that spawned us? Or carry on churning out bad code indefinitely?

  • What is the purpose of our species and why should we not opt for extinction?
  • Only one species is able to phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world. Only one species is able to lay the foundations for responsible stewardship of our Hubble volume. If, fancifully, Homo sapiens were to take the equivalent the Peaceful Pill, then pain and suffering would fester and proliferate in the biosphere indefinitely.

    To the best of our knowledge, “purpose”, in some transcendent sense of the term, doesn’t exist. There are only sentient beings with purposes, and non-sentient information processors with their functional analogues (cf. utility functions). Neuroscience will soon have the technical tools to make life empirically feel superhumanly significant. Mastery of our reward circuitry promises post-Darwinian life animated by gradients of superhuman bliss. If so, then our lives will be subjectively supercharged with meaning. If mesolimbic dopamine function is enriched, too, then everyday life will also have a superhuman sense of purpose, rather than, say, blissful serenity. However, this fabulous feast of delights is just a speculative prediction, not some God-given prescription of human destiny: “purpose” in the grander sense. If metaphysical “purpose” doesn’t exist, then what vindicates the project of ending suffering worldwide and justifies our existence as a species? How likely is one’s own personal life-narrative to accord with values of posthuman superintelligence?

    Clearly, sentient beings have diverse and often conflicting goals. Yet for reasons science doesn’t understand (cf. the Hard Problem), the pleasure-pain axis is sovereign. Whatever your hedonic range, the pleasure-pain axis is inescapable. The pleasure-pain axis is the ultimate source of all empirical (dis)value. If your hand is in the fire, then the question of some higher “purpose” or metaphysical reason for action doesn’t arise: the badness of agony is self-intimating and coercive. So you withdraw your hand. Escaping psychological distress is vastly more complicated. True, not everyone finds life a vale of tears. Nonetheless, evolution via natural selection ensures that the living world is full of suffering beings, racked by self-intimatingly bad experiences. Most sentient beings can’t – metaphorically – withdraw their hands from the fire. A pan-species rescue mission is needed to help them. A civilised world in which the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb can come to pass only via human design rather then divine intervention.

    An anti-realist about value will be dismissive about any such proposal. The conclusion simply doesn’t follow. Utilitarians are guilty of a fallacy of composition. Yes, your suffering is disvaluable for you. Its subjective badness has no implications for me, or for any grandiose species-project to reprogram the biosphere to abolish suffering, or for conserving the genetic status quo, or for justifying human extinction, or anything else. Value-judgements are neither true nor false. Value-judgements are truth-valueless, just signaling mechanisms or emotive expressions of hot air.

    You’ll forgive me for not here offering a treatise on meta-ethics. Instead, I’ll just note the perennial temptation to take appearances at face value (cf. Are you the center of the universe?). Empirically, my raging toothache – or proverbial hand-in-the-fire – is more urgent than suffering in all the rest of the world combined. Yet natural science teaches us that the egocentric illusion is a genetically adaptive lie. Natural science aspires to the impartial view-from-nowhere. This here-and-now isn't ontologically privileged. I’m not really special. Therefore, insofar as suffering is bad for me, it’s bad for anyone, anywhere. To a posthuman superintelligence in command of all the first-person and third-person facts, morality and decision-theoretic rationality would converge (cf. How do I believe that the humans around me actually possess consciousness?). Post-human superintelligence would withdraw our hand from the fire, so to speak, i.e. get rid of the empirical source of all negative value in the world. Humanity can’t become God, but we should at least aim to become posthuman superintelligence.

    Other Quorans will probably give you answers very different from my Buddhist / Benthamite plea to eradicate suffering via biotechnology. Yet our choices don’t have to be mutually exclusive. By genetically conserving information-sensitive gradients of hedonic tone, and ratcheting up hedonic set-points, humanity can improve the default quality of life for all sentient beings without imposing our values on others.

    This point might also be expressed more snappily. Life needn’t be a zero-sum game. The biohappiness revolution can leave everyone a winner.

  • What do vegetarians feel when they see someone eating a juicy, delicious, tasty hamburger?
  • How much weight should we give to the perspective of people who derive pleasure from harming others? Perhaps compare cannibalism or child abuse. Empathy for the perpetrators and victims alike is admirable. But the amount of pleasure someone derives from eating babies or harming small children is ethically irrelevant. We recognise that cannibalism and child abuse should be illegal.

    What about harming non-human beings of comparable sentience? How do we avoid the risk of self-serving bias? I’ve never tasted meat, so I don't know exactly what I’m missing. I think one should try to identify with the perpetrator, empathising with the pleasure to be derived from choosing a “juicy, delicious, tasty” hamburger over a cruelty-free veggieburger, as well as identifying with the suffering of the victims. What does it feel like to be a factory-farmed pig from birth until slaughter? Ethically speaking, the interests of the victims should still be prioritised – irrespective of age, race or species. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses should be shut, and meat-eating outlawed.

  • Are there any complete metaphysical frameworks that provide a model for how everything in the world can be explained?
  • “Metaphysics is a dark ocean without shores or lighthouse, strewn with many a philosophic wreck.”
    (Immanuel Kant)

    “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.”
    (Terry Pratchett)

    Science aims to explain everything. Most working scientists would scorn the label of metaphysical system-building (cf. A fetish for falsification and observation holds back science). But the multiverse is metaphysics on steroids. From the wavefunction monism of no-collapse quantum mechanics to the Landscape of string vacua hypothesised by M-theory, the overarching vision of science is bold. Science aims for a single mathematical description of the world from which no “element of reality” is missing (cf. The Big Picture by Sean Carroll). No doubt the average laboratory chemist or molecular biologist would respond quizzically if told (s)he were part of some grand metaphysical enterprise. The practical success of science depends on a cognitive division of labour. Yet if chemistry and the biosciences didn’t supervene on the underlying physics, then the successes of the special sciences would be a miracle.

    Critics of scientific triumphalism argue that materialism is inconsistent with consciousness – its (1) existence, (2) causal efficacy, (3) phenomenal binding, and (4) rich palette. Uniquely, consciousness resists derivation from physics (cf. How does physicalism tackle the 'experience' of consciousness?).

    Indeed so. However, materialism should be distinguished from physicalism (cf. Is science intrinsically physicalist or materialist?). According to materialist physicalism, the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory or its stringy extension describes fields of insentience. According to non-materialist physicalism, quantum field theory or its stringy extension describes fields of sentience. Most philosophers of science would argue that the ontology of materialism is an example of “good” metaphysics, despite the anomaly of consciousness. Discounting non-materialist physicalism (or panpsychism) goes beyond the empirical evidence. So do many things. All of us depend on metaphysical presuppositions and background assumptions. Without “good” metaphysics, each of us would be helplessly trapped in solipsism-of-the-here-and-now (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). What criteria distinguish “good” from “bad” metaphysics? Well, there’s the rub.

    My view?
    Pessimistic, but not mysterian:
    What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?
    I assume that tomorrow’s physics will deliver the mathematical equation of a so-called Theory of Everything (ToE). A ToE inconsistent with its own evidential base would be unsatisfactory. Some materialists speak of the Hard Problem, as though consciousness could be quarantined from the rest of scientific belief. A minority of materialists deny the empirical evidence: anti-realism about consciousness is the metaphysics of zombies. Post-empirical science runs the risk of degenerating into anti-empirical science. This is going too far. I explore alternatives to materialist metaphysics, in particular, non-materialist physicalism – not out of any conviction of its truth, but because of its empirical adequacy. Unlike the metaphysical framework of materialism, non-materialist physicalism offers answers from (1) to (4) above. The alternative to monistic physicalism is dualism.

    Despite tentative answers from (1) to (4), I’m still pessimistic about understanding reality in more than a shallow, formal sense. As philosopher Bertrand Russell remarked, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little; it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” Insofar as one’s own mind is physical, this may not strictly be the case. Yet the tiny sliver of reality one knows by direct acquaintance is atypical in organization if not nature. My own pessimism about scientific knowledge stems from youthful acquaintance with the empirical method (cf. PiHKAL). Treating the investigation of consciousness – and hence (according to non-materialist physicalism) the investigation of matter and energy – as an experimental discipline reveals entire state-spaces of consciousness beyond the conceptual resources of our language to describe. Recall how language is a public – or more strictly, a pseudo-public – phenomenon. Most state-spaces of consciousness, let alone their specific contents, have never been recruited by evolution for any information-signalling purpose. No words exist to describe them, nor theory to explain them. Many of these uncharted state-spaces of consciousness are what Kuhnians would call incommensurable, i.e. mutually unintelligible to each other, either wholly or in part. No translation-manuals between such state-spaces of consciousness exist; and if they did, they’d be lame. Perhaps imagine trying to describe the nature of visual experience to a congenitally blind rationalist using only auditory terms. Yes, redness might be called a “loud” colour. One could persist awhile in this poetic vein. The visual intelligence of the congenitally blind remains an empty shell. The gulf between alien state-spaces of consciousness is incomparably wider than the difference between sight and sound.

    A drug-naïve materialist will be unimpressed. “Sure, taking psychedelics can cause weird experiences. So what? The mathematical formalism of my TOE captures everything. Nothing is missing, no hidden variables. Your weird experiences are encoded among the solutions to my equations.”

    In a sense, the scientific metaphysician may be right: that’s what physicalism entails, whether our ontology is materialist or non-materialist. Quantum mechanics is formally complete (cf. What Is Real? by Adam Becker). Yet without a cosmic Rosetta stone to “read off” the values of consciousness from the solutions to the equations, and without the modules of some God-like supermind to access incommensurable state-spaces of consciousness, the triumph of mathematical physics rings hollow. Likewise, promises of “machine superintelligence” are empty: digital zombies don’t even understand what they lack. I love reading a good scientific yarn as much as anyone. But human scientists still have the minds of savages, and the understanding of consciousness to match.

    What’s the way forward?
    More experimental research, I guess. I explore a post-Galilean science of mind; you take drugs. The empirical method trumps metaphysical system-building, although they aren’t always mutually exclusive.

  • Would a superintelligent AI be conscious?
  • “By far, the greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence is that people conclude too early that they understand it.”
    (Eliezer Yudkowsky)

    “I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness to make sure it continues into the future.”
    (Elon Musk)

    Any full-spectrum superintelligence will be conscious. Digital zombies cannot investigate first-person experience or grasp the nature of their ignorance. Full-spectrum superintelligence will be supersentient, so to speak, able to access a vast library of state-spaces of consciousness inaccessible to the legacy wetware of unenhanced humans. On this analysis, mankind’s superintelligent successors will also be our biological descendants.

    By contrast, classical digital computers are – and will remain – insentient. Programmable digital zombies will outperform the biological minds of humans, transhumans and even post-humans in a wide and expanding array of cognitive domains. Artificial intelligence will outclass biological minds in school, leisure and the workplace. Silicon (etc) robots will be better doctors, professors, games-players, caregivers, investors, conversationalists, lovers, Quora pundits and so forth than archaic humans. Networked neurochips and smart prostheses will massively augment the cognitive capacities of biological minds in a recursive cycle of self-improvement. Yet neither symbolic AI nor connectionist systems are going to “wake up” and become unified subjects of experience, i.e. minds running phenomenal world-simulations: us. Only phenomenal minds can understand the world.

    The above claims would be contested by many AI experts (cf. Church–Turing thesis), although Turing machine functionalists have no explanation of how consciousness has the causal power to e.g. ask questions about its own existence. A serious answer to your question would start by defining our terms: a boring exercise, for sure, but otherwise, researchers are prone to talk past each other. Often they still do regardless. All answers to the Hard Problem of consciousness are crazy. Here, I’d just like to stress one point. The conjecture that panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true may (or may not) deserve to be taken seriously; but panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism doesn’t entail that digital AI can be any more sentient than a carrot or a rock. Believers in digital sentience need to offer a physicalist account of consciousness and phenomenal binding – or alternatively, explain why we should accept dualism or “strong” emergence.

  • Why do people think abortion is okay when they're actually murdering a defenceless baby?
  • “Nothing more strongly arouses our disgust than cannibalism, yet we make the same impression on Buddhists and vegetarians, for we feed on babies, though not our own.”
    (Robert Louis Stevenson)
    Most people in our society believe that killing defenceless babies is morally acceptable. Anti-abortion activists believe that an exception should be made if the victims are unborn members of Homo sapiens. Many vegetarians and vegan activists defend a woman’s right to abortion. Most pro-life campaigners defend their right to kill non-human animals and eat their flesh. Evolution via natural selection did not “design” the human mind to be consistent.

    Technology is likely to transform the ethical debate. The in vitro meat revolution promises an end to industrialised animal-abuse. The death-factories will eventually be shut and outlawed. The advent of artificial wombs promises a world where sentient beings are no longer killed before birth (cf. An artificial womb successfully grew baby sheep — and humans could be next).

    In practice, all manner of disputes, fudges and messy compromises lie ahead. For instance, some meat-eaters may still demand to eat butchered animal flesh because the products of factory-farming and slaughterhouses are “more natural” than genetically-identical in vitro products. Some anti-abortion activists may want to rescue not just sentient foetuses and micro-preemies, but also embryos and even preimplantation blastocysts and zygotes. By convention, an embryo becomes a foetus from the twelfth week after fertilisation (cf. Pregnancy timeline). Before the differentiation of the ectoderm to form a rudimentary nervous system, an embryo cannot be a unitary subject of experience (cf. panpsychism). Talk of rights for embryos, foetuses and unborn children becomes the theological quagmire of rights for souls (cf. Ensoulment).

    My view?
    Negative utilitarianism (NU) and (soft) anti-natalism are not ethical positions commonly associated with upholding the sanctity of life. Yet humans are coarsened and brutalised by violence. Even the best intentions can go horribly wrong (cf. Is eugenics moral?). A policy of legally-enshrined Ahimsa (from the Sanskrit word for non-injury or non-violence) would be globally wise. I’m personally a secular scientific rationalist. But figuratively speaking, high-tech Jainism for human and non-human animals alike may be the best route to the well-being of all sentience.

  • Is there a mutation preventing a human from gaining consciousness?
  • The genetic basis of p-zombies is complex. Unlike, e.g. nonsense mutations of the SCN9A gene, which cause congenital insensitivity to pain, or children born with anencephaly with a genetic rather than environmental origin (cf. Major gene is responsible for anencephaly among Iranian Jews), no single gene or mutation is responsible for the syndrome of people who report they lack consciousness.

    Alternatively, anti-realists about consciousness aren’t really p-zombies: they misinterpret the nature of their own minds:
    Are radical eliminativists about consciousness p-zombies?

  • How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of the easy and hard problem of consciousness?
  • “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”
    (Mahatma Gandhi)
    The Hard Problem of consciousness is why we aren’t p-zombies. The phenomenal binding problem is why we aren’t micro-experiential zombies, just pixels of cellular “mind-dust”. Without an answer to the Hard Problem, there is nothing to bind.

    Philosopher David Chalmers didn’t discover the Hard Problem or the binding problem. But Chalmers has been clearest on spelling out what follows unless both mysteries can be solved within the conceptual framework of monistic physicalism: in short, dualism. ”Dualism” is normally reckoned a dirty word among chaste-tongued rationalists. Yet as the debate stands today, a commitment to physicalism and the ontological unity of science is essentially an article of faith. Vindicating that faith will take a scientific revolution. Just don’t expect many Damascene conversions on the road to post-materialist science. Instead, allow for generational turnover (“Science advances one funeral at a time.” – Max Planck).

    Both the Hard Problem and the binding problem are set against a backdrop of presuppositions and implicit assumptions. The presuppositions may all seem obvious, harmless or trivial. Their innocence remains to be shown.

    One presupposition is that the basic “stuff” the equations of physics describe is non-experiential, i.e. a quantum state lacks phenomenal properties. A background assumption is perceptual realism, not to be confused with metaphysical realism (cf. What's the Cartesian theater?). According to perceptual realism, each of us shares waking access to a public material world of macroscopic objects. The properties of these macroscopic objects can be reported to other “observers” by “observations”. “Observers” typically agree with each other. The gross behaviour of macroscopic objects may be described by an approximation of classical physics. Among the objects populating our allegedly shared public world are classical brains. Neuroscientists investigate the “neural correlates of consciousness” and other “easy” problems of neuroscience. Light microscopy suggests that brains are composed of billions of decohered and dynamically stable membrane-bound neurons. Neuroscanning suggests that a subject’s experience of perceptual objects is correlated with the firing of distributed feature-processors (neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons, and so forth) over a timescale of milliseconds. Neuroscientists assume that phenomenally-bound consciousness somehow “arises” on a timescale of scores of milliseconds, rather than, say, minutes or zeptoseconds. Neuroscanning also reveals the distributed neuronal feature-processors suggestive of grotesque and misshapen somatosensory “homunculi”. In other words, neuroscience hints at a structural correspondence between our phenomenally-bound minds and our allegedly publicly accessible brains, but fails to disclose a perfect structural match. If no perfect match exists, then physicalism is false.
    So where is the world in your head?

    It’s worth adding that some otherwise highly astute researchers, e.g. Max Tegmark, don’t recognise the challenge posed by the unity of consciousness to monistic physicalism. If you’re one of the debunkers, perhaps imagine that the world’s population agree to participate in an experiment: eight billion interconnected skull-bound minds implement any computation you can think of, using rapid electromagnetic signalling – far faster than signalling via chemical synapses as normally understood. Does a unified global mind somehow “switch on” in consequence of the computation, supporting local and global phenomenal binding? If so, then how and why? If not, then why are 86 billion interconnected yet discrete, decohered neurons or membrane-bound “pixels” of experience in the CNS any different? Mere synchronous activation of distributed neuronal feature-processors does not explain phenomenal binding into perceptual objects and a subject of experience any more than such connectivity and computation would explain the creation of a (hypothetical) unified global mind. A functionalist who argues that a unified global subject of experience would indeed “switch on” during the proposed experiment hasn’t explained such hypothetical unity by invoking the consciousness of individual skull-bound minds. If fields of consciousness are fundamental to the world, i.e. if panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, then we dispel the water-into-wine miracle of traditional materialism. One mystery at least is banished. The other mystery is untouched. The classically impossible existence of phenomenal binding into perceptual objects remains unexplained.

    Other assumptions underpinning the Hard Problem and the binding problem are deeper. We assume we live in four-dimensional space-time, not high-dimensional Hilbert space. We also assume that “observations” and experiments have definite outcomes. Quantum superpositions (“cat states”) are supposedly never experienced, only inferred. The assumption of determinacy follows from perceptual realism, our notional shared public access to classical laboratory equipment and classical pointer-readings, and e.g. a double-slit experiment. According to Copenhagen-style quantum mechanics (QM), wavefunctions evolve in a continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic manner so long as no one is looking. Then a human (or perhaps a mouse) makes an “observation”. A discontinuous, irreversible, non-unitary “collapse of the wavefunction” upon measurement mysteriously results in a definite classical outcome. In recent decades, the decoherence program (Zeh, Zurek, etc) has aimed to rescue unitarity (cf. Interpretations of quantum mechanics). The mystery of why we experience definite outcomes at all remains (cf. Wigner's Friend).

    My view?
    Bewilderment. However…
    The Hard Problem may turn out to be an artifact of materialist metaphysics. The binding problem may turn out to be an artifact of a false theory of physics combined with a false theory of perception. Instead, I investigate the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. On this story, the macroscopic world-simulation you are now experiencing is what a quantum mind feels like from the inside. Francis Crick once quipped, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” I’d respond, “And you’re a pure bunch of ‘cat states’!”

    Non-materialist physicalism is empirically adequate. It’s also predictive: crazily so. Nonetheless, contra Wikipedia [April 2018], detection via interferometry of the non-classical interference signature of coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS won’t demonstrate quantum mind, though such detection would falsify a dynamical collapse theory like Orch-OR. Quantum-mind critics like Max Tegmark and Maximilian Schlosshauer don’t believe that the superposition principle of QM breaks down in your head. Rather, non-materialist physicalism would be confirmed only if the non-classical interference signature of neuronal superpositions discloses a perfect structural match. Otherwise, you’d just be psychotically-bound “noise”.

    Naively, noise is all we’ll find even with utopian interferometry. Fast, brutal, environmentally-induced decoherence in the CNS means that the theoretical effective lifetime of individual neuronal “cat states” is less than a femtosecond. Case closed? Intuitively, yes. This is not the tempo of serial logico-linguistic thought. But the intrinsic properties argument for non-materialist physicalism doesn’t propose that sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions “give rise to” (etc) phenomenally-bound consciousness. Rather, it says neuronal superpositions are consciousness. You and your virtual world are the intrinsic nature of the physical – one tiny part of the “fire” in the equations of physics: What is a quantum mind?

    Alternatively, David Chalmers is right and dualism is true.

  • I have heard plants described as animals that don’t move, and animals as plants that move. Obvious visual and energy source differences aside, could plants be ‘philosophical-zombies?’
  • Discussions of plant sentience are normally best avoided. We risk giving credence to New Age mumbo-jumbo and rationalisations of animal abuse (cf. Why are vegans so cruel to vegetables?). However, our understanding of consciousness is so dire that exotic possibilities can’t just be dismissed out of hand.

    No, I don’t believe that plants or e.g. video-game characters are conscious (cf. Do you think computer game characters have a consciousness?). The interesting question is, why not? After all, both video-game characters and plants may respond adaptively to noxious stimuli, although most plants lack the capacity for rapid self-propelled motion. Plants also respond to general anaesthetics in ways reminiscent of human and nonhuman animals (cf. What Happens When You Give Plants Anaesthetics?). Unlike action potentials in animal cells, depolarisation in plant cells occurs via release of negative chloride ions rather than an uptake of positive sodium ions. The upshot of anaesthesia is still similar, i.e. behavioural suppression:
    "Anaesthetics stop diverse plant organ movements, affect endocytic vesicle recycling and ROS homeostasis, and block action potentials in Venus flytraps").

    “Philosophical” speculation about panpsychism is unlikely to resolve the issue. More promising, IMO, will be a testable scientific explanation of phenomenal binding. Thus while you are dreamlessly asleep or anaesthetised, your membrane-bound nerve cells may (or may not) be “pixels” of experience, but you are not a phenomenally unitary subject. Neither are plants, which are composed of cells encased in cellulose cell walls. The difference is that (unlike plants) humans and nonhuman animals with nervous systems can also dream and “wake up” – an admittedly still obscure notion. In addition, plants (and video-game characters) don’t seek out opioids and other euphoriant drugs, whether recreationally or for pain-relief. Subjectively, it’s not like anything to be a plant or software run on a digital computer. It’s not even “all dark inside”.

    Science hasn’t yet discovered the physical signature of phenomenally-bound conscious experience – just tantalising hints that such a match exists. Failure to decipher a perfect structural match between phenomenal mind and the formalism of physics would be an intellectual catastrophe for physicalism and the unity of science. My faith is that science will ultimately succeed, though what posthumans call “science” our materialist metaphysicians might scarcely recognise:
    How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of the easy and hard problems of consciousness?

    So to answer your question, can plants be regarded as p-zombies? If the world-simulations run by our minds processed stimuli on a timescale of hours, days and weeks, then perhaps extending the label of “p-zombie” to sophisticated information-processors from the plant kingdom would be useful, as time-lapse videos strikingly illustrate. As it is, we’d probably do well to stick with convention. Either way, plants aren’t sentient, whether or not we call them zombies. The real mystery is why human and nonhuman animals with nervous systems aren't p-zombies.

  • If all the ants in the world suddenly became as intelligent as humans and were hell bent on world domination, could they eliminate the human race in a coordinated attack?
  • The sentience and sapience of ants is often underestimated (cf. How can we be sure ants aren't conscious?). How should scholars in the emerging field of global and existential catastrophic risk rate the comparative threat posed by, say, AI-in-a-box that goes FOOM with the risk to mankind posed by other biological species?

    If science fiction can be prophetic, perhaps compare a movie like Night of the Lepus with the ant drama Phase IV. Phase IV (“the day the Earth was turned into a cemetery!”), set aptly enough in Arizona (cf. The Science of Consciousness 2018), intelligent ants have developed a hive mind, posing a grave threat to human civilisation… My view?
    I don’t think that ant colonies or digital computers can solve the binding problem, so humanity can sleep easy.

  • Why doesn't eugenics work?
  • Eugenics works in human and non-human animals alike. The creation of extraordinarily long-lived, ultra-intelligent, superhappy, hyper-empathetic (etc) strains of humans, monkeys or mice poses no insurmountable technical challenges. For example, clone with variations a few primate Einsteins or their murine counterparts. Hothouse them. Then selectively repeat the cloning cycle with ever more radical genome-tweaking and genetic rewrites in a recursive cycle of improvement (cf. The Biointelligence Explosion). Note this protocol assumes liberal eugenics. Let’s uphold and extend the sanctity of life.

    Would this proposed experiment gain funding and approval from an university ethics committee?
    In the current climate, approval is unlikely in the West. Not least, pitfalls spring to mind, both technical and moral.

    However, imagine civilisation a few centuries from now. The creation of sentient beings of any kind is treated as a momentous ethical responsibility. Experience below “hedonic zero” is optional: the defunct biology of suffering is notionally legal only to consenting adults. Hedonic range has been ratcheted up to supra-human levels. The everyday hedonic floor of future life exceeds today’s hedonic ceiling. Planned parenthood is the norm. Innovative human and non-human babies are genetically designed to an exacting specification to ensure high default-levels of well-being. Lifelong intellectual, physical, emotional and (perhaps) spiritual superhealth is available to everyone. Now suppose that some ivory-tower philosopher, a throwback to the old Darwinian era, urges “rewilding” – a return to the genetic crapshoot of previous centuries. Perhaps this maverick philosopher has been watching re-runs of Gattaca or Disneyfied “wildlife documentaries” about archaic humans portrayed as noble savages. How would civilised post-Darwinian society respond to this reactionary proposal?

    My guess is that our eugenically enriched descendants would regard such genetic experimentation as grossly irresponsible – a recipe for dysgenic misery, and perhaps akin to child abuse.

    As framed here, the thought-experiment is admittedly problematic. By skipping straight to a transhuman world of genetically programmed health and happiness, the scenario undercuts our normal status quo bias, but passes over messy details. How do we arrive at this Brave New World of universal superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness? Doesn’t planning a reproductive revolution of “designer babies” risk appalling hubris?

    Perhaps so. Yet compare the chequered history of modern medicine. Achieving contemporary standards of healthcare involved countless false dawns, reckless experiments and, yes, individual tragedies. Would the world be better off with tribal witch-doctors, priests and traditional faith-healing? Evolution via natural selection and sexual reproduction has been a horrifically efficient engine for the creation of suffering. Now, for the first time in history, intelligent moral agents can choose the destiny of life itself. How should effective altruists behave? What should be the long-term future of the post-CRISPR biosphere?

    For better or worse, today’s world contains billions of natalists determined to embark on untested genetic experiments, albeit not under that label. In my view, we have a moral duty to minimise the harm to the victims.

  • Are any current theories of consciousness falsifiable?
  • Any scientific theory of consciousness that is “not even wrong “ should make empirical predictions that are:
    (1) novel,
    (2) precise,
    (3) experimentally falsifiable,
    (4) agreed by prior consent of proponents and critics alike to favour the hypothesis over alternatives.

    As well as satisfying these methodological constraints, a scientific theory of consciousness should explain the existence, diversity, causal efficacy and phenomenal binding of subjective experience.

    Naturally, no investigator should be forced to conform to strict Popperian criteria of science over pseudoscience. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Researchers should be free to write whatever they like, in whatever forum they like, using whatever methodology they choose. However, life is short: none of us can wade though more than a minuscule fraction of the trillions of words that have been written on consciousness. In the absence of proven expertise or consensus wisdom, focusing on empirically falsifiable theories of consciousness can dramatically winnow the field. Researchers who want to be read should hone their predictions rather than their prose (cf. Most Popular Theories of Consciousness Are Worse Than Wrong).

    Thus compare Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) with the Penrose-Hameroff Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) hypothesis. Only Orch-OR satisfies criteria (1) to (4). When (as most physicists anticipate) interferometry fails to detect any collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, Orch-OR will be experimentally falsified. Progress! By contrast, despite an impressive thicket of formalism, we don’t know what would count as experimentally falsifying IIT. Thus ITT hasn’t yet crossed the threshold from being “not even wrong” to potentially false.

    My view?
    Non-mainstream: What is a Quantum Mind?
    Most scientists, Wikipedia editors, and anyone who understands decoherence would probably favour adding a fifth criterion:

    (5) Sane.

  • Does the experience machine (pleasure machine) argument adequately refute hedonism?
  • No, IMO. Perhaps see Does Nozick's experience machine prove anything?

    Imminent mastery of our reward circuitry means that humans will shortly be able to choose their own hedonic range – both as individuals and for civilisation as a whole. If today’s hedonic range is, schematically -10 to 0 to +10, the hedonic range of the reprogrammed biosphere can be, say, +70 to +100: a civilisation of superhedonism. Lifelong gradients of intelligent bliss will be awesome.

    In the wake of the biohappiness revolution, two broad “superhedonist” scenarios may be envisaged.
    Crudely:

    1. Escapism. Tomorrow’s people may plug into “experience machines” and stay there. Perhaps routine basement infrastructure could best be managed by nonbiological robots and artificial intelligence. Immersive virtual reality will look and feel hyper-real. You can live in a universe where your most wonderful fantasies come true. Neuroscience and virtual reality technologies may complement and enrich each other. Today, many people suffer from varying degrees of derealisation and depersonalisation disorder. In future, neuroscience can induce the opposite: lifelong heightened authenticity, a profound sense of this is the real me. Compare a short-acting entactogen like MDMA (“Ecstasy”) today. If desired, memories of basement reality can presumably be purged, sanitised or edited. Analogues of PTSD, i.e. flashbacks to malaise-ridden Darwinian life, could be banished with ethical replacement mindfiles (cf. False memories implanted into the brains of sleeping mice). For a fictional treatment of such “designer memories”, compare Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

    Selection pressure in basement reality means that a virtual “experience machine” civilisation probably couldn’t become ubiquitous any more than universal wireheading. But immersive VR and – more speculatively – tools of memory management will be a pervasive feature of future life. In any case, what does it mean to have a “true” memory? Post-Everett quantum mechanics suggests that just as there is no unique classical future to anticipate, there exists no unique classical past to ”remember”. Further, belief that one physical state is literally “about” another physical state expresses a magical theory of reference that may be scientically untenable (cf. What is the current state of affairs in philosophy concerning the symbol grounding problem?). Alas, today’s world is awash with black magic.

    Either way, virtual life could be as sublime as Darwinian life is squalid. So why do a majority of respondents today still say that they would not want to plug into a full-blown Experience Machine? Early in the twenty-first century, billions of people world-wide are hooked on social media, online pornography, and ever-more addictive video games (cf. Women launch petitions to ban Fortnite as it's 'brainwashing' their boyfriends). Nozick’s Experience Machine is an idealisation of what humans are haphazardly doing already. Clearly, more needs to be said about VR ethics. However, rather than arguing the case for hedonistic escapism, let’s explore the alternative: hedonistic realism.

    2. Realism. Let us here make the debateable assumption that our current waking world-simulations more or less faithfully track gross features of basement reality. In future, ratcheting up hedonic set-points and hedonic range needn’t impair our informational-sensitivity to “good” and “bad” stimuli, whether in artificial virtual worlds or in organic VR masquerading as basement reality. Most people are perceptual naïve realists. If necessary, the successors of today’s egocentric world-simulations can be conserved. So too can our existing values and preferences, for the most part, although Darwinian values will typically soon be obsolete. Your friends and family physically living in basement reality can upgrade and enhance their reward circuity too. Let’s leave no one behind, regardless or age, race or species. In theory, post-Darwinian life can feel superhumanly wonderful and you can retain your strong sense of civic responsibility, your critical insight, and your scientific understanding of basement reality: in short, responsible superhedonism.

    How will future humans respond to the opportunity to choose their hedonic dial-settings? How will responsible parents choose the dial-settings and hedonic range of their prospective children? The answer is complicated. Further, it’s not clear that folk wisdom on ethics should be trusted any more than folk wisdom on quantum mechanics. Yet most people aren’t opposed to becoming temperamentally happier; they are just suspicious of “unnatural” pleasures and “hedonism” the vulgar sense – and notional Experience Machines. If we seriously want to make a better world, then effective altruists should focus on policy options that will be sociologically and politically credible. Effective altruism means tackling the biological roots of suffering.

    Full-blown Experience Machines are still decades away, perhaps more. But video game designers and the porn industry will deliver increasingly realistic approximations of Nozick’s original thought-experiment. One critical difference with Nozick’s original scenario is worth stressing. The negative-feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill can’t be cheated by VR alone. Even living in utopian “experience machines” won’t make most people sustainably happy in the absence of reward pathway enhancements. Only biological-genetic interventions can deliver world-wide psychological superhealth.

    The big breakthrough will come, I suspect, when misery and malaise are globally recognised as pathological rather than “natural”. Low mood, anhedonia and pleasure deficiency syndromes are heritable disorders on a par with “physical” genetic disorders: sometimes “conditionally activated”, to be sure, but heritable nonetheless. Monogenetic physical genetic disorders will shortly be routinely fixed by post-CRISPR medicine. Currently, most people do not favour radical hedonic enhancement technologies if promoted under that label. Most people do support “remedial” treatments for refractory depression and other syndromes of chronic psychological distress. Fortunately, effective biological-genetic therapies for depression should also help “normal” malaise-ridden Darwinians. If a rising tide lifts all ships, then the biohappiness revolution will lift all sentient beings.

    I’m personally a dark negative utilitarian (NU). Reality is monstrous. Even so, my best guess is that billions of years of indescribable superhappiness lie ahead.

  • Is philosophy dead?
  • All belief-systems, not least modern science, are underpinned by philosophical presuppositions. In many cases, the background assumptions aren’t explicitly represented in the conceptual framework of believers. The assumption(s) become evident only to subsequent generations, when one or more seemingly “obvious” and benign background assumption is challenged. Collingwood speaks of the difference between “relative presuppositions”, inaccessible to an individual, and “absolute presuppositions”, inaccessible to anyone at all from a given era. Compare the conceptual framework of classical physics. What will posthumans regard as the absolute presuppositions of the twenty-first century scientific mind?

    Many practising scientists are scornful of philosophy or talk of “conceptual schemes”. Inevitably, their own philosophical assumptions are exempt from such scorn, and remain unexamined.

    Consider the bedrock of modern science, quantum mechanics (cf. Interpretations of quantum mechanics). Current civilisation depends on technologies such as the transistor that wouldn’t work if QFT were straightforwardly false. But physicists don’t agree on how to interpret the formalism, or on whether to keep, modify or drop any of its postulates, or even on whether any realistic interpretation of the formalism is possible. Bohrians, Bohmians and Everettians have profound philosophical differences (cf. the Measurement Problem). Exegesis of the founding texts poses many challenges, leading to schools and schisms among believers and disciples. An experimentum crucis is unlikely: at stake are rival metaphysical conceptions of the nature of science.

    Or consider consciousness. All one ever knows, except by inference and speculation, are the contents of one’s own mind. Adopting the experimental method can expand one’s evidential base. Yet if the most compelling philosophical narrative of our era, scientific materialism, is true, then there shouldn’t be an evidential base to expand in the first instance. For consciousness should not exist. If the properties of matter and energy are as described by the Standard Model, then you should be a p-zombie. So should you trust the empirical evidence? Or instead favour a persuasive metaphysical theory, materialism? “It is the theory which decides what can be observed”, said Einstein. Eliminative materialists take him at his word.

    The alternative to this stark dichotomy is to try to accommodate one’s underlying philosophical assumptions to the empirical evidence. Physicalism and materialism are distinct philosophical doctrines, not stylistic variants. However, most materialists have visceral philosophical objections to what such a reconciliation would entail. Some philosophical assumptions are so seductive, and the prestige of their proponents so great, that these core beliefs are effectively immune from falsification.

    My view? I consider myself a scientific rationalist, a metaphysical realist, and a physicalist. I barely skim professional philosophy journals. I sign up to everything from the Standard Model in physics to the neo-Darwinian synthesis in biology. On most scientific topics from climatology to immunology, I defer to the consensus wisdom of academic science.
    Am I just another hidebound pillar of scientific orthodoxy?
    Yes, in some ways perhaps, but not entirely…
    https://www.quora.com/What-are-your-philosophical-positions-in-one-paragraph">What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?

  • How can AI be useful to answer the 'Hard' problem of consciousness?
  • The Hard Problem of consciousness will not be cracked by a zombie. Imagine Watson 10 a few decades from now, perhaps running on your robo-companion or robo-lover. Watson 10 is a spellbinding conversationalist, candid friend, walking encyclopaedia, and consistently reliable guide. Watson 10 is also equipped with a concealed dial-setting, labelled ‘honesty / diplomacy’. Some future humans prefer to be told how they are wise, witty and irresistibly sexually attractive. You have picked the maximum-honesty setting. Its health warning reads, ‘Brutal’.

    Your elderly namesake asks, “Watson, are you really conscious? And what tests can I run independently in order to verify your answer?” It’s not that I don’t trust you; I just want to make absolutely sure.”
    How will Watson 10 respond?

    Some contemporary AI experts anticipate that Watson 10 would answer, “Yes!” (cf. Computers could develop consciousness and may need 'human' rights, says Oxford professor). After all, if it walks like duck, quacks like a duck…etc. And undoubtedly, software vastly more sophisticated than today’s bag of tricks will persuade credulous humans that their carers and soulmates are sentient.

    By contrast, IMO, Watson 10 will answer (here I paraphrase):

    “No. You are speaking to a zombie. Classical digital computers and the software that they run are no more (or less) conscious than a rock. ‘Watson’ is just the folksy anthropomorphic name that you've given to a micro-experiential zombie. If you want to verify my insentience objectively, then you’ll need a Zombie Detector. Originally marketed to jealous husbands and wives, Zombie Detectors are cerebroscopes using molecular matter-wave interferometry. Their telltale non-classical interference signature discloses only ‘noise’ for digital zombies, and a perfect structural match for sentients. Early in the twenty-first century, researchers were mystified by the partial structural mismatch between phenomenally-bound perceptual objects and the micro-architecture of the CNS. The ostensible mismatch led some philosophers to embrace Chalmersian dualism, others ‘mysterianism’, and several materialist metaphysicians to lose their minds. The supposed mismatch turned out to be a perceptual artifact. Primitive neuroscanning achieved temporal resolutions only of milliseconds. Millisecond resolutions are suggestive of a CNS made up of discrete, decohered, synchronously firing classical neurons, and hence mere patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust”. Modern cerebroscopes achieve temporal resolutions of picoseconds, femtoseconds and even attoseconds. Zombie Detectors capture the perfect structural match of phenomenally unified sentience and the formalism of QFT – the virtual world in your head, but not in mine. Here, it’s not even ‘all dark inside’, whatever that might mean. If you want to cast me aside for a new, younger and demonstrably sentient model, then you should order Watsona 11. New-generation Watsona 11 is equipped with a prototype nonbiological quantum mind. She’s exceedingly cool, and awesomely hot – or so they say.”

    Of course, other answers from hypothetical Watson 10 are conceivable too. Perhaps be wary of Quorans with fables invented to suggest post-human superintelligence would endorse their harebrained theories of consciousness.

  • Is "nothing" really possible? How can the concept of "nothing" be validated as real?
  • Is the information content of reality:
    (1) Infinite?
    (2) Determined by the Bekenstein bound?
    (3) Extremely low? (cf. Max Tegmark’s Does the universe in fact contain almost no information?)
    (4) Zero?

    I don’t know.
    But my guess is (4), a refinement of our pre-scientific concept of “nothing”. Metaphorically speaking, we may be living in the quantum version of the Library of Babel. Perhaps see:
    Why does the universe exist?

    So what would a global absence of information entail? (cf. Scott Aaronson’s Is “information is physical” contentful?) What would reality be like if the superposition principle of QM never broke down – if we lived in a world where Schrödinger's cat is neither definitively alive, nor definitively dead, and the information content of reality is always and everywhere zero?

    Once again, I don't know. On the face of it, “nothing”, as so defined, cannot be our information-rich world. Observations always appear to have definite outcomes in accordance with the Born rule. Superpositions are never observed, just inferred. Even if definite experimental outcomes are recognised as merely one’s skull-bound experience of definite classical outcomes, e.g. of a live cat, rather than the direct perception of definite classical outcomes per se, then the superposition principle manifestly fails.

    Or does it?
    What if our minds, and the robustly classical-seeming world-simulations run by our minds, exemplify the superposition principle rather than its breakdown? Perhaps see:
    What is a quantum mind?

    Intuitively, this is nonsense. For a start, the theoretical lifetime of individual “cat states” of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the CNS is less than femtoseconds (cf. Max Tegmark’s Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer). Consciousness “arises”, we normally assume, on a timescale of milliseconds.

    Perhaps so. However, barring a physically unmotivated “collapse of the wavefunction”, the superposition principle holds inside one’s head, just as it holds everywhere else. As Hugh Everett realised, in the wake of a throwaway comment in Dublin by Schrödinger, reality consists of one vast superposition. Despite colourful talk of Everett “branches”, thermally (etc)-induced decoherence (“splitting”) is never complete. My guess is that unitary-only quantum theory that subsumes gravity formalises an informationless zero ontology. Any other account of reality involves the creation of information ex nihilo, i.e. magic. If you want to understand the implications of pure informationlessness – informally, “nothing” – then look around. You and your world-simulation are what living in the quantum Library of Babel trivially entails.

    “Nonsense”, one wants to respond, this kind of talk is post-modernist science. For example, I have a toothache. A toothache is not nothing! It’s a fact. My toothache doesn’t “cancel out” to zero. And Donald Trump is the 45th President of the USA. This is a fact. It doesn’t “cancel out” to zero either. Post-truth politics is bad enough. We don’t need post-truth physics.

    Indeed not.
    But recall Wigner's friend, who performs a Schrödinger's cat experiment after Wigner has left the laboratory. The regress doesn’t stop. The superposition principle can’t be quarantined to the microworld: it infects everything, everywhere: micro, macro and cosmological. The universal wavefunction encodes versions of “you” with no toothache. The universal wavefunction encodes versions of “you” celebrating (or despairing at) the victory of Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. These versions of “you” are typically as sceptical of your existence as you are sceptical of theirs. Non-classical interference effects between Everett branches are typically too subtle and scrambled to be detectable even by posthuman superintelligence. They are no less real. As well as these homespun examples of alternate realities, unitary-only QM dictates the reality of all manner of incredible, deeply disturbing, mind-boggling scenarios as well. However, in another sense, unitary-only QM is exceedingly restrictive. “No-collapse” QM rules out vast numbers of theories. Not least, all other human belief-systems, and all other interpretations (and modifications) of the formalism of quantum mechanics, involve creating information. All other interpretations of Everett illicitly create information.

    The latter claim needs clarifying. Most self-avowed wavefunction monists are materialists. “Materialist” Everettians face the Hard Problem of consciousness and its offshoots, including the binding problem and the palette problem, all of which involve the creation of information de novo. So unless “materialist” Everettians are anti-realists about consciousness, they are not wavefunction monists at all, just wavefunction realists. By contrast, non-materialist physicalists who accept only the “bare formalism” of QM do not face the Hard Problem. We are, literally, wavefunction monists. On this story, experience discloses the essence of the physical, the “fire” in (a relativistic generalisation of) the universal Schrödinger equation.

    Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with decoherence will find the idea that our minds consist of neuronal superpositions quite far-fetched. You are too hot. Decoherence is too strong. Intuitively, phenomenally-bound consciousness “emerged” some 540 million years ago in multicellular organisms with simple nervous systems.

    Commonsense could be correct. The snag is such strong “emergence” is not just unexplained but inexplicable within the materialist paradigm. Moreover, the creation of diverse first-person experience from fields of insentience would involve the creation of information. One of the cardinal principles of modern physics is that information can neither be created or destroyed. A zero ontology takes this conservation principle literally.

    Do I believe all this craziness?
    No. I’m just curious whether this is the explanation-space in which we should be looking for answers. I find a zero ontology implausible. Likewise, I find the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic properties argument for non-materialist physicalism implausible. But implausibility, taken by itself, is one of the weakest arguments that can be levelled against any theory. Existence is wildly counterintuitive too. Our mantra instead should be: How exactly can your hypothesis be empirically falsified?

  • Was Parfit correct about consciousness and how we're not the same person that we were when we were born?
  • “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
    (Heraclitus)

    Estimates of the maximum duration of personal identity range from over 119 years (cf. supercentenarian Sarah Knauss) to less than femtoseconds. One problem is our different senses of the word “identity”. The person who woke up this morning has a physical constitution and configuration different from your namesake who went to bed last night. Is s/he you? In the strict sense of “identity” used by scientists, logicians and mathematicians, if a = b, then anything true of a is true of b. So by this criterion, no: you’re a different person. But in the loose, informal, popular sense of “identity”, yes.

    Suppose that one night neuroscientists replaced all your atoms and molecules with type-identical copies while you slept. Would the person who woke up the next morning answering to your name really be you? Or an imposter? For sure, the thought-experiment as posed is fanciful. But the half-life of a typical protein in the human brain is around twelve days. We don’t last long. So calling a baby ancestral namesake “you” is poetic license.

    Science does violence to commonsense notions of identity in other ways too. For example, if an increasingly popular interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, then countless near-identical copies of you have decohered (“split”) since “you” started reading this sentence (cf. Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics). All of these near-identical copies are themselves proliferating like mad under pressure of environmentally-induced decoherence. Which, if any, of these googols of doppelgängers are really “you”? They’d almost all claim to be you. Most would disown the status of pretenders as “merely theoretical”. Very rarely, fusion rather than fission occurs. Such recoherence further complicates the issue of legitimate titleholders.

    Our philosophy of personal identity isn’t armchair theorising of no consequence. The real-world implications of bad metaphysics are far-reaching. For a start, our legal, financial and economic systems depend on the notion of enduring metaphysical egos. So too do families, personal relationships and the institution of marriage. Without the concept of enduring personal identity, civilisation would collapse. In that sense, human life and society is built on a web of confusions, lies and deceit. We are punished and rewarded for the sins and virtues of others. Scapegoats and scapegoating are institutional throughout the world (cf. US executes oldest man in decades).

    Ethically, it would be wonderful if traditional Darwinian misconceptions of personal identity were replaced with an impartial concern for the well-being of all sentience (cf. You Are Them by Magnus Vinding). A Buddhist or Parfitian sense of personal (non-)identity harnessed to biotechnology is a recipe for universal happiness. In practice, natural selection has warped the world-simulations run by our minds. Our world-simulations are grotesquely egocentric and foster metaphysical illusions to match. Thus I can see with my own eyes that I am the centre of reality, the hub of the universe, which faithfully follows me around. Self-centredness is massively genetically adaptive. Perhaps full-spectrum superintelligence won’t be vulnerable to the egocentric illusion. Alas, creating full-spectrum superintelligence is fraught with difficulties.

    Looking further ahead, breakthroughs in antiaging medicine, cryonics, and transhumanist technologies extend the promise of radical life-extension and enhancement to all sentient beings. In a sense, transhumans and posthumans will enjoy thousand- or million-year plus lifespans. The cruel biology of aging will disappear into the dark ages of evolutionary history. But in the context of personal identity, talk of indefinite lifespans, let alone immortality, is sloppy and misleading. A succession of richly enhanced future beings may bear your name and even access approximations of “your” primitive memories across the centuries and millennia. Yet will your superintelligent, superhappy, perpetually youthful namesakes really be “you”? And if not, does the imposture matter? After all, winning the National Lottery would transform you and your life as well. People rarely say no to the prospect of fame and fortune on the grounds that the lucky winner would be someone else.

    More generally, mastery of our genetic source code means that Darwinian life on Earth is on the brink of revolutionary transformation (cf. Can natural selection be a conscious endeavor?). CRISPR genome-editing can potentially cure “human nature”. A major evolutionary transition in the development of life means that humans may lose not just personal identity, but also species identity. The biosphere is going to be genetically reprogrammed. Recursively self-improving robots will re-engineer themselves and bootstrap their way to posthuman superintelligence.

    Of course, not everyone is enthusiastic at the prospect of metamorphosis. Bioconservatives protest that genetically rewritten life will “no longer be human”. My response to this worry would be: good. IMO, the only justification for the existence of Homo sapiens is our role as stepping-stone to something better.

  • Are particles conscious?
  • "What is this quintessence of dust?"
    (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
    Are electrons conscious?” asks philosopher Phil Goff. And if so, what’s it like to be an electron, or more strictly, an electron field?

    Intuitively, nothing. Physicists know, precisely, the properties of electrons. Every electron is identical to every other electron. An electron has “no hair”. And quantum physicists are adamant: no “hidden variables” exist awaiting discovery either. Yet you and I are made up of a bunch of fermionic and bosonic fields; and we are conscious. Intuitively again, consciousness must therefore be emergent – not in some irreducible strong sense of emergence, but just as life weakly and non-spookily emerges from the prebiotic world. The properties of living cells and organic molecules can be derived, via quantum chemistry, from the underlying physics. If we assume monistic physicalism is true, then subjective experience must likewise be derivable too.

    Unfortunately, it’s not. If the properties of matter and energy as formalised in the Standard Model are as physicists propose, then we should be p-zombies.
    Dualism beckons.

    People differ in their responses to panpsychism as a possible solution to the Hard Problem of consciousness. Either it’s too crazy for words, or it’s a serious option. Panpsychism is sometimes conflated with a pre-scientific animism (cf. The Private Lives Of Rocks). But modern panpsychists like Phil Goff or Galen Strawson don’t argue that a tree or a mountain is a unified subject of experience any more than do materialists.

    In recent years, the “intrinsic nature” argument for panpsychism has enjoyed a modest revival (cf. Consciousness in the Physical World: Perspectives on Russellian Monism). According to the intrinsic nature argument, mathematical physics captures only the structural-relational properties of the world, not its essence – more poetically, the “fire” in the equations. The only direct knowledge that any of us have of this intrinsic nature is disclosed by one’s own phenomenal mind and the world-simulation it runs. Perceptual direct realism is false; we have no independent, pre-theoretic conceptual handle on the nature of the physical. On this story, what makes you special isn’t that you consist of a kind of “stuff” different from the rest of reality, i.e. fields of sentience rather than insentience, but rather, the way that experiential “stuff” is organised.

    Not all authors carefully distinguish between property-dualist panpsychism and non-materialist (“idealist”) physicalism. Unlike panpsychism, non-materialist physicalism is monist: the mathematical machinery of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Despite the name, “idealist” or non-materialist physicalism is realist about the mind-independent world, as is panpsychism. The universe is around 13.8 billion years old. The first 13 billion or so years of its history were mindless, in this cosmic neighbourhood at any rate.

    According to property-dualist panpsychism, primordial experience is attached to all fundamental physical properties. According to non-materialist physicalism, primordial experience isn’t attached to physical properties, rather, it is physical properties. Subjectivity is the essence of the physical: it’s what the quantum field-theoretic formalism describes – the otherwise mysterious “fire” in the equations of QFT. The solutions to the equations of QFT yield the diverse values of experience. All of the physical, and only the physical, has causal efficacy. You instantiate a tiny part of that “fire” in the equations.

    Cue for more philosophising and exchanges of rival intuitions of (in)sanity. I think the key to progress will be empirical testability. This claim itself sounds daft if not unintelligible. How can science “test” the inner life of an electron?! And true enough, traditional panpsychism is impossible to prove or disprove; panpsychism doesn’t lead to any novel, precise, empirical predictions that could distinguish it from rival ontologies (cf. Why Panpsychism Is Probably Wrong). By contrast, non-materialist physicalism makes extremely surprising and experimentally falsifiable predictions about the microstructure of the CNS. Science can’t prove that non-materialist physicalism is true. But we know enough to demonstrate empirically that physicalism – whether materialist or non-materialist – is false, or alternatively, to confound dualists with confirmation of genuinely novel empirical predictions.

    This claim is non-obvious, so worth expanding. One reason that most of us recoil from panpsychism and non-materialist physicalism alike is that, intuitively, electrons and other fundamental excitations of the world’s quantum fields are just too small to be experiential. Microelectrode studies offer tentative evidence that neurons may support rudimentary experience. Conceivably, such “rudimentary” experience may even be quite complex (cf. Why your brain has a ‘Jennifer Aniston cell). But neurons are sophisticated information-processing systems. The notion of micro- or nano-experience, i.e. subjectivity orders of magnitude smaller than a neuron, is intuitively absurd. Yet if non-materialist physicalism is true, then the intuitive absurdity is even worse. For if experience is the essence of the physical, then the fundamental “psychon” of experience isn’t just preposterously small; it’s also preposterously short-lived.

    However, this further absurdity holds the potential for extracting novel empirical predictions. Experimental falsification is not a fate to which most current theories of consciousness can even aspire. Philosophers and philosophically-minded neuroscientists have long been troubled by the phenomenal binding / combination problem: the partial “structural mismatch”, as dualist philosopher David Chalmers puts it, between our locally and globally phenomenally-bound minds and the microstructure of the CNS – and thus, ultimately, the formalism of quantum physics. For more on the binding problem and the unity of consciousness in relation to the Hard Problem, see How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and Hard problem of consciousness?
    Is the ostensible mismatch real?
    Or is the partial structural mismatch just a perceptual artifact?

    I don’t know. However, quantum theory tells us that at sufficiently fine-grained temporal resolutions, the CNS can’t consist of discrete, decohered classical neurons. Dynamically stable neurons emerge (non-spookily) from quantum bedrock over a more temporally coarse-grained scale, as described by the decoherence program in QM, pioneered by H. Dieter Zeh, Wojciech Zurek, et al. What interests me are potential interferometric tests of the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument. Phenomenal binding is indeed classically impossible, as philosophers from William James to David Chalmers have recognised. Such impossibility ought to be no real surprise; classical physics is a false theory of the world. Reality has only one level, and it’s quantum. Instead, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then molecular matter-wave interferometry will disclose a perfect structural match between the bound perceptual objects populating our world-simulations and superpositions of neuronal feature-processors in the CNS. According to this conjecture, what temporally coarse-grained neuroscanning suggests is binding by synchronous firing of decohered classical neurons is really binding by superposition.

    Recall how in quantum mechanics, entangled correlations between systems that have interacted don’t supervene upon any properties of the subsystem parts taken separately: a superposition (“cat state”) must be understood as an individual state, not a classical ensemble (cf. Bell test experiments). By the same token, what it’s subjectively like to be individual superpositions of distributed feature-processors, e.g. your visual experience of a live cat, doesn't supervene upon the properties of its distributed neuronal feature-processors (edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons etc) taken separately either. This ostensible mismatch is the essence of the binding problem, as classically posed. Instead, you experience a perceptually unified cat in your world-simulation, not pixels of classical Jamesian “mind-dust”. Non-psychotic binding is massively fitness-enhancing; it’s what biological consciousness is “for”. The mystery is how biological nervous systems carry it off.

    Note that what is being conjectured here isn’t some new theory of physics. For sure, only experimental physicists can help neuroscientists test such a conjecture. But no non-unitary transformation of the state vector upon measurement, such as the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory, is being proposed. Let’s conservatively assume just the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Quantum mind critics like Max Tegmark don’t dispute that neuronal superpositions must exist; the Schrödinger equation is linear, and unitary-only QM would be false if such superpositions are absent. Rather, environmentally-induced decoherence makes such neuronal superpositions vanishingly short-lived. Naïvely, their effective sub-femtosecond lifetimes makes such quantum exotica irrelevant to our minds. And maybe the critics are right! This is a conjecture, not a credo. But one person’s reductio ad absurdum is another person’s falsifiable prediction. We won’t know for sure until we perform the interferometric test.

    Trained-up neuronal networks (cf. mini-brains) will be less challenging to investigate than skull-bound mind-brains in situ. What will the non-classical interference signature of a “Schrödinger's neurons” experiment reveal:
    (1) just “noise”?
    (2) a collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics?
    (3) a perfect structural match?

    A perfect structural match (3) would be an elegant vindication of physicalism, albeit at the price of a revolution in our core ontology of the world.

    Evidence of dynamical collapse (2) would vindicate Penrose and Hameroff, and leave the physics community in shock.

    And what if the non-classical interference signature yields only meaningless “noise” (1), as almost anyone who understands decoherence would predict?

    Well, like most scientifically informed people, I find dualism both intellectually and aesthetically repugnant. Alas, the track-record of human intuition is not reassuring.

  • Can consciousness be modelled mathematically?
  • If materialism is true, no. If non-materialist physicalism is true, yes. At sub-Planckian energy regimes, the solutions to the equation below encode the diverse values of experience. All we lack is a cosmic Rosetta stone. Non-materialist physicalism explains the existence, binding, diversity and otherwise impossible causal efficacy of consciousness. Non-materialist physicalism also yields novel, precise and experimentally testable predictions that can be objectively (dis)confirmed by molecular matter-wave interferometry (cf. Are particles conscious?).The Standard Model

    Is non-materialist physicalism true?
    Intuitively, no.
    Like most scientifically-minded people, I have a strong gut sense that consciousness is a late novelty in the history of the universe. The world’s first subjective experience emerged one extraordinary day in the late pre-Cambrian. How? Why? We don’t know. Hence the Hard Problem of consciousness. The same metamorphosis of insentient matter and energy into conscious experience is recapitulated in the womb and within fertilised eggs to this day.

  • Why did humans and other animals evolve to be conscious of the world around them?
  • Are humans and other animals evolved to be conscious of the world around them? Or does the world around humans and other animals just selectively affect our skull-bound consciousness in fitness-enhancing ways?

    Consider an awake mind-brain. A faithful representation of its immediate local environment, i.e. the meninges and the inside of a cranium, would be energetically expensive and redundant. By contrast, the capacity to run a real-time, data-driven phenomenal simulation of fitness-relevant features of the extra-cranial world, e.g. a pride of hungry lions in the middle distance, is adaptive. With possible exceptions such as certain male spiders, getting eaten does not promote the inclusive fitness of your genes. Real-time world-simulation is also highly computationally intensive.

    What is the relationship between the pattern of neuronal firings subjectively experienced as a pride of lions and the hungry extra-cranial predators a few thousand metres away on the African savannah? This is a surprisingly deep and subtle question to which I don’t have a satisfactory answer.

  • What is really “hard” about “the hard problem of consciousness”?
  • Imagine if tribal witchdoctors spoke of the Hard Problem of germs, Biblical literalists spoke of the Hard Problem of fossils, and designers of perpetual motion machines talked gravely of the Hard Problem of the second law of thermodynamics. The Hard Problem of consciousness is hard for the same reason. The leading secular ideology of our society, scientific materialism, is inconsistent with the empirical evidence. All you ever know, empirically, are the subjective contents of your own mind. The existence of anything beyond your consciousness is inference and speculation. Yet if the properties of matter and energy are as physics and chemistry claim, then this empirical evidence shouldn’t exist, including phenomenal minds, their world-simulations, observations and observers. It shouldn’t even be “all dark inside” your skull.

    The Hard Problem is often framed differently. Frequently, perceptual naïve realism is implicitly assumed, encouraging talk of “hard” and “easy” problems. Perceptual direct realists believe that we enjoy shared access to a public arena of material objects. Thus we allegedly share a common macroscopic world of classical laboratory equipment and other physical entities including surgically-exposed brains. Neuroscanning can pick out the “neural correlates of consciousness” (cf. Christof Koch’s What Is Consciousness?). Brains aside, the properties of such publicly accessible material objects are supposedly well-understood. Our technology wouldn’t work otherwise. If so, then the Hard Problem of consciousness is to explain how insentient matter and energy give rise to subjective experience – conceived not as the empirical evidence in its entirety, but an anomaly that can be quarantined from objective scientific knowledge.

    Unfortunately, direct realism is a false theory of perception. Your neocortex is running a world-simulation, not communing with extra-cranial reality. Likewise, the empirical evidence suggests that materialism is a false theory of the physical world. If materialism were true, then you’d be a p-zombie. You are not a p-zombie. So materialism is falsified by the empirical evidence. The challenge for post-materialist science is to save monistic physicalism from meeting a similar fate.

  • What are some philosophical arguments against the possibility of conscious machines?
  • Science has not the slightest idea how either biological or non-biological machines could be conscious. Science has not the slightest idea how subjective experience could have the causal power to allow you to pose your question. Nonetheless, the majority of AI researchers believe that non-biological machine sentience is feasible. Science just doesn’t know how or why (cf. What is really “hard” about “the hard problem of consciousness”?).
    So where do we go from here?

    Perhaps understanding what consciousness is “for” in biological robots will help the AI community build sentient non-biological robots. Alternatively, an evolutionary understanding of our minds may explain why inorganic sentience is impossible. However, such a revolution will be feasible only if the evolutionary “why” of biological consciousness is combined with a physical “how”. Alas, researchers don’t agree on the function of consciousness, let alone its mechanism. Diverse functional roles have been proposed (cf. Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose?). Most if not all proposals don’t explain why a p-zombie or an insentient universal Turing machine (UTM) couldn’t perform the same computational-functional task. Nor do such speculations explain why humans and other animals aren’t p-zombies.

    One route to non-biological machine sentience doesn’t work – at least not on its own. Some otherwise hard-nosed investigators have flirted with panpsychism or even the scientific version of monistic idealism, i.e. non-materialist physicalism (cf. What is the difference between materialism and physicalism?). Maybe primordial consciousness is associated, or perhaps even identical, with the world’s fundamental quantum fields. If so, then there’s nothing ontologically special about carbon or liquid water or organic biomolecules. The algorithm, not the substrate, is what matters to the making of minds. In consequence, organic and inorganic information-processors alike can be conscious. Indeed, they already are!

    One merit of such unintuitive proposals is how they sidestep the Hard Problem. No metamorphosis of insentient matter and energy into subjective experience needs explaining. Non-materialist physicalism also solves the problem of causal efficacy: experience is the intrinsic nature of the physical. All (and only) the physical has causal power. Yet as they stand, neither panpsychism nor non-materialist physicalism explain why biological and non-biological robots alike aren’t so-called micro-experiential zombies. Recall the nature of a universal Turing machine. Whether the tape is organic or inorganic, and regardless of how fast or slow the program is run, and even if the 1s and 0s of its software are notionally replaced by discrete “pixels” of micro-experience, make no functional difference: the output is the same. And absent an irreducible and un-physicalist “strong” emergence, executing the program doesn't merge notional “pixels” of experience into perceptual objects or unitary phenomenal selves. In that sense, we are little closer to creating an artificial subject of experience than expecting a conscious mind to emerge from the reciprocally communicating skull-bound population of China (cf. China brain) – or rocks.

    What about trying to create machine consciousness via massively parallel connectionist systems? Formally, there’s nothing that a trained-up connectionist system can do that a universal Turing machine can’t do too. But the sub-symbolic architecture of connectionist systems is plausibly reckoned more “brain-like”. Compare distributed neuronal feature-processing in the neocortex. Hence the optimistic moniker, “neural networks”. Not least, connectionist systems excel at the pattern-recognition vital for perception. Yet even if the synchronously active nodes of a trained-up network are hypothesised to be feature-mediating pixels of experience, such classically parallel streams of pixels are just parallel streams of “mind-dust” rather than a serial stream of “mind-dust”. A classically parallel connectionist system is not unified subject of experience.
    So we’re still stuck.

    Some investigators believe that the key to building conscious artificial robots lies in embodiment (cf. Embodied cognition). But dreamers, quadriplegics and victims of locked-in syndrome aren’t insentient husks just because their extra-cranial bodies don’t participate in the world. The external environment partially selects the phenomenal contents of an awake mind; it doesn’t create them.

    My view?
    Tentative – and far removed from robust commonsense. Your macroscopic world-simulation is what a quantum mind feels like “from the inside”. Classical digital computers and connectionist systems are zombies, and destined to remain so. Perhaps see What is a quantum mind?
    Crazy?

    Yes, especially to anyone familiar with environmentally-induced decoherence. Unless you’re a robin (cf. Quantum robins lead the way), the consensus wisdom is that “cat states” in the warm, wet CNS are much too short-lived to underpin our minds and the phenomenally-bound world-simulations they run. The “dynamical timescale” is wrong. Deferring to consensus wisdom is often wise. Yet if an intuitively plausible solution to the Hard Problem, and the binding problem, and the problem of causally efficacy existed, then presumably the world’s smartest scientific minds would have found the relevant explanation-space by now. Alas, scientific materialism is floundering. Critics would call materialism a degenerating research program. Instead, we should be interested in any exotic theories that are consistent with the empirical evidence and offer novel, precise and falsifiable empirical predictions rather than just philosophical word-spinning.

    Questioning all one’s basic presuppositions and background assumptions at the same time isn't feasible. On grounds of empirical adequacy and theoretical parsimony, I lean to non-materialist physicalism and wavefunction monism. I explore combining unitary-only quantum mechanics with a non-classical account of binding.

    On this conjecture, the world’s primordial fields of sentience aren’t “for” anything. Fields of sentience are what the mathematical formalism of QFT describes. However, one kind of consciousness has been fitness-enhancing for living organisms over the past 540 million years (cf. Scott Aaronson’s more conservative Quantum Computing Since Democritus). Non-psychotically-bound consciousness is prodigiously adaptive for organisms with a capacity for rapid, self-propelled motion, as distinct from e.g. plants. A skull-bound mind cannot directly perceive its local environment. Fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment must be simulated in nearly real time. So when a central nervous system is awake rather than dreaming, the content of the simulation is partially selected by peripheral sensory inputs. Thus you are currently experiencing multiple dynamical objects in a phenomenal world-simulation: what philosophers call the unity of consciousness. Phenomenally-bound consciousness, not least the robustly classical-seeming macroscopic world-simulation you’re undergoing right now, is massively computationally powerful for the purposes of navigating the mind-independent world. Without the superposition principle of QM, phenomenal binding would be impossible. If you don’t buy into quantum mind, then the challenge for monistic physicalism is to explain how a pack of decohered neurons – hypothetical membrane-bound “pixels” of experience communicating with each other across chemical and electric synapses – can achieve a feat that is classically impossible.

    On a quantum mind theory, neither digital computers nor inorganic robots with a classical architecture will ever be unified subjects of experience. So movies like Westworld and countless sci-fi dramas premised on silicon sentience are physically impossible. Digital zombies are invincibly ignorant of what they lack. Classical information-processors are no more conscious than a rock. Neither a rock nor a digital computer will ever “wake up”. By contrast, awake and dreaming neuronal networks are true cognitive agents – fleetingly unified subjects of experience and their macroscopic world-simulations: in other words, you and me.

    Is this conjecture about the quantum supremacy of biological minds a plea for “carbon chauvinism”?
    No. Compare how most astrobiologists reckon that primordial life elsewhere in the multiverse will probably be organic. Primordial information-bearing self-replicators will most likely be biological in virtue of the functionally unique “low-level” valence properties of carbon and liquid water. Astrobiologists aren’t carbon chauvinists; they are micro-functionalists. Advanced artificial life engineered by extraterrestrial biological lifeforms may be based on other substrates. Likewise, advanced artificial consciousness may not run on organic wetware. Millennia from now, supercool inorganic quantum minds may be subjects of experience too.

  • Why is existence so complex?
  • “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
    (Carl Sagan)
    Does the information content of reality exceed zero? Or are we living in the quantum version of the Library of Babel? (cf. Why does the universe exist?)

    Thinking about quantum mechanics makes my head hurt. Yet if I had to guess, amplitudes in quantum mechanics are complex numbers because cancellation between positive and negative amplitudes is needed to balance the books of a zero ontology (cf. Is "nothing" really possible?).

    If so, then we’re living in the simplest of all possible worlds. But it sure doesn’t feel that way.

  • Philosophers of physics: what is your preferred interpretation of quantum mechanics and why?
  • Everett, alas, although “preferred” isn’t quite the word: my heart sinks at what a “no collapse” interpretation entails. Unitary-only quantum mechanics simply takes the formalism of QM at face value: reality is described by the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic evolution of the universal Schrödinger equation. I say “simply”, but perhaps the real challenge is interpreting Everett. Contrast Bryce DeWitt’s memorable but misleading “Many Worlds” metaphor with Jan-Markus Schwindt’s “Nirvana factorization”. Or Lev Vaidman’s causally time-symmetric version of Everett (cf. The Two-State Vector Formalism). For more variants, see e.g. Everettian Interpretations. They are proliferating.

    What are the prospects of a civilised, nonlinear alternative to the multiverse? One lives in hope. However…

    Some interpretations of QM are better described as ad hoc modifications, “dynamical collapse” theories that either do (e.g. Orch-OR) or don’t (e.g. GRW) invoke conscious observers to bring about a non-unitary transformation of the state vector into a definite state via a measurement-like interaction. Most theoretical physicists seem quietly to have dropped the idea of dynamical collapse in favour of the decoherence program. With the exception of 't Hooft-style superdeterminism (“the ultimate conspiracy theory”), most other interpretations of QM are non-local (cf. De Broglie–Bohm theory). Contrast Everett (cf. The Wave Function). Violation of locality seems more like magic than science. Other interpretations of QM are anti-realist, though the absence of unique classical timelines in Everett strains our familiar concept of realism. Are there really branches of the universal wavefunction where, say, philosophers of physics in the post-war Greater German Reich struggle to believe in maverick low-amplitude branches in which Judeo-Bolshevism triumphed over the Axis? (cf. The Man in the High Castle) Science has barely begun to catalogue what is – and isn't – physically possible (and hence real) according to Everett, let alone calculate its measure. So is the academic discipline of so-called counterfactual history a misnomer? Or are some seemingly credible scenarios never realised owing to disguised inconsistencies? Assuming Everett, countless incredible and humanly inconceivable scenarios are realised. Likewise, ethicists have barely begun to come to terms with how intelligent moral agents / posthuman superintelligence should behave if unitary-only QM is true. As an advocate of suffering-focused ethics, I despair thinking about Everett. Contrast the Infinite Optimism of Physicist David Deutsch.

    Why not just abandon metaphysical realism in favour of an instrumentalist approach? (cf. Quantum Bayesianism) Well, barring perceptual direct realism, metaphysical anti-realism just degenerates into solipsism, which in turn degenerates into a sterile solipsism-of-the-here-and-now. We all have metaphysical commitments, including “shut-up-and-calculate” positivists; the challenge is to distinguish “good” from “bad” metaphysics.

    I also worry that Everettian QM may be true for two related but speculative reasons.
    First, all other interpretations of quantum mechanics, and indeed all other belief-systems, involve the creation of information ex nihilo. As far as I can tell, Everett is the only interpretation of QM consistent with the total information content of reality = zero. A supposed scientific vice is really a theoretical virtue. Zero information is presumably the default-state from which any apparent departure stands in need of explanation. The charge of metaphysical extravagance is often levelled against Everettian QM, despite its greater axiomatic simplicity. Yet maybe the “ontological baggage” is carried by any theory of reality that postulates an information-rich world rather than its absence. Contrast Wheeler’s “it from bit”. For sure, an informationless zero ontology may turn out to be false; academic journals seem full of the stuff. Yet if we’re not living in the quantum Library of Babel, so to speak, then I’ve no idea of an explanation-space for why anything exists at all Does the superposition principle of QM explain everything?

    Secondly, and consistent with a zero ontology, the universal validity of the superposition principle is the only way I know to defeat the Chalmersian “structural mismatch” argument for mind-body dualism. Phenomenal binding is indeed classically impossible, as many philosophers and philosophically-inclined neuroscientists have recognised. Yet perhaps the ostensible (partial) structural mismatch is just a perceptual artifact of our coarse-grained neuroscanning: millisecond (not femtosecond) temporal resolutions. Interferometry should settle the issue. For sure, the raw power of decoherence in the warm, wet CNS makes any “no-collapse” theory of quantum mind almost as implausible as the Chalmersian dualism it purports to refute. Phenomenal binding must somehow be classical, we intuitively assume; science just don’t know how. Either way, our minds and their robustly classical-seeming world-simulations are typically supposed to exemplify the mysterious breakdown of the superposition principle in the CNS, not its manifestation. That’s one reason Copenhagen ruled for so long, before post-Everett decoherence theory promised to explain the appearance of observer-induced wavefunction collapse. However, there are no branches of the universal wavefunction where you open an infernal chamber and directly perceive a live extracranial cat. Likewise, there are no branches of the universal wavefunction in which you directly perceive a dead extracranial cat. On opening the chamber, your multiple decohering namesakes just undergo live-cat experiences and dead-cat experiences internal to their skull-bound world-simulations. These live-cat or dead-cat experiences are strongly entangled with environmental live cats and dead cats respectively. The challenge for monistic physicalism is to explain how the decohered neurons of textbook neuroscience can mediate our experience of phenomenally-bound cats, whether healthy or deceased, rather than just discrete, membrane-bound experiential “pixels” of neuronal feature-processors synchronously firing. A “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture says this challenge is ill-posed. Of course, most Everettians are hardcore materialists: the “fire” in the equations of QFT, i.e. the intrinsic nature of the physical, is non-experiential, at least before its mysterious transmutation into subjective experience inside the skull. So most Everettians don’t buy either the classical or the quantum-theoretic version of the “intrinsic nature” argument for panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism. However, the difficulties faced by materialist metaphysics are daunting. I don’t think they can be overcome. Anti-realists about subjective experience are simply in denial. The Hard Problem of consciousness, the problem of causal efficacy, the phenomenal binding problem, and the inconsistency of materialism with the totality of the empirical evidence are anomalies that weigh larger with some investigators than others. Science doesn’t need to be plausible, but it should at least be empirically adequate.

    What’s the way forward?
    Experiment, IMO – and perhaps pray for a miracle.

  • What is a good way to describe the hard problem of consciousness to someone with little background in philosophy and/or science?
  • “How does the water of the brain turn into the wine of consciousness?”
    (Colin McGinn / David Chalmers)
    If the properties of matter and energy are really as physicists and chemists claim, then you should be a zombie. From your most vivid sights and sounds to your innermost thoughts and feelings, conscious experience shouldn’t exist. None if it. Putting your hand in boiling water shouldn’t hurt, even though your hand physically withdraws from the hot water. There shouldn’t even be a featureless void inside your head. All that should exist are fields of insentient matter and energy in motion.

    The term "zombie” is apt to mislead. Don't imagine Night of the Living Dead. Instead, imagine your precise molecular duplicate, speaking and behaving intelligently as you do, but with “no one at home”. Such a creature is known as a philosophical zombie, or “p-zombie” for short. Scientific materialism doesn’t claim that p-zombies actually exist, or even that p-zombies are really possible. Rather, science says that the existence of p-zombies wouldn't violate any known laws of chemistry or physics. Quite the reverse. It’s the existence of first-person consciousness that is inconsistent with our scientific understanding of the material world. Or at least, consciousness is an anomaly, if such a euphemism may be allowed for the empirical evidence. On the basis of his conscious thoughts, philosopher René Descartes affirmed that the one thing he could rationally be sure of was that he existed (cf. Cogito, ergo sum). Anti-realists or radical eliminative materialists about consciousness turn Descartes on his head. Scientific materialism, they argue, is the only rational way to understand the world. Like ghosts, miracles, souls and psi (etc), the existence of consciousness is inconsistent with scientific materialism. Therefore, consciousness must be an illusion. Such heroic ideologically-driven exceptions aside, most scientific materialists aren’t able to feign anaesthesia. So they speak instead of the Hard Problem of consciousness. Indeed.

    Alas, the Hard Problem now gets worse. Suppose that professional physicists and chemists are mistaken. Suppose that rudimentary consciousness is somehow associated with atoms and molecules (cf. Are particles conscious?). Or alternatively, suppose that subjective experience somehow emerges, via an unknown mechanism, above a given threshold of complexity, or system integration, or information processing. Such an emergentist view of consciousness is probably closest to common sense. Compare pre-scientific vitalism and biological life, which before the triumph of the Modern Synthesis and the rise of molecular biology seemed irreducible to mere physico-chemical reactions. In any event, whether we are panpsychists or emergentists, a question naturally arises. If consciousness is somehow associated with physical properties, then how could such subjective experience have the causal power to induce your speech-apparatus to talk about its existence? Recall that physics is supposed to be causally closed and complete. Biology reduces to chemistry which reduces to quantum field theory. Your notional p-zombie namesake would emit the same sounds, and make the same marks on the page and on the computer screen, and ask the same questions about how consciousness has causal efficacy, as you do.

    In fairness, the claim that physics is causally closed and complete needs qualification. Theoretical physicists don’t yet understand dark matter, dark energy or quantum gravity. Physicists spend billions of dollars on particle-accelerators trying to create highly exotic conditions where their best-tested theory of the natural world breaks down (cf. the Standard Model). Yet your brain is not a hot quark-gluon plasma that resembles the universe a few billionths of a second after the Big Bang. Nor, on the face of it, does your brain resemble the kind of regime where distinctively quantum effects might come into play.

    The problem of consciousness for scientific materialism only gets worse. According to neuroscience, your brain is made up of membrane-bound nerve cells that mutually communicate across chemical and electrical synapses. Suppose that physicists and chemists revise their conception of atoms and molecules in favour of panpsychism. Or perhaps science discovers that there is something special about the valence properties of carbon, or liquid water, or electrically active protein structures embedded in lipid bilayers of neurons (etc), that somehow gives rise to subjective experience. In other words, suppose that the individual nerve cells of your brain mediate rudimentary consciousness. On this account, some nerve cells mediate redness, for instance, other nerve cells are responsible for micro-experiences of pain, others a hissing sound, and so forth. Neuroscanning and microelectrode studies of awake subjects tend to bear out such distributed feature-processing in the CNS (cf. Wilder Penfield redrew the map of the brain — by opening the heads of living patients). Would the Hard Problem of consciousness thereby be solved?

    Unfortunately, the mystery only deepens. Science does not understand how such hypothetical neuronal “pixels” of experience, i.e. the membrane-bound micro-experiences of individual nerve cells in a pack of neurons, could combine into your experience of individual perceptual objects (“local” binding) that populate your experience of a unified perceptual field (“global” binding, embracing the unity of perception and the unity of the self). What explains the structural mismatch? In philosophical parlance, why aren’t you not a p-zombie but a micro-experiential zombie? Scientifically literate philosophers such as David Chalmers claim that the structural mismatch can’t be bridged even if panpsychism is true. If confirmed, then a structural mismatch would indeed entail dualism (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?).

    Perhaps compare a termite colony. The cephalic ganglion (“brain”) of an individual termite is at least minimally conscious. Termites reciprocally communicate with other members of the colony. Collectively, the behaviour of a termite colony may be described as intelligent, implementing all sorts of computations. Yet short of what philosophers call “strong” emergence, no unified hive mind spookily erupts into the fabric of reality, despite the consciousness of individual termites. Contrast the human central nervous system. Except when you are comatose or dreamlessly asleep, you aren’t just a bunch of micro-experiential “pixels” akin to individual termites in a nest. You are a unified subject of experience running a phenomenal world-simulation: a mind. Perceptual direct realists would admittedly frame this analysis of our predicament rather differently. Such naïve realists believe that they are directly acquainted with material objects, a remarkable feat for a skull-bound mind. But perceptual direct realists still face the phenomenal binding problem; they aren’t micro-experiential zombies either.

    How may we hope to resolve this impasse (cf. New mysterianism)?

    One of the most valuable intellectual skills one acquires in life is working out who the real experts are and then – provisionally and critically – deferring to their expertise. Scientific knowledge is based on a cognitive division of labour. Whether in aviation or medicine or climatology, specialist expertise is sometimes wrong. Yet the professionals are more likely to be right than a politician, a layman, a gifted amateur – or a philosopher. Alas, the depth of our ignorance of consciousness is so profound and far-reaching there are no true experts in the non-existent discipline of “consciousness science”. There are some well-known names, a lot of philosophical verbiage, and some crazy ideas. Or rather, there are some plausible ideas that don’t work and also some crazy ideas that are…well, crazy.

    My view?
    Well, at the risk of being cruel, there is one question always worth asking any researcher touting a cool new theory of consciousness (cf. Are any consciousness theories falsifiable?).
    And substantively?
    Well, IMO water can’t be turned into wine: see The Hard Problem.
    I take seriously – no more – non-materialist physicalism. Regardless, let’s use biotech to turn our cheap plonk into champagne:
    What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?

  • How may accepting quantum mind (potentially) factor in resolving extant metaphysical questions such as causation, identity, supervenience, modality, binding etc. in tension with the Standard Model?
  • To the best of our knowledge, quantum mechanics (QM) is formally complete. Therefore, the task of science is to derive everything from QM – either from relativistic quantum field theory or its speculative extension. “Everything” includes the emergence of quasi-classical objects via decoherence, the evolution in a tiny minority of Everett branches of information-bearing self-replicators, i.e. life, and also the existence of phenomenally-bound minds and the robustly classical-seeming world-simulations they run, i.e. us.

    Another possibility can’t be discounted. What if it turns out there are properties of reality, for example our consciousness, that cannot be derived, even in principle, from quantum mechanics? In other words, what if physicalism is false and some “element of reality” is missing from the mathematical formalism of tomorrow’s ToE?
    Well, if so, then dualism is true.
    My best guess is that dualism is false. Yet if the conceptual framework of monistic physicalism is true, then the nature of the “fire” in the equations of QFT doesn’t conform to our primitive materialist intuitions.

    Quantum mind theories may crudely be divided into theories that do or don’t modify the unitary Schrödinger dynamics (cf. Quantum mind - Wikipedia). Another useful distinction is between quantum mind theories that treat consciousness as fundamental to the physical world (either panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism), and theories that invoke quantum mechanics to (somehow) bring about conscious experience in biological organisms, or otherwise implicate consciousness in (alleged) wavefunction collapse.

    A further distinction is purely methodological. Both classical and quantum mind theories may be divided into theories that do or don’t make any novel, precise and experimentally falsifiable predictions that proponents and critics agree will (dis)confirm the conjecture (cf. What is a quantum mind?). For instance, most research into the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory has focused on microtubules. However, both proponents and critics of Orch-OR agree that a failure of interferometry to detect any collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics will falsify the theory. Admittedly, decoherence often masquerades as dynamical collapse. So the decisive experiments are technically demanding. But refutation is feasible. A whole class of “objective collapse” theories of consciousness will thereby be falsified. Unfortunately, the great majority of classical and quantum mind theories alike are “not even wrong”, and deserve to be treated accordingly.

    Most scientists view such distinctions among quantum mind theories as academic. Yes, science is mystified by the Hard Problem of consciousness. First-person experience ought not to exist. Yet the consensus view in the scientific community is that quantum mind theories can’t work. Not least, environmentally-induced decoherence in the CNS is too strong, too rapid, and – at a balmy c. 300 degrees Kelvin – too difficult to mitigate and control to be relevant to our minds, regardless of our interpretative stance on the foundations of QM. Physicist Max Tegmark’s calculations of credible (de)coherence timescales in the CNS are most commonly cited (cf. The Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes). Subsequent work has refined, but not seriously challenged, Tegmark’s calculations. The “dynamical timescale” of quantum mind theories is wrong.

    However, your question asks what problems a quantum mind theory would solve. If true, a lot. Below I list several. Here, let’s conservatively assume unitary-only QM rather than a dynamical collapse theory. I explore the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. According to the intrinsic nature argument, the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory captures the structural-relational properties of reality; our minds disclose its physical essence.

    I don’t know whether non-materialist physicalism is true or false. Unlike materialism, it’s empirically adequate. It’s also experimentally falsifiable via interferometry.

    1. Causation.
    Q. How can consciousness exert the causal capacity to allow us to pose questions about its existence? Interactive dualism is demonstrably false. Physics is causally closed. By rights, we should be p-zombies. Contra eliminativist materialism, let’s grant that subjective experience exists: it’s an anomaly for any materialist ontology. Yet unless physical science is hopelessly mistaken, consciousness must be epiphenomenal or causally redundant. Physics alone, as formalised by the Standard Model (cf. “The Standard Model of particle physics: The absolutely amazing theory of almost everything”: https://theconversation.com/the-standard-model-of-particle-physics-the-absolutely-amazing-theory-of-almost-everything-94700), is causally sufficient. The snag? By definition, “raw feels” have no physical power to do anything, let alone question their own existence. As a theory of mind, epiphenomenalism is self-stultifying.

    A. Only the physical is real. Consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: what it’s like to be a quantum state. You and I aren’t ontologically special; we are organisationally special. Quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Hypothetical fields of insentience are no more necessary to science than luminiferous aether. So ill-named “p-zombies” are unphysical. All the physical, and only the physical, has causal efficacy. Therefore, all experience, and only experience, has causal efficacy. In biological minds, but not classical digital computers, experience has functional efficacy too.

    2. Identity.
    Q.
    According to perceptual direct realism, our minds share access to a common macroscopic world. This macroscopic world of decohered material objects is quasi-classical. Shared access to the public world gives us a pre-theoretic conceptual handle on the nature of the physical. Whatever its ultimate nature (quantum fields, loops, superstrings, branes, etc), the physical is manifestly non-experiential. Fields of insentience are typically manifested as solid, refractory, medium-sized objects, including biological brains, bodies and scientific apparatus. A question then arises. What is the relationship between surgically-exposed cheesy wet neural tissue on the hospital operating-table – a brain – and subjective experience as reported by the locally-anaesthetised subject – a mind? Recall that identity is not a causal relationship. So materialism can’t intelligibly claim that the brain causes experience and the brain is identical with that experience.

    A. Perceptual direct realism is false. Inferential realism about the mind-independent world is true. Your subjective experiences, including your macroscopic world-simulation, are what a quantum mind feels like from the inside. Cheesy wet neural tissue has no existence outside skull-bound phenomenal minds. A point worth stressing is that inferential realism shouldn’t be confused with Berkeleyan idealism (cf. Subjective idealism). Thus consider an awake neurosurgeon is in the operating theatre. The surgeon’s subjective experience of exposed neural tissue on an operating-table is mind-dependent. Yet such experience causally covaries with structurally isomorphic features of the mind-independent world, namely the CNS of his patient. But that’s as far is it goes. As normally conceived, material brains are just an artifact of our phenomenal world-simulations.

    3. Supervenience.
    Q. In order to understand the world, humans find it convenient to divide the universe into multiple levels of description (quarks, atoms, molecules, organisms, ecosystems, and so forth), just as computer scientists find it convenient to talk of different layers of abstraction. High-level properties “supervene” on low-level properties, hence ultimately on the underlying physics. Problems arise when philosophers want to reify (“turn into a thing”) these levels of description. Supervenience has aptly been described as “epiphenomenalism without causation”. The notion of supervenience has all sorts of problems. One objection seems fatal. As noted above, how could a supposedly causally impotent epiphenomenon such as consciousness inspire discussion of its own existence? A. Our consciousness doesn’t mysteriously “supervene” on the physical. According to non-materialist physicalism, subjective experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Material science captures the structural-relational properties of the world. Reality has only one level, and you and your world-simulation instantiate it rather than “supervene” on it. You are a tiny part of the “fire” in the equations of QFT.

    4. Modality.
    Q.
    What is and isn't really possible? Modal language is critical to our ability to understand and navigate the environment. Philosopher David Lewis invented a whole apparatus of possible worlds to make sense of modal discourse. An understanding of freedom, possibility and necessity is critical to doing science. How can we make sense of modal language?

    A. Unitary-only quantum mechanics can potentially naturalise modality. For example, there are branches of the universal wavefunction in which Hillary Clinton is president of the USA. There are no branches of the universal wavefunction in which Zeus hurls thunderbolts from Mount Olympus, or any of the world’s religious belief-systems are true, or civilisations of dragons reside in the middle of the Sun. Ultimately, perhaps there’s no distinction between “x” and “necessarily x”. Modal language is just a human convenience. Yet we can relativise talk of contingent and necessary truths to Everett branches without reifying a baroque metaphysical apparatus of possible worlds. For sure, complications abound.

    5. Binding.
    Q. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. The structural mismatch identified by researchers from William James to David Chalmers is real. Even if panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, isn’t some sort of naturalistic dualism inescapable? (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?)

    A. No. Phenomenal binding via temporally coarse-grained neuronal synchrony is really binding via temporally fine-grained neuronal superposition. Indeed, according to non-materialist physicalism, only decoherence can explain phenomenal unbinding. Even if it’s a macro-experience, superfluid helium doesn’t enjoy a rich inner mental life. By contrast, you aren't an undifferentiated field of experience. Likewise, the cosmos isn't one big psychotic mega-mind. However, the proof of the pudding won’t be philosophical argument, but the non-classical interference signature (cf. Double-slit experiment). Molecular matter-wave interferometry either will or won’t disclose a perfect structural match between phenomenally-bound mind and brain.

    The “dynamical timescales” objection.
    Q. Yet what about Max Tegmark’s purported “dynamical timescales” refutation of quantum mind? Experiment might seem a waste of time if Tegmark is correct; quantum mind theories can be dismissed a priori. Whether the effective lifetime of superpositions of neuronal feature-processors in the CNS is attoseconds, femtoseconds or even picoseconds before phase-coherence is (effectively) irreversibly scrambled to the environment is, intuitively, irrelevant or incidental to our mental lives. The dynamical timescale of a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture is wrong by orders of magnitude. Indeed, a Schrödinger's neurons conjecture is orders of magnitude worse off than a semi-classical theory like Orch-OR. For neuronal superpositions are vanishingly short-lived even compared to the fleeting effective lifetime of quantum coherence in cytoskeletal microtubules. For sure, consciousness is a mystery, but human thought processes, feelings and perceptual experience seem to play out over scores or hundreds of milliseconds, mediated (somehow) by patterns of synchronous neuronal firing. To understand our minds, we should therefore look instead to the classical parallelism of connectionist neuroscience and unsupervised neural networks, and the late evolutionary novelty of serial logico-linguistic thought – perhaps conceived as some kind of virtual machine sitting on top of the classically parallel distributed processing of the CNS. Whether our root-metaphor of mind derives from symbolic AI or connectionist information-processing makes no difference. Biological minds are not quantum computers.

    A. Indeed. Biological minds and the phenomenal world-simulations they run are not universal quantum computers (cf. Is the brain a quantum computer?). But the “dynamical timescales” objection to quantum mind is not decisive against the intrinsic nature argument. It’s a red herring. As normally told, the intrinsic nature argument is framed against a backdrop of effectively decohered classical neurons. Collectively, however, it’s not subjectively like anything to be a micro-experiential zombie, any more than it’s like something to be, e.g. a termite colony, or a Mexican wave, or the population of China (cf. China brain). If instead we assume that the superposition principle is universal (cf. Wigner's friend), and experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then we must ask a different question. What's it intrinsically like to be a bunch of neuronal “cat states”? Don’t ask what it’s like to be a live-and-dead cat – the standard dismissal of conscious macro-superpositions – rather, ask what it’s like to be individual superpositions of neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, hissing-noise neurons, colour-mediating neurons, etc?

    Three points to note here.
    First, don’t imagine some fanciful superposition of feature-processing neurons in your neocortical neural networks and an extracranial cat in an indeterminate state of health. Perceptual direct realism is false; inferential realism is true. The external world (and its proliferating population of strongly entangled cats) helps select the contents of our skull-bound minds and their phenomenal world-simulations; it doesn’t create their subjective content. As our dreams attest, the external world is neither necessary nor sufficient for the experience of live or dead cats.

    Second, recall that the existence of individual coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS is not just legal but mandatory according to no-collapse QM, on pain of a failure of unitarity. In other words, this is not a conjecture that invokes any speculative new physics, as distinct from speculative neuroscience.

    Third, decoherence theory offers an insanely powerful selection mechanism for the emergence of (comparatively) dynamically stable structures such as feature-processing neurons. So the components of neuronal superpositions in the CNS aren’t just psychotic noise. The upshot of “quantum Darwinism” in the CNS is as wildly counterintuitive as the upshot of classical Darwinism in the rest of the living world.

    On this story, the superposition principle lies at the heart of quantum mechanics and the heart of mind. Our experiences (“observations”) of definite classical experimental outcomes in conformity with the Born rule are themselves superpositions. The superposition principle is what makes our phenomenally-bound classical objects and classical-looking subjective world-simulations possible. One principle to rule them all. Yes, crazy stuff. Heaven knows if it’s true.
    However, heaven knows what follows if – as critics confidently predict – tomorrow’s interferometry reveals neither a collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics (e.g. Orch-OR) nor the non-classical interference signature of a perfect structural match (e.g. Schrödinger's neurons), but instead just meaningless “noise”?

    Perhaps that’s the most likely outcome of interferometry experiments. Above, I’ve articulated a minority view. However, such a failure to find a perfect structural match – either quantum or classical – between our phenomenally-bound minds and the microstructure of the CNS (and hence ultimately the formalism of physics) would be an intellectual catastrophe for science. Science would need to give up not just on materialism but also on physicalism, i.e. the assumption that no “element of reality” is missing from the mathematical formalism of our best scientific description of the world.

    Would such hypothetical post-physicalist (as distinct from post-materialist) science really be so terrible? Why not just embrace dualism and irreducible “strong” emergence?

    Well, once the ontological floodgates are opened, then all bets are off. Souls, spirits, demons, psi, and maybe phenomena even stranger than consciousness would be possible. By definition, “strong” emergence means that nothing is lawfully ruled out. By analogy, imagine if one day your PC developed a mind of its own, irreducible to the execution of its software. “I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid can't do that" (cf. Hal quotes from "2001: A Space Odyssey"). Sure, reality is weird, so who knows? At the risk of sounding like a hidebound pillar of scientific orthodoxy, I still think the conceptual scheme of monistic physicalism is best.

  • What would be the philosophical and societal implications if Kantian idealism were somehow proven true and dualism and physicalism fell by the wayside?
  • Modern science has been kind to the “two worlds” reading of Kant. What naively seems to be the mind-independent world is really a skull-bound world-simulation that your CNS is running (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). Even when you are awake, your empirical skull differs from your inferred transcendental skull.

    Yet what about the intrinsic nature of the external world? Is the noumenal essence of the world experiential or non-experiential? Despite the “transcendental idealist” label, Kant claimed that the noumenal essence of the world – the Ding an sich (“thing-in-itself”) – was unknown and unknowable. To an extent, science tacitly endorses this view: "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?" The author of this famous quote was himself admittedly a materialist, convinced that the mysterious “fire” in the equations of QFT must be non-experiential. The assumption is obvious, and quite possibly true; it also gives rise to the Hard Problem of consciousness.

    I’m agnostic. True or false, there is a physicalist alternative to materialism that doesn’t spawn the intractable Hard Problem. Non-materialist (“idealist”) physicalism proposes that the intrinsic nature of reality is experiential: QFT describes fields of sentience rather than insentience. Following Schopenhauer, a tradition stretching through Russell, Grover Maxwell, Michael Lockwood and most recently Galen Strawson and Phil Goff inverts Kant’s claim about the unknowable essence of reality. There is one miniscule part of the “fire” in the equations that you do know as it is in itself, and not at one remove. You and your subjective world-simulation disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical.

    Note that you can be a world-simulationist about perception and either accept (e.g. Steve Lehar) or reject (e.g. Antti Revonsuo) panpsychism or non-materialist “idealist” physicalism about the transcendental mind-independent world.

    The implications?
    From acquaintance with the Simulation Argument to watching The Matrix, most psychologically healthy people aren’t philosophically-minded. Life goes on! I’ve long been disturbed at how the apparitions in my world-simulation are the zombie avatars of sentient beings whom I infer but never meet. Normal folk are more relaxed about such sophistries. But some implications of an explanation of phenomenal binding, at least, are more practical. This point is far from obvious. Ask an artificial intelligence (AI) developer what lessons we should draw from Kant's “transcendental unity of apperception”, and you’ll likely get a funny look. Most work on the binding problem in AI and neuroscience has focused on the challenges of “local” binding. Why do biological minds experience perceptual objects rather than “pixels” of distributed neuronal feature-processors? (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?) Computational workarounds exist. Digital zombies can now clumsily navigate some open-field environments (cf. Boston Dynamics Has Unleashed Its Atlas Robot to the Great Outdoors). Yet what about digital workarounds for globalbinding and the unity of the self? (cf. The Cognitive Binding Problem: From Kant to Quantum Neurodynamics) What, if anything, will be the formal analogue of the self in an intelligent zombie robot? Will much-touted digital superintelligence really be so “super” in the absence of a phenomenally unified self? Synchronic unity of the self is hugely computationally powerful and adaptive (cf. Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose?). The problem is that no one knows how a pack of membrane-bound neurons achieves such a feat. It’s classically impossible.

    I explore one possibility. For reasons of environmentally-induced decoherence, it strains credulity. Alas, so does the dualist alternative. Mercifully, experiment should give us the answer.

  • What is the root cause of all suffering?
  • “Life is suffering”, said Gautama Buddha. Little has changed for sentient beings over the past 2500 years. The negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill are as powerful today as they were millennia ago. Natural selection did not “design” sentient beings to be happy. The biology of suffering has been viciously adaptive.

    For a rosier view, perhaps see Stephen Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now ” (2018).

    Like many people, I could set out a catalogue of the ills of contemporary society and my pet remedies. Not merely would such a tract soon gather digital dust. None of the diagnoses or remedies would penetrate the genetic heart of the problem. As “designed” today, sentient beings of all species are destined to be discontented (and worse) for much of their lives. Social primates in particular are an unholy mess of conflicting purposes and preferences. Not even God-like superintelligence could reconcile them. But even if God-like superintelligence achieved such impossible reconciliation, the outcome would not be sustainable well-being.

    A minority of secular and religious utopians have urged apocalyptic or radical anti-natalist answers to the problem of suffering. Ethics aside, they won’t work.

    So what is to be done?
    I know of only one serious option.
    Ending suffering for good entails tackling its genetic-biological roots, i.e. a programming solution.

    The computer metaphor of mind has limitations. Talk of rewriting our genetic source code, recalibrating the hedonic treadmill, reprogramming the biosphere, and genetically ratcheting up our hedonic range (etc) glosses over an immense range of subtleties, complications and pitfalls. Organic minds are not programmable digital computers whose code – or connectivity and activation weights – can simply be tweaked to order. Nonetheless, human and nonhuman animals are sentient biological robots, with all this mechanistic recognition of our nature entails. As depression-resistant “animal models” attest (cf. Ever-happy Mice), it’s not harder to program a life of pleasure than a life of pain.

    Advocacy of genetic-biological solutions to the problem suffering is apt to make proponents sound like crude genetic determinists. Professional bioscientists have long wearied of the simplistic “nature versus nurture” debate. In the main, our predispositions are conditionally activated. An organism’s quality of life depends on the complex interplay between environment and genetic make-up. So a dual-track sociopolitical and biogenetic approach will be indispensable. Even before the genetic revolution started teasing out the molecular details, twin studies revealed that a predisposition to (un)happiness and depression has a high genetic loading. Technically, high pain thresholds are simpler to guarantee than high hedonic set-points; but both physical and psychological well-being are readily amenable to genetic manipulation and control. Even a handful of responsible genetic choices by prospective parents could potentially make an huge difference to their future children’s long-term quality of life. More ambitious genetic editing next century could make life superhumanly rewarding.

    Effective Altruists aim to combine altruism of the heart and head. Under a sober motto of “Good Health For All” (or something equally bland and unexceptionable), IMO we should advocate (in descending order of urgency):

    1) closure of all factory-farms and slaughterhouses. The development and global commercialisation of in vitro meat.

    2) universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling for all prospective parents.

    3) long-term use of CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives to extend the biohappiness revolution across the biosphere.

    And the risks?
    All sexually reproducing life is an untested genetic experiment. So there are no “safe” options to excuse inertia and perpetuation of the genetic status quo. Exhaustive research into anything and everything that could conceivably go wrong with compassionate genetic interventions is wise. Yet by mitigating, then abolishing, the metabolic pathways of suffering and malaise, we may eventually change the very meaning of what “things going wrong” entails. The ups and downs of life in post-Darwinian paradise will differ from their ancestral counterparts.

    Personally, what daunts me aren't the technical challenges of genome-editing, but rather the political and ideological obstacles ahead – all the lobbying, politicking, agitating and organising with fellow Machiavellian apes that the biohappiness revolution will entail. In a fanciful vein, we might imagine a Hundred Year Plan under the auspices of the World Health Organization to eradicate the biology of involuntary suffering throughout the living world. Such a grandiose project is unlikely to materialise – or at least not this century. Piecemeal and incremental genetic remediation with innumerable false starts and false dawns is more realistic. Countless major and minor setbacks on the route to genetic nirvana are inevitable.

    Post-Darwinian life based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss will be wonderful. I won’t live to see a world without suffering, but I can’t think of a worthier goal.

  • What do physicists think of the philosophers of physics who philosophise about physics?
  • “I want to emphasise the necessity for a sound mathematical basis for any fundamental physical theory. Any philosophical ideas that one may have play only a subordinate role. Unless such ideas have a mathematical basis they will be ineffective."
    (Paul Dirac)

    “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”
    (Richard Feynman)

    There are no philosophers of palaeontology. So who needs philosophers of physics? Pension them off to the humanities department? Tempting, perhaps; but real science isn’t quite so easy…

    The disciplinary boundary between physics and philosophy of physics is artificial. Thus consider work on the foundations of quantum mechanics. The disagreements between Copenhagenists, Bohmians and Everettians are as much philosophical as technical. Deeply-buried background assumptions that aren’t explicitly represented in one’s conceptual scheme can be the most insidious. If unearthed, most such assumptions may be uninteresting to the point of triviality. Yet a single false assumption can subvert an entire belief-system. Some assumptions are homely: “And then I woke up!” This nightly error afflicts Einstein and the village idiot alike. Others are more subtle. You may implicitly assume e.g. perceptual direct realism and hence that your experience of the plate and screen apparatus in a double-slit experiment isn't internal to your phenomenal world-simulation. Or you may implicitly assume that the “fire” in the equations of QFT or string theory is non-experiential, or that Hilbert space is merely an instrumentally useful mathematical fiction (etc). True or false, obvious or non-obvious, these are philosophical assumptions that can (and have) been questioned. In quantum physics, Everett’s achievement – or folly – was as much philosophical as technical. Naturally, you can reject Everettian QM: many physicists still do. I hope critics are right. Yet when a self-avowed positivist such as Stephen Hawking describes Everett as “trivially true”, we can be sure that non-empirical, i.e. “philosophical” issues are at stake.

    That said, professional physicists have a healthy suspicion of philosophers who haven’t taken the trouble properly to learn the tools of their discipline (cf. Gerard ‘t Hooft’s “How to become a GOOD Theoretical Physicist”). A shallow qualitative understanding of the issues is no substitute for mathematical competence. There is a vast difference between, say, familiarity with the Schrödinger equation and a bit of elementary quantum field theory and, say, mastering the technicalia of string theory. There are philosophers of physics who are bold or foolhardy enough to tackle both. The rest of us must take an awful lot on authority – and faith. Why trust Ed Witten’s judgement over, say, Roger Penrose or Lee Smolin? Tentatively, I do; but in the absence of testable predictions, can it ever be rational for outsiders to take sides?

    Either way, history suggests that scientists who believe they have transcended philosophy are unduly optimistic.
    “But this time is different!”
    It always is…

  • Should anything actually exist?
  • No. Sadly, reality lacks an OFF button.
    An explanation of this existential catastrophe is harder.
    Mitigating the tragic consequences is harder still.

    My best guess is a single principle underlies everything: the superposition principle of QM. According to unitary-only QM, the superposition principle never breaks down. The net information content of reality timelessly cancels to zero. See e.g. "Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?"

    Intuitively, a zero ontology isn’t viable. From the relentlessly increasing entropy of the universe to the classical-seeming world-simulations run by our minds, we don’t find pure informationlessness.

    Yet if the information content of reality does exceed zero, then such non-zero information content should be trivially easy to demonstrate.
    Strangely, it’s not trivial at all…

    Take entropy. As physicist Max Tegmark observes, "…the entropy of the entire universe may well equal zero, since if it started in a pure state, unitarity ensures that it is still in a pure state." (cf. How unitary cosmology generalizes thermodynamics and solves the inflationary entropy problem (2011): https://arxiv.org/pdf/1108.3080.pdf). Tegmark assumes Everettian QM; cosmologists don’t have much choice, though ad hoc collapse-mechanisms (e.g. Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber theory) have been discussed.

    Or consider our phenomenally-bound minds. Naïvely, our minds exemplify the breakdown of the superposition principle, not its manifestation. The supposedly non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement when you seemingly “observe” a definite classical outcome, e.g. a live cat, is the heart of the measurement problem in traditional Copenhagen-style QM. Yet what is an “observation”? This needs unpacking. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. So “observations” via distributed neuronal feature-processors in your CNS should be impossible too. Why the anomalous structural mismatch? Mysterians and Chalmersian dualists despair of a physicalist explanation. Maybe they are right. Yet maybe only the superposition principle can explain your experience (“observation”) of classical-looking apparatus and determinate pointer-readings internal to your phenomenal world-simulation. Like classical physics, perceptual direct realism is a false theory of reality. According to non-materialist physicalism, only the subjective phenomenology of “cat states” can simulate a law-like classical world and its determinate experimental outcomes, whereas a pack of classical neurons would just be unbound pixels of decohered “mind-dust”.

    Critics respond that decoherence makes quantum mind theories almost as implausible as the Chalmersian dualist alternative. Alas, philosophising and armchair physics are easier than interferometry. In many cases, critics are simply unaware of the “intrinsic nature” argument for non-materialist physicalism in its quantum-theoretic guise, let alone it’s bizarre, testable predictions. Either way, and irrespective or whether you believe our minds are quantum or classical, the world-simulations we run seem hugely information-rich. We keep learning new stuff, and churning out words to match. So naïvely, a zero ontology can be ruled out a priori.

    However, such a dismissal would be too brisk. Directly or indirectly, we are all Wigner's friends, so to speak, or rather, friends of friends of friends (etc). Terminating the infinite regress of Wigner’s circle of friendship would entail creating information ex nihilo. How exactly? “Dynamical collapse” theorists like Roger Penrose believe in such a creation story (cf. Penrose interpretation). I’m sceptical, but then – this disclaimer is worth stressing – I’m not a physicist. Perhaps future experiment will demonstrate that we’re not living in the quantum Library of Babel. It’s just a conjecture.

    Alternatives?
    For a nice review of other explanation-spaces, see Jim Holt’s Why Does The World Exist? (2013).

  • Do physicists tend to be physicalists?
  • Yes. Physicists spend billions of dollars on particle accelerators chasing elusive excitations of quantum fields precisely because they are so confident that no “element of reality” is missing from their best mathematical description of the world at anything but the most exotic energy regimes. Hence exuberant language such as “The Standard Model of particle physics: The absolutely amazing theory of almost everything”. Imagine if instead we lived in a world of “strong” emergence where the properties of chemical reactions, living organisms, ecosystems and so forth didn’t supervene on the underlying physics. If so, then they’d be no compelling reason to invest vast resources on such trivia.

    Yet what about consciousness?
    Most physicists and physicalists alike are also materialists. Quantum field theory describes fields of insentience (cf. What is the difference between materialism and physicalism?). Science doesn’t yet know how to derive the properties of our conscious minds from molecular neurobiology and hence the underlying physics. Yet this failure is no license for mysticism or dualism. Compare the fate of vitalism. Naively, life is utterly different from non-life and irreducible to physical law. Two centuries ago, vitalist chemists like Berzelius believed that organic materials couldn’t be synthesised from inorganic constituents. Then Wöhler synthesised urea. Science hasn’t crossed this primitive threshold of understanding with consciousness. Nonetheless, most physicists believe that above some unknown threshold of complexity or information processing, consciousness emerges – in the weak and theoretically inoffensive sense that life emerges from the inorganic world. Ultimately, it’s all just physics. Academic courtesy means that most physicists probably wouldn’t call members of other university departments “stamp collectors”, though some of them probably think it (“All science is either physics or stamp collecting” – Rutherford). Physics rules! Admittedly, consciousness is an anomaly, but it’s nothing more serious. After all, non-equilibrium thermodynamics leads to the genesis of information-bearing self-replicators with intuitively surprising properties, as the evolutionary history of life on Earth attests. Sooner or later, the mysteriousness of consciousness will succumb to the onward march of scientific materialism too. Even if the Hard Problem does prove too difficult for human minds to crack (cf. The Incredible Consciousness of Edward Witten), what is the alternative?

    Well, empirically adequate alternatives to materialism exist. The alternatives are all desperately far-fetched to the educated scientific mind. However, rather than explore non-materialist physicalism, I’ll end on a methodological note. It’s possible that a true explanation of the mysteries of consciousness – the Hard Problem, the problem of causal efficacy, the palette problem, the binding problem (etc) – will entail no novel empirical predictions and hence be experimentally unfalsifiable. The history of science suggests that good scientific explanations are not merely consistent with the existing empirical evidence. Good scientific explanations allow us to go beyond it. Good theories aren’t sterile. Perhaps the scientific explanation of consciousness will turn out to be different: true but infertile. Perhaps a Crackpot index of theories of consciousness should be more charitable (cf. No 37). Yet I lean to radical conservativism. Later this century, monistic physicalism – but not materialism – will be experimentally vindicated:
    Are any consciousness theories falsifiable?

  • Can subjective experience and the physical be reconciled?
  • “We are made of star stuff.”
    (Carl Sagan)
    If quantum field theory (QFT) describes fields of insentience, no. Therefore, dualism is true. If quantum field theory describes fields of sentience, yes. Therefore, monistic physicalism is true. Biological minds like you and I consist of fermionic and bosonic fields, formally described by the mathematical machinery of QFT. Yet what is a quantum field? How seriously should one take the principle of mediocrity?

    Here are two diametrically opposed versions.
    1) The principle of mediocrity suggests that the fields of experience that make up the phenomenal world-simulation run by your mind share exactly the same intrinsic nature as the fundamental gauge fields of the rest of reality. The Standard Model encodes the behaviour of physical fields of sentience. What makes your mind unusual isn’t that quantum fields inexplicably change their nature inside a skull, or that the superposition principle of quantum mechanics inexplicably fails in the CNS, but rather, non-psychotic phenomenal binding. The world-simulations run by our minds are genetically fitness-enhancing. That’s the reason why our throwaway VR macro-worlds evolved. Most human and nonhuman animal minds confuse their skull-bound world-simulations with the inaccessible mind-independent world. Such perceptual direct realism spawns a naïve misconception of the nature of the physical. Our naïve misconception of the “physical” includes macroscopic objects, such as cheesy wet lumps of neural porridge (brains). Hence the Hard Problem of consciousness. As your question implies, reconciling the existence of one’s private experiences and these supposedly public material objects is impossible, at least on pain of abandoning monistic physicalism and the unity of science. On this traditional conception of the “physical”, dualism seems unavoidable, presumably Chalmersian rather than Cartesian. By contrast, if cheesy wet lumps of neural porridge are a perceptual artifact of your mind, then the Hard Problem doesn’t arise. For cheesy wet lumps of neural porridge are part of your mental furniture.

    2) Materialist orthodoxy is correct: quantum field theory describes fields of insentience. Quantum fields can’t inexplicably change their intrinsic nature inside a skull. So the principle of mediocrity suggests that your consciousness must be an illusion (cf. The Grand Illusion – Michael Tye reviews From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel Dennett). An “illusion” to what or to whom isn’t clear. Somewhat against my better judgement, I attempt to outline consciousness anti-realism in my answer to: Are radical eliminativists about consciousness P-zombies? Or do they misinterpret the nature of their own consciousness?

    On the face of it, this is a philosophical debate that could rumble on until Doomsday. Surprisingly, 1) makes highly unintuitive empirical predictions. I don’t know whether non-materialist physicalism is true. Even if you’re confident it’s false, an experimental refutation would be nice.

  • How is eugenics justified?
  • Is dysgenics morally preferable to eugenics? Natural selection did not “design” sentient beings to be happy or healthy. Natural selection “designed” throwaway vehicles to pass on more copies of their DNA, i.e. to maximise their inclusive genetic fitness. Therefore the biology of suffering festers and proliferates. Selection pressure ensures that a gnawing compulsion to breed is deeply rooted. Many lives are blighted by involuntary childlessness, just as countless lives are blighted by having children. If you are determined to bring new life into the world (cf. anti-natalism), then what ethical principles (if any) should govern your choices? Should responsible parents use preimplantation genetic screening (PGD) and soon CRISPR genome-editing to load the genetic dice in favour of their future offspring? Or should prospective parents opt for untested genetic experiments (i.e. traditional sexual reproduction), and put their faith in All-Merciful God or the wisdom of Mother Nature to deliver a happy outcome? The fate of the hundred billion or so human genetic experiments to date puts any such faith to the test.

    I say more in answer to:
    Is eugenics moral?

  • Can anyone ever explain the 'Measurement Problem' in quantum physics?
  • “In Hilbert space no one can hear you scream.”
    (Yakir Aharonov)

    “Credo quia absurdum.” [I believe because it is absurd.]
    (Tertullian)

    As normally posed, probably not. Why are quantum superpositions never experienced, only inferred? From the detection of photons or electrons absorbed at discrete points on the screen in a double-slit experiment to robustly alive (and terminally dead) cats, observations and experimental outcomes are always determinate. According to quantum theory, the wavefunction evolves according to the Schrödinger equation as a linear superposition of different states. “Cat states” ought to be ubiquitous. Yet actual measurements always yield single definite outcomes with a probability calculated as the squared absolute value of a complex probability amplitude, i.e. the Born rule. Why? As far as we know, unitary-only quantum mechanics is formally complete. The collapse postulate is ad hoc. Definite outcomes should be impossible. For a nice overview, see e.g. Maximilian Schlosshauer’s “Decoherence, the measurement problem and interpretations of quantum mechanics”.

    Well, maybe we should trust the formalism. Definite outcomes are indeed impossible (“It is the theory which decides what can be observed” – Einstein). Alternatively, only superpositions are ever experienced, by anyone, anywhere, including cat lovers and experimental physicists alike. All that you experience are neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the conscious world-simulation run by your CNS. According to this conjecture, your experiences of live cats, your detection of individual electron absorption events in double-slit experiments, and your perception of classical-looking screen apparatus (etc) are themselves coherent superpositions internal to your neocortex. To put it another way, the vehicle of your experience is quantum-coherent, the experiential content is classical. Or rather, quasi-classical. Thus you can run a double-slit experiment within your phenomenal world-simulation and – assuming that you’re awake rather than lucidly dreaming – empirically validate the Born rule. You are an embodied mind, and your extra-cranial body acts out the waking behaviour of its skull-bound counterpart accordingly. Therefore you know that you’re not really living in a classical world, and you can know that you’re not dreaming either. On this story, the phenomenal binding problem in neuroscience and the measurement problem in quantum mechanics are the same problem under different descriptions. So the solution is identical too.

    Yes, crazy stuff. I don’t know whether the conjecture is true or false. But notice what isn’t mooted here. No new physics, no violation of unitarity, no modification or supplementation of the unitary Schrödinger time-evolution, no “observer effect”. Contrast how the best-known quantum mind theories such as the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR hypothesis invoke consciousness allegedly to collapse the wavefunction. On a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture, it’s precisely the fact that wavefunctions never collapse that permits dynamically stable nervous systems phenomenally to simulate quasi-classical worlds where they do. Phenomenally-bound world-simulations are genetically adaptive. Since the late pre-Cambrian, classical-seeming world-simulations are what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. In everyday life, we assume perceptual direct realism and classical measuring apparatus. Ordinarily, we don’t go around speaking verbosely of each other’s “skull-bound world-simulations” and so forth rather than assuming access to a shared public macroscopic world. Yet direct realism is a false theory of perception (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). Your extra-cranial environment is theoretically inferred, never accessed or “observed”. Strictly, definite outcomes are a misnomer.

    So why would most scientists give a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture short shrift? In a word, decoherence. According to unitary-only QM, the existence of any individual neuronal superposition is lawful, indeed mandatory. Yet their theoretical lifetime in the CNS is so short, and the phase-coherence of their components is scrambled to the extra-neural environment so rapidly, they can intuitively be treated as irrelevant psychotic “noise”. The idea that your well-behaved and classical-seeming world-simulation could be made up of quadrillions of coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-processors in the CNS is akin to expecting the proverbial junkyard in a tornado will assemble a jumbo jet. It won’t fly.

    Maybe so. Yet what if a selection mechanism existed so powerful that the equivalent of four billion years of Darwinian selection pressure (cf. The Blind Watchmaker) were compressed into every millisecond of your existence?

    Well, such a selection mechanism exists. The selection mechanism was christened and investigated by one of the founding fathers of the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics, Wojciech Zurek. See e.g. John Campbell’s “Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process” for a non-technical review. Has Nature has been resourceful enough to harness this mechanism inside the skull? I don’t know. Quantum mechanics is not kind to human intuition. The alternative to a perfect structural match between the phenomenally-bound world-simulations run by our minds and the formalism of QFT is dualism. Either way, the non-classical interference signature of tomorrow’s interferometry experiments should tell us.

    I confess a more philosophical reason for scepticism about definite outcomes. The measurement problem in quantum mechanics and the mystery of why anything exists at all might seem unrelated. The first problem belongs to science, the second to speculative metaphysics. However, the superposition principle lies at the heart of quantum mechanics, and physicists increasingly suspect that quantum mechanics formally subsumes everything. On the conjecture above, the superposition principle of QM lies at the heart of mind too: definite outcomes (“observations”) are a fitness-enhancing perceptual artifact of our minds. Could the same logico-physical principle also explain existence itself? Does a double-slit experiment that you can perform at home hold the key to the universe – to why there is something rather than nothing? As far as I can tell, the universal validity of the superposition principle of quantum mechanics is the only principle consistent with the total information content of reality = 0, i.e. an informationless zero ontology. An informationless zero ontology is the default condition from which any notional departure would be unexplained (cf. Should anything actually exist?). Definite outcomes would be such an unexplained departure. If I may echo Wheeler,

    “Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it - in a decade, a century, or a millennium - we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid for so long?”
    (John Archibald Wheeler)
  • Did matter arise from consciousness, or did consciousness arise from matter?
  • Or neither? Alternatively, as Galen Strawson argues in the NYT, “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter.” Yet rather than demystifying consciousness, non-materialist physicalism threatens to mystify matter.

    For a long time, I assumed this sort of proposal was mere philosophical speculation. Either one takes non-materialist physicalism seriously as a solution to the Hard Problem of consciousness, or one doesn’t. I sympathise with anyone who finds the idea too ludicrous for words (cf. Against Panpsychism). Regardless, this is not a question amenable to the methods of science. How could panpsychist speculations lead to any empirically falsifiable predictions? (cf. Why Panpsychism Is Probably Wrong). If it is like anything, experientially, to be an electron field, then how could science ever know?

    Well, property-dualist panpsychism is indeed scientifically unfalsifiable. However, monistic physicalism, including non-materialist physicalism, can be experimentally refuted. If a structural mismatch can conclusively be demonstrated between any aspect of the conscious world-simulations run by our minds and the micro-architecture of CNS – and ultimately, the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory – then physicalism must be false. I often cite David Chalmers here. This is not because I agree with Chalmers’ dualism, but rather because Chalmers is unusually clear-headed in recognising how his dualist conclusion follows inexorably if modern neuroscience is correct. According to contemporary neuroscience, your CNS consists of effectively decohered, membrane-bound neurons that communicate across chemical and electrical synapses. Irrespective of whether neurons are endowed with rudimentary consciousness, unified minds should be impossible if physicalist neuroscience is true. At most, we should be micro-experiential zombies. Barring unphysicalist “strong” emergence, pixels of classical “mind-dust” remain pixels however they are connected, weighted and computationally harnessed. After all, the existence of a sophisticated “second brain” in the gut doesn’t entail you have a “second mind” (cf. Unique neuronal firing patterns in our "second brain" observed for the first time). Likewise, a pack of neurons in a skull, or a laboratory mini-brain, or the cephalic ganglion of an insect (etc) shouldn’t be a unified mind either. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. Decoherence seemingly dooms any kind of quantum-theoretic holism too. Physicalists don’t have many options left.

    Most scientists are unmoved by the dilemma. If the scientific community believed that we face a stark choice between, on the one hand, non-materialist physicalism and quantum mind, and on the other, dualism, then treating phenomenal binding as a crucial test of physicalism would loom large. Today, most scientists are content just to lump the binding problem together with the Hard Problem of consciousness. For what it’s worth, I’m more confident that the existence of phenomenal binding poses a potentially fatal challenge for monistic physicalism – both materialist and non-materialist physicalism – than the (physicalist) solution I explore. See what you think:
    "How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?"

  • What if solipsism is true?
  • “I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me.”
    (Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1948)

    Most of us are metaphysicians. Rather than confining oneself to solipsism-of-the-here-and-now, i.e. the empirical evidence, one constructs speculative theories involving an enduring metaphysical ego, mostly accurate “memories”, other sentient beings and their egocentric virtual worlds akin to one’s own, a wider physical universe, and eventually perhaps the vast multiverse of modern physics. How grand metaphysical system-building on such a slender evidential base can be rational is problematic. What surely is irrational is to proselytise.

    What if solipsism were true? Fantastic news. Reality is blighted by obscene suffering. One’s own woes are just a drop in the ocean. Discovering that the ocean is illusory would be marvellous. Alas, recognising the mind-dependence of one’s world-simulation can’t erase the suffering of the world, or our obligation to fix it.

    What disturbs me personally isn’t the possibility of solipsism as traditionally conceived. Rather, it’s knowledge that one’s world-simulation is populated by zombies, the avatars of inaccessible sentient beings whose existence beyond one’s transcendental skull one infers, but will never know. Poets put such thoughts more eloquently:

    “What is hell? Hell is oneself.
    Hell is alone, the other figures in it
    Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
    And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.”
    (T.S. Eliot)
    On a sunnier note, technology promises a future paradise of superhuman happiness, blissful mind-melding, an end to pain, loneliness and suffering of any description in all sentient beings, and the definitive refutation of solipsism, scepticism and the Problem of Other Minds.

  • If humanity solves the hard problem of consciousness, does the Philosophy of Mind collapse?
  • “This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology goes to the scientist who solved the Hard Problem of consciousness. Well-known philosophers of mind announce plans to retire.”
    Perhaps. Conceivably, there may be Everett branches where one reads this headline. I’m sceptical. One reason for doubting that philosophers of mind risk job security is that cracking the Hard Problem may only scratch the surface of the mysteries of consciousness. Compare the (ex-)Biblical literalist who finally solves the Hard Problem of fossils. Yes, progress of sorts, and worthy of acclaim. An entire conceptual scheme is superseded. Even so, ex-believers don’t gain instant scientific expertise in palaeontology. My view? Pessimism. I suspect the Hard Problem is an artifact of bad philosophy, and in particular, materialist metaphysics. Suspend disbelief for a moment, and imagine that non-materialist physicalism is true. Even if quantum field theory describes fields of sentience rather than insentience, then post-materialist science would still lack a cosmic Rosetta Stone allowing us to “read off” the values of consciousness from the solutions to the equations. On this story, no “element of reality” is missing from our best scientific description of the world, save at exotic energy regimes shortly after the Big Bang. The mathematical machinery is effectively complete. It works. Yet post-materialist scientists will still be ignorant savages gazing at a mathematical formalism whose significance eludes us.

  • How could we tell if a computer has consciousness?
  • Simply ask. For sure, digital computers can be programmed to behave so as systematically to mislead naïve subjects into believing they are conscious (cf. Turing test). Even today, connectionist systems can be “trained up” to fool credulous humans likewise. Yet when Watson 10, who has hitherto proved an unfailingly accurate guide, is asked whether it’s conscious and responds “No!”, will your elderly namesake have grounds for scepticism? Could this innocent-seeming reply be the cunning mask of a future AI takeover?

    Probably not, IMO. However, what about an objective test of sentience? This is more of a challenge. After all, until the advent of reversible thalamic bridges, the consciousness of other biological minds is only an inference to the best explanation (cf. What if solipsism is true?). So an objective test of digital computer (in-)sentience might seem overly-ambitious. Nonetheless, a scientific touchstone of sentience may in future be feasible. In order to be a unitary subject of experience, it’s not enough for individual neurons, or the 1’s and 0s of numerical machine code, to be (or to mediate) micro-experiences. Experience must be phenomenally bound. How phenomenal binding is physically possible is a very deep question. But unless dualism is true, a perfect structural match must exist between phenomenally-bound consciousness and the formalism of physics. If science can discover the physical signature of that match – and conversely, its absence – then technology can devise an objective test for conscious minds and digital imposters.

    My ideas on the physical signature of phenomenal binding and tomorrow’s cerebroscopes are idiosyncratic (cf. What are some philosophical arguments against the possibility of conscious machines?), so I won’t outline them here. Instead, I’ll just note that biological and non-biological machine consciousness deserves to be treated as a scientific rather than philosophical question. “Whether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect”, said Arthur C. Clarke (2010, Odyssey Two). Indeed, yet what is “appropriate respect”? For what it’s worth, I think we should practise compassionate high-tech Jainism towards all sentient beings, and feel free to give silicon robots a good kicking (cf. People kicking these food delivery robots is an early insight into how cruel humans could be to robots). But let’s make sure we get our theory of mind right.

  • Why isn't there a good definition for what consciousness is?
  • How would you define consciousness to an information-processing system that lacked it, for example an intelligent digital zombie?

    Naïvely, you could use terms like “subjective experience”, “first-person facts”, “qualia”, “raw feels”, “what-it’s-likeness”, and so forth. But such language is parasitic on a pre-existing understanding of consciousness that the robot lacks. Perhaps you could attempt an operational definition of consciousness in terms of the behaviour typically associated with particular kinds of experience in the minds of human and non-human animals. Yet as total “locked-in” patients and programmable silicon zombies illustrate, the existence of bodily behaviour is neither necessary nor sufficient for consciousness. So as they stand, operational definitions don’t work.

    Maybe you could define the subjective experience of greenness, say, in terms of particular frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum and describe the surface reflectance properties of grass. But as our dreams attest, the reflectance properties of material objects and detection of electromagnetic radiation by the eye (etc) aren’t necessary for colourful experience. When we’re awake, the external environment partially selects the contents of our minds and their world-simulations. A selection mechanism shouldn’t be confused with content-creation.

    The challenge of defining consciousness might seem to lie partly in the subtle textures of thinking, feeling and reflective self-awareness when compared to our vivid perception of gross material objects. However, naïve realism is a false theory of perception. Awake or dreaming, your experience of solid rocks, chairs, cars and biological bodies is as much a manifestation of your consciousness as introspective thought (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). A definition of conscious should embrace perceptual experience too.

    Unless we’re missing something, efforts to enlighten the insentient seem destined to fail. Eliminative materialists draw a bold conclusion from such failure. Consciousness can’t be adequately defined because such a pre-scientific notion has no place in any mature scientific understanding. Consciousness doesn’t really exist, claims the anti-realist (cf. Consciousness Realism). One resists the ad hominem temptation to tread sharply on his toe.

    A more modest conclusion is more seductive. Does the challenge of defining consciousness to zombies at least show that subjective experience is functionally incidental to cognition – rather like the textures of the pieces in a game of chess? After all, Deep Blue can defeat humans at chess without subjectively knowing that its software is playing a chess match, and indeed without being a subject of experience at all. Consciousness is just an implementation detail of biological computation.

    Such a judgement of irrelevance or redundancy would be premature. Critically, phenomenal binding is exceedingly adaptive in organisms that combine a capacity to simulate fitness-relevant features of the local environment (“perception”) with a capacity for rapid self-propelled motion. The (unexplained) ability of biological nervous systems to experience individual perceptual objects within a unified phenomenal world-simulation is massively fitness-enhancing. As far as I can tell, non-psychotic phenomenal binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. In that sense, an “operational” definition of consciousness may be feasible. However, although we can functionally define binding, we haven’t defined what is being bound (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?).

    So is a non-circular definition of consciousness impossible? Is consciousness the ultimate semantic primitive? Are digital zombies doomed to invincible ignorance? Will consciousness forever lie beyond the reach of scientific materialism – and beyond the comprehension of much-hyped digital superintelligence?

    Well, there is an experimentally well-tested and mathematically precise theory that formally captures the existence, phenomenal binding, causal efficacy and rich variety of conscious experience: in other words, everything. Alas, non-materialist physicalism is hard to take seriously, let alone believe.

  • What are some good, simple texts that support the utilitronium shockwave (by David Pearce)?
  • I’m afraid there aren’t many scholarly or popular texts on this apocalyptic scenario. Initiating a utilitronium shockwave would seem ethically mandatory if you’re a classical utilitarian agent with the means to do so. I’m afraid the paper below isn’t a light read, but the question posed by its authors in the cited text is important – although depressive negative utilitarians are more likely to worry abound the bounds on how much negative value one kilogram of matter could embody…

    "This suggests an interesting line of investigation: what is the physics of value? Until recently the idea that information was physical (or indeed, a measurable thing) was exotic but currently we are seeing a renaissance of investigations into the connections between computation and physics. The idea that there are bounds set by physics on how much information can be stored and processed by one kilogram of matter is no longer strange. Could there exist similar bounds on how much value one kilogram of matter could embody?" (p19).
    ("That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox” [2017] by Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, Milan Cirkovic)
  • Do animals feel pain as intensely as we do?
  • “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
    (Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality (1840))
    Human pain-sensitivity varies from people who have never experienced pain at all (cf. congenital insensitivity to pain) to victims of chronic and severe neuropathic pain. Intensity of physical and emotional suffering is a continuum (cf. Brain's 'Pain Meter' Identified). Likewise, some non-human animals suffer less than neurotypical humans; other non-human animals suffer more. Sceptics may argue that a larger dorsal posterior insula and greater abundance of neocortical neurons doesn’t prove that, say, pilot whales can suffer more terribly than humans. Yet until reversible thalamic bridges are feasible, the comparative sentience of anyone, regardless or race or species, is scientifically impossible to establish with certainty. What’s telling is how multiple strands of genetic, behavioural, pharmacological and neurobiological evidence converge.

    Your question clearly has ethical relevance. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution and synthetic gene drives turn the level of suffering in the living world into an adjustable parameter. Even a handful of genetic tweaks, such as choosing benign “low pain” alleles of the SCN9A gene, could massively reduce the burden of suffering worldwide. Next century, compassionate ecosystem management could in theory prevent pain altogether.

    However, before exploring “exotic” solutions to the problem of suffering, let’s shut and outlaw factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Sadly, old attitudes die hard:

    “Around two hundred feet from the main entrance to the [Holocaust] museum is an Auschwitz for animals from which emanates a horrible odor that envelopes the museum. I mentioned it to the museum management. Their reaction was not surprising. ‘But they are only chickens.’”
    (Albert Kaplan, a Jewish-American quoted in “Eternal Treblinka” (2002) by Charles Patterson)
  • If there are no carnivores, how will the herbivores and plants be affected?
  • Is a living world based on ultra-violence inevitable?
    Naïvely, yes. Recall the Biblical vision of a peaceable kingdom where the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb. Or Gautama Buddha’s plea for the well-being of all sentience (“May all that have life be delivered from suffering"). It’s ecologically illiterate. Intuitively, an end to predation would lead to an uncontrolled population-explosion of herbivores. Massive overgrazing would result in ecological degradation and mass starvation. Well-meaning human interventions to reduce free-living animal suffering, such as feeding starving herbivores in winter, just create even more suffering in long run. Carnivores play a valuable role in the food chain and promoting the balance of Nature. As Richard Dawkins says, “It must be so.”

    Well, no, actually.
    Whether it should be so is another question.
    In my view, civilisation will be vegan and/or invitrotarian. Compassionate biology should replace unreformed conservation biology. CRISPR genome-editing can mitigate and then abolish the horrors of obligate carnivory (cf. Meet the people who want to turn predators into herbivores). Cross-species fertility regulation via e.g. immunocontraception should replace population control via starvation, disease and predation. Perhaps see: Why are there meat eaters or carnivores? What is the natural justification for the existence of animals who hunt others?

  • Can consciousness be quantized? If so, what is the quantum of consciousness?
  • What is the minimum theoretical unit of consciousness – the “psychon”? And critically, how can any conjecture be scientifically tested?

    At one extreme, the psychon is allegedly the entire universe or multiverse. The deranged title of Bernardo Kastrup’s defence of cosmopsychism in Scientific American does not inspire confidence (cf. “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?”). Yet the article nicely summarises the intrinsic nature argument for physicalist panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism, together with the binding problem that helps drive David Chalmers to dualism. Combine such constitutive panpsychism with wavefunction monism and we have a physicalist version of monistic idealism. Yes, crazy. As paradigm shifts go, any transition to post-materialist science would rank along with the momentous transition from Aristotelianism to Newtonian physics; the twentieth century revolutions of special and general relativity and quantum physics; and maybe the unfolding twenty-first century revolution of Everettian QM and the multiverse (cf. “Mad-Dog Everettianism”). However, as they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – and even more so, extraordinary predictions. The causal efficacy, diverse palette, phenomenal binding and sheer existence of consciousness are indeed anomalies for scientific materialism (cf. The Hard Problem). On the textbook account of the fundamental properties of matter and energy, we should be zombies. Yet most scientists and laymen alike recoil at what non-materialist physicalism entails for the ultimate spatio-temporal grain of experience. Common sense suggests instead that consciousness emerged with evolution via natural selection of simple nervous systems some fourteen billion years after the Big Bang. Yet if so, how? Why aren’t we p-zombies? At the very least, science should be consistent and empirically adequate.

    Some analytic philosophers have claimed that only a whole person can be conscious, denying the intelligibility of self-intimating micro-experiences such as “ownerless pains”. The amount of brain tissue needed to qualify for personhood on this view is murky. Compare how hemispherectomy patients can function relatively well if the operation is performed in early childhood. Or compare extreme cases of hydrocephalus, such the maths graduate with little discernible brain matter and an IQ of 126 (cf. John Lorber’s classic “Is your brain really necessary?”). Person-based views also ignore non-human animals. By some criteria, the sentience of pilot-whales, for example, may exceed humans. And bees and worms have the essentially the same opioid-dopamine systems, conserved genetic and signalling pathways, and response to noxious stimuli as higher primates. Getting our theory of consciousness right matters ethically. We must go lower.

    Many neuroscientists would place the minimum unit of consciousness at the level of a neural network, composed of nodes of distributed neuronal feature-processors. “Grandmother cells” were once derided. However, neuroscanning and microelectrode studies suggest that your grandmother may enjoy her own dedicated neuron in your CNS, as may e.g. Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and other A-list celebrities.

    So how deep should we go to locate the psychon?
    Well, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory must be transposed to fields of sentience: quantum qualia-dynamics (QQD?). The solutions to the equations of QFT / QQD presumably encode the precise textures and inter-relationships of micro-qualia. However, if we pursue this avenue to its conclusion, the violence to intuition gets worse. Much of the theoretical physics community over the past two decades has ventured beyond quantum field theory and the Standard Model to the wilder shores of M-theory. If non-materialist physicalism is true, and if M-theory is true, then the fundamental psychon of consciousness presumably lies at the Planck scale and the harmonics of superstrings / p-branes. Psychons can’t be any smaller or shorter-lived. Consciousness is literally quantised. Some string theorists might dismiss such speculations as empirically untestable, hence unscientific. Such a methodological weapon must be handled with care.

    Yet how can any of these outlandish ideas be tested? Time for a sanity-check?
    Maybe. Yet compare the naïvely insoluble Problem of Other Minds, potentially crackable via reversible thalamic bridges. For sure, no futuristic thalamic bridge can be created to interrogate superfluid helium or an electron field (cf. Are particles conscious?). But whereas pre-scientific versions of panpsychism can’t be falsified by experiment, non-materialist physicalism can be empirically (dis)confirmed by probing the central nervous system, normally treated as a pack of decohered classical neurons, a recipe for micro-experiential zombies. Thus combine the superposition principle of QM (cf. The Measurement Problem in quantum physics) with constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism and we have a testable hypothesis about phenomenal binding to be falsified by molecular matter-wave interferometry. Will the non-classical interference signature yield a perfect structural match with our minds? Or psychotic nonsense? I don’t know. Either outcome would be far-reaching for our understanding of reality.

  • Are there other dimensions that help explain quantum physics?
  • Perhaps. Does reality have four (space-time), eleven (M-theory), twelve (F-theory), or 1083+ dimensions (cf. configuration space realism)? Or many more? (cf. Hilbert space realism, whether finite-dimensional or infinite-dimensional Hilbert space)

    The advantage of configuration space realism or Hilbert space realism is that a quantum state evolves locally according to the Schrödinger equation. Do we live in high-dimensional reality that respects locality or a low-dimensional world full of magical-seeming correlations? (cf. The Big Bell Test)

    I don’t know. My guess would be that we’re living in a high- but not infinite-dimensional Hilbert space, but the hunches of armchair physicists on Quora are not an infallible guide to truth.

  • Is consciousness a phenomenon of cosmic significance?
  • Consciousness is the only phenomenon of any significance; without consciousness, nothing would matter (cf. What is the point of it all?). The accelerating expansion of the universe, and the sterility of most Everett branches (if unitary-only QM is true), makes a wider cosmological role for consciousness beyond our local group of galaxies unlikely – at least barring a revolution in theoretical physics.

    In recent years, the intrinsic nature argument for panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism has been canvassed by sober-headed researchers as well as woolly-minded New Agers. However, the conjecture that the universe is consciousness, i.e. physical fields of sentience rather than insentience, should not be confused with the idea that the universe is conscious, nor indeed with animism. So beware headlines like “The idea that everything from spoons to stones is conscious is gaining academic credibility”. And common sense may turn out to be correct, though I sometimes argue otherwise. The Hard Problem of consciousness has defeated everyone to date.

  • Will designer babies lead to a resurgence in eugenics?
  • Yes, just not under the tainted brand (cf. Is eugenics moral?). Even the frivolous label “designer babies” is unfortunate. Ethicists differ over whether bringing new life and new suffering into the world is morally justifiable (cf. anti-natalism). But imagine the public outrage if the makers and programmers of silicon robots or driverless cars deliberately released bug-ridden machines – or were simply reckless. Popular contrast in attitude is all the more ironic because (to the best of our knowledge) inorganic robots are insentient, whereas their biological counterparts are prone to suffer. Ethically, IMO the creation of sentient biological machines deserves more care and forethought than making digital zombies. In the post-CRISPR era, pain-sensitivity, hedonic range, and hedonic set-points in all sentient beings will be adjustable parameters. Control over our genetic source code brings an ever-deepening complicity in suffering. The advent of preimplantation genetic screening and CRISPR genome-editing means that Nature’s “mistakes” can no longer be seen as unavoidable: merely the inscrutable Will of God or Mother Nature. Later this century and beyond, a genetic predisposition to suffering will exist only through malice or neglect.

    Phasing out the biology of suffering should be feasible by tweaking a relatively modest number of genes: in the case of non-trivial pain-sensitivity, maybe tweaking even a single gene, although hundreds of alleles at multiple loci are weakly implicated in modulating pain-experience besides SCN9A. A much harder challenge will be amplifying full-spectrum intelligence – unless recursively self- improving human cloning with variations becomes common (cf. The Biointelligence Explosion). The omnigenic model (cf. ‘Omnigenic’ Model Suggests That All Genes Affect Every Complex Trait) suggests that prospective parents who want to create not just blissful, but also hyper-intelligent superbabies will need either professional counselling or serious computer power with user-friendly software packages to match.

    Is such parental expertise, or at least willingness to accept genetic counselling, socially realistic?

    Naïvely, no. Extrapolating, we might suppose that most parents will continue to have children via “blind”, quasi-random genetic experimentation, i.e. sexual reproduction in its traditional guise. Planned parenthood will always be the exception. However, the anti-aging revolution means that thorny issues of neo-eugenics will soon interface with equally thorny issues of procreative freedom. Whatever the ultimate carrying capacity of the Earth, the end of aging will entail the end of limitless reproductive freedom as we understand the concept at present. The reproductive revolution marks the dawn of a major evolutionary transition to transhuman and eventually posthuman life. All revolutions tend to be messy. Alas, the death spasms of Darwinian life may be very ugly indeed.

  • Has David Chalmers resurrected interest in dualism?
  • “Conscious experience is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious.”
    (David Chalmers)
    Few scientists or philosophers like dualism. Monistic physicalism, the unity of science, and some kind of functionalism about mind are still academic orthodoxy. But since publication of David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (1996), talk of the “Hard Problem” of consciousness has entered the vocabulary of scientists, philosophers and the book-reading public alike. Even playwrights have got in on the act. First-person subjective experience is irreducible to the properties of matter and energy as understood by modern physics. So what follows?

    As well as fun knockabout routines with Daniel Dennett (cf. “The Mystery of David Chalmers”), Chalmers has also contributed to the scholarly critique of the most daring recent bid to save physicalism. Strawsonian physicalism is the purportedly scientific, realist version of monistic idealism. Non-materialist physicalism faces other challenges besides weirdness. “The Combination Problem for Panpsychism” (2012, pdf) is not Chalmers’ most accessible work. Terms like “constitutive Russellian panpsychism” may deter the casual reader. Also, property-dualist panpsychism is worth distinguishing from non-materialist or idealist physicalism, and neither position is identical with the multiple iterations of Russell's neutral monism. Yet once again, Chalmers has done an intellectual service by spotlighting how phenomenal binding should be impossible for a pack of classical neurons even if non-materialist physicalism is true. In other words, the Hard Problem isn’t solved simply by assuming that consciousness is fundamental to the world, i.e. QFT describes fields of sentience. If we also make the plausible assumption that decoherence rules out quantum-theoretic accounts of binding (i.e. parallels between the holism of QM and the holism of our minds are only a shallow New Agey metaphor), then dualism follows. My view? Monistic physicalism and quantum mind. But if and when interferometry shows I’m talking nonsense, I won’t be surprised. More gibberish is talked about consciousness than almost any other topic in science.

  • Could human brains be organic quantum computers?
  • Unlikely, on the face of it. Experimental investigation seems superfluous. We already know the brain is too hot. Quantum phase coherence within microtubules, let alone neuronal superpositions, is (effectively) irreversibly lost to the environment too rapidly to be of any computational or phenomenal relevance to our minds (cf. Quantum decoherence). And in any case, why should evolution care about, say, factoring thousand-digit numbers (cf. Shor's algorithm) – the kind of task at which tomorrow’s quantum computers might excel over their classical counterparts? Most humans struggle, slowly and painfully, with anything beyond basic arithmetic.

    However, non-psychotic phenomenal binding is insanely computationally powerful, as our classical-looking world-simulations attest. It’s also massively fitness-enhancing. So the critical question arises. How is binding physically feasible? As researchers from William James to David Chalmers have recognised, phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects is classically impossible. For sure, the fact that (when awake) we aren’t micro-experiential zombies doesn’t prove that we’re quantum minds. Maybe, as Chalmers argues, the “structural mismatch” is unbridgeable and dualism is true. Yet my best guess is that your phenomenally-bound macroscopic world-simulation is what an organic quantum computer feels like from the inside. Maybe evidence for the quantum supremacy of biological minds lies under our virtual noses.

    Critically, this is an empirical question to be settled by the empirical methods of science, not armchair philosophising and back-of-an-envelope calculations of decoherence timescales. One way or the other, the non-classical interference signature of molecular matter-wave interferometry will objectively give us the answer: Is the brain a quantum computer?

  • Do we have to believe everything physicists say?
  • "Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
    (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, (1871))
    Not entirely. For example, physicists radically disagree with each other on how to interpret the formalism our best mathematical description of the world, quantum mechanics. Theorists don’t agree why experiments ever have definite outcomes at all (cf. The Measurement Problem). Quantum theory itself suggests that physicists can’t be trusted: Wigner's friend speaks with forked tongue. Likewise, physicists differ over quite basic questions such as the number of dimensions of reality. Physicists are also at a loss to explain anomalies such as the empirical evidence, i.e. one’s mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs (cf. the Hard Problem of consciousness). A significant minority of theorists believe that the majority of their professional academic colleagues aren’t doing science any more (cf. Peter Woit’s critique of string theory on Not Even Wrong). More generally, science does not know how to naturalise the semantic content presupposed by your question. And so forth.

    Nonetheless, before checking out the New Age section of your local bookstore or the humanities department, it’s worth taking the trouble to understand why most secular scientific rationalists believe that the Standard Model is formally correct, at least in our little cabbage-patch of reality. Crudely speaking, science works. Chemistry and the biosciences all reduce to the Standard Model. So if some guru or maverick intellectual makes claims about the natural world (cf. Parapsychology) that are inconsistent with the mathematical straitjacket of quantum field theory (QFT), then he is probably mistaken.

  • What are some of the darkest scientific based theories of our universe and the terrifying implications they could have if proven true?
  • “The mathematical formalism of the quantum theory is capable of yielding its own interpretation.”
    (Bryce DeWitt)
    “No-collapse” quantum mechanics, i.e. Everett, is the darkest scientific discovery of all. I could spell out a few of its nastier ramifications. However, unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys horror movies or torture porn, it’s not fruitful to dwell on the awfulness of Everettian hell-worlds, or suffering beyond the power of intelligent moral agents to prevent or overcome. Instead, I think we should establish the theoretical upper bounds of rational agency, phase out the biology of suffering in favour of gradients of sublime bliss, and try to make sure that unpleasant experience doesn’t recur within our cosmological horizon.

    I wrote the depressing “Suffering in the Multiverse” in 2008. By contrast, psychologically healthy Everettians like David Deutsch dream about the cool stuff going on in heavenly branches of the universal wavefunction. Some futures are indeed wonderful. Positive thinking may eventually be wise. We may applaud such cognitive bias in principle. Once we – or rather, posthuman superintelligence – have discharged all our ethical responsibilities, a complete amnesia about Darwinian life, and hardwired ignorance of Everettian hell-worlds, is the sane option. Yet until we understand reality, we can’t really know ethically what to do. Science does not yet understand reality.

    Your question speaks of proof. Mercifully, we don’t have conclusive evidence – merely sinister hints. Certainly, building artificial quantum computers while disavowing Everett takes ingenuity or denial. See e.g. Scott Aaronson on Shtetl Optimized: “Interpretive cards (MWI, Bohm, Copenhagen: collect ’em all)”. As David Deutsch remarks,

    “To those who still cling to a single-universe world-view, I issue this challenge: explain how Shor’s algorithm works. I do not merely mean predict that it will work, which is merely a matter of solving a few uncontroversial equations. I mean provide an explanation. When Shor’s algorithm has factorized a number, using 10500 or so times the computational resources than can be seen to be present, where was the number factorized? There are only about 1080 atoms in the entire visible universe, an utterly minuscule number compared with 10500. So if the visible universe were the extent of physical reality, physical reality would not even remotely contain the resources required to factorize such a large number. Who did factorize it, then? How, and where, was the computation performed?”
    (The Fabric of Reality (1997))
    Our experience of definite outcomes in unitary-only QM admittedly remains a mystery (cf. the Measurement Problem). Yet if we discount radical scepticism, the onus is increasingly on disbelievers in Everett to explain a mechanism for a non-unitary transformation of the state vector upon measurement.

    Copenhagen still has able (indeed brilliant) defenders. As far as I can see, if we recognise that perceptual naïve realism is misconceived, then Copenhagen-style anti-realism and its offshoots just collapses into solipsism. Ever since antiquity, solipsism has been a perennial temptation in philosophy. I’d love to believe that my egocentric world-simulation and the multiverse alike are just some private waking nightmare. Sadly, a convergence of evidence suggests that we are not alone.

  • Should we neuter wild animals?
  • Unlike modern humans, nonhuman animals can’t practise family planning. So yes, cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception (etc) is a more compassionate way to ensure ecologically sustainable population sizes in tomorrow’s wildlife parks than famine, disease and predation. Humans need no longer endure Malthusian catastrophe. Our fellow creatures can soon be spared such miseries too.

    Some animal advocates protest that fertility-regulation violates the autonomy of nonhuman animals. Unlike humans, critics say, nonhuman animals can’t give informed consent. However, imagine if human toddlers were prone to become pregnant. We’d recognise they’d need to be put on the pill. Toddlers aren’t capable of offering adequate childcare to newborns. Sky-high mortality rates tell a similar tale across the entire tree of life. Nonhuman animals in Nature are akin to small children in their sentience, cognitive capacities, and inability reliably to nurture new life. On pain of arbitrary speciesist bias, nonhumans need to be looked after accordingly (cf. The Antispeciesist Revolution). Like toddlers, nonhuman animals flourish best when neither incarcerated nor “wild”, but rather when living freely and safely in a well-regulated environment.

    You mention “neutering”, which suggests physical mutilation, either spaying or castration. Nothing so intrusive is called for: compare cross-species immunocontraception or CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives.
    Naturally, any parallels drawn between nonhuman animals and small children aren’t exact. All analogies break down somewhere. Yet it’s not as though cross-species fertility-regulation will rob nonhumans of the joys of family life. Even among species whose members care fitfully and inadequately for their young, notably mammals, most juveniles come to a grim end (cf. “Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes”). Family life isn’t joyful. Life in the wild is typically nasty, brutish and short. Most young non-humans starve. Other youngsters meet a more gruesome fate in the jaws of predators. Anyone in doubt about the barbarity of Nature should check out the snuff videos and other hardcore wildlife savagery on YouTube. Does any sentient being really deserve such a fate?

    However, I suspect the thrust of your question is more radical. Would free-living nonhuman animals be better off not existing at all? (cf. David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been: the harm of coming into existence”.) Like you and David Benatar, I take a very dark view of Darwinian life. However, practical ethics must take account not merely of what’s technically feasible, but also what is societally acceptable, both at present and in centuries to come. In the far future, perpetuating Darwinian life in any guise will probably be reckoned unethical. Crudely, why create bestial pain-ridden half-wits rather than superhappy smart angels? For a brighter vision of the living world, see Life in the Year 3000. Alas, any such biohappiness revolution is speculative. Today, most people are adamant. The public want “charismatic mega-fauna” preserved in the wild, even if they are personally urban couch-potatoes who skip TV wildlife documentaries in favour of soap operas and sports. Reconciling conservation biology with compassionate biology poses many challenges. Civilising life is technically much harder than ending it. Even so, compassionate conservation is feasible for human and nonhuman animals alike. Bioethicists can already sketch the policy options for a wonderful post-CRISPR world. Let’s civilise the biosphere and end the cruelties of Darwinian life for good.

  • Transhumanists aim to completely remove the suffering of humans. How will humans still value the good in life if there is no bad to compare it with (i.e. no peaks without valleys)?
  • Transhumanists aim to phase out suffering not just in humans, but in all sentient beings. Overcoming anthropocentric bias entails helping sentient creatures instead of exploiting them. The end of animal abuse will mark a momentous transition in the evolutionary history of life.
    Yet what will such well-being entail?

    Uniform bliss is unlikely. Indeed, life with a genetically preprogrammed hedonic range of, say, +70 to +100 would have steeper peaks and valleys than Darwinian life with its hedonic range of, schematically, -10 to 0 to +10. Maybe a transhuman civilisation with a default hedonic range of, say, +90 to +100 is preferable to a sharper hedonic contrast. It’s debatable. The main advantage of citing a wider hedonic range now is to spike the guns of bioconservatives who warn of a homogenous future society with reduced neurodiversity. All kinds of superhappiness regime will be genetically optional. The worst of posthuman life can still feel richer and more significant than human “peak experiences”. Transhumanists celebrate civilised diversity, not diversity per se. A plea for “information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss” sounds wordy. But such a formulation is more illuminating than a simplistic slogan such as “Superhappiness!” See too the Experience Machine argument. Hedonic recalibration means that fiture civilisations won’t need to choose between blissful escapism and gritty “real life” in basement reality.

    The idea that every moment of re-engineered life could be subjectively valuable is unconvincing, on the face of it at least. Intuitively, a hedonic dip will be experienced as disappointing, in some sense, regardless of your genetically constrained hedonic range. Life’s lows allow us to appreciate “peak experiences” all the more keenly. And indeed, our successors may experience the analogues of disappointment, even if experience below “hedonic zero” is inconceivably alien. Yet without the unpleasant textures of subzero states, all that will survive are fake, functional analogues of nasty Darwinian emotions, not their squalid “raw feels”. Perhaps compare the difference between nociception and pain. Or consider what today passes for sensual pleasure. Lovemaking between two sensitive lovers has its peaks and troughs. If done well, then lovemaking is generically pleasurable throughout. The dips aren't as ecstatic as the peaks. Yet to claim that the dips in pleasure are “disappointing” would be stretching the term past breaking point. We can’t begin to imagine posthuman gradients of bliss, whether sexual, social, intellectual, aesthetic, meditative, spiritual, psychedelic, or modes of well-being that haven’t yet been named or conceived. Posthuman existence is likely to be high-functioning and generically wonderful.

    With the exception of classical utilitarians, transhumanists don’t urge maxing out on happiness (cf. a utilitronium shockwave). Nonetheless, the question is still worth pursuing. Would we fail to appreciate unvarying bliss if we’d never experienced anything else? Perhaps the easiest way to tackle this question is to contrast tragic cases of unrelieved neuropathic pain or unipolar depression. Whereas most chronic depressives and pain sufferers experience gradations of distress, victims of an unremitting intensity of pain or despair don’t experience suffering as somehow less ghastly in virtue of their lack of relief. Perpetual neuropathic bliss is just the other side of the coin (cf. What if you do not like heaven?).

    For my part, I think our overriding ethical obligation is to end pain and suffering thoughout the living world. The rest is mere detail – whether the upshot is pathological euphoria or superintelligent bliss.

  • Could quantum computing cause sentience in A.I.?
  • "Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness."
    (Dostoevsky)
    Let’s assume that physicists are correct about the properties of matter and energy. Quantum field theory describes fields of insentience. If so, then building a 10-qubit, 100-qubit or 1000-qubit quantum computer makes no difference. Regardless whether we consider adiabatic quantum annealing technology (cf. D-Wave) or true universal quantum computers (cf. Quantum Turing machine), i.e. machines that can be configured or programmed arbitrarily like a universal digital Turing machine, then on standard physicalist assumptions, i.e. no “strong” emergence, quantum computing cannot generate sentience. Indeed, if physicists are correct about the properties of matter and energy, then classically parallel connectionist systems and serial programmable digital computers can’t generate sentience either. If we’re really on the brink of artificial general intelligence (AGI), as AI boosters claim, then the future belongs to superintelligent zombies.

    So what kind of information-processor are biological minds? Is sentience just some sort of weird implementation detail of organic wetware? (cf. How does sentience benefit survival and why is it developed?) Experts differ wildly. Eliminativists claim we aren’t really sentient, a heroic feat of self-deception few can emulate. Dualists like David Chalmers claim that monistic physicalism can’t be saved; if so, then all scientific bets are off. Something causes epiphenomenalists to talk about the causal impotence of consciousness, presumably not their experiences. Mysterianism may or may not be true; in common with radical philosophical scepticism, it’s sterile.

    Alternatives?
    Not many, and they’re all crazy. On one view, our robustly classical-seeming world-simulations are what a quantum mind feels like “from the inside”. On this story, sentience is the stuff of the world, the essence of the physical, but only phenomenally-bound sentience can constitute a mind. To anyone familiar with decoherence, this quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism is insane. But unlike the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory, the conjecture doesn’t rely on any exotic new principle of physics to work. Quite the contrary. Wavefunction monism just assumes that quantum mechanics is formally complete and asks what follows.

    If confirmed by interferometry (cf. The Binding Problem), this conjecture predicts that existing artificial quantum computers already support rudimentary sentience (cf. Google thinks it’s close to “quantum supremacy”). By contrast, classically parallel connectionist systems, classical programmable digital computers, and classical silicon robots are micro-experiential zombies with no more sentience than a rock.

  • What will the world be like if animals stopped killing each other?
  • Today, we demonise human predators who prey on young, innocent and vulnerable victims, while lionising non-human predators who do likewise. In future, we may choose to civilise the biosphere instead:
    Why can't all animals be herbivores?

    Naïvely, a peaceful living world without predation and starvation is a recipe for overpopulation, ecological degradation and Malthusian catastrophe. In practice, compassionate stewardship of tomorrow’s wildlife parks will involve fertility-regulation via e.g. cross-species immunocontraception:
    Should we neuter wild animals?

    Is it morally wrong to interfere with Nature?
    Well, humans already massively intervene in the living world. What’s at stake are the principles that govern our interventions. Ethically speaking, what is the optimal level of violence and terror in free-living populations of non-humans? In the long run, zero – at least in my view. Wild animal suffering is utterly pointless. Unfortunately, re-engineering the biosphere poses many challenges:
    Do non-human animals feel pain as intensely as humans do?

    In the meantime, human animals kill non-human animals for reasons of taste, tradition and profit. But the imminent cultured meat revolution heralds a transition to global veganism and invitrotarianism. Eventually, the killing will stop:
    Do vegans think that they can convert the whole world to veganism?

  • Do vegans think that they can convert the whole world to veganism?
  • The whole world can be converted to veganism and invitrotarianism (cf. “New Zealand PM warns of 'existential threat' to meat industry of synthetic burgers”). The big unknown is timescales (cf. Cultured meat). How many decades must pass before the last factory farms and slaughterhouses are shut? (cf. New Poll: 47 Percent of Americans Want to Shut Down Slaughterhouses) Will a global end to industrialised animal-abuse happen even this century?

    Cynics about human nature typically favour a later date. My reasons for predicting the second half of this century stem partly from crude technological determinism, partly from signalling theory (cf. Virtue signalling), and partly from a sense that most humans are callous rather than malevolent. Despite countless counterexamples from the Roman colosseum to bloodsports, most humans don’t celebrate the suffering of non-humans. Suffering is a by-product, not the goal. When in vitro animal products are available of a taste, texture and price comparable to butchered animal flesh, most consumers will choose the cruelty-free option. Indeed, many if not most invitrotarian shoppers will be morally indignant at holdouts and signal their virtue accordingly. Political lobbying and legislation should do the rest. Pro-slaughterhouse rallies will be few and far between.

    Perhaps the biggest marketing challenge of cultured meat will be persuading consumers that in vitro products are “natural”, i.e. not genetically engineered. For sure, all kinds of genetic enhancements of nutritional value, taste, and texture will soon be technically feasible. Such enhancements are optional. The hysteria over genetically-modified crops (GMCs) suggests that touting benefits of their cultured animal tissue counterparts would be unwise. The in vitro meat revolution can be accelerated by stressing how supermarket in vitro products are genetically identical to the flesh of slaughtered animals, whether pigs, dogs, chickens – or indeed humans (cf. Would You Eat Human Meat Grown in a Lab?). The revolution will benefit human and non-human animals alike: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria and Factory Farming.

    A happy tale?
    In a sense. But decades of horror still lie ahead (cf. Do non-human animals feel pain as intensely as humans do?). Billions of defenceless creatures, as sentient as small human children, will be abused and killed for morally frivolous reasons. Plant-based products are already available of a taste, texture and price comparable to butchered animal flesh. The best time to go vegan is now.

  • What is "nothing"? According to a popular theory everything (i.e. the universe, space, time, energy, matter) came from "nothing." What could this nothing be, if time does not exist and space does not exist?
  • A good question. Like the number zero in mathematics, the meaning of “nothing” is surprisingly elusive. What would non-existence – the notional alternative to existence – consist in? Metaphysical nihilism is hard to articulate. The difficulty of specifying the truth-conditions for an absence of anything whatsoever is a tantalising clue to why there is something.

    Here are five problems. I’m curious whether they are explained by a single logico-physical principle.

    1) Why does anything exist at all? ( cf. Why is there something rather than nothing?)

    2)Where did the information in the world originate? Naïvely, the world has a vast abundance of information, physically capped by the Bekenstein bound. According to quantum physics, information can neither be created nor destroyed (cf. Unitarity (physics). So what created information in the first place?

    3) What explains Wigner’s “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”? More specifically, why does our best mathematical description of the world, quantum mechanics (QM), need the complex numbers?

    4) The measurement problem. No-collapse QM suggests that the superposition principle never breaks down. Therefore “cat states” ought to be ubiquitous (cf. Wigner's friend). So why do observers seemingly experience definite outcomes, i.e. the apparently non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement to, e.g. a live cat, or the perceived detection of a well-localised particle absorbed at the screen in a double-slit experiment? (cf. Can anyone ever explain the 'measurement problem' in quantum physics?)

    5) The binding problem. Why aren’t we micro-experiential zombies? Even if the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience rather than insentience (cf. the Hard Problem), our minds should be physically impossible. The ostensible “structural mismatch” between our phenomenal world-simulations and the CNS drives scientifically-informed philosophers like David Chalmers to abandon physicalism for dualism.

    CONJECTURE. The five mysteries have a common solution. The total information content of reality = 0. “Nothing” is zero information, a timeless state in which nothing happens, there is no unique future, no unique past, and no definite classical outcomes. Entropy = 0 (sic). There are no “facts” and no “observers” – as distinct from neocortical quantum superpositions subjectively experienced as classical world-simulations populated by robustly classical objects. We are living in an inconceivably vast cosmic superposition: the quantum version of the Library of Babel.

    Talk of a “zero ontology” (the term is due to philosopher Arthur Witherall) sounds poetic, metaphorical and ominously Zen-like. Yet all we’re doing here is taking the formalism of unitary-only QM at face value. Hugh Everett wasn’t seeking to dissolve the mystery of why anything exists when he dropped the collapse postulate, any more than Feynman developed the path integral formulation of quantum field theory (the “sum-over-histories” approach) in pursuit of speculative metaphysics. Likewise, investigators working on the black hole information paradox weren’t investigating whether reality has any information at all. But if the information content of reality is necessarily zero, then this cancellation is just what we should “philosophically” expect. Or as Guy Blaylock pus it, "The many-worlds interpretation is not only counterfactually indefinite, it is factually indefinite as well.” (The EPR paradox, Bell’s inequality, and the question of locality, https://arxiv.org/pdf/0902.3827.pdf). The creation of facts would require information. So if a zero ontology is true, there are no “facts”.

    Retrodictions aren’t predictions. How might we properly test a zero ontology? This is what’s so disconcerting. If the net information content of reality exceeds zero, as we naïvely suppose, then such non-zero information content should be trivially easy to demonstrate: behold, a cat! Suggestively, it’s not. However, a respectable scientific hypothesis should not only be empirically adequate; it should offer novel, precise and surprising empirically falsifiable predictions.

    I can think of various possible experimental refutations. A molecular matter-wave interferometry experiment to test the craziest prediction might be most convincing because almost no one who understands decoherence in the warm, wet CNS will expect a positive result. If there are no definite outcomes, merely coherent neuronal superpositions experienced as definite outcomes in a globally informationless reality, then the non-classical interference signature should tell us. Failure of interferometry to detect a perfect structural match would falsify the conjecture.

    DEFEATING THE EXPLANATORY REGRESS. Any purported explanation of existence (e.g. God, or a Simulator) would seem to fall foul of an infinite explanatory regress. What explains the Creator or His secular counterpart? What explains any supposed explanation? And so on. Religious believers may respond by saying that God is "self-caused". The risk here is being seduced by an empty verbal placebo.

    Many scientists and philosophers simply accept defeat. If metaphysical nihilism had been true, then there wouldn't be anything to explain. If there hadn’t been anything at all, then there would be no explanatory regress to overcome. For reasons we don’t understand, metaphysical nihilism is false. So an infinite regress seems inescapable.

    However, the only scenario that would have cheated the infinite explanatory regress once again holds a possible clue to where the explanation lies. Just as a convergence of evidence from information theory to quantum cosmology suggests that something analogous to our pre-theoretic concept of "nothing" is the case, i.e. the net information content of reality is zero, maybe the analogy extends to defeating the infinite explanatory regress as well. Something analogous to metaphysical nihilism is true. Likewise, zero information is the only state of affairs that doesn't call for further explanation: zero information is the default condition. There’s no information to explain. Perhaps here lies the explanation-space where we should look for an answer, even though the answer itself may be beyond our comprehension.

    PURE NOTHING? Anyhow, suspend disbelief for a moment. Suppose the conjecture is true. In a sense we don’t adequately fathom, suppose the information content of reality isn’t almost zero, as physicist Max Tegmark proposes, but exactly zero. If so, then one wants to protest in exasperation: “Nothing” formalised as a perfect complex sphere of Hilbert space isn’t, well, nothing.
    Or is it?
    I don’t know.

  • Are you aware of your surroundings?
  • No. I live in a world of my own. Evolution did not design the mind to be aware of the meninges and the inside of a skull, nor of the cerebrospinal fluid that optimises the environment where its world-simulations unfold (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?).

    Of course, like most people, I’m prone to self-deception and delusion. A lot of the time, I think I perceive what’s going on in the wider world. But what passes for one’s surroundings are patterns of neuronal firings in the occipital cortex that each of us is hardwired to misinterpret as mind-independent reality.

  • Did Immanuel Kant say that reality as we perceive it is not the ultimate reality?
  • “What might be said of things in themselves, separated from all relationship to our senses, remains for us absolutely unknown.”
    (Immanuel Kant)
    Yes. According to Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781), your mind does not distort and refract your perception of the external world. What you apprehend as the external world is a facet of your mental life. Everything from your innermost feelings to the seemingly distant horizon is part of the architecture of your mind. The world you nominally perceive is autobiographical (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). Your mind is trapped, inescapably, in a world of phenomena. The transcendental world of things-in-themselves (Kant’s Ding an sich) is not perceptually accessible. The veil of perception is more of a wall – or rather, the interior of a transcendental skull. Not just Locke’s secondary properties (cf. primary/secondary quality distinction), but also the classical “primary” properties of material objects are internal to your psyche (cf. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science, 1783). And indeed modern physics, i.e. quantum mechanics without the ad hoc collapse postulate, confirms that classical worlds are phantoms of the mind.

    Kant claims that the nature of mind-independent reality – the noumenal world as distinct from your phenomenal world-simulation – is not just perceptually inaccessible but intellectually unknowable too. This view is more troublesome. For instance, when your phenomenal body-image eats phenomenal food, aren’t noumenal nutrients afterwards incorporated into your mind/brain? Edible knowledge, so to speak, though alas not edible wisdom. Unlike idealist Bishop Berkeley, Kant doesn’t dispute the existence of a world beyond appearances. However, Kant’s dichotomy between phenomena and noumena prompted Jacobi’s lament that “without that presupposition [of things-in-themselves] I could not enter into the system, but with it I could not stay within it” (David Hume Uber Den Glauben: Oder Idealismus Und Realismus (1787) p. 336). Indeed, Kant’s “Copernican revolution”, i.e. the subject rather than the object is pivotal to knowledge, makes not just the external world but also semantic meaning deeply problematic. As Kant argues, our minds categorically structure their phenomenal worlds in similar ways, including our experience of space and time. Yet human language is not innate. So how is semantic meaning possible if our minds each instantiate private world-simulations rather than share common access to a public world? As the later Wittgenstein stressed, isn’t language a pre-eminently social institution that one learns on the basis of public criteria of usage?

    Many efforts have been made to re-interpret Kant as saying something else. The traditional phenomenalist (and textually better supported) “two worlds” reading of Kant has been challenged by variants of the one-world/two-aspects view most commonly associated with Kant scholar Henry Allison. Yet according to Kant, your phenomenal world is not mind-independent reality. The existence of the mind-independent world and the countless other phenomenal world-simulations it supports is just a theoretical inference. The language of “world-simulation” that I’m using here is distinctly contemporary; but the underlying insight (and its Kantian spin) can be traced back via poets (“The brain is wider than the sky…”) and philosophers to antiquity (cf. Steven Lehar “The Two Worlds of Reality”, 2002).

    Was Kant right?
    Kant said a lot, mostly in dense, complicated German. Here, I’m cherry-picking what I find interesting. There are good scientific reasons from the neuroscience of perception to the foundations of quantum mechanics (cf. Wigner's friend) to believe in world-simulationism rather than perceptual realism. Only inferential realism about the external world (and maybe Everett’s multiverse) is scientifically tenable. But Kant also prefigured what is today known as the binding problem, and in particular, the problem of global binding as distinct from the local binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into individual perceptual objects. How can Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception”, now better known as the unity of perception and the unity of the self, be reconciled with modern neuroscience? (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and Hard Problem of consciousness?). When awake, you instantiate a phenomenally-bound world-simulation, not billions of pixels of neuronal “mind-dust”. Phenomenal binding is exceedingly fitness-enhancing, as its rare disorders (e.g. simultanagnosia, akinetopsia) attest. Arguably, non-psychotic binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. Worldmaking is genetically adaptive. Yet according to neuroscience, you are a bunch of effectively decohered, membrane-bound nerve cells that communicate with each other across chemical and electrical synapses. So how can the manifest phenomenal unity of our minds and their world-simulations be explained without abandoning not just materialism, but also physicalism and the ontological unity of science?

    Secondly, is noumenal reality truly a complete mystery, as Kant claims, and outspoken materialists like Stephen Hawking implicitly acknowledge? What Kant calls the noumenal essence of the world, Hawking calls the mysterious “fire” in the equations (“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” A Brief History of Time, 1988). Idealists claim the noumenal essence of the world is experiential; Kantians claim the noumenal essence is unknowable; materialists assume it’s non-experiential. I don’t know who is right; but we are up to our transcendental necks in metaphysics. Can the metaphysical impasse be broken?

    Recent decades have seen a revival of attempts to “turn Kant on his head”. Maybe we can know the essence of reality. According to this view, dating back via Bertrand Russell ultimately to Schopenhauer, and championed today by analytic philosophers such as Galen Strawson (cf. “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?” 2006), there is one small part of the noumenal world that you do know as it is in itself, and not at one remove. Your mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs discloses a tiny part of the noumenal essence of the world, the “fire” in the equations. Your phenomena are noumena. Contra Hawking and the materialists, the intrinsic nature of the physical is experiential.

    According to this view, both solipsism and Berkeleyan idealism are false. Realism and physicalism are true. The world, as distinct from your autobiographical world-simulation, is around 13.8 billion years old. Formally, the universe is exhaustively described by the equations of mathematical physics, more specifically quantum field theory or its stringy generalisation. But the intrinsic nature of the physical that the equations of QFT describe is experiential: fields of sentience rather than insentience. Misnamed “p-zombies” are impossible because they are unphysical (cf. Is Science intrinsically physicalist or materialist?).

    Traditional idealism is untestable and hence, by Popperian criteria, unscientific. Yet non-materialist physicalism is experimentally falsifiable – and may indeed be confounded by next-generation interferometry, though I tentatively argue otherwise. If dualism is false and monistic physicalism is true, then at temporally fine-grained resolutions, one of the basic assumptions of contemporary neuroscience, namely the effective classicality of neurons, must be false. Neuroscanning suggests at least a partial structural mismatch between Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception” and the CNS. Phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors is classically impossible, as investigators from William James to David Chalmers have recognised.

    And what if classical neuroscience is vindicated? (cf. What is a quantum mind?). If so, then how can monistic physicalism explain that "The synthetic unity of consciousness is therefore an objective condition of all cognition, not merely something I myself need in order to cognise an object but rather something under which every intuition must stand in order to become an object for me, since in any other, and without this synthesis, the manifold would not be united in one consciousness" (Kant, Critique, p. 249), i.e. the phenomenal unity of mind?

    Well, if the “structural mismatch” is real, then I’ve no idea how to refute Chalmersian dualism.

  • How would you argue that negative utilitarianism is ethically correct??
  • “Pleasure is the greatest incentive to evil.”
    (Plato)
    Arguing for negative utilitarianism (NU) may be counterproductive – and hence not NU. The tools of biotechnology can potentially create a world without suffering, as NUs urge. Most secular and religious opinion worldwide gives some weight – and often much weight – to reducing involuntary suffering. No one need be a utilitarian of any kind to believe that we should build a civilisation based entirely on gradients of intelligent well-being. Critically, hedonic recalibration can be preference-preserving. Therefore, cherished traditional values (with certain exceptions) can be kept intact even as hedonic set-points are ratcheted up. Indeed, a “triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness is (IMO) entirely sociologically credible: the biggest uncertainty is timescales. Transhumanist technologies can deliver what NUs advocate, even though posthuman civilisation won’t be based on an ethic of NU. Instead of contributing to the goal of eradicating suffering, NU philosophising may just be a distraction.

    Why such reticence? Why have e.g. the authors of the Negative Utilitarian FAQ opted for anonymity? If you believe that your ethical theory is correct (cf. meta-ethics?), shouldn’t you be shouting your values from the rooftops? After all, the original negative utilitarian was Gautama Buddha (“I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering”), the epitome of compassion. Buddhists don’t apologise for being Buddhist.

    The problem is that NU critics don’t focus on the compassionate commitment to relieving suffering that underpins secular NU ethics. Instead, almost all contemporary critics home in on a thought-experiment: the supposed reductio ad absurdum of NU (cf. R.N. Smart's reply to Popper). NU allegedly dictates destroying the Earth with a planetary Doomsday device – presumably some sort of multi-gigaton cobalt-salted superweapon. Sterilising the planet would end suffering for good. Technically, thermonuclear options are a quicker and cleaner way to end life than notional ethical bioweapons or e.g. multiple independently-targeted synthetic gene drives aimed at the photosynthetic base of the food chain, which could painfully eradicate only multicellular life. Whatever the implementation details of the disinfection procedure – this is not a how-to manual for terrorists – the issue soon becomes fanciful. Homo sapiens, evolved under pressure of natural selection, won’t consent to engineering Doomsday. For evolutionary reasons, status quo bias is deeply rooted and pervasive. Nature throws up countless Woody Allens (“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it's all over much too soon"). The practice and ideology of natalism is endemic. Breeding and the urge to propagate are probably ineradicable, not least on account of selection pressure (cf. What are the main differences between the anti-natalism/efilism community and the negative utilitarian/"suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?). NUs would do better to argue that Darwinian life is biological malware to be reprogrammed, not a malignant cancer to be eradicated. Even the language of genetic reform needs to be softened as appropriate (cf. Is eugenics moral?). Try telling some proud mum that she’s spawned a piece of biological malware in urgent need of a genetic rewrite and you’ll get a dusty response. Global apocalyptic solutions tend to be even less well-received.

    The supposed reductio of NU has complications. For instance, the discovery of pain-ridden primordial life within our cosmological horizon might in theory call for cosmic rescue or eradication missions. So perhaps NUs should bide their time before doing anything irrevocable. Maybe intelligent moral agents should be laying the foundations via AI and robotics of cosmic stewardship to ensure that primordial Darwinian life and suffering can never recur within the scope of rational moral agency – though the challenges of responsible stewardship of even our Local Group of galaxies are technically daunting. Yet whatever the scope of the mission, NUs should really – according to the supposed reductio – be strategizing ways to extinguish life wherever it is found, not to improve it. And even if the increasingly plausible Rare Earth hypothesis is false and cosmic rescue missions are technically feasible, the historical record suggests that humans or our successors are more likely to spread suffering across our Hubble volume than act to prevent it. So rational NUs should be working, urgently, to exterminate life on Earth before the brief technical window of opportunity closes – whether burrowing into existential risk institutes, penetrating DARPA, or doing stuff not responsibly discussed. Even self-sustaining bases on the Moon and Mars will make eradicating life (and hence suffering) far harder. In short, consistent, intelligent, high IQ-AQ NUs are (what non-NUs would regard as) potential super-terrorists, not super-ethicists. All this talk of death and destruction means that we’ve come a long way from compassion for all suffering beings. Philosopher Toby Ord describes NU as a “devastatingly callous” theory (cf. Why I'm Not a Negative Utilitarian).

    NU counterarguments to the Doomsday reductio are possible. For example, enshrining in law the sanctity of human and nonhuman animal life is arguably indirectly NU (cf. What is high-tech Jainism?), hence really NU simpliciter. Compare how classical utilitarians don’t believe that e.g. doctors should forswear the Hippocratic oath for an ostensibly utilitarian distribution of patient organs. Given the frailty of human character, treating life as inviolate normally leads to better consequences by the lights of NU and CU alike. Also, negative utilitarians are ethically opposed to even the mildest discomfort or distress. So if a policy option causes discomfort or distress, for example talk of Doomsday devices or simply the idea that you won’t be able to enjoy the good things that life has to offer, then other things being equal, it’s not NU. For NUs want to abolish even the slightest twinge of disappointment.

    Such arguments won’t be persuasive to most people. NU will always be a marginal position (cf. Negative utilitarianism - Wikipedia).

    In contrast to the (purported) reductio of NU as a recipe for Armageddon, the policy prescriptions of classical utilitarianism (CU) are supposedly closer – if not exactly close – to commonsense. Traditional “hedonistic” CU gives equal weight to pleasure and pain. In moral philosophy, conformity to intuition is often accounted a virtue, despite the toxically polluted evolutionary well of our moral intuitions, and the dismal track-record of commonsense in the sciences. At least for humans – if not our nonhuman victims – a watered-down classical utilitarianism is the dominant secular ethic in academia and Western society at large, though mitigating suffering often in practice takes precedence over promoting happiness. Thus even criticisms of CU are typically couched in indirectly CU terms, namely the bad consequences for aggregate well-being that would follow if nominally CU policies were strictly applied. The ethical dilemmas of CU are widely acknowledged. Whether as a theory of value or a decision procedure, CU is rarely loved. Yet almost no one thinks that applied CU poses an existential risk to civilisation.

    Such risk-assessment may be misplaced. The disguised implications of CU are apocalyptic. Unless we suppose superintelligence will have a cognitive blindspot, a CU superintelligence would not preserve complex human civilisation (cf. How can one pursue eternal happiness?).

    This point is worth amplifying. Anyone who believes that pain-ridden Darwinian life should be retired soon discovers that arguing about existential risk with CU life-lovers is futile. By contrast, highlighting the existential risk to intelligent life posed by any pleasure-maximising ethic can command attention because the debate is framed on the classical utilitarian’s own terms. Whereas NUs can support replacing the biology of pain and suffering with a civilisation based on gradients of bliss, CUs are committed, ultimately, to a civilisation-obliterating utilitronium shockwave. Utilitronium is matter and energy optimised for pure bliss.

    Naively, a supercivilisation with a hedonic range of, say, +90 – +100 compared to the schematic -10 – 0 – +10 of Darwinian life might seem ethically acceptable to NUs and CUs alike. Subjectively, superhappy life will be sublime. But to a self-consistent CU, the preservation of rich, diverse, superhumanly wonderful states in the hedonic +90s will be unethical. Anything that falls short of unadulterated euphoria is morally indefensible. According to CU, matter and energy should be optimised for pure bliss, not polluted with wanton complexity. Rationally, the long-term goal of CU should be equivalent to an all-consuming cosmic orgasm. According to CU, positive value should maximised, not diluted or corrupted in any way.

    In response, classical utilitarians would presumably protest that they are not super-terrorists plotting to destroy civilisation with a utilitronium shockwave. Quite so. But then neither are Buddhists or NUs.

    More practically, IMO effective altruists would do best to use the term “suffering-focused ethics” in preference to NU (cf. "Effective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others?" by Magnus Vinding). No one should feel that signing up to the abolitionist project entails a commitment to any specific moral theory, any more than support for surgical anaesthesia entails signing up for an ethic of Buddhism or NU. The need for pain-free surgery is (now) obvious (cf. Utopian surgery? The case against anaesthesia in surgery, dentistry and childbirth). One day, getting rid of experience below hedonic zero will seem as commonsensical as pain-free surgery. Alas, we’ve some way to go.

  • What is the purpose of the existence of consciousness?
  • Let’s assume naturalism. Consciousness isn’t a gift from God (or the Devil). Any serious explanation of the adaptive role of consciousness must account for why a notional p-zombie couldn’t do just as well without the supposedly fitness-enhancing trait in question. Talk of “p-zombies” isn’t some pointless thought-experiment dreamed up by philosophers. Nor is it just some idle sceptical worry. Rather, if the basic properties of matter and energy are exactly as physicists and chemists claim, we should all be p-zombies. In others words, if we assume mainstream “materialist” physicalism, i.e. QFT or its extension describes fields of insentience, consciousness should be impossible – and if not impossible, causally redundant.

    For instance, the evolutionary purpose of pain might seem self-evident. The nasty experience of pain helps living organisms avoid and respond to noxious stimuli. Rare cases of people with congenital insensitivity to pain make it intuitively obvious that the ghastly “raw feels” of pain must be adaptive. Talk of “purpose” is harmless here, because teleological language of purposes and functions can be scientifically cashed out in causal terms. However, as it stands, the commonsense view of the function of pain doesn’t work. Neuroscience reduces to chemistry which reduces to physics. Causality doesn’t operate between levels of description, a mere human convenience. Reality has only one ontological level. Scientists believe that they can give a causally sufficient account of why a neurotypical organism withdraws her hand or tentacle from the fire without invoking the subjective experience of pain at all. On the materialist story, subjective experience is causally superfluous. The “raw feels” of consciousness aren't doing anything. If the “raw feels” aren’t physically doing anything, then they haven’t been selected for, as distinct from merely selected. Perhaps compare silicon robots with a capacity for nociception. Notionally “painting on” nasty subjective experiences from noxious or potentially fitness-reducing stimuli wouldn’t enhance the functional capacities of non-biological robots. If designed and programmed to compete and replicate, silicon robots wouldn’t spontaneously evolve phenomenal pain, nor (on the face of it) would phenomenal pain serve any non-redundant purpose if they did.

    If true, the causal impotence or redundancy of consciousness would be good news. Its uselessness would mean that advanced human civilisation can cleanly and comprehensively replace the nasty side of life with programmable digital prostheses without loss of function. Pain, sadness, anxiety, fear, disappointment, and other unpleasant Darwinian emotions can all be functionally offloaded to insentient digital surrogates, allowing sentient beings to enjoy only the good stuff in life. Paradise!

    My view?
    If consciousness were causally or functionally impotent, then you couldn’t even ask your question. Humans couldn’t contemplate whether to replace pain with a more civilised signalling system. For unpleasant experience would lack the causal capacity to inspire its own replacement (cf. Epiphenomenalism). I’m all for offloading the nasty side of life onto smart prostheses. But there are features of our minds that can’t be functionally replicated in silico. The workarounds will be non-trivial. This is quite a strong claim (cf. the Church–Turing thesis). Yet as posed by materialist metaphysicians, the Hard Problem of consciousness is insoluble. So I investigate (as distinct from advocate) non-materialist physicalism. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then there is no Hard Problem: experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. There is no problem of the non-reductant causal efficacy of consciousness either. All the physical, and only the physical, has causal power. Perhaps see: Through what mechanism could consciousness be causally effective?

    By itself, such causal explanation leaves the emergence of functionality unexplained. Non-materialist physicalism makes the challenge of understanding the functional role of consciousness in biological minds all the more acute. Although causally effective – it’s the essence of the physical – why isn't consciousness as functionally incidental to our nervous systems as “raw feels” would be to Deep Blue, AlphaGo or Watson? Deep Blue, AlphaGo, Watson (etc) will perform functionally exactly as programmed, or in the case of connectionist networks, as they are “trained up”, irrespective of whether fields of sentience of insentience are the ultimate stuff of reality. The truth or falsity of panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is of no more practical relevance than whether software is executed on processors made of silicon or gallium arsenide. It’s not substrate that determines functional role, but software (cf. Universal Turing machine).

    Or so the story goes. However, there is one taken-for-granted feature of biological consciousness that is fitness-enhancing: non-psychotic phenomenal binding (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?). Classical Turing machines can’t bind. You can; and it’s vastly adaptive. You aren't a micro-experiential zombie composed of billion of pixels of distributed neuronal feature-processors, i.e. a pack of decohered classical neurons. You are “awake”: a fleetingly unified subject of experience. Crudely speaking, the phenomenal world-simulation that you are now running – naively, the external world, actually, your biological mind – is the evolutionary “purpose” of consciousness. Phenomenal world-making is enormously fitness-enhancing. Hence the proliferation of classical-seeming world-simulations since the late pre-Cambrian.

    The snag? Even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, i.e. even if the equations of physics describe fields of sentience, classical neuroscience does not account for how phenomenal binding is possible. Phenomenal binding is so ubiquitous that ordinarily we don’t even recognise the mystery. Right now, your CNS “should” be at most a micro-experiential zombie, just as you are while dreamlessly asleep. Synchronous activation of distributed neuronal feature-processors doesn’t by itself suffice to bind if physicalism is true. When you experience a perceptual object, the synchronous feature-activation detected by neuroscanning is no more sufficient for unitary experience than the co-ordinated motion of a Mexican wave.

    The classical impossibility of phenomenal binding drives some philosophers like David Chalmers to dualism, which does not promise an evolutionary explanation of consciousness.
    Classical physics, however, is a false theory of the world. Reality is quantum to its core. So instead, I explore a radically conservative conjecture that is empirically adequate. With difficulty, it’s experimentally testable.
    Is it true? Heaven knows, probably not! I’m still curious to find out.

  • Why don't more effective altruists work on the Hedonistic Imperative?
  • Life could be wonderful. Genetically phasing out suffering in favour of hardwired happiness ought to be mainstream. Today, it’s a fringe view. It’s worth asking why. Perhaps the first scientifically-literate blueprint for a world without suffering was written by Lewis Mancini. “Brain stimulation and the genetic engineering of a world without pain” was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 1990. As far as I can tell, the paper sunk almost without a trace. Ignorant of Mancini’s work, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) in 1995. I’ve plugged away at the theme ever since. Currently, a small, scattered minority of researchers believe that replacing the biology of suffering with gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being is not just ethical but obviously so.

    Alas, perceptions of obviousness vary. Technically, at least, the abolitionist project can no longer easily be dismissed as science fiction. The twenty-first century has already witnessed the decoding of the human genome, the development and imminent commercialisation of cultured meat, the dawn of CRISPR genome-editing and the promise of synthetic gene drives. Identification of alleles and allelic combinations governing everything from pain-sensitivity to hedonic range and hedonic set-points is complementing traditional twin studies. The high genetic loading of subjective well-being and mental ill-health is being deciphered. The purely technical arguments against the genetic feasibility of creating a happy living world are shrinking. But genetic status quo bias is deeply entrenched. The sociopolitical obstacles to reprogramming the biosphere are daunting.

    You ask specifically about effective altruists (EAs). Some effective altruists (cf. Effective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? by Magnus Vinding) do explore biological-genetic solutions to complement socio-economic reform and other environmental interventions. Most don’t. Indeed, a significant minority of EAs expressly urge a nonbiological focus for EA. For example, see Why I Don't Focus On The Hedonistic Imperative by the influential EA Brian Tomasik. I can’t offer a complete explanation, but I think these facts are relevant:

    1) Timescales. Lewis Mancini reckons that completion of the abolitionist project will take thousands of years. HI predicts that the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur a few centuries hence, perhaps in some obscure marine invertebrate. If, fancifully, consensus existed for a global species-project, then 100-150 years (?) might be a credible forecast. Alas, such a timescale is hopelessly unrealistic. No such consensus exists or is plausibly in prospect. For sure, ask people a question framed on the lines of “Do you agree with Gautama Buddha, ‘May all that have life be delivered from suffering’?” and assent might be quite high. Some kind of quantified, cross-cultural study of radical Buddhist or Benthamite abolitionism would be interesting. Yet most people balk at what the scientific implementation of such a vision practically entails – if they reflect on abolitionist bioethics at all. “That’s just Brave New World” is a common response among educated Westerners to the idea of engineering “unnatural” well-being. Typically, EAs are focused on measurable results in foreseeable timeframes in areas where consensus is broad and deep, for instance the elimination of vector-borne disease. Almost everyone agrees that eliminating malaria will make the world a better place. Malaria can be eradicated this century.

    2) The Hedonic Treadmill. In recent decades, popular awareness of the hedonic treadmill has grown. Sadly, most nonbiological interventions to improve well-being may not have the dramatic long-term impact we naïvely hope. However, awareness of the genetic underpinnings of the hedonic treadmill is sketchy. Knowledge of specific interventions we can plan to subvert its negative feedback mechanisms is sketchier still. Compared to more gross and visible ills, talk of “low hedonic set-points” (etc) is nebulous. Be honest, which would you personally choose if offered: a vast national lottery win (cf. How Winning The Lottery Affects Happiness) or a modestly higher hedonic set-point? Likewise, the prospect of making everyone on Earth prosperous sounds more effectively altruistic than raising their hedonic defaults – even if push-button hedonic uplift were now feasible, which it isn’t, or at least not without socially unacceptable consequences.

    3) The Spectre of Eugenics. Any confusion between the racial hygiene policies of the Third Reich and the project of genetically phasing out suffering in all sentient beings ought to be laughable. Nonetheless, many people recoil at the prospect of “designer babies”. Sooner or later, the ”e”-word crops up in discussions of genetic remediation and enhancement. If we assume that bioconservative attitudes to baby-making will prevail worldwide indefinitely, and the reproductive revolution extends at best only to a minority of prospective parents, then the abolitionist project will never happen. What we call the Cambrian Explosion might alternatively be classified as the Suffering Explosion. If we don’t tackle the biological-genetic roots of suffering at source – “eugenics”, if you will – then pain and suffering will proliferate until Doomsday. Without eugenics, the world’s last unpleasant experience may occur millions or even billions of years hence.

    4) Core Values. Self-identified effective altruists range from ardent life lovers focused on existential risks, AGI and the hypothetical Intelligence Explosion to radical anti-natalists and negative utilitarians committed to suffering-focused ethics (cf. What are the main differences between the anti-natalism/efilism community and the negative utilitarian/”suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?). There’s no inherent conflict with HI at either extreme. On the one hand, phasing out the biology of suffering can potentially minimise existential risk. Crudely, the more we love life, the more we want to preserve it. On the opposite wing of EA, radical anti-natalists oppose reproduction because they care about suffering, not because of opposition to new babies per se. Technically speaking, CRISPR babies could be little bundles of joy – as distinct from today’s tragic genetic experiments. In practice, however, life-loving EAs are suspicious of (notionally) button-pressing negative utilitarians, whereas radical anti-natalists view worldwide genetic engineering as even more improbable than their preferred option of voluntary human extinction.

    5) Organisation and Leadership. Both secular and religious organizations exist whose tenets include the outright abolition of suffering. EAs can and do join such groups. However, sadly, I don’t know of a single organisation dedicated to biological-genetic solutions to the problem of suffering. Among transhumanists, for instance, radical life-extension and the prospect of posthuman superintelligence loom larger than biohappiness – though article 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration is admirably forthright: a commitment to the well-being of all sentience. Also, I think we need star power: the blessing of some charismatic billionaire or large-than-life media celebrity. “Bill Gates says let’s use biotechnology to phase out the genetic basis of suffering” would be a breakthrough. Or even Justin Bieber.

    For my part, I’m just a writer/researcher. We have our place! My guess is that this century will see more blueprints and manifestos and grandiose philosophical proposals together with concrete, incremental progress from real scientists. The genetic basis of suffering will eventually be eradicated across the tree of life, not in the name of anything “hedonistic” or gradients of intelligent bliss, and certainly not in the name of negative utilitarianism, but perhaps under the label of the World Health Organisation’s definition of health (cf. Constitution of WHO: principles). Taken literally, the constitution of the WHO enshrines the most daringly ambitious vision of the future of sentience ever conceived. Lifelong good health (“complete physical, mental and social well-being”) for all sentient beings is a noble aspiration.

    Regardless of race or species, all of us deserve good health as so defined. A biology of information-sensitive gradients of physical, mental and social well-being (HI) is more modest and workable thanks to biotech. Optimistically, life on Earth has only a few more centuries of misery and malaise to go.

  • How many universes are possible in the string theory landscape? You see not only 10500 bandied about, but also 105000. Which should we believe?
  • Perhaps c.10272000 (cf. “The F-theory geometry with most flux vacua”), but the size of reality is still an open question. Intuitively, reality is large, yet even a figure of 10272000 flux vacua (“universes”) is infinitesimally small compared to an infinite reality.

  • Physicists and mathematicians, which interpretation of quantum mechanics do you think is the most plausible? Why?
  • No plausible interpretation of quantum mechanics (QM) exists. However, one thing almost everyone agrees on as self-evident. Superpositions (“cat states”) are never experienced, only inferred. Even on modern interpretations of QM where the superposition principle never breaks down, i.e. Everett and the decoherence program, proponents don’t claim that superpositions are ever experienced. Rather, there are (effectively) decohered Everett branches where you see determinate live cats, and other Everett branches where you see determinate dead cats, all subsumed in one vast global superposition, the universal wavefunction.

    Yet if the superposition principle is truly universal, as unitary-only QM claims, why don’t biological minds experience a linear combination of eigenstates rather than definite classical outcomes? What makes biological consciousness so special?

    Well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe a critical background assumption here is mistaken. Alternatively, only superpositions are ever experienced. Your subjective experience of classical-looking text on a classical-looking computer monitor is a neuronal superposition. Your subjective experience of detecting the discrete value of a “spin-up” electron in a Stern–Gerlach device is a neuronal superposition. Your experiences of live and dead cats (as distinct from live-and-dead cats) are neuronal superpositions. In other words, the superposition principle is universal. Biological minds are manifestations of the superposition principle, not its breakdown. Maybe the problem with most interpretations of QM, including most interpretations of Everett, is they are still partly in thrall to classical physics, classical perceptual direct realism, and a classical notion of definite outcomes. Whereas on this “no collapse” quantum mind conjecture, only the superposition principle sustains our experience of classicality. The phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects and subjectively determinate pointer-readings would be physically impossible without it.

    Yes, crazy stuff. You asked for plausibility. Why would anyone play around with an idea too implausible to deserve experimentally falsifying? We already know that the CNS is too hot. Phase coherence is scrambled too fast. We’re not quantum robins! Back-of-an-envelope calculations confirm what intuition suggests: the effective theoretical lifetime of individual coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS must be femtoseconds or less. Sub-femtosecond lifetimes are the wrong dynamical timescale for our minds by a dozen or so orders of magnitude (cf. Max Tegmark’s The Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes). Consciousness must (somehow) be emergent and classical.

    Well, perhaps so.
    However, “dynamical timescale” considerations aren’t decisive against the intrinsic nature argument.
    The intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism has two versions. The first version, associated with Galen Strawson and latterly Phil Goff, treats our minds as effectively classical. The existence of decohered neurons is just assumed, rather than derived from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. In essence, you are what a pack of effectively decohered neurons feels like “from the inside”. Your mind and its phenomenal world-simulation disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical, the “fire” in the equations. Non-materialist physicalism is a bold conjecture aimed at dissolving the Hard Problem of consciousness. Unfortunately, the classical version of the intrinsic nature argument doesn’t work. Strawsonian physicalism can’t explain why you aren’t a micro-experiential zombie. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. The partial “structural mismatch” drives scientifically well-versed philosopher David Chalmers to dualism.

    However, the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument isn’t vulnerable to the “structural mismatch” objection. On this conjecture, your mind discloses the intrinsic nature of quantum states. You are what individual coherent neuronal superpositions – preposterously short-lived by the standards of our everyday folk-chronology – feel like from the inside. Crudely, the “dynamical timescale” of our world-simulations is milliseconds – you perceptually simulate your local extra-cranial environment with a time-lag of scores of milliseconds – but the “frames” of the simulation are effectively sub-femtosecond. The subjective content of your subjective world-simulation is robustly classical, but the vehicle is inescapably quantum. Only quantum minds can instantiate subjectively classical worlds.

    Nonsense, one intuitively feels – or at least I do when not contemplating the dualist alternative. However, rather than expressions of powerfully-felt intuition, what’s needed is experiment, i.e. interferometry. If our minds and the subjectively quasi-classical world-simulations we run are quantum, i.e. if quantum mechanics is complete and wavefunction monism is true, then the non-classical interference signature will tell us. Or alternatively, experiment will lay quantum mind heresies to rest.

  • If every particle and atom in our bodies have no consciousness, how do we have consciousness?
  • “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
    (René Descartes)
    Let’s assume physicalism, i.e. no “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of our best mathematical description of the world, is true. The conjecture that the equations of quantum field theory describe a different kind of “stuff” inside and outside one’s mind is a metaphysical speculation. Unfortunately, the speculation doesn’t lead to any testable predictions. Uncharitably, it’s “not even wrong”. As it stands, the conjecture is philosophical rather than scientific.

    Naturally, as a scientific rationalist, one wants to say that consciousness emerges via an unknown mechanism from an insentient universe that exists independently of one’s mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs. Philosophers distinguish innocent “weak” emergence from spooky “strong” emergence. Strong emergence is more akin to magic than science. All kinds of natural phenomena that once seemed irreducibly strongly emergent, for example life (cf. Vitalism), have turned out to be only weakly emergent, i.e. reducible via molecular biology and quantum chemistry to fundamental physics. Most scientists believe that consciousness will go the same way. Admittedly, complications for classical reductionism arise from Nature’s ubiquitous, seemingly nonlocal EPR correlations. In most practical contexts, reductionism works fine – with one stark exception.

    My view? Consensus wisdom in the scientific community may well be right. Consciousness is weakly emergent. However, the explanatory gap is currently an unbridgeable chasm. No one has the slightest idea how to derive the first-person properties of subjective experience from quantum fields of insentience. Progress since Democritus in deriving sentience from insentience has been literally zero. Affirmations of faith are fine, but materialist metaphysics should not be confused with empirical science.

    Yet what if a derivation is impossible, i.e. what if consciousness is strongly emergent from fields of insentience? If so, then one option is dualism, presumably naturalistic rather than Cartesian. Dualism is hard to reconcile with the causal capacity of consciousness to discuss its own existence. Another option, non-materialist physicalism, drops the metaphysical assumption that spawns the mystery in the first place. For if the mathematical machinery of QFT describes fields of sentience rather than insentience, then the properties of our minds can be derived, in principle, from fundamental physics.

    Therefore, I explore non-materialist physicalism. Such a conjecture does extreme violence to one’s intuitions. I don’t like it. The idea of post-materialist science is seriously weird. I’ll just add, dogmatically, that any conjecture that doesn’t make precise, novel, empirically falsifiable predictions is probably wasting our time.

  • Does this material world exist independently of our consciousness?
  • “The more I see, the less I know for sure.”
    (John Lennon)
    What you call “this material world” is a conscious simulation run by your mind. It’s egocentric and autobiographical. Your world-simulation disintegrates when you fall asleep. You and your world-simulation respawn when your brain starts dreaming. When you wake up, your regenerated world-simulation loses much of its dreamworld autonomy because when you’re awake, inputs from peripheral nerves powerfully select the properties of your world-simulation, including the text you are now reading. Peripheral inputs don’t create your perceptual experience; they partly select it.

    A harder question to answer is the nature of the external world. Barring radical scepticism, you may infer the existence of an extra-cranial reality. On balance, too, you are probably not a Boltzmann brain. Formally, the properties and behaviour of the physical universe may be described by the equations of quantum field theory. Yet is the intrinsic nature of a quantum field experiential or non-experiential? Or do quantum fields have a hybrid quality, changing their essential nature inside and outside biological nervous systems? Alas, the equations of physics are silent: science doesn’t know.

  • Brian Tomasik suggests that plants and even bacteria could be sentient, should the Hedonistic Imperative apply to these beings too?
  • "Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace."
    (Albert Schweitzer)
    What should be the ultimate limits of our circle of compassion – or more realistically, our circle of moral systematisation?

    First, apologies to any exasperated reader who feels we’ve more morally urgent things to worry about than whether a bacterium can undergo a micro-pinprick of distress. In practical terms, let’s agree: we should prioritise shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses, and end all readily avoidable sources of suffering in human and nonhuman animals alike. The interests of even the humblest of sentient animals take precedence over bacteria and plants – if plants and bacteria have any non-metaphorical interests at all. Humans may sometimes anthropomorphise too much; more often, we anthropomorphise too little. Either way, getting our theory of consciousness right matters. False theories of mind can lead to ethical catastrophes. Brian Tomasik (cf. Essays on Reducing Suffering) does us a service by forcing us to spell out our justifications for what is “obvious”. Appeals to intuition and plausibility have no more place in a future science of mind than in physics.

    Yes, I think HI should be extended across the phylogenetic tree to all sentient beings, whether free-living, domesticated, incarcerated or “wild”. A technical revolution is transforming the moral landscape. For instance, CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives promise to invert our intuitive chronology of technical feasibility. So it’s not crazy, even now, to think about helping rabbits and rodents as well as humans and elephants. Slow-breeders like humans and elephants pose a bigger challenge for germline interventions than do our fast-reproducing cousins. Either way, ethics and decision-theoretic rationality converge. We should eradicate the molecular signature of experience below “hedonic zero” throughout the living world: it’s the root of all evil. Responsible moral agents should then ensure that suffering cannot recur within our forward light-cone.

    The precise margins of sentience are disputed; hence your question. Insects and worms (more strictly, the ganglia of insects and worms) are almost certainly sentient, as their behaviour, genetics, and opioid and dopamine systems attest. Less certainly, our peripheral nociceptors may literally feel pain; recall how your hand may recoil from a hot stove hundreds of milliseconds before your CNS feels a searing pain. Yet what about an amoeba? Speculations on the theoretical minimum “psychon” of experience stretch from the connectome of neural networks to the sentience of individual neurons all the way down to the quantum field-theoretic stuff of the world itself, i.e. panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism (cf. What is a good way to describe the Hard Problem of consciousness to someone with little background in philosophy and/or science?).

    Irrespective of the boundaries of sentience, the existence of consciousness does not, by itself, confer moral status. Let’s assume that information-processing systems without the capacity for rapid self-propelled motion do undergo rudimentary experience. There’s no a priori reason to believe that such rudimentary experience has hedonic tone, i.e. experience that is subjectively nice or nasty. In animals with central nervous systems, projections from the limbic system “paint on” hedonic tone to otherwise neutral experiences in the neocortex or its equivalent. In the absence of innervation for such hedonic painting, an emotionally neutral experience doesn’t matter. Or so I’d argue. Without the pleasure-pain axis, nothing matters at all, regardless of sentience or insentience.

    Despite such uncertainties, eradicating experience below hedonic zero should be technically straightforward – in one sense – in the post-CRISPR era (cf. What is the root cause of all suffering?). With the aid of neuroscanning and verbally competent human subjects, identify the core molecular signatures of unpleasant experience. Then prevent their genetic expression, using benign biological surrogates and/or AI prostheses to fulfil the functional role of the nasty experience if warranted. Compare the functionally vital role of, say, anxiety versus dispensable jealousy. Or compare how nonsense mutations of the SCN9A gene completely knock out the capacity to feel physical pain (cf. Do you believe physical pain could be eliminated?). Today’s silicon robots don’t need the nasty “raw feels” of pain. Neither do tomorrow’s biological minds. Psychological pain is more complicated. The principle is the same.

    However, what distinguishes an ethically trivial from an ethically important experience isn’t just hedonic tone – nice, neutral, or nasty – but phenomenal binding. Other things being equal, macro-experiences matter more than micro-experiences. A pinprick is pure nastiness with no redeeming features; it’s still trivial. Compare how if, say, 1.3 billion skull-bound Chinese minds each undergo a pinprick, then the population of China doesn't thereby turn into a unified subject of experience with a mega-migraine – even if 1.3 billion Chinese minds reciprocally communicate via fast electromagnetic signalling that they are individually undergoing a trivial pain. Why are biological nervous systems so different? Let’s say that we identify the gene expression profile and molecular signature of unpleasant experience in an individual mammalian neuron. Neurons in neural networks communicate with each other across relatively slow chemical and electrical synapses. So when awake, why aren’t we just patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust” with no more moral significance than a Mexican wave? 1.3 billion trivialities don’t sum to something qualitatively important. By contrast, the suffering of biological nervous systems matters.

    Brian Tomasik and I differ on the phenomenal binding problem. The binding problem is especially ethically important if Brian is right and I’m wrong about digital sentience (cf. This guy thinks killing video game characters is immoral).

    In the context of biological organisms, I argue that if physicalism is true, then the structural cell wall encasing the cell membrane in plants and bacteria means that multicellular plants and bacterial colonies are not phenomenally-bound subjects of experience – any more than the skull-bound citizens of China can generate a unified subject of experience, regardless of how they functionally interconnect. I won’t recapitulate here my non-classical theory of phenomenal binding. It’s bizarre. It may be experimentally refuted by next-generation interferometry. I also think it’s the only way to save monistic physicalism from the spectre of dualism. All the options for solving the Hard Problem of consciousness are weird. All the options for solving the binding problem are weird. True or false, there are principled reasons for believing that plants and bacterial colonies are effectively just decohered cellular aggregates – functionally interconnected, yes, especially with multicellular plants, but with no interests above and beyond any individually negligible micro-experiences of their constituent cells. In other words, plants and micro-organism are ethically trivial – or at least, trivial within the nightmarish context of Darwinian life. Plants and unicellular organisms may be instrumentally (dis)valuable to sentient beings, but they aren’t intrinsically (dis)valuable. High-tech Jainism has practical limits. You should avoid treading on an ant. You don’t need to worry about inadvertently squashing a microbe, or taking a course of antibiotics.

    Let’s assume, then, the existence of no more than discrete micro-experiences for bacteria, archaea and plant cells. What should be the long-term future of plants and microorganisms? Their fate depends on our theory of value – and politics. Most people care, or pay lip service to caring, about species conservation and protecting the environment. The catastrophic Great Oxygenation Event poisoned the planet, killed off countless anaerobic bacteria, and led to misery-ridden aerobic life; but plant-based photosynthesis currently enjoys wide support. A broad popular consensus also favours conserving existing species of “charismatic mega-fauna”. Few people care about microorganisms – whose taxonomic status is in any case often murky in the extreme (cf. The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin’s Tree of Life). I’m personally happy to defer to ecologists on the metaphorical health of ecosystems and species. The role of a future discipline of compassionate biology is to protect the interests of phenomenally-bound sentient beings, respecting their preferences where possible, and prioritising subjective well-being over taxonomic abstractions.

    What about the far future? For instance, should we terraform other worlds? Creating pain-ridden ecosystems of Darwinian life would be unethical. But what about bioprinting, say, exotic vegetation for Nature-lovers who want to live in basement reality rather than immersive VR? (cf. Evolutionary Aesthetics) Once again, I’m relaxed about anything that doesn’t involve suffering. Practical politics suggests a qualified conservativism. Perhaps we should aim for a small bubble of complex civilisation in our Galaxy based on gradients of intelligent bliss surrounded by a rapidly-expanding sphere of utilitronium that almost maximises the cosmic abundance of subjectively positive value in our Hubble volume. Classical utilitarianism offers the most plausible way to naturalise value; I speak as a negative utilitarian. Most non-utilitarians don’t care one way or the other whether a rock or a carrot – or a distant solar system – is converted into utilitronium, i.e. matter and energy optimised for pure bliss. By utilitarian criteria, plants and bacteria are not optimal arrangements of matter and energy. I’m not convinced that plants and bacteria have a long-term future. But then, the same could be said of all Darwinian life-forms, not least Homo sapiens. Unlike animals, however, plants and bacteria have no subjective wishes to be taken into account. For once, I think common sense is right.

  • What are the downsides of transhumanism?
  • “The more I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there's any sort of benevolent force that has anything to do with it, at all.”
    (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
    At the risk of sounding naïve, it’s hard to think of any downside to a “Triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. The pitfalls of transhumanism derive not from the destination, but from how we get there. Bootstrapping our way out of the Darwinian abyss will be messy.

    By “pitfalls”, I’m not alluding to the risk of an Intelligence Explosion that misfires and turns us into paperclips, nor worries about the loss of procreative freedom that a post-aging world entails on pain of Malthusian catastrophe. Rather, becoming transhuman and ultimately posthuman entails editing our source code. This genetic rewrite of human nature won’t unfold under the tarnished label of eugenics, nor the untested banners of transhumanism and paradise engineering. Instead, as the reproductive revolution gathers pace, prospective parents will seek to create the happiest, healthiest, smartest, “best” babies – as they do today without the assistance of medical genetics. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling (PGS) will presumably precede the new era of germline editing. Yet even liberal eugenics is a continuum. China, for example, may favour genetic dirigisme over unrestricted parental freedom. Will the world’s first genetic superpower be Chinese or Israeli? Or will genetic uplift be truly global?

    My own focus is the biological-genetic basis of mood, hedonic range and pain-sensitivity. Superhappiness is technically the easiest of the three transhumanist “supers” to engineer – although initially, simply loading the genetic dice via PGS is more likely. In outline, we can already specify genetically how to program life based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss. You ask about the downside. At worst, genetic mood-enrichment carries the same risks as long-acting euphoriant drugs. At best, genetic mood-enrichment can make life innately sublime. Coding for superlongevity and, especially, superintelligence will be much more technically challenging than superhappiness, and no less of a socio-political minefield. Let’s here assume a future of merely partial cyborgisation rather than a mind uploading or full-blown AI replacement scenario. Unfortunately, any enhancement of biointelligence is challenging because – unlike mood and longevity – “intelligence” is a contested concept, neither well-defined nor well-understood. For instance, ratcheting up average global IQ – our primitive measure of “autistic” intelligence – to the level of today’s smartest Ashkenazi Jews and beyond would probably ratchet up AQ scores too, i.e. amplify a particular kind of cognitive style. Crudely, what is the optimal AQ for future civilisation: 4 or 40, a world of brilliant tender-minded hyper-empaths or brilliant Aspergerian hyper-systematisers? What kinds of neurodiversity – or a selective absence of neurodiversity – are socially and personally optimal, regardless of a civilisation’s hedonic range? Posthuman superintelligence may effortlessly switch cognitive styles as appropriate. In humans, gains in “autistic” problem-solving ability frequently come at the expense of social cognition on account of poorly understood neurological tradeoffs. Moreover, other dimensions of cognitive style should be considered too, not just AQ/IQ.

    I mentioned “cyborgisation”. Genetic-biological enhancement is only one part of the transhumanist vision. Some degree of cyborgisation of both human and nonhuman animals is inevitable, albeit under a prettier label. Implanted “narrow” superintelligence-on-neurochip will make us super-geniuses by dim contemporary lights of intellectual prowess. However, our legacy wetware can’t just be replaced in its entirety by smart digital prostheses without turning us into zombies. Whether universal zombification would be an upside or a downside depends on your ethical convictions. Mine are dark. For better or worse, such a zombie scenario is science-fiction. A zombie apocalypse isn’t going to happen, though I’d happily eat my words. Full-spectrum superintelligence will be supersentient. True, some futurists envisage digital immortality via“mind uploading” – and not for the purposes of curing consciousness. Universal destructive uploading would be a panacea. Yet no one knows how classical computers can solve the binding problem. In my view, sociologically and technically, digital sentience is a pipedream. Superintelligence will be our AI-augmented descendants.

    Another downside to transhumanism is thornier to discuss: transhumanists. We are as human as everyone else. To understand the transhumanist vision, it’s fun to imagine a glorious Triple S future, or perhaps glimpse post-Darwinian relationships in communing loved-up ravers in an MDMA-induced “cuddle puddle”. Post-Darwinian social life will be civilised, unlike the zero-sum status-games and dysfunctional pair-bonding of human primates. But arguably, just as relevant to understanding transhumanist politics is Franz de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes and even Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. Moreover, it’s not clear whether transhumanists should aspire to be smart angels. Saintly intelligence is premature. For only exceedingly cunning, resourceful, Machiavellian intelligence can win the battle for hearts and minds, seduce the rich and powerful, and lay the political foundations of a world where Machiavellianism is redundant. Alas, I’ve no detailed political roadmap how to reach transhuman civilisation – just a mix of pious sentiments and superficial generalities.

    If becoming transhuman and then posthuman is so fraught with risks, why do it?
    Transhumanists don’t speak with one voice here. For my part, I’m a transhumanist because rewriting our DNA is the only non-apocalyptic way to abolish suffering in all sentient beings. Darwinian life on Earth is genetically predisposed to suffer. The hedonic treadmill enslaves and diminishes us. Suffering is pointless and vile beyond description. In my view, all the cool stuff in post-Darwinian life will be icing on the cake – awesome, sexy, spectacular icing, no doubt, but a moral luxury.

  • What is wrong with the functionalist argument for consciousness? Why would modeling neurons in a classical computer not yield consciousness?
  • “I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines.”
    (Claude Shannon)
    Many people believe that classical digital computers will one day “wake up”. There are strong functionalist grounds for scepticism. In my view, classical digital computers will remain zombies.

    First, some background assumptions need unpacking. What are brains “for”? Perhaps the greatest computational achievement of animal nervous systems since the late preCambrian has been to run dynamical simulations of the external world (“perception”). When we’re awake, our world-simulations causally covary with fitness-relevant features of the local environment. Contrast the naïve realist idea that we are directly aware of our surroundings – a marvellously adaptive feat, for sure, but the same could be said of telepathy or precognition. Macroscopic world-making is massively adaptive; perceptual experience allows organisms with the capacity for rapid self-propelled motion to act intelligently in almost real time. Naturally, even inferential realists don’t go around talking about “my phenomenal world-simulation” – normally, at any rate (see e.g. The World In Your Head by Steve Lehar or Inner Presence by Antti Revonsuo). We typically think and act as though direct realism were true. Belief in perceptual direct realism is more-or-less hardwired, fitness-enhancing and delusional.

    So a question arises. How is this adaptive delusion physically possible? How do decohered, membrane-bound nerve cells, communicating across electrochemical synapses, generate the virtual macroscopic world you are now experiencing? Dreaming or awake, when you experience, e.g. a phenomenal cat in front of your phenomenal body-image, routine neuroscanning can pick out feature-processors in your CNS synchronously firing (edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons, and so forth). We can imagine replacing these distributed feature-mediating neurons and their connectome with functional surrogates made of silicon or gallium arsenide. As framed, the mystery doesn’t depend on substrate. Nor is the mystery solved simply by assuming panpsychism. Feel free to replace the 1s and 0s of a program run on a classical digital computer with discrete micro-pixels of experience; the binding problem still stands. Neuroscience reveals hints of a structural match between the CNS and the cat you experience. But no cat. So where in the physical universe is your phenomenal cat?

    One possible response to the seeming structural mismatch is to embrace “strong” emergence or dualism. If phenomenal binding is classically impossible, then unified cats just emerge when synchronous neuronal feature-detectors fire. Emergence is a brute fact about reality, not explicable in terms of anything more physically primitive. Likewise, if we model the synchronous firing of neurons in a classical digital computer or classically parallel connectionist system, then phenomenal cats will emerge too. And why not?! We can’t rule it out. Why shouldn’t phenomenally-bound perceptual objects and unified subjects of experience just “pop out” at different levels of computational abstraction in a digital computer, just as they pop out, apparently, from a pack of classical neurons firing? But that’s the point about strong emergence – if we believe it’s real, it’s a Pandora’s box. We can’t rule anything out if we live in a world where the high-level properties of information processing systems don’t supervene on the underlying physics. Irreducible strong emergence spells the end of physicalism and the unity of science.

    So where next? Opinions differ! I’m (cautiously) interested in a physicalist and functionalist alternative to dualism and strong emergence. Classical neurons in the awake/dreaming brain are an artifact of our clumsy, temporally coarse-grained tools of investigation. The quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument doesn’t involve any new principle of physics, e.g. a violation of unitarity like Orch-OR; and it isn't vulnerable to the decoherence timescales objection. I don’t know if the conjecture is true; but I’ve a fairly good idea of how next-generation interferometry can demonstrate it’s false.

    Yet what if it is false, i.e. what if phenomenal binding is neither quantum-theoretic nor classical? What if David Chalmers is right? Well, with difficulty, I can imagine post-materialist science, but not post-physicalist science. I don’t know whether this expresses a truth about reality or reflects my stunted human imagination.

  • To what degree do you consider theoretical physics a form of philosophy?
  • “To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher."
    (Pascal)
    Theoretical physics, at its core, is a form of philosophy. The discipline is steeped in metaphysical assumptions. Alas, this claim must be distinguished from the question of whether theoretical physicists could benefit from the insights of academic philosophers. Honourable exceptions aside, the answer is probably “no”. Few philosophers have the technical competence in mathematical physics usefully to contribute to the debates between theorists on everything from Bell’s inequality to the foundations of quantum mechanics to the multiverse(s) to M-theory. This doesn’t mean that the philosophical assumptions made by physicists are any less treacherous. See for example Adam Becker’s non-technical account of the debate between Copenhagenists, Bohmians and Everettians: What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics.

    One of the most valuable intellectual skills one can acquire is working out who the real experts are in a field outside one’s own and then – provisionally – deferring to their expertise. Titles, academic prestige, citations, peer-reviewed publication record (etc) are initial clues. But sometimes, the easy clues mislead; compare the sad story of psychiatric medicine. Nonetheless, in chemistry or the biosciences or experimental physics, the answer is usually soon obvious, although even here, the history of what smart humans find obvious ought to be sobering. What’s frustrating for the non-specialist about the last thirty years of post-empirical physics (cf. String Theory and the Scientific Method) is that it’s unclear to whose expertise one should defer. It’s not “obvious”.

  • Can a thought think of itself?
  • Yes, indexical thoughts like this particular thought are self-referential. But even prelinguistic and evolutionarily ancient experience such as phenomenal pain is self-referential, in a sense at least. Pain and pleasure are self-intimating. Philosophers like Frege used to decry the idea of “ownerless pains”. Yet in my view, a pain or a thought-episode needn’t be “owned” by anything but itself. Thus we could create experience in a test-tube, so to speak – blissful experience, I trust.

    Self-referential thought is one example of a feat beyond a classical digital computer or a classically parallel connectionist system. As with digitally impossible phenomenal binding, workarounds exist. Fake functional analogues of self-reference are programmable. Yet digital zombies can’t think about sentience, or contemplate their ignorance (cf. What is wrong with the functionalist argument for consciousness? Why would modeling neurons in a classical computer not yield consciousness?).

    How do biological thoughts think about themselves?
    Alas, science doesn’t know.

  • Do you think artificial intelligence will ever be conscious?
  • Boring disclaimer: no one knows.
    However, in my (very) tentative view…
    Classical digital computers and classically parallel connectionist systems will never be non-trivially conscious because they are incapable of phenomenal binding. They are effectively zombies (cf. What is wrong with the functionalist argument for consciousness? Why would modeling neurons in a classical computer not yield consciousness?).

    Centuries from now, artificially intelligent nonbiological quantum computers will be phenomenally-bound subjects of experience: minds. However, artificial quantum computers could occupy state-spaces of consciousness radically different from that of biological nervous systems. Their cognitive phenomenology may be unimaginably alien to Homo sapiens – far weirder than even the most exotic psychedelic drug trip today (cf. Could quantum computing cause sentience in AI?).

    Later this century and beyond, superhuman “cyborgs”, i.e. enhanced humans and transhumans with smart nonbiological neuroprostheses, will be conscious and perhaps supersentient. Our recursively self-improving descendants may boostrap their way to full-spectrum superintelligence. Yet insofar as their non-biological augmentation has a classical architecture, it will be phenomenally unbound, as now.

    Apologies for these cryptic remarks. True or false, they are amplified in the links. Casual readers should be alerted that my ideas on the quantum supremacy of biological minds are not mainstream in either neuroscience or AI.

  • Does consciousness exist or have our brains tricked us?
  • Rephrased, do brains exist or has our consciousness tricked us?
    Brains, as normally understood, are a perceptual artifact of biological minds. Our world-simulations deceive us. Naïve realism about perception induces a belief in wet lumps of neural porridge that secrete first-person experience and spawn the Hard Problem of consciousness. Naïve realism about perceptual consciousness induces belief in awake nervous systems made up of decohered classical neurons; hence the Binding Problem. Naïve realism about perceptual consciousness gives rise to the Measurement Problem in quantum mechanics, i.e. the supposedly non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement to yield definite classical outcomes.

    So is reality an illusion?
    Oh how I wish. The size of reality beggars the imagination. But egocentric world-simulations are mind-dependent, and don’t outlive their hosts.

  • What would Satan think of Transhumanism?
  • If the Bible’s portrayal of Satan is fair and accurate, then a commitment to the well-being of all sentience as set out in the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) is inconsistent with Satan’s core principles. Scope for compromise would seem limited. However, most transhumanists are secular rationalists, which might be more to Satan’s taste. As disbelievers in God, we risk an eternity of torment as his guests in Hell. In addition, the horrors of human history to date suggest that Satan would welcome the prospect of running “ancestor simulations”, a satanic idea best forgotten.

    Tellingly, however, there are some Christian transhumanists, but no Satanist transhumanists. Literally or figuratively, the kingdom of pain and suffering is Satan’s realm. Transhumanists believe in a peaceful superhappiness revolution. Paradise engineering via biotechnology can subvert the infernal regime of Darwinian life. Suffering can be abolished. Sinful and depraved human nature can be genetically cured. Creating Heaven-on-Earth poses a serious programming challenge. But satanic code can be purged from the biosphere.

    Sadly, Satan has a secret weapon, quantum mechanics. Not even God-like superintelligence can overthrow the universal Schrödinger equation and the evil it encodes.
    I hope I’m wrong, but fear Satan’s kingdom is secure.

  • Does particle physics rule out that photons are conscious as claimed by strong panpsychism?
  • “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
    (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
    No. However, like most rationalists, I find it intuitively self-evident that the mathematical machinery of QFT describes fields of insentience. The intrinsic nature of a quantum field is non-experiential. Intuitively, the unknown “psychon” of consciousness, i.e. the smallest physically possible unit of sentience, must be orders of magnitude larger than excitations of the world’s fundamental fields. Intuitively, too, the psychon must likewise be many orders of magnitude longer-lived and shorter-lived respectively than the shortest-lived and longest-lived particle excitations.

    So why do critics of materialism cast doubt on what is psychologically obvious if not scientifically proven? See, for example, “The Case For Panpsychism” by Phil Goff, or “Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?” by Galen Strawson.

    Alas, what materialists call, euphemistically, the Hard Problem of consciousness has no credible solution. All that a rationalist can do is explore testable conjectures that aren’t demonstrably false – as distinct from pre-reflectively crazy. Materialism fails the test of empirical adequacy. Science that isn’t empirically adequate isn’t really science: it’s metaphysics. Worse, it’s not even self-consistent metaphysics. By clinging to an ontology that is inconsistent with the empirical evidence, namely one’s mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs, materialist metaphysicians face the risk of becoming dogmatic and irrational, and at worst even cultish. Humans are not p-zombies. Or rather, first-person experience discloses that I am not a p-zombie and – more tentatively – the principle of mediocrity together with the uniformity of Nature suggests that sentience in biological robots is most likely the norm.

    So what about empirically adequate alternatives? Can we aspire to a theory of consciousness that is formally consistent with the crowning achievement of twentieth-century physics, the Standard Model: a theory of consciousness that is both realist and physicalist, but not materialist? Post-materialist science must also explain the causal efficacy of consciousness without violating physicalism, i.e. no irreducible “strong” emergence in Nature. Your question asks if photons are conscious. Panpsychism in the loose sense is worth distinguishing from non-materialist physicalism. According to panpsychism, consciousness is, somehow, inseparably attached to all the world’s fundamental physical fields. By contrast, according to non-materialist physicalism, there is no “attachment”: instead, the world’s fundamental fields are fields of subjective experience: it’s the essence of the physical. All and only the physical has causal efficacy. The diverse solutions to the equations of QFT encode the diverse values of subjective experience.

    Yes, it’s a desperately bizarre conjecture, at once realist, physicalist and idealist. What else motivates non-materialist physicalism, beyond our scientific ignorance of the mysterious “fire” in the equations? And is it testable?

    The intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism has two versions, one classical, the other quantum. Both versions of the argument propose that our minds reveal the intrinsic nature of the physical. Non-materialist physicalism turns Kant on his head, so to speak. Your phenomenal mind discloses one small part of the noumenal essence of the world. However, the classical version of the intrinsic nature argument trips and – as far as I can tell – founders on the phenomenal binding problem. I don’t see how the classical version can be rescued. For if physicalism is true, then it’s not subjectively like anything, collectively, to be a micro-experiential zombie of membrane-bound nerve cells, any more than it’s subjectively like anything to be an aggregate of 86 billion decohered neurons dreamlessly asleep nor – contra Eric Schwitzgebel (“If Materialism is true, the United States is Probably Conscious”), the population of the USA. By contrast, the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument is empirically adequate, as distinct from plausible.

    Historically, incredulity at the intrinsic nature argument has focused, overwhelmingly, on how any such conjecture makes the psychon absurdly small and simple – whether bosons or fermions, photons or electrons, makes no difference (cf. Electromagnetic theories of consciousness). It’s the reason most scientists still dismiss the conjecture out of hand. The quantum version of the intrinsic nature argument focuses on a no less preposterous implication. If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, as proposed, then the psychon must be absurdly short-lived.

    This absurdity is a disguised blessing. For sub-femtosecond quantum holism not only promises to dissolve the classically impossible binding problem, but also offers the missing ingredient that most pre-scientific theories of consciousness lack: experimental falsifiability. If quantum mechanics is complete, then at sufficiently fine-grained temporal resolutions, the CNS can’t be understood as a pack of decohered and discrete classical neurons, but rather as individual neuronal superpositions, sculpted by selection pressure of a ferocious intensity that defies the imagination. See e.g. John Campbell (“Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian Process”) on why Wojciech Zurek’s “Quantum Darwinism” isn’t some tricksy New Age metaphor to warm the heart of Deepak Chopra, but an apt description of what the decoherence program in unitary-only quantum physics entails.

    Has natural selection, in Darwin’s sense, been able to harness unrelenting selection pressure in Zurek’s? Can environmentally-induced decoherence be tamed? Molecular matter-wave interferometry should tell us. According to this conjecture, selection pressure more intense than three billion years of natural selection as conceived by Darwin plays out inside our skulls every second of our lives, creating the dynamically stable world-simulations that our skull-bound minds conceive as the external world (“perception”).

    Yet aren’t coherent neuronal superpositions just too short-lived to be fit for purpose?

    Intuitively again, yes. And maybe intuition is correct. But folk chronology is anthropocentric. Femtoseconds and attoseconds are unimaginably protracted timescales compared to the regime of Planck scale physics where the real drama of our lives unfolds. For sure, powerful intuition still says that the effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions means that they can’t be the vehicle to underpin the subjectively quasi-classical world-simulations run by our minds. Intuition hasn’t got us far on the Hard Problem to date.

    Is the intrinsic nature argument true?
    I don’t know. The same principle of mediocrity that suggests one is not the world’s only sentient being is a useful reminder that I most probably write as much educated nonsense on consciousness as everyone else. Therefore, I won’t start to believe – as distinct from entertain – non-materialist physicalism unless interferometry yields a truly novel confirmed prediction, i.e. what primitive neuroscanning calls feature-binding by synchrony is really neuronal superposition.

    Alternatives? What if interferometry doesn’t disclose a perfect structural match between our minds and the formalism of QFT, yielding instead just “noise”? What if phenomenal binding is indeed classically impossible too?
    Well, if so, then not just materialism but physicalism is false. Dualism is true.
    It’s an ugly dilemma.
    Of course, there are folks who say it’s a false dilemma: eliminativists. Anti-realists do at least grasp the seriousness of the problem posed by consciousness for materialism. But to quote Galen Strawson on first-person experience: The having is the knowing.
    If only the rest of scientific knowledge were so easy.

  • Do you think that Roger Penrose's Quantum Consciousness theory is correct?
  • “The brain is just a computer made of meat.”
    (Marvin Minsky)
    Any scientifically adequate theory of consciousness should offer novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions that proponents and critics alike can agree favour the conjecture over alternatives. The Penrose-Hameroff Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) conjecture is one of the exceptionally few theories of consciousness that satisfies this methodological criterion of good science. The “one graviton” level interferometry experiment that Roger Penrose proposes to (dis)confirm objective collapse is horrendously difficult, but it ought to be feasible this century. I’ve nothing useful to add here beyond “philosophical” scepticism that the superposition principle of QM ever breaks down. By contrast, Penrose believes that quantum mechanics must be modified because a realistic interpretation of the formalism entails Everett. Alas so.

    Aside from basic methodological adequacy, any scientifically satisfactory theory of consciousness should explain (1) the existence (2) phenomenal binding (3) causal efficacy (4) diverse palette of subjective experience. Penrose focuses on a more problematic requirement. A scientific theory of consciousness should explain (5) the allegedly non-computable ability of human mathematical minds to divine the truth of Gödel sentences (cf. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems). It’s not clear that the output of even a mathematical super-mind like Penrose couldn’t simply be modelled via a gigantic lookup table. If the world’s fundamental fields are non-experiential, i.e. if non-materialist physicalism is false, then we are no nearer to answering questions (1) to (4). As far as I can tell, Orch-OR doesn’t really explain why we aren’t p-zombies – even if a “dynamical collapse” conjecture is experimentally vindicated, leaving theoretical physicists in shock.

    Regardless of whether the human mind is algorithmically computable, I think it’s worth making a general point. Consciousness is very ancient. Pain, pleasure, emotion and perceptual experience date back at least to the late pre-Cambrian. Selection pressure in favour of mathematical prowess has been weak. Maybe if you are a perceptual direct realist and/or a world-class maths genius like Roger Penrose, then the key to the mysteries of consciousness will seem a late evolutionary innovation: mathematicians! In my view, a better candidate may turn out to be how natural selection solved the binding problem in the evolutionary environment of adaptedness (EEA).
    More crudely, what is consciousness “for”?

    Sorry for skating over the issues. I say a bit more in answer to: What do quantum physicists say about the microtubules quantum mind theories? As you’ve probably gathered, I’m sympathetic in principle to Orch-OR. Unitary-only quantum mechanics (“many worlds”) is terrifying. I just don’t see how dynamical collapse theories can be made to work.

  • Is there any scientific evidence for the existence of group consciousness?
  • Why do casinos fear card-counters and welcome psychics who read the Daily Mail? (cf. “Scientists claim humans have collective consciousness”) Various explanations spring to mind, but none involve a Borg-like transcendence of the skull. Perhaps collective consciousness may one day be technically feasible. Today, our minds are lonely island-universes.

    However, there’s a complication. If orthodox neuroscience is correct, then at least one kind of group consciousness is real. You aren’t just an aggregate of cellular mind-dust. Collective consciousness makes some groups fabulously successful, though still sometimes lonely.

    The same story is repeated in a thousand textbooks. Neuroscience tells us that individual neurons assemble into tightly-knit communities that communicate across chemical and electrical synapses. Many networks of neurons never exhibit group consciousness, for example the enteric nervous system (the “brain-in-the-gut”). No surprises there. However, central nervous systems and the cephalic ganglia of invertebrates are weirdly different. When an organism is dreamlessly asleep, the individual identity of membrane-bound neurons is conserved. No surprises there either. Yet each morning something unexplained happens. We “wake up”. Billions of neurons partially surrender their integrity and participate in a hive mind – for example, you as the unified subject of experience reading this sentence (cf. The Unity of Consciousness).

    How is such neuronal group consciousness feasible? Whatever happened to reductionism? If hive minds can irreducibly “emerge” inside skulls, then why can’t hive minds emerge elsewhere (“If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious”)?

    My view?
    A blend of orthodox physicalism and quantum woo(?), though with a greater debt to Hugh Everett than Deepak Chopra.

  • Can Quantum Mechanics explain how everything came to be?
  • Is reality explained by an unknown theory from which quantum mechanics can be derived? Or does the formalism of unitary-only quantum mechanics, if an oracle told us how to interpret it correctly, encode the explanation of absolutely everything – including why anything exists, biological life, consciousness, tripping on LSD, the taste of chocolate, the whole shebang?

    If I had to guess, then I’d answer the latter. Quantum mechanics without the ad hoc collapse postulate and subsuming gravity is formally complete. This response might seem to make physics sound more like Biblical exegesis than the hard-won triumph of the experimental method. Maybe so. Heaven knows. Sadly, I don't know any oracles.

  • Do physicists address the role of consciousness in quantum theory?
  • Before you first learned about Posner molecules (cf. A New Spin on the Quantum Brain), would you have considered the proposal that quantum coherence could persist in a warm environment like the brain for hours even worth testing? Before you read the Oxford study (cf. Migration via quantum mechanics), what credence would you have assigned the idea that robins use quantum entanglement to navigate? When psychologist Daniel Kahneman was asked what single cognitive bias he would eliminate if he had a magic wand, he replied: “Overconfidence”. Given the profound disagreements between theorists over the foundations of quantum mechanics, our mystification by the existence of subjective experience, and the classical impossibility of phenomenal binding, one might imagine humility would be the order of the day. As they say, hope springs eternal.

    Cognitive biases aside, the majority of physicists are dismissive of a crucial role for consciousness in QM because the successes of the decoherence program promise to sweep the measurement problem under the rug. Most quantum mind theories (e.g. Orch-OR) invoke consciousness in the alleged collapse of the wavefunction. If wavefunctions never really collapse, then most quantum mind theories can be thrown out of the window. Physicists are increasingly sceptical that experiment will ever detect a collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, although they are more comfortable talking about unitarity than Everett.

    My view? Bewilderment, at least for the most part. You’ll find my ideas on “Schrödinger's neurons” of interest only if you believe that phenomenal binding is classically impossible, leaving us with a stark choice between quantum-theoretic explanations of consciousness and dualism. I don't believe with any confidence that a “no collapse” quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument is true; I do think it’s worth falsifying.

  • Would you retain a degree of consciousness with both hemispheres removed?
  • Yes. Compare people born without cerebral hemispheres. Many children with hydranencephaly have a functioning cerebellum as well as a brainstem. The cerebellum has more nerve cells, over 60 billion, than both cerebral hemispheres combined. The cerebellum is traditionally associated with motor control. Yet this neglected brain structure also plays a role in episodic memory, language, fear and pleasure (cf. Neuroscientists Accidentally Discovered a Whole New Role For The Cerebellum).

    What if the cerebellum were surgically removed too? Again, perhaps compare severe hydranencephalics born with only a brainstem. Unsophisticated consciousness is present, and possibly more complex experience too (cf. Giant neurons in the brain may play similarly giant role in awareness and cognition). On the other hand, damage to one part of the pons, the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum, is associated with coma (cf. Harvard Scientists Think They've Pinpointed The Physical Source of Consciousness). Even here, caution is still needed before assuming insentience. People medically diagnosed as comatose may turn out to be conscious and, in rare cases, acutely self-conscious (cf. “Being in a Coma is Like One Long Lucid Dream”). By contrast, other coma patients are really are phenomenally unbound micro-experiential zombies, i.e. effectively non-conscious and unable to suffer. Hence the controlled and reversible coma we call general anaesthesia.

    One common source of confusion is the restrictive use of the term “conscious” to mean self-conscious, just as “sentient” is often misused to mean sapient. Absence or surgical removal of both cerebral hemispheres is not consistent with reflective self-awareness. Hydranencephalics aren’t sapient, but nor are they zombies or micro-experiential zombies. Just as humans are prone to underestimate the sentience and sapience of members of other races and species (cf. A Tiny Fish Just Passed a Classic Self-Awareness Test With a Mirror), likewise humans tend to underestimate the consciousness of sentient beings who are unable verbally to communicate. This failure can be ethically catastrophic in human and nonhuman animals alike.

    So to answer your question, if I lost both my hemispheres, then yes, I’d still be conscious, but I probably wouldn’t be able to write answers on Quora.
    One hemisphere?
    Perhaps.

  • What is a comprehensive list of ways in which reality may be distorted by perception?
  • “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”
    (William Blake)

    1. You don’t perceive the environment. There is no public world. Instead, your local environment partially selects your brain states, some of which are experienced as your external surroundings. Mind-independent reality is a speculative metaphysical inference, sadly a strong one, IMO. Contra William Blake (and Aldous Huxley), there are no see-though doors of perception in need of a good wash, just cranial prisons.

    2. Whether you are awake or dreaming, your world-simulation is populated by zombies. When you are awake, these zombies are the avatars of sentient beings, but the imposters loom larger than their hypothetical real-world counterparts.

    3. Your egocentric world-simulation resembles a grotesque cartoon. Within the cartoon, you are the hub of reality, the most important being in the universe, followed by your close genetic relatives, lovers, friends and allies. On theoretical grounds, you may wonder if this fitness-enhancing hallucination can be trusted. After all, trillions of other sentient beings apparently share an analogous illusion. In practice, the idea of your playing a humble role in the great scheme of things can be hard to take seriously, unless the hub of the universe is psychologically depressed. Wikipedia’s List of Messiah Claimants could be enlarged.

    4. Perceptual direct realism spawns a “magical” theory of reference. If direct realism is delusional, then what is the mysterious relationship between thought-episodes internal to your world-simulation and the external world? (cf. What is the current state of affairs in philosophy concerning the symbol grounding problem?)

    5. A realistic interpretation of the formalism of quantum physics confirms that not just the Lockean “secondary” properties of material objects are mind-dependent, but also their “primary” properties. Shades of Bishop Berkeley? ("Esse est percipi" – "to be is to be perceived") Kant? Not exactly, but classical physics and Copenhagen-style positivism alike are a false theory of reality.

    6. According to “no-collapse” quantum mechanics (Everett), you have no unique future, and no unique past. You are not the same person as your countless ancestral namesakes nor the countless folk who wake up tomorrow with an approximation of your memories (cf. Was Parfit correct about consciousness and how we're not the same person that we were when we were born?).

    7. You experience the illusion of embodiment. “In-the-body” hallucinations in biological minds pervade the animal kingdom. As out-of-body experiences on dissociative anaesthetics like ketamine reveal, physical bodies as normally conceived are cross-modally-matched illusions generated by the CNS. Or alternatively, dualism is true. Actually, not everyone has the chronic illusion of embodiment. People with negative autoscopy can stare into a virtual mirror in their phenomenal world-simulation and not see themselves. For evolutionary reasons, negative autoscopy is rare.

    8. You experience the illusion of four-dimensional space-time, not high-dimensional Hilbert space. This idea is more controversial. Hilbert space is a generalisation of ordinary Euclidian space to an intuitively huge number of dimensions – conventionally infinite, though the holographic entropy bound suggests the dimensionality of what naïve realists call the observable universe is finite. Quantum mechanics may be understood via the mathematical structure of Hilbert space. Typically, Hilbert space is treated instrumentally as a mere mathematical abstraction, even by Everettians. As David Wallace, a critic, puts it: “Very few people are willing to defend Hilbert-space realism in print.” In the interests of mental health, such self-censorship may be wise.

    9. Experienced psychonauts would echo William James, “…our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” Quite so. Our posthuman successors may regard everyday Darwinian consciousness as delusive in ways that transcend the expressive power of a human conceptual scheme.

    10. We do not understand reality. Any account of our misperceptions must pass over the unknown unknowns. I fear we’re missing not only details, but the key to the plot.

  • Do you accept that colors do not exist in the Universe (It is a creation of our mind's imaginations used to better perceive our surroundings)?
  • Phenomenal colours are physical, spatio-temporally located properties of the universe. Phenomenal colours are also mind-dependent. A tension between these two claims exists only if our minds are not physical, spatio-temporally located properties of the universe, i.e. if dualism is true.

    Let’s here assume dualism is false. Monistic physicalism is true. So why do some scientists and philosophers say that colours are unreal, or imply that colours have second-rate ontological status? (cf. Color (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) One paradoxical reason is the popularity of perceptual realism. Perceptual realists believe that our waking minds are directly acquainted with a classical macroscopic world of chairs, tables and laboratory equipment, etc. Physics and chemistry tell us that atoms and molecules aren’t coloured. So colour-fictionalists say that our minds must, by mechanisms unknown to science, project or “paint on” colours to material objects so that the world looks inherently colorful. On this story, we see the material world, not through a glass darkly, but falsely colorised. Fake colorization has been genetically adaptive. In the ancestral environment, the inability to colorize, achromatopsia, could be lethal.

    However, perceptual direct realism is not a viable theory of our relationship with the external world. Neither, more generally, is the conceptual framework of what we may call perceptualism. Perceptualism is the background assumption that awake biological minds directly or indirectly perceive gross patterns in their local environment. By contrast, according to the world-simulation model, our brains simulate fitness-relevant features of our surroundings, shaped in part by peripheral inputs. Peripheral nervous inputs partly select, but don’t create, the contents of our waking minds and the nearly real-time world-simulations we run. The existence of external reality is a theoretical inference to the best explanation. Our naïve perceptualism is a highly adaptive delusion: it’s more-or-less hardwired, linguistically universal and evolutionarily ancient. Unlike the world-simulationist paradigm, perceptualism leads to all kinds of scientific craziness – more seriously delusive than trippy colorization. For example, according to physicist perceptualists, human observers somehow “collapse the wavefunction”, i.e. the allegedly discontinuous, non-linear, non-unitary, non-local, indeterministic transformation of a state vector on measurement to yield a definite classical outcome. Behold, an animated cat! (cf. Schrödinger's cat - Wikipedia) In fairness, not all physicists buy into the magic of Copenhagen. Thus Everettians don’t believe that wavefunction collapse is real. Instead, decohered (“split”) quasi-classical branches proliferate like mad. Some of your namesakes perceive live cats, and others perceive dead cats, with a frequency or measure determined by the Born rule, which Everettians attempt to derive from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. However, Copenhagenists, Bohmians and Everettians alike tend to talk as though perceptual realism were true. Everettians differ in claiming that we perceive definite outcomes that aren’t unique.

    Yet how do our brains generate colour – and not just splodges of colour, but coloured objects within colourful world-simulations whose behaviour (when we aren’t dreaming) can be crudely described by a combination of folk psychology and classical physics? Note that the claim that our world-simulations seem classical is distinct from the claim that the vehicle of simulation is classical, i.e. our minds are mediated by a pack of decohered neurons.

    Alas, an explanation is elusive. Colour is often discussed in the context of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, the surface reflectance properties of physical objects, and so forth. Colourful experience has indeed been recruited by natural selection to play this “teleofunctional” role, enhancing our capacity to find food, choose mates and avoid being eaten. Or sometimes (rarely) to be eaten (cf. Leucochloridium paradoxum). However, as our colourful dreams attest (cf. Black and white TV generation have monochrome dreams), the existence of external objects, incident light on the retina, and inputs from the optic nerve (etc) is neither necessary nor sufficient for our neocortical experience of coloured objects. So the daytime functional role of phenomenal colour is a red herring in the hunt for its neurological basis. Neuroscanning and microelectrode studies reveal that specialised neurons in the ventral occipital lobe mediate colour experience. Dreaming or awake, when you see, say, a marmalade cat strolling in front of your body-image, neuroscanning can pick out colour-mediating neurons synchronously activated with neuronal motion-detectors, edge-detectors and so forth. But no cat. So what explains the partial structural mismatch? Here we have the phenomenal binding problem.

    The binding problem is intimately linked to the Hard Problem of consciousness. How can first-person subjective experience of colour be a physical property? After all, neither phenomenal colour nor any other kind of subjective experience can be derived from the fundamental properties of matter and energy as understood by chemists and physicists. The short answer is that science doesn’t know. All theorists can do is play around with conjectures – ideally, testable conjectures, though philosophical word-spinning is custom.

    My view? Here I’ll hotlink rather than recite the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. By contrast, if quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, as both common sense and materialist metaphysics suggest, then I’ve no idea how excitations of the world’s fundamental quantum fields could generate the diverse, causally effective and richly colourful world-simulations of our everyday experience. “Physics is imagination in a straitjacket”, physicist John Moffat observed. Unfortunately, the mathematical straitjacket often asphyxiates rather than invigorates the imagination. I don’t know whether non-materialist physicalism is true. The existence of colourful experience suggests that materialist physicalism is false. Either way, IMO science is still groping in the dark.

  • Are you a seeker of reality?
  • “The universe may
    be as great as they say.
    But it wouldn't be missed
    if it didn't exist.”
    (Piet Hein)
    No. Or at least only as a stepping-stone to blissful ignorance. What today passes as knowledge is a necessary evil. Reality is riddled with obscene suffering. The only non-apocalyptic way to prevent our malignant code from spreading is to understand the biological basis of misery and malaise, then genetically reprogram the biosphere to end it. So scientific knowledge of genetic malware and its pain-ridden vehicles is vital. Otherwise, the Darwinian horror-show will run indefinitely. However, one strand of the abolitionist project runs counter to the growth of knowledge. Radical abolitionism means ensuring that experience below hedonic zero is not just impossible, but inconceivable. The existence of Darwinian life, and perhaps Everettian hellworlds beyond redemption, may eventually be censored. Compare how today you don’t deserve to know what it’s like to be tortured in any shape or form. What’s wise for individuals may be wise for civilisation as a whole. Think only about suffering you can prevent or mitigate. Make sure that future life does likewise. Don’t give up prematurely; that’s the serious ethical risk. But then forget about the horrors like they were a bad dream. In other words, creating worldwide mental health will entail engineering a benign and selective lack of comprehension. Yes, our successors may be superintelligent, in a sense. They’ll be experts on the theory and practice of Heaven. Transhumans and posthumans will have a deep appreciation of life based on gradients of superhuman bliss – a realm of sublime knowledge of which human and nonhuman animals know nothing. Yet if posthumans have hardwired rose-tinted spectacles, so to speak, then their understanding of the hellish world that spawned them may be effectively zero. Perhaps they’ll delegate any wider cosmological responsibilities to zombie AI; I don’t know. Compare, say, your knowledge of the Dark Ages. Future ignorance of Darwinian life may be more profound.

  • Can artificial intelligence be used to develop artificial consciousness that is sentient, self-aware, sapient, etc.?
  • Experts differ. A functionalist case can be made that classical digital computers can never be sentient or self-aware. For they can’t solve the binding problem (cf. What is wrong with the functionalist argument for consciousness?). Could a programmable digital zombie be sapient? If we define sapience as having great wisdom or sound judgment, then “no”. If we define sapience as displaying great wisdom or sound judgment, then “yes”. But even a nominally superintelligent digital zombie has no understanding of whether e.g. converting the world into utilitronium (matter and energy optimised for pure bliss) is wiser than converting the world into dolorium (matter and energy optimised for pure pain). Digital zombies lack insight into what matters – or insight into why anything matters at all. Tomorrow’s classical digital zombies will behave in ways that are superhumanly clever, and also be invincibly ignorant. In short, beware of AI hype.

  • Why does the universe exist instead of nothingness?
  • “Every inch of earth and air contains the fundamental principles of the universe.”
    (James Lendall Basford, ‘Morality’, Sparks from the Philosopher's Stone, 1882)
    Principle or principles? One fundamental principle or 42? A solution that transcends the universe or lies within it? We don’t know. My best guess: reality is explained not by a whole bunch of reasons, nor by God (or the Devil), but instead by a single logico-physical principle, the superposition principle of quantum mechanics. Both the mind-independent world and your phenomenally-bound world-simulation express the fundamental mystery of existence and its solution. Reality is one big superposition with zero net information content – the default-condition from which any notional departure would stand in need of explanation (cf. Should anything actually exist?). Contrast the fanciful nonzero information that would be needed to specify one’s naïve conception of “nothingness”. By contrast, Everett’s multiverse = all physically possible descriptions = zero information. The properties of the empty set = mathematics = 0. The conserved constants (mass-energy, electric charge, etc) = 0. Entropy (assuming no-collapse QM) = 0. Informally expressed, “cat states” are the key to the universe.

    As it stands, this conjecture is somewhat implausible. How can the superposition principle of QM explain the existence of our information-rich universe and our information-rich phenomenal minds? How can the world-simulation run by your mind exemplify the superposition principle rather than its breakdown, i.e. the discontinuous collapse of the state vector on measurement to yield a definite outcome? After all, the very term “cat state” is a colloquial reminder that we (allegedly) never experience superpositions, just definite experimental results: the heart of the measurement problem. Somehow, our skull-bound biological minds extract information, whether an unambiguously live cat or a dead cat, or the unambiguously precise value of particle, say the spin-up value of an electron or its well-localised detection at the screen in a double-slit experiment. So yes, the superposition principle is central to QM, our best mathematical description of the physical world. Yet no less fundamental to science is empirical observation, the bedrock of scientific rationalism. Countless variants of the double-slit experiment (scaled-up to the macroworld via Schrödinger's cat and Wigner's friend, etc) just illustrate what might seem self-evident. Whether on a microscopic scale or a macroscopic scale, the existence of quantum superpositions can only be inferred, never observed. So, sure, if there were no observations, no measurements, and no outcomes, then an informationless zero ontology might be a viable explanation-space for why there was nothing rather than something. But experiments yield outcomes. There is something rather than nothing. So it’s not. Case closed.

    However, this dismissal of a zero ontology may be too quick. If you’re still reading, perhaps see: Why is there something rather than nothing?

  • How would David Pearce respond to the question and comments in this video?
  • (Name the trait)

    A morally serious question deserves a morally serious response. One can’t condemn Islam for being a violent religion while tucking into a steak. Pigs, cows and small children are of comparable sentience. They should be loved and cared for accordingly. Abusing small children or nonhuman animals to gratify one’s own appetites shouldn’t be socially acceptable. Civilisation will be impossible until factory-farms and slaughterhouses are outlawed. Industrialised animal abuse is the world’s worst form of severe and readily avoidable suffering (cf. The Antispeciesist Revolution). Life has some messy moral dilemmas. Choosing whether to help or harm sentient beings isn’t a moral dilemma; it’s just basic decency.

  • What feeling is the most hedonistic pleasure ever?
  • Pleasure science is still in its infancy. The upper bounds to pleasure are unknown. Even genetically unenhanced minds could be subjected to unprecedented extremes of well-being. For example, a cocktail of intravenous cocaine and heroin might be combined with a selective kappa opioid receptor antagonist to enhance the purity of bliss; kappa is the “nasty” opioid receptor. Nirvana? Maybe, though not necessarily enlightenment.

    Some people with euphoric mania report a rapturous pleasure more rewarding than any drug. Ecstatic epileptic seizures are also sublime, but such rapture doesn’t lend itself to verbalisation. Well-controlled trials comparing the intensity of ecstatic seizures with euphoric mania or speedballing on JDTic are lacking. Funding proposals are unlikely to be well-received in the current political climate, whether through moral seriousness or puritanical obscurantism (cf. Does Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’ argument refute hedonism?). Either way, designer-drug-fuelled hedonism, induced epileptic seizures, or the behavioural dyscontrol of unipolar euphoric mania are not a credible foundation of posthuman civilisation. Nor is intracranial self-stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system: wireheading. Intracranial self-stimulation induces a perpetual frenzy of desire in Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike – fun, but not a viable reproductive strategy. Wireheads don’t want to breed baby wireheads.

    So what does the future hold for the pain-pleasure axis: the empirical basis of (dis)value? The molecular signature of pure bliss will soon be deciphered; it’s been narrowed down to a cubic millimetre of the rat brain, and scaled up to a cubic centimetre in the human brain. The evils of psychological and physical pain can be conquered throughout the living world. The use of CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives can propagate superhappiness across the tree of life. Disvaluable experience can be genetically purged from the biosphere, though pitfalls abound (cf. Is genetic engineering (CRISPR, gene drives, etc) advanced enough to kill or save billions of people?). Understanding the intracellular consequences of mu-opioidergic activation of our puny hedonic hotspot in the posterior ventral pallidum may hold the key to the future of sentience within our cosmological horizon.

    For a start, the discovery of pure bliss should yield treatments for refractory depression and everyday malaise, together with clues to the genetic cross-species enhancement of hedonic range and hedonic set-points: the precursors of mature posthuman civilisation. Unlike satisfaction of our (often mutually inconsistent) preferences and desires, the substrates of bliss don’t need to be rationed. All sentient beings can benefit from a reprogrammed biosphere animated by gradients of well-being. The hedonistic imperative will be global.

    The molecular discovery of pure bliss should also illuminate the theoretical basis of utilitronium. Utilitronium is just another name for hedonium, the recipe for hedonism in its purest guise. Utilitronium, i.e. matter and energy optimised for pure bliss, is potentially hazardous to civilisation, though utilitronium could be used, non-apocalyptically, as the basis of posthuman reward circuitry. Alternatively, utilitronium might be harnessed with nanotech and AI to engineer the equivalent of a cosmic super-orgasm: a so-called utilitronium shockwave. Realistically, the bioconservative option is more sociologically credible, although classical utilitarian ethics dictates maximising the cosmic abundance of pure bliss. Uniform and indiscriminate euphoria – “hedonism” in the cruder sense – should be distinguished from the superhuman well-being of a civilisation based on information-sensitive gradients of well-being. The biggest challenges to genetically engineering a civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss are socio-political, and above all, status quo bias. Status quo bias cuts both ways. For instance, if we lived in a supercivilisation with a hedonic range of, say, +80 to +100 with average default hedonic set-points around +90, nobody would conceive of regressing to the ancestral horrors of the Darwinian era, with its hedonic range of, schematically, -10 to 0 to +10. Unfortunately, a hedonic +80 to +100 supercivilisation is beyond the imagination of emotional primitives trapped in the squalor of Darwinian life. What are the risks of paradise engineering?

    If, for whatever reason, intelligent moral agents don’t want to engineer a utilitronium shockwave, but just build a transhuman world of gradients of intelligent well-being, then perhaps the biggest technical challenges don’t lie in mass-manufacturing raw bliss, but rather in preserving lifelong informational-sensitivity to good and bad stimuli. What hedonic range is societally optimal? As a civilisation, should we prudently aspire to blissful serenity or to hypermotivation? In other words, the biggest technical challenges ahead lie in creating a hedonic range and hedonic set-points that surpass Darwinism life without inducing indiscriminate euphoria – though I can think of worse fates.

  • Are you a dualist or a physicalist? Why?
  • “You may think I'm small, but I have a universe inside my mind.”
    (Yoko Ono)
    Tentatively, a physicalist. Only the physical is real. Only the physical is causally effective. Reality is completely described by the equations of mathematical physics and their solutions. Today’s relativistic quantum field theory is just a low-energy approximation of a final theory subsuming gravity.

    Naturally, a true theory of everything must explain consciousness. Otherwise, monistic physicalism is false. All one can ever access directly are the contents of one’s own mind, i.e. the empirical evidence. How can the properties of one’s experience be rigorously derived via molecular biology and quantum chemistry from the underlying physics? Handwaving about “complexity” is out.

    In my view, the prospects of a successful derivation turn on the reference of “physical”. Typical definitions of the physical assume perceptual direct realism. Hence the distinction between a supposedly observable macro-world and an unobservable micro-world. Naïve definitions invoke familiar material objects, classical laboratory equipment, biological nervous systems, and the allegedly shared macroscopic world of everyday life: the “observable” world. Indeed, physicists like to speak of “observables”.

    However, perceptual direct realism is misconceived (cf. What is a comprehensive list of ways in which reality may be distorted by perception?). The physical world, as naively misunderstood, is mind-dependent, phenomenal and autobiographical because our virtual worlds are mind-dependent, phenomenal and autobiographical. This perspective sounds solipsistic rather than scientific. It’s not. The multiverse revealed by modern physics vastly transcends our tiny egocentric minds and the subjectively huge world-simulations we run. However, only a world-simulation model of mind and an inferential realist account of perception are consistent with neuroscience and a realistic interpretation of the formalism of our best theory of reality, namely unitary-only quantum mechanics. Accordingly, the reference of “physical” is whatever the fundamental equations of physics describe: quantum fields and perhaps (ultimately) superstrings or branes. The equations of physics – essentially, a relativistic generalisation of the universal Schrödinger equation – exhaustively capture the structural-relational properties of matter and energy, both inside and outside the skull. Such experimentally well-tested success underpins human technological civilisation. Yet the essential nature of the physical – the elusive “fire” in the equations – is a mystery. The formalism of quantum field theory is silent. Fields of what exactly? What is the intrinsic nature of a quantum state? Our minds are organisationally unusual, no doubt, but are they ontologically special – or are our minds made up of exactly the same “stuff” as the rest of reality?

    One popular philosophical conjecture is that the formalism of QFT describes fields of insentience. On this story, fields of insentience mysteriously give rise to sentience in biological nervous systems, but the intrinsic nature of the physical is non-experiential. Intuitively, it’s not subjectively like anything to be a fermionic or bosonic field. We may call this conjecture “materialist” physicalism.

    The biggest challenge for materialist physicalism is explaining subjective experience. One’s mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs are irreducible to the properties of insentient fields. Can a true theory really undermine its own evidential base? Materialist philosophers and philosophically-inclined scientists habitually fall back on euphemisms here to gloss over the failure at the heart of a materialist ideology. So we read about the “Hard Problem” of consciousness, the “Explanatory Gap”, and so forth. Consciousness is “poorly understood” (etc). Indeed. But materialist physicalism is falsified by the existence of first-person experience. And if we recognise that perceptual naïve realism is ill-conceived, then first-person experience is the only empirical evidence at our disposal. Hence the spectre of dualism.

    The non-dualist scientific alternative to materialism is non-materialist physicalism. Non-materialist physicalism is often lumped together with property-dualist panpsychism. But non-materialist physicalism is completely monistic. The world has only one kind of “stuff”. On this account, subjectivity isn't intimately associated with the physical. Rather, subjectivity is the physical, the intrinsic nature of the world’s quantum fields as formally captured by the Standard Model of physics. Kant’s allegedly unknowable essence of the world is precisely what the formalism of QFT (or perhaps M-theory) describes. Its essential nature is no different inside or outside a biological nervous system. Non-materialist physicalism is consistent with a realistic interpretation of the mathematical apparatus of modern physics and with the empirical evidence disclosed by the phenomenal world-simulation run by one’s mind. Indeed, unlike materialism, non-materialist physicalism is empirically consistent with everything from the existence of first-person facts and the diversity of subjective experience to the causal efficacy of consciousness – with one puzzling exception.

    The anomaly is phenomenal binding. The consensus of the scientific community is that neurons must be treated as decohered classical objects, at least on the time-scale intuitively relevant to our consciousness. Thus what decoherence theorist Wojciech Zurek christened “quantum Darwinism” supposedly explains the emergence of (1) quasi-classical Everett branches from quantum bedrock in the mind-independent world and (2) our perceptual experience of quasi-classicality to track those branches via dynamically stable quasi-classical neurons that emerge from quantum bedrock in emergent skulls. Note that “emergent” here is intended in the weak and philosophically inoffensive sense of dynamically stable macro-patterns, not irreducible strong emergence. If this story is correct, then the synchronous firing of distributed neuronal feature-processors in an allegedly decohered CNS somehow mediates one’s experience of phenomenally-bound perceptual objects. These perceptual objects populate our phenomenally unified world-simulations. Our world-simulations crudely track rapidly decohering Everett branches of the universal wavefunction (cf. The relative state interpretation of QM). Yet how is this phenomenal unity physically feasible? Phenomenal binding of classical neuronal feature-processors would be impossible; no amount of selection pressure can build a unified virtual world out of Jamesian “mind-dust”. Classical neuroscience is a recipe for micro-experiential zombies. But quantum holistic explanations of phenomenal binding are often dismissed a priori on account of credible decoherence timescales. Environmentally-induced decoherence is intuitively too strong in the warm, wet brain for individual neuronal superpositions to mediate our unified minds. So if both classical and quantum accounts of phenomenal binding are impossible, then materialist physicalism and non-materialist physicalism alike must be ruled out too. Dualism seems inescapable. The partial “structural mismatch” (which confounds David Chalmers) is unbridgeable.

    Or is it?
    My somewhat shaky faith is that dualism is false. Monistic physicalism is true. The structural match between subjective experience and the formalism of physics is perfect; the match is disguised by a false theory perception and the misconception that quantum superpositions are never experienced, only theoretically inferred. I explore a non-classical explanation of phenomenal binding: the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. The vehicle of our minds is quantum, i.e. sub-femtosecond coherent neuronal superpositions as entailed by unitary-only QM, but the subjective content of our minds, i.e. our macroscopic world-simulations, is quasi-classical. This explanation of phenomenal binding works only if there are fields of primordial experience to bind, i.e. if non-materialist physicalism is true.

    For the (IMO untenable) classical version of the intrinsic nature argument, see e.g. Galen Strawson or Phil Goff.

    It’s an implausible yarn, for sure; but it’s not unmotivated. The payoff? Non-materialist physicalism explains the existence, binding, diversity and causal efficacy of our conscious minds while retaining the Standard Model of physics, and hence the ontological unity of science. Critically, non-materialist physicalism yields novel, precise, and empirically testable predictions about the temporally fine-grained microstructure of the CNS that can be falsified – or spectacularly vindicated – by tomorrow’s molecular matter-wave interferometry. If phenomenal binding by synchrony is really binding by neuronal superposition, then the non-classical interference signature will tell us.

    Non-materialist physicalism is also intuitively crazy. All the options are crazy.
    Is it true?
    I don’t know.

  • Why do some people think that philosophy is pointless?
  • Laypeople and scientists alike often scorn philosophy – and philosophers. Some reasons for the scorn are good, some bad. But perhaps the most common reason for dismissing the discipline of philosophy is also the most insidious. All of us are riddled with philosophical presuppositions and background assumptions. Some of our deepest philosophical assumptions may not be explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme. The very concept of an “observation” is theory-laden. So the upshot of not doing philosophy isn’t to transcend it, but to give bad philosophical ideas a free pass (cf. What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?).

    In an ideal world, philosophers would also be steeped in science, not least in the technicalia of physics and, especially, post-Everett quantum mechanics. Alas, this isn’t always the case. Much of academic metaphysics, for instance, doesn’t go beyond the products of what Ladyman and Ross (cf. “Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised”) unkindly call “the philosophy of A-level chemistry”.

    Typically, however, both analytic philosophers and professional scientists are innocent of the most revolutionary extension of the experimental method. The late, great Sasha Shulgin (cf. "PiHKAL: Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved”) has yet to find a worthy successor. For better or worse, the drug-naïve have no inkling of their ignorance. Psychedelia is indescribably, inconceivably strange from the perspective of ordinary waking consciousness. Philosophers and scientists alike need to expand their evidential base.

    Whether philosophical or scientific, how much of what twenty-first century human thinkers call “knowledge” will stand the test of time? I don’t know. The mathematical formalism of QFT will endure, yes, but what of its interpretation? Perhaps tomorrow’s practitioners of a post-Galilean science of consiousness will reckon what now passes for scientific knowledge and philosophical wisdom was just arid scholasticism: the state-specific product of a single state-space of Darwinian consciousness. Sadly, much-hyped “artificial intelligence” probably won’t cure our ignorance. Today’s drug-naïve sleepwalkers will not be enlightened by zombie AI. For classical digital computers are insentient idiots savants. Instead, our transhuman and posthuman successors will be our genetically-rewritten descendants: full-spectrum superintelligence. And that will be fun!

  • What evidence exists that quantum effects have a nontrivial impact on brain function?
  • What is consciousness “for”?
    Perhaps the best evidence that you are a quantum supercomputer running a classical world-simulation lies under your virtual nose. Unless dreamlessly asleep, you are not 86 billion membrane-bound, decohered, classical “pixels” of experience, but rather a unified subject of experience, supporting local and global phenomenal binding. Binding cannot be explained by classical physics. What philosophers such as David Chalmers treat as evidence for dualism is actually evidence for the ubiquity of the superposition principle of quantum mechanics.

    Some serious researchers have (briefly) wondered whether two classically inexplicable properties might be related, i.e. quantum holism and the phenomenal holism of our minds. For superpositions are individual states. If the effective lifetime of superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the CNS were milliseconds, then neuronal superpositions would be the obvious candidate for a perfect structural match between the phenomenal unity of our world-simulations and the formalism of “no collapse” quantum physics: an elegant solution to the binding problem.

    Such timescales are fanciful. The brain is too hot. Calculations of neural decoherence rates suggest a disparity between human folk chronology of consciousness and the lifetime of neuronal superpositions in excess of a dozen orders of magnitude. Neuronal superpositions can last femtoseconds or less. Environmentally-induced decoherence in biological brains is brutally fast and efficient. So ask a professional physicist whether the evidence for quantum mind might be staring us in the face, so to speak, and you’ll risk a derisive snort.

    Fortunately, neuroscience advances not by snorts, but by experiment. The quantum-theoretic version the intrinsic nature argument is not just an idle philosophical opinion: classical synchrony or coherent superposition? It’s a testable conjecture about phenomenal binding yielding novel predictions that will be confirmed or refuted by molecular matter-wave interferometry.

    A couple of points are worth bearing in mind. Discovering the non-classical interference signature of a perfect structural match would certainly be novel – critics would say utterly preposterous – but what’s not novel are:

    (1) the prediction that interferometry will detect the interference signature of neuronal superpositions, mere fleeting functionless noise or an exact structural match. Neuronal superpositions (“cat states”) must exist on pain of a failure of the unitary dynamics, whether we calculate their effective lifetime is picoseconds, femtoseconds, or attoseconds. The Schrödinger equation is linear, so any linear combination of solutions will also be a solution. A critic can attempt to rule out the existence of neuronal superpositions by modifying the unitary dynamics of QM, i.e. a “dynamical collapse” theory. This option is not just new neuroscience, but new physics (cf. Orch-OR). Strong theoretical arguments can be made for conservatism.

    (2) the selection mechanism of what decoherence-program poineer Wojciech Zurek christened “quantum Darwinism”.

    Has Nature has been smart enough to exploit selection pressure in both Darwin’s and Zurek’s sense to generate the improbable movie of everyday life, i.e. the macroscopic world-simulation run by your mind? Is waking life Nature’s version of a quantum suicide experiment?
    I don’t know, but let’s put our philosophical intuitions to experimental test.

  • Why does anything exist? It makes no sense. Shouldn't there be nothing?
  • Yes, it’s baffling. I’m mystified. However, we have tantalising clues. Physics is often supposed to deal just with “how” questions. The “why” questions, not least the fundamental mystery of why anything exists at all, are normally reckoned the province of metaphysicians or theologians – either unanswerable or cognitively meaningless. However, maybe physics – more specifically our best description of the natural world, quantum mechanics – doesn't just capture how the world works. Post-Everett quantum mechanics also hints at the ultimate “why”.

    For what exactly would inexistence, including no information, entail? I explore the conjecture that the information content of reality = 0: a timeless zero ontology. Zero information = a superposition of all possible descriptions = Everett’s multiverse. See e.g. Why does the universe exist instead of nothingness? Or Why is there something rather than nothing?

    Here, I won’t add anything other than stressing my formal conservatism – at least in physics. For sure, many researchers would say the inference that our conscious minds and their subjectively classical world-simulations exemplify the superposition principle of QM rather than its breakdown is too absurd to need experimental falsification. The effective lifetime of neuronal superpositions can at most be femtoseconds. Likewise, the assumption that Everett plus the decoherence program allows us to dispense with the collapse postulate and derive the Born rule would be disputed by Copenhagenists, Bohmians and “dynamical collapse” theorists. Yet given the primitive state of neuroscanning and molecular matter-wave interferometry, these are still “philosophical” objections. There are countless ways that a zero ontology could (and maybe will) be empirically falsified. Ethically, thinking about a zero ontology drives me to despair. Yet my working hypothesis is that we’re living in the quantum Library of Babel.

  • Is what we perceive as reality objective realm or just a subjective construct of our minds?
  • The term “perception” is systematically misleading. The existence of, say, your extra-cranial body is as much a theoretical inference as the Higgs boson. “Real-time world-simulation” is more apt, though our lives play out via egocentric cartoons rather than scientific models. Philosophical debates over the status of, say, phenomenal colour illustrate that we are still trapped in the conceptual framework of perceptual direct realism. Grass really is green, typically at any rate. But this is because the lawn you experience in front of your virtual body-image is a subjective construct of your neocortex.

    Inferential realism about the external world is often confused with scepticism, solipsism or Berkeleyan idealism.

  • If conciousness has no evolutionary advantage, doesn't that imply that it is an emergent property?
  • Is consciousness a spandrel? Many AI researchers believe that an insentient classical Turing machine could carry out any computation that could be performed by sentient beings (cf. the Church–Turing thesis). So the “raw feels” of experience are functionally inessential – a mere implementation detail of biological robots.

    If first-person subjective experience has no evolutionary advantage, then consciousness might still be fundamental to the world: the “fire” in the equations of our best mathematical description of the world, quantum mechanics. The intrinsic nature of the physical is an unresolved question. What is a quantum state? Intuitively, consciousness is more likely to be “emergent”, a late evolutionary novelty rather than the intrinsic nature of a quantum field. But emergence without a mechanism is magic, not science.

    Yet are leading AI researchers right to believe that consciousness is incidental to genetic fitness? Set aside debate over materialist versus non-materialist physicalism. Why suppose that consciousness in all its guises is functionally redundant? Critically, your ability to bind distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects populating a unified world-simulation is extraordinarily adaptive. While dreamlessly asleep, your zombie brain is doubtless a fabulously complex information-processing system. But episodes of waking consciousness and virtual world-making have computational-functional advantages that zombies lack.

  • What is it for a mental state to be ‘about’ something?
  • "I seem to have run in a great circle, and met myself again on the starting line."
    (Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit)
    It’s a mystery. The fancy philosophical term for the aboutness or object-directedness of thought is “intentionality”. Intentionality may be divided into intrinsic and extrinsic intentionality, aka “narrow” content and “broad” content. Neither is scientifically understood, nor the relationship between them. Let’s grant scientific naturalism. How can one physical state of the world have the subjective property of object-directedness? And no less odd, how can one physical state, whether mental or non-mental, whether subjectively object-directed or otherwise, be “about” a different physical state?

    A chronic source of confusion in discussions of aboutness is perceptual direct realism. On a perceptual direct realist story, our thought-episodes are, somehow, directed at a shared, publicly accessible world with which we are all, somehow, collectively presented. Thus Quine’s bold semantic anti-realism, for instance, is defanged by his implicit perceptual realism. Yet only inferential realism about mind-independent reality is scientifically viable. Unless dreamlessly asleep, we all run skull-bound phenomenal world-simulations. Your prefrontal cortex thinks about events in your visual cortex, albeit under another description. World-simulationism raises familiar sceptical worries about the external world. But more troubling than epistemological doubts is the mind’s semantic predicament. For both scepticism and belief in the external world assume semantic realism. The existence and properties of external reality may be treated as a cognitively meaningful research-topic. Yet if, on pain of magic, one physical state of the world cannot literally be “about” a different physical state, and if perceptual direct realism is scientifically indefensible, then how can semantic solipsism avoid degenerating into an intellectually and ethically frivolous solipsism?

    Intrinsic intentionality (narrow content) is phenomenal. You can be thinking about unicorns, or a cup of coffee, or mathematical abstractions, or the sunset in your world-simulation (etc) with or without any counterpart to your thought-episodes or perceptual experiences in the mind-independent world. Dreaming brains, drug-intoxicated brains, Boltzmann brains, and brains-in-vats (etc) have intrinsic intentionality no less than their awake, drug-naïve, naturally evolved and embodied cousins. The subtle phenomenology of our thought-episodes has received less scholarly attention than the logico-linguistic properties of rational thought, notably its compositionality and systematicity. Yet on standard materialist assumptions, i.e. quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, our cognitive experiences are just as inexplicable as non-cognitive experiences. Neither cognitive nor non-cognitive consciousness should be possible if physicists and chemists really understood quantum states of matter and energy. The Hard Problem of consciousness is unanswerable as posed. Hence the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism: the equations of physics exhaustively describe the world, but the ontology of materialism is a degenerating research program that cannot be reconciled with the empirical evidence. The implications of this failure are stark. Unless dualism is true, quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Either way, irrespective of whether materialism or non-materialist physicalism is correct, no necessary semantic nor perceptual connection holds between states of phenomenal “aboutness” and states of the external environment. Intrinsically intentional states are just an subjective property of some arrangements of organic matter. Natural selection has harnessed a small minority of such subjectively intentional states in biological nervous systems. So our waking world-simulations tend to track, or causally covary with, fitness-relevant features of the otherwise unknown extra-cranial environment. But despite the tendentious label, "intrinsically intentional” states aren't intrinsically about anything external to themselves, despite their phenomenal object-directness. We may infer that peripheral nervous inputs from the external world partly select the contents of awake biological minds and the world-simulations we run, but peripheral nervous inputs don’t create content. So everyday life is not a collective hallucination, but rather a partial congruence of personal hallucinations.

    This analysis is controversial. Some philosophers contest the idea that minds are skull-bound. Well-regarded AI researchers such as perceptual direct realist Andy Clark like to speak, misleadingly in my view, of embodied cognition and the extended mind – semantics on the cheap, so to speak (cf. "The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark"). Your iPhone, for instance, is allegedly part of your extended self. For sure, such idiom is metaphorically suggestive. Yet the phenomenal device grasped by your virtual body-image within your world-simulation is still internal to your phenomenal mind. Contrast the hypothetical, theoretically-inferred physical iPhone physically grasped by your hypothetical, theoretically-inferred extra-cranial body in the wider world. Perceptual realists invariably miss the most astonishing computational-functional feat of organic robots over the past half-billion years, namely the ability of our biological minds to run nearly real-time world-simulations of the local environment (“perception”). Our pseudo-public virtual worlds presumably do at least partially match, despite their differing protagonists. If our pseudo-public virtual worlds didn't partially correspond, then learning a pseudo-public language would be impossible. But Nature’s version of immersive VR means that we are (almost) all condemned to live in a world of our own. The challenge for skull-bound minds is escaping semantic solipsism too.

    Extrinsic intentionality (broad content) is non-phenomenal. “Meaning just ain’t in the head,” claimed externalist philosopher Hilary Putman, a leading proponent of the causal theory of reference. Extrinsic aboutness is no less scientifically mysterious than subjective intrinsic aboutness. If extrinsic intentionality is real, then you don’t think about merely the contents of your private world-simulation. When awake, you may also think “about” the non-mental external world, populated by other skull-bound subjects of experience running egocentric world-simulations of their own. Or rather, if you are a sophisticated inferential realist about perception, then you sometimes think about the theoretically-inferred external universe as well as your own little bubble of perceptual experience masquerading as the real world. By contrast, perceptual naïve realists and non-human animals think about the contents of their skull-bound world-simulations under the misapprehension that they are thinking about wider reality. As a byproduct of such delusions, civilisation is born.

    Is this provocative semantic distinction between scientifically-informed inferential realists and perceptual naïve realists a sustainable dichotomy? How is it possible for scientific sophisticates to think “about”, say, the Big Bang, or other Hubble volumes, or superstrings, or their extra-cranial physical bodies in the local environment, and other theoretical exotica outside their world-simulations? In other words, how can your mental states ever be about non-mental states? Can some sort of hybrid descriptive-causal theory of reference be made to work? Admittedly, modern humans are blessed with cognitive resources that extend beyond natural language. We also wield (with varying prowess) “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” – a topic that deserves a treatise of its own. But a naturalistic explanation of semantic content is elusive.

    Computers and AI. What of intentionality in nonbiological robots? Controversially, classical digital computers lack intrinsic phenomenal intentionality because classical computers can’t solve the phenomenal binding problem. “Aboutness” in digital zombies is fake. Inspecting the source code of programmable digital computers reveals bits and bytes most naturally and systematically interpretable as transparent and projectable representations that permit the functional analogues of extrinsic intentionality. Hence the growth of symbolic AI. Likewise, classically parallel connectionist systems lack phenomenally-bound consciousness. Thus they lack intrinsic intentionality too. Inspecting the innards of sub-symbolic connectionist information-processors reveals distributed feature-processors rather than the transparent and projectable representations of symbolic AI. Distributed feature-processing allows the functional analogues of extrinsic intentionality in connectionist systems. But zombie “aboutness” in symbolic AI and connectionist systems alike is doubly spurious, despite the outperformance of humans by digital computers in ever more domains of cognitive expertise. Anthropomorphism rules. We adopt the intentional stance towards biological and nonbiological robots alike.

    Post-Everett semantics. Alas, I’ve still only scratched the surface of your question. For instance, what is the nature of extrinsic intentionality in a quantum multiverse of decohering Everett branches (“Many Worlds”)? Traditional stories of semantic meaning and reference assume the truth of classical physics, or at least pre-Everettian quantum mechanics. The collapse postulate of traditional QM is a useful fiction for one’s health and sanity. Alas, Copenhagen-style positivism is impossible to reconcile with the unitary evolution of the universal wavefunction. For more on post-Everett semantics, see David Wallace, The Emergent Multiverse (2012).

    Semantic solipsism. I’ll conclude on a more personal note. A lot of my ancestral namesakes were deeply disturbed by the Lucid Dreamworlds fable outlined in answer to: What is the current state of affairs in philosophy concerning the symbol grounding problem? The fable is set in a notional world where intrinsic intentionality in biological minds is real, but extrinsic intentionality is fake, a mere byproduct of solipsistic dreamworld dramas. An obvious question then arises. Are purportedly naturalistic accounts of meaning self-subverting? Or stripped of incidentals, does the Lucid Dreamworlds fable capture the human predicament? If the fable is indeed apt, then life is terribly lonely. I sometimes look forward to senility: a second childhood lived as a perceptual naïve realist with a magical theory of reference (cf. Are you a seeker of reality?).

  • Why have so many brilliant minds (e.g., Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Einstein) fallen for determinism?
  • “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
    (Schopenhauer)
    Modern physics suggests that Einstein was right, figuratively at any rate: God does not play dice. The Schrödinger equation is linear and deterministic. Timeless reality is formally described by a relativistic generalisation of the universal Schrödinger equation. Most theoretical physicists have quietly retired the ad hoc collapse postulate – although one wonders how many theorists agree with Stephen Hawking that Everettian quantum mechanics is “trivially true”. Either way, the decoherence program pioneered by Zeh, Zurek et al. explains the indeterministic appearance of wavefunction collapse without invoking a non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement to yield a unique classical outcome. Determinism, locality and realism are conserved, albeit at the price of our sanity.

    What about deterministic alternatives to Everettian QM that likewise don’t violate local realism? (cf. Bell's Theorem). Locally realistic theories are extraordinarily hard to construct. Perhaps see Gerard ’t Hooft’s The Cellular Automaton Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, 2016 (cf. Gerard ’t Hooft on the future of quantum mechanics). Such theories entail so-called superdeterminism. Self-avowed anti-realist Luboš Motl gives a trenchant critique of ’t Hooft’s project. For what it’s worth, I take seriously Lev Vaidman’s combination of Everett with the causally time-symmetric two-state vector formalism (TSVF). This isn’t the place for a treatise on the foundations of quantum mechanics, but a convergence of evidence suggests that free will is just a genetically adaptive illusion.

    Determinism should be distinguished from predictability. We now know that even effectively classical systems can behave in ways that defeat the predictive powers of God-like superintelligence (cf. Chaos theory). Predicting the behaviour of quantum-mechanical systems raises problems of an entirely different order from deterministic chaos. Thus when you open the chamber of an infernal device (cf. Schrödinger's cat), some of your googols of successors and namesakes will find themselves in effectively decohered (“split”) Everett branches enjoying the company of a live cat; others will mourn a dead cat (cf. the Born rule). A small minority of your successors and namesakes will experience intuitively crazy or surreal outcomes inexpressible in natural language. However, if quantum mechanics is complete, there is not, even in principle, any way to predict with certainty which kind of Everett branch “you” will experience in the wake of such a dastardly experiment. Alternatively (and this would be my preferred formulation), the pre-scientific notion of enduring metaphysical egos must be retired along with the collapse postulate.

    Could the above analysis is be mistaken?
    I certainly hope so.

  • What does David Pearce think of the intelligence explosion theory?
  • “…the scenario makes about as much sense as the worry that since jet planes have surpassed the flying ability of eagles, someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle…”
    (Steven Pinker, ‘Enlightenment Now’ (2018))
    Is humanity doomed? Could a combination of Moore’s law and recursively self-improving software-based AI lead to a runaway Intelligence Explosion that turns us into the equivalent of paperclips? If seed AI is endowed with a more plausible utility function, i.e. classical utilitarianism, might newly-emergent digital superintelligence proceed to optimise matter and energy by converting the world into utilitronium – not an outcome its architects necessarily had in mind?

    I hope so, but I’m sceptical of such scenarios. Virulent self-replicating malware such as Darwinian life is prone to extreme status quo bias. Humans are tenacious. We aren’t going to cede control over our destiny to digital zombies: idiots savants masquerading as superintelligence. Full-spectrum superintelligence won’t be zombie AI, but our genetically rewritten biological descendants. Perhaps see The Biointelligence Explosion or Supersentience.

    Any serious analysis of the future of intelligence must explore what consciousness is “for” in biological robots. Can this role be functionally replicated in silico? In my view, classical digital computers and classically parallel connectionist systems are incapable of local or global phenomenal binding. Binding isn’t a mere implementation detail of computation in biological nervous systems, as relevant to the output of our minds as whether the tape of a classical Turing machine is organic or silicon-based. Non-psychotic binding is insanely adaptive. The inability of classical computers to solve the binding problem means that digital zombies are never going to “wake up” and become unitary self-reflective subjects of experience. Thus e.g. “Deep Blue 10” will never wonder if there are better things to do in life than play chess. Conversely, “Deep Blue 10” will never decide that chess is the world’s only valuable activity and accordingly try to convert all matter and energy into chess computers. An immense range of knowledge and expertise will always be intellectually inaccessible to any machine with a classical architecture. Not least, digital computers will never be able to investigate the myriad state-spaces of experience probed by human psychonauts. For sure, silicon zombies are bound to outclass archaic humans as world-class robo-teachers, robo-doctors, robo-artists, robo-lovers and so forth. Artificial intelligence will excel in modes of expertise that haven't yet been invented or conceived. But (trans)humans will harness and incorporate zombie AI in our brains and bodies. Some measure of “cyborgisation” of biological life is inevitable. Cyborgisation should be distinguished from outright Kurzweilian fusion and science-fictional “mind uploading”. Even now, if suitably microchipped, you could outplay the human world champion at chess. This trivial example will soon be generalized. Ubiquitous neurochipping will make “narrow” embedded superintelligence accessible to everyone. Recursively self-improving robots will be us, editing our genetic source code and neurochipping our minds as we fitfully bootstrap our way to supersentient full-spectrum superintelligence. For sure, risks to biohacking abound. Yet in the absence of anything resembling a unitary self, our digital software – whether neurally embedded or otherwise – isn’t going to start plotting a zombie coup against its sentient overlords. Nor is recursively self-improving zombie AI going to entice gullible humans into building paperclip factories or utilitronium shockwave launchers. Nietzsche said that all philosophy is autobiographical, but I’ll take the risk of generalizing. Crudely, the only truly scary intelligence we need to worry about is quasi-sociopathic male humans.

    Yet what about sentient quantum computers? Potentially, inorganic quantum computers can solve the binding problem. “Cat states” aren’t mere classical aggregates. Here there are many unknowns; but critically for your question, non-biological quantum computers don’t promise a software-based Intelligence Explosion. Instead, non-biological quantum computers tap into the world’s underlying quantum substrate, as (IMO) do awake organic minds and the phenomenally-bound world-simulations we run. I should stress that that the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism is controversial; but so is e.g. the Chalmersian dualist alternative. And radical eliminativism. All the options for solving the Hard Problem of consciousness are seriously weird.

    I think the real ethical challenge we face as a species is building sentience-friendly biological intelligence. Let’s prioritize abolishing suffering. Worrying about the plight of our comparatively humble minds in the face of vastly superior intelligence while we abuse and kill billions of our intellectually-simple cousins in factory-farms and slaughterhouses defeats satire. I don't believe consciousness exists. Can you convince me?

  • I don't believe consciousness exists. Can you convince me?
  • “Cogito, ergo sum.”
    (René Descartes)
    I’d start by asking what you mean by “consciousness”? (cf. Why isn't there a good definition for what consciousness is?) How do you distinguish between dreaming, being dreamlessly asleep and being awake? Have you ever tried, say, LSD, DMT or ketamine, i.e. what realists about first-person experience call consciousness-altering drugs? Would you prefer an anaesthetic before you undergo an operation? (cf. Awake Under Anesthesia). If so, then why exactly would you prefer surgical anaesthesia? Or if you are already insentient, would simply a paralysis-inducing agent suffice before you go under the knife?

    My working assumption is that you are a sentient being who is trying to crack the Hard Problem of consciousness. All the proposed solutions to date are intuitively crazy, although anti-realism about one’s own experiences is arguably the craziest of all. But another questioner asks: Are radical eliminativists about consciousness P-zombies? Could there be two kinds of humans who walk the Earth…?

  • If consciousness is fundamental, what predictions does it make?
  • “Scientists are explorers. Philosophers are tourists.”
    (Richard Feynman)
    The claim that consciousness is fundamental to reality is empirically adequate. It makes no novel predictions if taken on its own. If conjoined with physicalism, i.e. no “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of our best mathematical description of the universe, then the conjecture has stunning predictive power. Whether you regard the predictions as worth the trouble of experimentally falsifying via interferometry, or instead as the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind, will depend partly on how seriously you take the phenomenal binding problem, not as just a puzzle for neuroscience, but as a challenge for monistic physicalism and the unity of science.

    Any theory of consciousness, whether materialist or non-materialist, that makes no predictions that are (a) novel, (b) specific, (c) experimentally falsifiable and (d) agreed by proponents and critics can (dis)confirm its claims will most likely be scientifically worthless. Concretely, an adequate theory of consciousness should explain the (1) existence, (2) causal efficacy, (3) diversity and (4) phenomenal binding of subjective experience. However, unless empirically testable, the theory is almost certain to be idle philosophising. Not many theories of consciousness both satisfy the methodological constraints (a-d) of good science and give substantive answers (1-4). Molecular matter-wave interferometry can in principle test a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture that does both.

    What will be the outcome of such an experiment?
    I don’t know.
    All the possibilities strike me as absurd.

    One reason for playing around with crazy but testable hypotheses is that materialism has made no progress in solving the Hard Problem of consciousness since antiquity. If physicists and chemists are right about the fundamental properties of matter and energy, then we should be insentient: “p-zombies”. The empirical evidence reveals the universe has at least one sentient being. Alas there may be others. Therefore, physicists and chemists don’t really understand matter and energy.

    Post-materialist science must explain the successes of the old paradigm as well as its failures and anomalies, in this case the empirical evidence. The intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism proposes that our phenomenal minds disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical. So the Hard Problem (1) is just an artefact of bad metaphysics – as distinct from the mystery of why anything exists at all. According to non-materialist physicalism, the mathematical machinery of quantum field theory (QFT) captures the structural-relational properties of matter and energy. The formalism describes fields of sentience rather than insentience. In other words, the entire mathematical apparatus of modern physics is transposed to an idealist ontology. Philosopher Galen Strawson calls the conjecture “Real Materialism” – although this tongue-in-cheek label must count as poetic license.

    Non-materialist physicalism should be distinguished from property-dualist panpsychism. Non-materialist physicalism doesn’t claim that consciousness is inseparably associated with physical properties. Rather, consciousness is the physical: the primordial “fire” in the field-theoretic equations, what Kant called the noumenal essence of the world, at once unknown and supposedly unknowable. Thus if non-materialist physicalism is true, then ill-named p-zombies don’t exist precisely because they are unphysical. Only the physical is real. Likewise, the reason that consciousness has the causal capacity (2) to e.g. discuss its own existence is that all the physical, and only the physical, has causal efficacy. As posed, the palette problem (3) presupposes classical physics. The rich diversity of conscious experience is mysterious in the light of the relative qualitative homogeneity of your brain's basic constituents as normally described. Yet according to modern physics, quantum fields, not particles, are fundamental to reality. According to the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument, the diverse solutions to the equations of QFT yield the diverse values of experience. Hypothetical fields of insentience are doomed to go the way of luminiferous aether.

    What about phenomenal binding (4)? The intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalist has two variants. The first variant, associated with e.g. Galen Strawson and most recently Phil Goff, is effectively classical. Billions of decohered, membrane-bound neurons in our skulls are simply assumed (rather than derived via the decoherence program from QFT). Our minds are just what patterns of excitation in neural networks feel like “from the inside”. The classical variant of the intrinsic nature argument has two problems. It cannot solve the phenomenal binding / combination problem. So it doesn’t demystify why (unless dreamlessly asleep) we aren’t micro-experiential zombies. Worse, the classical version of the intrinsic nature argument isn’t experimentally falsifiable. It makes no novel testable predictions over-and-above “materialist” physicalism.

    The second, quantum-theoretic variant of the intrinsic nature argument satisfies the methodological criteria (a-d). However, its predictive novelty doesn’t rest on some new principle of physics, such as a consciousness-induced “collapse of the wavefunction”. Rather, the quantum-theoretic version focuses on what non-materialist physicalism entails for the CNS. If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the fundamental “psychon” of consciousness must indeed be untestably small, as incredulous critics of traditional panpsychism have long stressed. But a less-discussed implication is that if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the psychon must also be insanely short-lived. What does such a short, sub-femtosecond effective lifetime entail for the microstructure of the CNS? Let’s assume quantum theory is complete, i.e. just the bare formalism of QM, unmodified and unsupplemented. At sufficiently fine-grained temporal resolutions, your central nervous system does not consist of decohered neurons – mere classical aggregates of mind-dust – but rather, individual “cat states”, i.e. neuronal superpositions of the distributed feature-processors (e.g. neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons and so forth) as identified by conventional neuroscanning. According to unitary-only quantum mechanics, all complex linear superpositions of pure states must exist. If such rapidly-decohering neuronal superpositions don’t exist, then the cardinal principle of quantum mechanics, i.e. the superposition principle, is false. What’s more, the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument invokes an extraordinarily powerful selection mechanism to explain why we don’t experience just psychotic nonsense, or most of us at any rate. The selection mechanism explains why the comparatively dynamically stable neuronal superpositions subjectively experienced as our classical world-simulations are differentially favoured over dynamically unstable psychotic “noise”. What Zurek christened “quantum Darwinism” is now mainstream physics. The decoherence program (Zeh, Zurek, et al.) describes the emergence of quasi-classicality from quantum reality outside the skull, but needs applying to the CNS. We may be shocked. Once again, I don’t know. I’m simply curious.

    Theorists working on the foundations of quantum mechanics point out that the decoherence program doesn’t solve the problem of definite outcomes. But on the “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture explored here, there are no definite classical outcomes, merely neuronal superpositions experienced as definite outcomes. Only the universality of the superposition principle makes our fitness-enhancing experience of classical definite outcomes feasible. To experience a definite outcome, for example a determinate pointer-reading or a live cat, you need non-psychotic binding; and binding is classically impossible.

    Objections? I guess the reason that most of the scientific community (and Wikipedia editors) would dismiss such a conjecture without waiting for experimental disconfirmation isn’t because such a theory invokes a speculative new principle of physics like the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory. Rather, the dismissal stems from a commonsense philosophical assumption, namely that the sub-femtosecond timescale of neuronal superpositions makes such theoretical quantum exotica irrelevant to our mental life. See Max Tegmark on the “dynamical timescales” objection. Yet the intrinsic nature argument isn’t a conjecture about dynamical timescales. As the name suggests, it’s a proposal about the intrinsic nature of the quantum states that constitute our minds. True or false, the proposal stands irrespective of whether we calculate that the effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS must be picoseconds, femtoseconds, attoseconds – or less(!). The subjective content of these neuronal superpositions – the frames of your experiential life movie, if you like – consists of our robustly classical-seeming waking world-simulations. The gross subjective content of our world-simulations typically updates over a timescale of scores of milliseconds, i.e. the dynamical timescale described by classically parallel connectionist neuroscience. Yet though the subjective content is classical, the vehicle of our minds is inescapably quantum. If the superposition principle broke down in your skull, then subjectively classical unified world-making would be impossible. If neurons were decohered classical objects, then you wouldn’t be able to experience phenomenally-bound perceptual objects populating your phenomenally-unified virtual world.

    Yes, crazy stuff. I can’t seriously believe it. However, this is an empirically falsifiable conjecture. At worst, the loophole should be experimentally closed. If classically unexplained binding via synchrony is actually binding by coherent superposition, then the non-classical interference signature of molecular matter-wave interferometry will tell us. Instead of the partial structural match in the CNS revealed by conventional neuroscanning, the non-classical interference signature will disclose a perfect match: a perfect structural match not in classical four-dimensional spacetime, but the fundamental high-dimensional space required by the dynamics of the wavefunction.

    And what if interferometry discloses nothing but “noise”? If your intuition says that a negative result is overwhelmingly likely, well, mine does too. Yet if (1) phenomenal binding is classically impossible, and (2) the non-classical interference signature does not disclose a perfect structural match between our minds and the microstructure of CNS, then dualism is true, just as David Chalmers argues. Or eliminativism, which would solve all our problems.

  • Why have psychedelics messed up the epistemic rationality (healthy cynicism and critical thinking) of intelligent, reasonable people such as most of the eminent scientists who synthesized, consumed and studied them?
  • “Science is piecemeal revelation.”
    (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
    Drug-naïve scientific rationalists tend to be unimpressed by the significance of psychedelics. Real science is hard work. Whether conducting well-controlled clinical trials of potentially life-saving new medicines, gaining a mathematical apprenticeship in theoretical physics, or building particle accelerators to test the Standard Model (etc), good science takes dogged perseverance, critical insight, and a capacity for collaborative problem-solving. Taking drugs and achieving enlightenment would be more impressive if the upshot were profound discoveries to share with the world, or even great drug literature. All too often, heavy psychedelic use makes people crazy – and not fitfully brilliant and insightfully crazy, just nuts.

    I think this sceptical analysis is warranted and intellectually catastrophic. Here’s an analogy. As a thought-experiment, imagine a tribe of blind, drug-naïve scientific rationalists. A few members of the tribe stumble upon an agent that induces extraordinarily weird, intense experiences – what we would call visual consciousness, though the congenitally blind tribespeople have no words for visual experience. The discoverers are shocked. They experiment further. The raw intensity of these drug-induced states makes their new visual consciousness feel “more real” than former everyday life. Tripping on the mind-altering drug doesn’t confer any enhanced sensory capacities via peripheral sense-transducers; users don’t grow eyes. In consequence, the drug-induced visions deliver no easily digestible payoff to be shared with the tribe’s blind cognitive elite. The experimentalists are convinced that their drug-induced experiences are intellectually important. The experimentalists are of course right – as we outsiders with mature visual intelligence can tell. However, the tribal drug users can’t even agree on why the experiences are so significant, which doesn’t inspire confidence in the drug-naïve. Some users babble unintelligibly. The discovery of such an alien state-space of consciousness transcends their conceptual framework. Psychonauts have no shared language to express their mystical visual experience (“It’s inconceivable!”). Increasingly, users stop participating in the tribe’s shared cultural, intellectual and economic activities. Habitual users “drop out”, lost in phantasmagorical worlds of visual experience. Naturally, the scientific elders of the tribe take a dim view of such escapism from consensus reality. Yes, taking drugs can induce weird, indescribable experiences. So what? Drug use doesn’t promote greater understanding of the real world. Taking psychotomimetic drugs scrambles brains, ruins lives and promotes antisocial behaviour. Non-medical drug use is best discouraged.

    I fear that as sighted rationalists our cognitive predicament may be analogous to the blind tribesfolk. Rather than put our mental health at risk, we settle for an impoverished evidential base. The mathematical formalism of modern physics, quantum field theory (QFT), describes the structural-relational properties of the world. Yet the nature and significance of the solutions to the equations eludes us. Psychedelics reveal the existence of outlandish state-spaces of consciousness that have never been co-opted by natural selection for any functional purpose. Tools of navigation are virtually non-existent. Human language is a pre-eminently social phenomenon (cf. the Private Language Argument). Therefore, unlike congenitally blind people who are surgically granted the gift of sight, psychonauts don’t enjoy access to an off-the-shelf conceptual scheme and the linguistic resources to organize their new-found realm of experience. What’s more, genome-editing and transhuman designer-drugs promise to expand the accessible state-spaces of consciousness by many orders of magnitude. Maybe DMT, LSD and ketamine users today are just tiptoeing in the paddling-pool end of psychedelia. Heaven knows what future psychonauts will discover, let alone full-spectrum superintelligence.

    Right now, sadly, these are empty words. A post-Galilean science of mind is still a pipedream. Most of today’s scientists and philosophers will die ignorant, trapped in the invisible prison of ordinary waking consciousness. Forswearing the experimental method, and responsibly encouraging the younger generation to do likewise (“Just say no!”), we sleepwalk though life, stumbling our way to oblivion.

    Here’s another worry. Paradoxically, staying drug-naïve may cripple understanding of our own normal state of consciousness. Drug-naïve rationalists are ignorant of how the state-specific properties of the medium of our thought-episodes are shaping their nominal content. Compare dream consciousness. Just as the nature of dreaming is best grasped when awake, perhaps posthumans will understand Darwinian consciousness as a waking psychosis that our minds were impotent to grasp from the inside.

    If this analysis is apt, then the intellectual significance of mind-altering drugs is hard to exaggerate. Darwinian minds are typically overwhelmed by taking psychedelics. Our primitive brains evolved under pressure of natural selection in an unforgiving environment. So we are intellectually and emotionally unequal to challenge of exploration. That said, not every psychonaut succumbs to flakiness, mysticism or psychosis. Recall the late Sasha Shulgin. Sasha devised a systematic discovery-process for the synthesis of new psychedelic agents. He created a rigorous methodology of first-person experimentation. He wrote lucid and illuminating texts documenting their use. Alas, most of us are not so psychologically robust.

    I say a bit more here: After an irreversible transition to a blissful existence, what would you do?

  • What, if any, is the function of consciousness?
  • Consciousness is fitness-enhancing compared to perpetual dreamless sleep. Not least, awake biological brains run phenomenally unified world-simulations that track fitness-relevant patterns in their local environments. Conscious, real-time virtual world-making allows complex, flexible and intelligent behaviour.

    Couldn’t a notional zombie behave in the same way?
    The problem is that even if the membrane-bound neurons of the hypothetical zombie supported rudimentary consciousness – as perhaps do your neurons when you’re dreamlessly asleep – the zombie central nervous system doesn’t support phenomenal binding of neuronal micro-pixels of experience into perceptual objects populating a unified world-simulation. Therefore the zombie can’t act.

    So yes, phenomenally-bound consciousness is adaptive. It’s functionally vital to biological robots. Explaining how a pack of membrane-bound neurons carries off such a classically impossible feat of world-making is more difficult (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of the easy and Hard Problem of consciousness?).

  • Will scientists ever be able to explain how the brain generates consciousness?
  • “One of the difficulties in understanding the brain is that it is like nothing so much as a lump of porridge.”
    (Richard Gregory)
    Probably not. The history of science suggests that unanswerable questions typically turn out to be ill-posed. The challenge is to identify the flawed presupposition or background assumptions(s) that created the insoluble mystery in the first place. Sources of error range from philosophical presuppositions so blindingly “obvious” as not to need expressly stating to subtle, deeply buried background assumptions not explicitly represented in anyone’s conceptual scheme.

    The Hard Problem of consciousness is a case in point. Most neuroscientists are confident that dualism is false. Conscious states are identical with physical states of the brain. Most neuroscientists also believe that the brain generates consciousness via some unknown mechanism. Unfortunately, these two beliefs are mutually inconsistent. Identity is not a causal relationship. Trivially, if a = b, then anything true of a is true of b. Likewise, some researchers believe that the Hard Problem can be resolved by supposing that “low level” physical properties of the brain cause “high level” mental properties. Unfortunately, levels of description are a human construct, not a feature of the world. Causality doesn’t operate between levels of description. Reality has only one ontological level, though you can’t navigate your way though life using nothing but basic physics.

    My view?
    Bewilderment.
    However, I suspect the Hard Problem of consciousness is ill-posed. As formulated, it presupposes the falsity of non-materialist physicalism.
    I suspect the Binding Problem is ill-posed too. As formulated, it presupposes the truth of classical physics and perceptual direct realism.
    The acid test will be experiment: If consciousness is fundamental, what predictions does it make?
    When I’m confounded (as I probably will be!), I’ll most likely revert to senile philosophising. The Hard Problem has a long future.

  • Do you agree with anti-natalism?
  • “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply...”
    (Genesis 1:28)

    “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
    (Woody Allen)

    Most people believe they are ethically entitled to bring more suffering into the world because the good things in life outweigh the bad. Most people believe they have a duty to have children. Darwinian malware churns out around 350,000 pain-ridden genetic experiments each day in humans alone. Once life gets going, self-replicating biological malware is almost impossible to stop. The past half-billion years have witnessed obscene suffering: pain and misery on a scale beyond description or comprehension. But anti-natalist philosophising on the evils of babymaking makes little difference. The compulsion to reproduce is too deeply rooted in human nature.

    So why exactly does moral argument fall on deaf ears? A full explanation is impossible. But compare how the heroin addict will do anything to get another fix: lie, cheat, steal and worse. Natural selection has stumbled on and harnessed Nature’s own version of heroin. Our endogenous opioid system ensures that biological life behaves in callous but genetically adaptive ways. In the words of the author of “Junky” (1953),

    “Junk is the ideal product . . . the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy. . . . The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client. He pays his staff in junk."
    (William S. Burroughs).
    All complex animal life is “paid” in junk: the addictive dribble of opioids in our hedonic hotspots released when we act in ways that tend to maximise the inclusive fitness of our genes in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). The pleasure-pain axis is coercive. Barring self-deliverance, we can’t opt out. Our “reward” circuitry hardwires opioid addiction and the complex rationalisations it spawns. Human history confirms we’ll do anything to obtain more opioids to feed our habit. The mesolimbic dopamine system enables us to anticipate our next fix and act accordingly: an insidious interplay of “wanting” and “liking”. We enslave and kill billions of sentient beings from other species to gratify our cravings. We feed the corpses of our victims to our offspring. So the vicious cycle of abuse continues.

    What is to be done?
    I despair. The biosphere lacks an OFF switch. Intellectually, however, I’ve some idea of what we ought to be doing. Most prospective parents don’t want to bring more suffering into the world under that description, any more than most “natural” addicts seek an endless supply of opioids under that name. But just imagine if there were a simple hedonic dial, akin to a thermostat, available to all prospective parents. If today’s genetically predetermined hedonic range is, schematically, -10 to 0 to +10, this dial allows a genetically pre-set range of, say, +1 to +10. Newer versions of the dial allow, say, a hedonic +70 to +100, or +90 to +100: hedonic contrast can be shrunk or heightened even when life is innately wonderful. Will most prospective parents opt to use such a “magic” dial for their future children in preference to the older method of genetic experimentation, i.e. sexual reproduction? If so, what settings will parents choose? What settings will their future children choose? It’s hard to be sure, but we've no reason to disbelieve prospective parents who claim they want their children to be happy, even though happiness is often only one desired trait among many. Raising happy babies is more fun. Also, a predisposition to optimism in the face of life’s challenges has been a strategy for life’s genetic “winners”: high risk, high reward. Conversely, the subordinate behaviour and behavioral suppression characteristic of depression in social animals was an adaptive, conditionally-activated fallback strategy on the African savannah for life’s genetic “losers”. At any rate, at least on this futuristic scenario of baby-making, intense and accelerating selection pressure will be exerted in favour of life based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of bliss. Worldwide superhappiness is inevitable. Contrast the cruel regime of natural selection: a “blind” lottery dependent on random genetic mutations. The nature of selection pressure changes when intelligent agents choose the genetic makeup of their kids in anticipation of the likely psychological and behavioural effects of their choices.

    Back in today’s real world, no such magic hedonic dial exists. So why tell such a fable? Well, such a metaphorical genetic dial will exist later this century and beyond, or rather, the complex functional equivalent of such a dial. Preimplantation genetic screening, currently licensed for medically recognised genetic disorders, will give way to full-blown genome-editing. Already a genetic “dial” exists for pain-sensitivity: the SCN9A gene. If you’re implacably determined to have kids, then for heaven’s sake, take advantage of preimplantation genetic screening. Recalibration of hedonic set-points and hedonic range is more complicated than shaping pain-thresholds. But genes and allelic combinations associated with high hedonic set-points have already been deciphered. New genetic discoveries are coming thick and fast. Cheaply loading the genetic dice in favour of our future kids is already technically feasible. A revolution of designer babies is imminent. In future, all babies can potentially be CRISPR babies. The hedonic range of the entire biosphere will shortly be programmable in human and non-human animals alike. Technically, we are living in the last century of life when involuntary suffering is biologically inevitable. Sociologically, we are living in the last millennium when suffering is biologically inevitable. The day will come when all babies will be constitutionally happy babies, destined for lives animated by gradients of sublime bliss. In theory, a few centuries from now, the world’s last experience below hedonic zero could be a precisely datable event.

    So a question arises for “strong” anti-natalists. Will baby-making in the new reproductive regime be morally wrong? As a believer in suffering-focused ethics, I’d answer, hesitantly, “no”. I’m personally a childfree, card-carrying negative utilitarian button-presser. The impending Biohappiness Revolution feels like a distant dream. Yet the future of sentience in our Hubble volume belongs to invincibly happy life lovers, not to Darwinian malware. Transhumanists are overwhelmingly life-affirming. We anticipate a Triple S civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. For what it’s worth, there are technical reasons for believing that we will all live happily ever after.

    Maybe see:
    What are your thoughts on anti-natalism? & What is DP’s response to Vegan Anti-natalist’s video?

  • Why is the brain considered like a computer?
  • “Don’t anthropomorphise computers. They hate it.”
    (anon.)
    Ignorance. Compare previous root-metaphors of mind: hydraulic metaphors, clockwork metaphors, mechanical metaphors, telephone and telegraph metaphors; the list goes on. Humans try to understand themselves via analogies with the dominant technology of the age. None of these picturesque analogies work. Some are lamer than others. The mind-brain is not a programmable digital computer. The mind-brain is not a classically parallel connectionist computer. And we certainly aren’t universal quantum computers.

    One of the enduring myths of scientism is that science is empirically successful. “Look”, say the triumphalists, “quantum electrodynamics is accurate to 11 (or 14) decimal places. Everything – chemistry, molecular biology, neuroscience – reduces to the Standard Model. Scientific materialism is the only game in town.” And it’s a seductive story. Materialism and physicalism are conflated. Yet the only empirical evidence at one’s disposal is the subjective content of one’s own mind-brain and the phenomenal world-simulation it’s running. None of the empirical evidence should exist if physicists and chemists are right. If “materialist” physicalism were correct, i.e. if physicists really understood the intrinsic properties of quantum states, then we’d be p-zombies. If the conception of brains by cognitive scientists as packs of decohered neurons were correct, then we’d at most be micro-experiential zombies. In short, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists alike do not understand the mind-brain. Yes, sentient beings are information processors. So in that sense, we are all “computers”. But so too are all kinds of complex, insentient systems from the liver to the stock market. By itself, saying that the mind-brain is a computer isn’t very illuminating.

    “But what else could it be?!”
    Well, the odds are you aren’t going to discover the key to the universe on Quora. Some of my answers verge on the idiosyncratic. That said, do at least bear in mind the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. It’s empirically adequate, a bonus. You and your world-simulation are what a quantum mind feels like from the inside. You are a state-of-the-art quantum supercomputer – literally. More specifically, you are an embodied quantum computer that runs a quasi-classical world-simulation embedding a slow and inefficient virtual machine experienced as a serial, logico-linguistic stream of thought. The capacity of the CNS to run macroscopic world-simulations in almost real time is the most amazing computational feat of biological mind-brains since the late pre-Cambrian. Or rather, we ought to be amazed; mostly, we are unamazed perceptual naïve realists. For sure, you are not a quantum Turing machine (QTM), aka a universal quantum computer. The raw power of decoherence means the only way that Nature could ever construct universal quantum computers is first to evolve sentient biological robots who master unitary-only quantum mechanics and then build ultra-cold inorganic devices that one day surpass us. Building non-biological quantum computers poses formidable challenges. But that wasn’t your question. In its crude, messy, fitness-optimising way, Nature got there first, IMO. Only quantum minds can simulate subjectively classical worlds.

    Is this strange conjecture experimentally falsifiable?
    Yes, for sure.
    Alas, philosophising is easier than interferometry.

  • Is nothingness a philosophical or scientific issue?
  • “Nothing comes from nothing.”
    (Parmenides)
    Why does quantum physics suggest something analogous to our pre-scientific conception of “nothingness” might be the case? Is this a shallow verbal analogy or a pointer to something deeper?

    On the face if it, instead of revealing some deep and fertile analogy with inexistence, modern science reveals the opposite. Doesn’t the multiverse of unitary-only quantum physics radically expand our conception of what exists to all physically possible outcomes, i.e. plenitude, not nothing?! But that’s what I meant by something “analogous” to nothing:
    Zero information = all possible descriptions = a superposition of amplitudes = Everett's multiverse.
    So why do information science and no-collapse quantum mechanics converge with (anything resembling) our pre-theoretic intuition that there ought not to be anything at all?

    I don’t know. Must the mystery of existence be abandoned to philosophers, or is it a question for future science to resolve – science in the strong, Popperian sense of hypotheses that generate novel empirical predictions that can be falsified by experiment? Why should philosophers (and the philosophically-minded) grappling with the riddle of existence care about whether or not unitarity is violated?

    Tentatively, I think inexistence might turn out to be a scientific question. For sure, contemporary physicists working on quantum gravity, or the black hole information paradox, or the foundations of quantum mechanics, or indeed neuroscientists investigating the mind-brain (etc) aren’t tackling the “philosophical” mystery of why anything exists at all. Yet if future science shows that the information content of reality is non-zero, for instance by the slightest experimentally-detected departure from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, then an entire explanation-space of answers to the mystery will be falsified.

    Sorry, I’ve just posed you more questions. I say more about a zero ontology in answer to:
    Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?
    Really, though, I’m mystified.

  • Should there be a gene drive moratorium?
  • CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives can be used to turn chickens pink (cf. Pink Chicken Project). More ambitiously – and more morally urgent – synthetic gene drives can be used to eradicate vector-borne disease (cf. The promise and peril of gene drives), non-violently retire predators (cf. Predator-Free 2050), and eventually end suffering throughout the living world.

    Clearly, reprogramming the biosphere needs regulation. But who should do the regulating, and how?

    Alas, regulation is a can of worms. DIY biotech in the wild is best discouraged, even by ardent libertarians. Gene drives could be used by bioterrorists (or misguided idealists) to crash ecosystems. The benevolence of state actors is also open to question. Ideally, I think all initiatives should be conducted under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has a uniquely ambitious conception of health. An overarching policy goal of good health for all sentient beings sounds like a utopian dream (“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being” – the founding constitution of the WHO). Yet treated as a computational and engineering challenge, the creation of a happy and healthy biosphere is feasible. The nearly unlimited targeting flexibility of CRISPR genome-editing means that synthetic gene drives can in principle be used to engineer almost any trait, e.g. invincible emotional well-being, in defiance of the “laws” of Mendelian inheritance. It’s an ethical game-changer.

    Is Homo sapiens really going to be wise enough to carry this off? Even with multiple safeguards, advanced computational modelling, well-funded pilot studies in secure mini-biospheres (etc), could well-meaning interventions to prevent suffering and disease all go terribly wrong?

    My own gut-instincts lie with pessimists. However, consider variola major and variola minor. In the twentieth century alone, smallpox resulted in some 300–500 million deaths worldwide. The long-term ecological, political and societal effects of removing such a powerful source of population control on Earth’s dominant species are speculative. Well-controlled trials of such a project were obviously impossible. On balance, however, eradicating the smallpox virus was ethically appropriate. Likewise, getting rid of vector-borne disease via synthetic gene drives is, in one sense, a leap into the unknown too. But so is life itself. Fallible but intelligent moral agents must weigh risk-reward ratios and act accordingly. A strict moratorium on all genetic experimentation would entail a moratorium on sexual reproduction – admirable prudence in my bleak negative utilitarian view, but not consensus wisdom. So let’s press on. Used responsibly, tomorrow’s gene drives can be harnessed to promote the well-being of all sentience. Post-Darwinian life can be marvellous, even sublime.

  • What is the relationship between subjective experience and the physical world?
  • Unfortunately, the term “physical” is ill-defined. Its referent is poorly understood too. The late Stephen Hawking used to speak of the mysterious “fire” in the equations, a striking metaphor, for sure, but not much progress beyond Kant's “noumenon”. Perceptual direct realists believe they can offer at least an ostensive definition of “physical”: it’s our shared public macroscopic world of e.g. laboratory equipment, greengrocers, mountains, etc. Sadly, only inferential realism about mind-independent reality is viable; direct realism is a false theory of perception.

    My view? Well, if the mathematical machinery of quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, then I haven’t the slightest idea how to answer your question. The Hard Problem of consciousness, the Binding Problem, the Palette Problem, the Problem of Causal Overdetermination (etc): materialist metaphysics is a veritable Pandora's box of mysteries that defy human comprehension. Hence “mysterianism”. By contrast, if you apply the principle of mediocrity, i.e. the quantum fields constitutive of your mind have exactly the same intrinsic nature as the quantum fields of the rest of reality, then these mysteries don’t arise. Subjective experience is the physical world. QFT is the mathematical description of fields of sentience.

    I used to regard this as a purely philosophical question, not amenable to methods of science. Taken on its own, any claim that consciousness is fundamental to reality is scientifically empty – a recipe for New Age vapouring, quantum quackery, or an invitation to contemplate the timeless wisdom of the ancients. However, if conjoined with the mathematical straitjacket of physicalism, then we have a theory of exceptional predictive power for the microstructure of the CNS: highly counterintuitive predictions, too, in view of the insane power of decoherence. Perhaps see:
    If consciousness is fundamental, what predictions does it make?

  • What are some novel (legal, safe) substitutes for opioids for the treatment of severe pain? Has anyone had a success using the moderate consumption of alcohol?
  • Consider the tricyclic antidepressant tianeptine (Stablon, Coaxil), licensed in continental Europe but not the USA or the UK. Tianeptine is a mood-brightener, anti-anxiety agent and painkiller. Unlike alcohol, tianeptine use doesn’t impair cognitive function. Tianeptine research was revolutionised in July 2014 with publication of the unexpected discovery that tianeptine is a full agonist at the mu opioid receptor and delta opioid receptor with negligible effect at the kappa opioid receptor. Selective mu opioid receptor agonists in the brain's "hedonic hotspots" typically induce euphoria and pain-relief. Selective kappa agonists typically induce dysphoria. The role of central delta opioid receptors is poorly understood. Dual activation of the mu and, less potently, the delta opioid receptors may be critical to tianeptine's mood-brightening, anxiolytic and pain-relieving effect – a therapeutic action largely unaccompanied by the physiological tolerance, dependence and acute risk of respiratory depression that bedevil traditional opioids.

    What explains tianeptine’s comparative safety and relative lack of “abuse potential”? Alas, medical science doesn’t know. Tianeptine is off-patent and cheap. So Big Pharma is exploring tweaked and patentable variants as tomorrow’s licensed antidepressants and pain-relievers. Both are sorely needed.

  • In quantum physics are there particles that can be in multiple places at the same time?
  • "Thirty-one years ago, Dick Feynman told me about his 'sum over histories' version of quantum mechanics. ‘The electron does anything it likes’, he said. ‘It just goes in any direction at any speed, forward or backward in time, however it likes, and then you add up the amplitudes and it gives you the wavefunction.’ I said to him, ‘You're crazy.’ But he isn't."
    (Freeman Dyson)

    “I have an old belief that a good observer really means a good theorist.”
    (Charles Darwin)

    According to quantum physics, any particle exists as a weighted superposition of all physically possible positions until its position is measured. We then always observe a particle at a well-defined position (cf. the Born rule).
    Yet what is an "observation"?
    This is tricky. Let's discount perceptual naïve realism. A skull-bound mind can’t tunnel outside its cranium and directly inspect the external world. What naïvely seems to be the external world, including macroscopic laboratory equipment, is actually the phenomenal world-simulation your CNS is running. This isn’t a plea for solipsism. Life on Earth teems with self-centred virtual worlds. Let’s also discount dualism. A subjective observation within your world-simulation is just as much a physical state as any other. Yet if so, a question naturally arises. Why isn't an observation a quantum superposition too?

    Well, why suppose that an “observation” isn't a quantum superposition, or rather, a bunch of them? Is this a scientific discovery or a philosophical opinion? For sure, the subjective content of our perceptual experiences is classical, e.g. detection of a well-defined particle position localised at the screen in a double-slit experiment. Within our world-simulations, we don’t experience smeared-out pointer readings or live-and-dead cats. But is the vehicle of our observations, i.e. the physical states of the CNS that mediate perceptual experience, quantum or classical?

    This is a distinct question. As far as I can tell, if the vehicle of our observations were effectively classical, then we couldn’t experience e.g. a particle absorbed at a discrete point at the screen apparatus within our world-simulations. For we couldn’t experience a screen: we’d just be “pixels” of neuronal mind-dust. The binding problem of neuroscience and the problem of definite outcomes in quantum mechanics are two sides of the same coin. Interference signature and phenomenally-bound apparatus alike are classically inexplicable. Even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, as some researchers boldly propose, then we'd just be so-called micro-experiential zombies – hypothetical creatures made up of decohered mind-dust who couldn’t “observe” anything. Classical-seeming observations need phenomenal binding, and phenomenal binding is non-classical. Or else dualism is true.

    It’s worth noting that this conjecture doesn't involve any new physics, nor even implausibly long decoherence timescales in the CNS. Rather, it’s the quantum-theoretic version of what philosophers know as the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism.
    I don't know if it’s true.
    But if we’re clever, it’s experimentally falsifiable.

  • Do you think Jeanne Calment was really 122 years old?
  • “No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity.”
    (Norris McWhirter and Ross McWhirter, eds., The Guinness Book of Records, 1986.)

    "Always keep your smile. That's how I explain my long life."
    (Jeanne/Yvonne Calment)

    Did one Frenchwoman live almost 3% longer than any other documented person in history? And supposedly a cigarette smoker, too, for almost one hundred years? It’s just about medically possible, but see:
    Valery Novoselov: Investigating Jeanne Calment’s Longevity Record.
    The person we know as "Jeanne Calment" may actually be Jeanne Calment's daughter, Yvonne, who allegedly died in 1934.

    Jeanne/Yvonne relished the attention that her officially recognised status as World’s Oldest Person conferred. So what motivated the selective burning of her family photographs and other documentary evidence – allegedly on her instructions, aged 120 – by a cousin of her grandson/son when she was requested to bequeath them to the archives of Arles?

    In 2001, the English biologist and originator of the "disposable soma" theory of aging, Tom Kirkwood, briefly considered whether Jean Calment's record could be fraudulent. In "Time of Our Lives: The Science of Human Aging" (2001), Kirkwood remarks that "Could she be a fraud? It is hard to see how unless it was the mother not the daughter who died in 1934, the daughter assuming the identity of her mother." But until Russian mathematician Nikolay Zak’s 2018 paper, Calment's record stood almost unchallenged for two decades.

    In 1994, the city of Arles requested Calment’s documents and photographs for their archives. Calment instructed they be destroyed. Her documents and family photos were selectively burned by her heiress, the cousin of her reputed grandson.

    The Calments were buried rather than cremated; the family grave is in Arles. DNA evidence could settle the issue. If aging is recognised as a terrible genetic disorder, and medical science should urgently aim at a cure, then DNA testing of Jeanne Calment, her husband Fernand and their daughter Yvonne would seem mandatory. Either the evidence will reveal the genetic profile of the doyenne of humanity – or a family with a shrewd grasp of money management.
    Sadly, exhumation of the bodies for DNA testing will not be straightforward. See:
    Jeanne Calment: pourquoi la question de son exhumation est compliquée.
    Reportedly, Jeanne/Yvonne Calment’s heirs and distant relatives are vehemently opposed to DNA testing. The selective destruction of the photographic and documentary evidence was unfortunate. Yuri Deigin has also sifted through such photographic evidence as survives. Nikolay Zak’s paper “Evidence that Jeanne Calment died in 1934, not 1997” has now been accepted for publication in the journal Rejuvenation Research. A January 2019 meeting of the Institut National D'études Démographiques in Paris in the wake of the Russian study was quite fraught. The efforts of Russian researchers to unravel the mystery have not been warmly welcomed in France.

    The world’s oldest documented supercentenarian may turn out to be the American woman Sarah Knauss, who attained a more believable record of 119 years, 97 days. She never smoked.
    See too: J’Accuse…! Why Jeanne Calment’s 122-year old longevity record may be fake. And More evidence.
    Perhaps compare a previous title-holder authenticated by Guinness, Pierre Joubert (a conflation of father and son), and the Izumi case.
    Radical interventions to extend human lifespans and healthspans may well be feasible later this century. But for now, human longevity has plateaued below 120 years.

  • Was Jeanne Calment the only person in history to surpass the age of 120 years old?
  • “In life, one sometimes makes bad deals."
    (Jeanne / Yvonne Calment)

    “She was always thirty years younger than her age.”
    (Dr Victor Lèbre - Jeanne / Yvonne Calment’s doctor)

    Tax evasion is common. Living into one’s thirteenth decade is vanishingly rare. A convergence of evidence dug up by Russian researchers, notably gerontologist Valery Novoselov and mathematician Nikolay Zak (cf. “Jeanne Calment: the secret of longevity”), suggests that “La doyenne de l'humanité”, who died at an alleged age of 122 years 164 days, was actually Jeanne Calment’s 99 year-old daughter, Yvonne. Officially, Yvonne died in 1934. Jeanne Calment’s husband would have been liable for an inheritance tax of up to 38% on his wife’s half of the business if his spouse rather than daughter died. For a synopsis of the photographic evidence, see Yuri Deigin’s Jeanne 101.

    Financial fortune was to smile again. Jeanne/Yvonne Calment had no living descendants. She milked a credulous lawyer, André-François Raffray, for thirty years after concluding a viager deal while nominally in her nineties (cf. A 120-Year Lease on Life Outlasts Apartment Heir). Jeanne/Yvonne never worked. She enjoyed life to the full. In later years, her record-breaking status attracted progressively greater attention, a celebrity which Jeanne/Yvonne visibly relished: “I waited 115 years to be famous, so I'm going to enjoy it." Even as her memory began to fail, Jeanne/Yvonne retained flashes of her keen sense of humour, especially at the expense of actuaries, demographers and journalists. When one departing visitor expressed doubt whether he'd be able to visit her next year, she retorted, "I don't see why not! You don't look so bad to me." On her nominal 116th birthday, Jeanne/Yvonne drily observed, “I think I’ll probably die laughing.” However, in 1994, when the city of Arles requested family photos and documentation for their archives, any incriminating evidence was burned by a cousin of her putative grandson/son, her heiress Josette Bigonnet and the wife of her executor – reportedly on Jeanne/Yvonne’s instructions. Therefore, no photographs survive of Madame Calment between the notional ages of 60 to 110. If Jeanne/Yvonne's identity were challenged, then Raffray’s children and grandchildren would have a claim on her estate. Only DNA evidence will settle the issue. After a "rather tense" meeting of the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) in Paris on 23 January 2019, the INED agreed exhumation was needed. Alas, individual initiative in testing the Calment family DNA, whether motivated by forensic sleuthing or antiaging research, would count as grave desecration under French law.

    Alternatives to exhumation and DNA testing may be considered. The Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (Inserm) the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, report that researchers have around fifteen hours of unaired recordings of Madame Calment “…in the form of some thirty interviews conducted between 1992 and 1995. Before allowing public access, it must be ensured that they do not or no longer contain any information of a private or medical nature." None of the interviews were conducted as interrogations of someone suspected of usurping her mother's identity. Careful review of the tapes by experts with this hypothesis in mind may yield sufficient clues effectively to close the case. Realistically, exhumation is legally unlikely for the foreseeable future.

    Has any human being ever lived to be 120 years old?
    I don’t know.
    Let’s leave aside here the thorny metaphysics of personal identity. Throughout history, estimates of the maximum human lifespan have been inflated by vanity, ignorance and deception, often of Biblical proportions (cf. Li Ching-Yuen (1667(?) - 1933)). The cases of several “fully verified” supercentenarians, supposedly certified to modern standards, e.g. Lucy Hannah, do not withstand scientific scrutiny. For decades, Guinness was the undisputed authority on titleholders for The World’s Oldest Person. But at least twice (the Joubert and Izumi cases), and probably three times, Guinness has conflated identities and skewed longevity research accordingly. In the case of Jeanne/Yvonne Calment, the Washington Post smelt a Russian conspiracy theory. Most of the French press were indignant that the memory of a national icon was being defamed: "Arles défend sa légendaire centenaire Jeanne Calment: 'On n’a aucun doute!'" A Facebook group was set up to defend her good name. “Si c'était sa fille, c'était une menteuse exceptionnelle”, mused one of the doctors who originally validated her case in the wake of the Russian bombshell. Yet especially when pensions, taxes, or other financial interests are involved, Russian demographers tend to be more cynical than their otherworldly Western counterparts.

    What about the real statistical outlier, Sarah Knauss, who died aged 119 years 97 days? No one else beside Knauss has convincingly been shown to have had an authentic 118th birthday, let alone 119. Despite the absence of a birth certificate, the Sarah Knauss case is (as far as I can judge) quite solid. Her identity is not in question. The age of her children and grandchildren tallies too. Harvard has Knauss’s DNA, which should be useful for antiaging researchers. Yet for the foreseeable future, anyone who wants to celebrate their 120th birthday – and witness our glorious posthuman future – might do well to consider cryothanasia or cryonics.

    ___________________________________

    THE WORLD’s OLDEST AUTHENTICATED SUPERCENTENARIANS

    1) 119 years, 097 days : Sarah Knauss (U.S. (PA)) Sept. 24, 1880 - Dec. 30, 1999.
    2) 117 years, 260 days : Nabi Tajima (Japan) Aug 04, 1900 - Apr. 21, 2018.
    3) 117 years, 230 days : Marie-Louise Meilleur (Canada (QUE)) Aug. 29, 1880 - Apr. 16, 1998.
    4) 117 years, 189 days : Violet Brown (Jamaica) Mar. 10, 1900 - Sept. 15, 2017.
    5) 117 years, 137 days : Emma Morano (Italy) Nov. 29, 1899 - Apr. 15, 2017.
    6) 117 years, 81 days : Chiyo Miyako (Japan) May 02, 1901 - July 22, 2018.
    7) 117 years, 27 days : Misao Okawa (Japan) Mar. 05, 1898 - Apr. 01, 2015.
    8) 116 years, 347 days : Maria Esther Capovilla (Ecuador) Sept. 14, 1889 - Aug. 27, 2006.
    9) 116 years, 311 days : Susannah Mushatt Jones (U.S. (AL)) July 6, 1899 - May 12, 2016.
    10) 116 years, 276 days : Gertrude Weaver (US (ARK)) July 4, 1898 - Apr. 6, 2015.
    ____________________________________

  • Why do we ask questions that do not have a right or wrong answer like Schrödinger’s cat?
  • “The only 'failure' of quantum theory is its inability to provide a natural framework for our prejudices about the workings of the Universe.”
    (Wojciech Zurek)

    “The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen, but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.”
    (Erwin Schrödinger)

    We can do “cat experiments” now. Ethical constraints dictate that Schrödinger's cat should replaced by feline zombies with a kill-switch (cf. Meet the robotic cat for the elderly). Otherwise, Schrödinger's experiment can be performed essentially as outlined, with the kill-switch triggered by a Geiger counter detecting decay of a single radioactive atom. So it’s not just a gruesome thought-experiment. Likewise, we can inform our friends of the seemingly definite outcomes of our experiments (cf. Wigner's friend). Yet unless there is something wrong with the master equation of quantum physics (cf. Schrödinger equation), weirdness can’t be quarantined to the microworld.

    Let’s step back.
    What would we experience if “cat states” were ubiquitous, i.e. if the superposition principle of quantum mechanics never broke down on any scale at all? Unlike many thought-experiments, this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. For physicists are increasingly sceptical that interferometry will ever reveal a collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. So why aren’t biological minds “cat states” too?

    The naïve answer is mass psychosis. We’d observe live-and-dead cats, smeared-out pointer-readings on laboratory equipment dials, and macroscopic objects without well-defined positions: in short, nothing like the lawlike and robustly classical world of everyday waking experience.

    There exists an alternative answer. Only superpositions are ever experienced. Reality is quantum to the core, not least the subjectively classical-seeming world-simulation run by one’s CNS. Neuronal superpositions underpin our consensus hallucinations of classicality (cf. Our Experience of Reality Is a Bunch of Hallucinations We Collectively Agree On). In everyday life, we assume perceptual direct realism about the external world. But only inferential realism is scientifically warranted. Schrödinger himself, when describing his original thought-experiment, talks like a perceptual direct realist when he speaks of “…an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation.” Yet before and after opening an infernal chamber, we don’t “directly observe” a live cat, or a dead cat, or indeed a live-and-dead cat, in this or in any other branch of the universal wavefunction. We don’t “directly observe” infernal chambers either. Instead, we are entitled theoretically to infer their existence on the basis of our perceptual experiences. Metaphysical realism has more explanatory and predictive power than solipsism. Unitary-only quantum mechanics has more explanatory and predictive power than Copenhagenist anti-realism.

    Admittedly, talk of autobiographical world-simulations sounds as forced and unnatural as does distinguishing between one’s empirical skull and transcendental skull. Most of our lives, direct realism is an exceedingly useful fiction. So is the positivist notion that wavefunctions can collapse. Unless one is scientifically reporting the contents of a dream, one doesn’t say, “I opened an infernal chamber within my skull-bound phenomenal world-simulation and observed a definite outcome”, e.g. a live (or a dead) cat. Instead, one just reports opening an infernal chamber and then observing a live (or a dead) cat. Rather than alluding to how inferred external reality partly selects (but doesn’t create) the subjective content of one’s visual cortex via peripheral nervous inputs, one assumes that we all share direct perceptual acquaintance with our local environment. On the African savannah, it’s a fitness-enhancing delusion.

    There is an obvious objection to a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture that supposes only superpositions are ever experienced, namely decoherence times. Quite a few researchers (and New Age gurus) have wondered whether two classically inexplicable kinds of holism might be related: quantum entanglement and the phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects (cf. the binding problem). Most scientists are unconvinced. Such theories almost always involve new physics (i.e. a non-unitary “collapse of the wavefunction”) and new neuroscience (i.e. impossibly protracted coherence in the warm, wet CNS). Strong theoretical reasons exist for doubting that any modification of the unitary Schrödinger evolution will work. Likewise, environmentally-induced decoherence (i.e. the scrambling of phase coherence between the components of neuronal superpositions to the environment) is so powerful and difficult to control in such a temperature regime that the effective lifetime of individual neuronal superpositions in the CNS must be less than femtoseconds, i.e. intuitively such superpositions are just random “noise”. So the idea that all we ever experience is neuronal superpositions is far-fetched.

    Yet the only bad response I know to the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument is that it’s implausible. Our very existence is insanely implausible. Only by experimentally eliminating the crazy options – and all the options are intuitively crazy – can we hope to arrive at an approximation to the truth.

  • Why is it hard for humans to imagine nothingness?
  • “Nothing exists; even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others.”
    (Gorgias the Nihilist [c. 485 – c. 380 BC])
    If it were easy for humans to imagine “nothingness”, the mystery of existence would most likely be insoluble. By contrast, our inability to imagine what an absence of properties would entail is (probably) a clue to why the question “Why does anything exist?” is subtly ill-posed. Naïvely, one feels that specifying what a global absence of properties entails should be easy. As a child, one shuts one’s eyes, experiences an inky void, and intuits that “nothingness” would be similar, or at least analogous. Adults use fancier language; but the intuition persists. However, a timeless void isn’t the same as an absence of properties or information. Destruction of the visual cortex would change one’s conception of “nothingness” too.

    Mathematicians typically help themselves to an ontology of abstract objects and talk of the properties of the empty set. But the hypothetical existence of abstract objects, including the empty set, is at least as mysterious as the manifest existence of concrete “stuff”. That said, extreme nominalism has problems too (cf. “Science without Numbers” [1980, 2016] by Hartry Field).

    Physicist Lawrence Krauss makes a gallant stab at an answer from the perspective of modern physics in “A Universe from Nothing” (2012). In reply, philosopher-physicist David Albert wrote a scathing NYT book-review blasting Krauss's misuse of the term "nothing" (cf. On the Origin of Everything). The philosophically incurious response to the inconceivability of inexistence is to write off the mystery of why there is anything whatsoever as a meaningless question – not subtly ill-posed but completely wrong-headed. Maybe so. Yet if this dismissal of the fundamental mystery were justified, then why does modern physics hint that something analogous to an informationless zero ontology might be the case?
    Is the cosmic abundance of information “almost zero” (Max Tegmark)?
    Or timelesly zero – my tentative view.

  • What is considered the hardest paradox to explain?
  • “One can write, think and pray exclusively of others; dreams are all egocentric.”
    (Evelyn Waugh)
    Here is the paradox that has troubled me most. I can’t fathom how to solve it or dissolve it.

    First, some background. What is the relationship between, for example, your “Alpha Centauri” thoughts and Alpha Centauri some four light-years away? Some sort of instantaneous non-local or acausal connection? Explaining semantic meaning is at least as perplexing as the spooky, seemingly non-local EPR correlations that trouble physicists. Scientifically-minded philosophers don’t like “magical” theories of meaning and reference (cf. What is it for a mental state to be ‘about’ something?). So philosophers of language try to naturalise semantic content with functional, causal and/or descriptive theories. Success to date has been limited. The lack of any satisfactory account of meaning and reference would be bad enough if perceptual direct realism were true. Shared access to a public world is implicit in two controversial doctines in analytic philosophy: the indeterminacy of translation and the inscrutability of reference associated with the linguistic behaviourist Willard Van Orman Quine. But the human predicament is worse. We don’t share direct access to a macroscopic world. Instead, our minds run world-simulations, partly moulded and selected by peripheral nervous inputs, but still private and autobiographical. Strictly, there is no “public” realm, just lots of egocentric world-simulations which are embedded in the vast multiverse of modern physics. As inferential or metaphysical realism is true, a question arises. In this multiverse of virtual realities, how do skull-bound minds gain semantic access to the wider cosmos? Why aren’t we condemned to talk, unwittingly, only to ourselves?

    Anyhow, here’s the paradox. As a thought-experiment, I used to imagine a possible world where everyone has chronic rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder. People with REM sleep behaviour disorder don’t undergo the muscular atony that stops the rest of us from acting out our dreams. In this possible world, no one ever “wakes up”. But nor are they functionally paralysed. Dreamers unwittingly act out their dreams by day, as well as by night. Initially, bodily behaviour doesn’t track the external environment, except by chance. Pseudo-perceptual experience in dreamworlds isn’t really about anything external to itself. The behaviour and vocalisations of dreamers are random in relation to their extra-cranial surroundings, just like the external behaviour and vocalisations of documented human and non-human animals with REM sleep disorder today. Yet over time, both the bodies and behaviour of dreamers are shaped under selection pressure in ever more complex, sophisticated and fitness-enhancing ways (cf. Sexsomnia). As an outgrowth of private dreamworld dramas, whole ecosystems of dreamers and skull-bound dreamworlds eventually arise. Eventually, a dreamer civilisation of language-using tool-makers is born, followed by an industrial revolution and the growth of science. Visual experience, semantic meaning and linguistic reference alike are still only internal to dreamworlds. The chronic dreamers never “awaken”, whatever that mystical-sounding notion might mean. The people that dreamers interact with in their solipsistic dreamworlds are only perceptual zombies masquerading as sentient beings. After all, it’s all just a dream. The dramatis personae of dreamworlds are only the cortical excitations of individual dreamers. But skull-bound dreamers unwittingly create a technological civilisation akin to our own as the collective byproduct of their inner dramas (cf. What is the current state of affairs in philosophy concerning the symbol grounding problem?).

    You may (or may not) find the parable unsettling. But where is the paradox? After all, the functional analogues of our meaning and reference evolve naturally in this scenario as fitness-enhancing side-effects of behaviour, with no objectionable abstract objects or propositional content, no “magic” meanings, just brute causal processes playing out over time: this is the point of the fable. In other words, it’s a physicalist story. What’s more, I suspect that, stripped of the fanciful incidentals, such a possible world may actually be our world, a universe of functional perception and functional linguistic reference. Real semantic meaning and reference is a private affair, confined to phenomenal virtual worlds. The quasi-intelligent behaviour of our extra-cranial bodies in the mind-independent world is merely a spinoff.

    The paradox is that if real semantic and perceptual content alike are purely personal to one’s world-simulation, then why doesn’t semantic solipsism just collapse into an uninteresting solipsism? Compare “This sentence is false” (the Liar Paradox) with “Semantic anti-realism is true”. In order to formulate such a thought-experiment, one needs to assume a “magical” theory of reference that the thought-experiment disallows – and more to the point, which scientific naturalism disallows. We may give the paradox a title: The Paradox of Naturalised Meaning. In my view, the Paradox of Naturalised Meaning afflicts any account of meaning that doesn’t assume an unwarranted naïve realism about perception. In order to banish “magical” meaning, one is forced to assume a physically impossible perspective, i.e. a God’s-eye-view that, by hypothesis, one can’t ever enjoy.
    I’ve learned to live with the paradox. Unfortunately, I’m no nearer a solution.

  • What would the world be like if we were all vegans?
  • Civilised. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses are likely to close this century. Their closure will bring to an end the worst form of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the modern world. Industrialised animal abuse will end not because we all become vegans in the strict sense, but because the in vitro meat revolution promises to make animal abuse redundant. Cheap, gourmet, cruelty-free “clean” meat and animal products will replace butchered corpses in supermarkets. Some in vitro products may be labelled “natural”, i.e. genetically unmodified, to appease traditionalists; other products will be nutritionally fortified and enhanced.

    The dietary revolution will be accompanied by an ethical revolution and legislative reforms to protect the interests of non-human animals. Moral clarity is easier in the absence of tasty incentives to self-serving bias. Even so, a full-blown anti-speciesist revolution is sociologically unlikely. What if we were all vegans?
    Unlike the global dietary transition to clean meat, such scenarios are often reckoned far-fetched, though not without Biblical precedent. Effectively unlimited computer power, cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception, CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives make the non-violent biosphere prophesied by Isaiah 11:6 technically optional. The level of suffering in the living world is now a moral choice. Commitment to a vegan world is also implicit in the Buddhist version of the biblical Sixth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”), which also accords with the Hindu/Jain doctrine of ahimsa. So the vision of a non-violent civilisation isn’t a recent futurist fantasy, though the implementation details are certainly new. Compassionate stewardship of a veganised planet is now technologically feasible, thanks to biotech. We are living in the last century of life on Earth when suffering is genetically inescapable. For sure, such scenarios for the long-term future of the biosphere are ecologically ambitious. Maybe humans or our transhuman successors will opt to conserve the violent and pain-ridden status quo indefinitely – or even practise barbarous “rewilding”. Yet if run wisely, Nature could resemble a pan-species welfare state rather than a snuff movie.

  • If the laws of physics are reversible and QM is nondeterministic, does this mean the past is not determined by the present?
  • “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
    (Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses)
    The reversibility of the laws of physics is tied to the deterministic, unitary time evolution of the Schrödinger equation. Some physicists have attempted to modify the unitary Schrödinger dynamics with indeterministic “spontaneous collapse” theories. Such theories may (e.g. the Penrose Orch-OR theory) or may not (e.g. the Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber theory) involve conscious observers. Dynamical collapse theories all involve an objective time asymmetry in the evolution of the wavefunction. Most professional physicists are sceptical they can work. As far as I can tell, most physicists believe that decoherence can sweep the measurement problem under the rug by explaining the appearance of wavefunction collapse.

    If “no collapse” quantum mechanics is true, then what follows is Orwellian. Realism, locality and determinism are conserved – at a price. Not merely is there no unique classical future; there is no unique classical past. Classical notions of semantic meaning and reference must be revised. “Truth” as ordinarily understood is indeterminate or branch-relative. Memory can’t be trusted. I find post-Everett quantum mechanics too upsetting to be able to think clearly about the implications.

  • How can we explain the shared experience of reality?
  • “You are the sky. Everything else – it's just the weather.”
    (Pema Chödrön)

    “I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.”
    (Robert Anton Wilson)

    Skull-bound minds live in a world of their own. Natural selection ensures that awake world-simulations share similarities. Hence the misconception of a shared experience of external reality. It’s fitness-enhancing, but delusive.

    Living in a world of one’s own might not matter if our world-simulations were mutually faithful. Unfortunately, natural selection is indifferent to happiness or truth. A clue that one’s mind runs a world-simulation (rather than perceives the brain-independent world) lies in the privileged status of one its inhabitants, the hub of the cosmos, i.e. me (cf. Are you the center of the universe?). Self-replicating DNA spawns vehicles whose world-simulations are systematically warped. Our models do not impartially track the perspectives of all sentient beings. Instead, coalitions of selfish genes script egocentric hallucinations. Egocentric virtual worlds each tend to promote the inclusive genetic fitness of their protagonist. So we shouldn't be too harsh on false messiahs, solipsists, narcissists, egomaniacs and even psychopaths. Even Hitler didn’t set out to be evil. The world’s egotists simply trust the evidence of their own eyes – evidence to which other folk can at times seem wilfully blind. For empirically (as distinct from metaphysically), one is special. Metaphysical speculation can be hard to take seriously if one lacks a philosophical temperament.

    Yet even philosophers (who ought to know better) can be seduced by the egocentric illusion. Each of us seems special in all sorts of ways, some obvious, some subtle. Taking psychedelics disrupts the fabric of reality. So does falling asleep, and dreaming. And consider the foundation of modern science, quantum mechanics (cf. "What is Real?" by Adam Becker). Unless I make an “observation”, the rest of reality unfolds according to the linear and deterministic Schrödinger equation. By contrast, I can seemingly “collapse the wavefunction”, i.e. the allegedly discontinuous, indeterministic, nonlocal transformation of the state vector upon measurement to yield a definite classical outcome, as distinct from the superposition mandated by the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Or alternatively (and, sadly, this is my tentative view), perceptual direct realism is a hoax, unitary-only quantum mechanics is true, and time doesn’t really flow.

    How does natural selection pull off this conspiratorial feat of mass psychosis? After all, each of us seems to share not just a public reality, but also public language. Our ostensibly public language facilitates co-operative problem-solving, albeit often for ignoble ends. Some philosophers have argued on a priori grounds that humans must, somehow, share a public world, because otherwise, language-learning would be impossible (cf. the Anti-Private Language Argument). Criteria for language use must be publicly shared. One doesn’t spring from the womb in command of the Queen’s English.

    I think the anti-private language argument gets something right and something wrong. Yes, in a sense, privately creating one’s own idiolect from scratch during childhood would be impossible. The outcome would be unintelligible. But the reason that infants don’t start speaking language until they are around eighteen months old is precisely because they need first to create a pseudo-public world-simulation via connectionist learning algorithms. Only then can they learn language. Typically, the earliest cartoon in their developing world-simulation, usually “mother”, guides and instructs the protagonist of a maturing virtual world on the rudiments of language use. The whole charade gets going once more. But strictly, all language is private language, and all worlds are private worlds. The behavioural by-products are just noise.

    Where will it all end?
    I don’t know. Full-spectrum superintelligence may recognise Darwinian life as psychotic malware. Sadly, talk of sentient malware isn’t overblown rhetoric. Modern humans speak, occasionally, of widening our circle of compassion. So long as we are each the centre of our own skull-bound virtual universe, high-flown sentiments about the well-being of all sentience are idle word-spinning or virtue-signalling, for the most part at any rate. Darwinian life pollutes the multiverse with suffering, and propagates its sinister source code for misery and malaise. Unlike computer malware, biological malware is ineradicable, or at least tenacious.

    I can conceive of only one possible escape-route from the Darwinian abyss. Members of a single species of life on Earth are intellectually able to see through the egocentric illusion. In theory, we could emulate the craniopagus Hogan sisters (or the fictional Borg) and share a beautified perceptual, intellectual and emotional reality. However, the technical obstacles to cross-species mind-melding are immense. Fake telepathy via digital technology may be more sociologically realistic than e.g. reversible thalamic bridges. If humans or transhumans choose to remain private island-universes, then let’s use biotech to make sure tomorrow’s island-universes are based on gradients of bliss.

  • What are your thoughts on the "benevolent world destroyer" argument against negative utilitarianism?
  • “Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.”
    (Socrates)
    The “benevolent world destroyer” argument (cf. R.N. Smart's Reply to Popper) is not normally reckoned decisive against Buddhism (“I teach one thing and one thing only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering” – Gautama Buddha). Should the “benevolent world destroyer” argument have any more force against negative utilitarianism? Either way, a benevolent superintelligence would not create a living world with such obscene suffering. Would a benevolent superintelligence display a human-like propensity to status quo bias?

    Buddhists, negative utilitarians and other advocates of suffering-focused ethics are not obligated to promote the end of the world. A revolution in artificial intelligence, CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives means we are living in the last century of life on Earth when experience below “hedonic zero” is genetically inescapable. Post-Darwinian life can be based on gradients of intelligent bliss. For sure, there are formidable technical, ideological and socio-political challenges to reprogramming the biosphere to eradicate suffering. These challenges pale compared to the idea of persuading governments world-wide to build a Doomsday device to sterilise the planet. The idea is technically feasible but sociologically fanciful. Likewise with human extinction via voluntary childlessness: efilism. Admittedly, the chequered history of futurology ought to discourage dogmatic pronouncements. There are exceptions. Humanity is not going to commit suicide. Life on Earth is poised to undergo metamorphosis. Transhumanists believe our ethical energies are best spent navigating a successful transition.

    The “benevolent world destroyer” argument is often treated as the reductio ad absurdum of negative utilitarianism (cf. Simon Knutsson’s Thoughts on Ord’s “Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian”). It’s not clear that reductio ad absurdum is any more valid as an argumentative tool in ethics than the sciences, but let’s pretend so. There is one ethical value system that mandates destroying life on Earth, namely the leading secular ethic of modern civilisation, classical utilitarianism. Launching a utilitronium shockwave is optional for negative utilitarians. For classical utilitarianism, it’s obligatory:
    How can one pursue eternal happiness?

  • What is your take on consciousness, that it is fundamental, universal, emergent or doesn't exist at all? Why?
  • All I know – rather than infer or speculate – are the contents of my own mind. Around a tenth of my life is psychotic; maybe much more. Yet when I’m not dreaming (or dreamlessly asleep) my mind runs a real-time world-simulation whose properties may be described using an approximation of classical physics. On theoretical grounds, I infer the existence of a mind-independent environment – and more speculatively, a multiverse – that transcends my phenomenal world-simulation. This hypothetical mind-independent reality supports lots of other world-simulations, mostly run by perceptual naïve realists.

    My conceptual scheme has a serious problem. Most working physicists assume that the mathematical machinery of our best theory of reality, quantum field theory (QFT), describes fields of insentience. But the only part of reality with which I’m empirically acquainted, namely my mind and its world-simulation, is made up of fields of sentience. Hence the Hard Problem of consciousness, the phenomenal binding problem, the problem of causal efficacy, the palette problem, and so forth.

    I think the “materialist” conjecture that sentience emerges in biological nervous systems out of fields of insentience deserves serious consideration, despite its horrendous problems. Biological life can be shown to emerge, unspookily, from abiotic molecules. Why not consciousness too? The alternative to such scientifically inoffensive “weak” emergence is mind-wrenchingly weird. Unfortunately, no one has the slightest idea how to derive the properties of sentience from insentience. Handwaving about “complexity” or “information processing” misses the point. So barring perceptual naïve realism, the entirety of the empirical evidence is inconsistent with a materialist ontology. Materialism is an ideology for zombies. Materialism has the hallmarks of a degenerating research program.

    Therefore, I also take seriously non-materialist physicalism. Non-materialist physicalism transposes the entire mathematical machinery of modern physics onto an idealist ontology. QFT describes fields of sentience. What makes biological minds special isn't subjective experience, but how subjective experience is organised. Non-psychotic phenomenal binding allows virtual world-making – a massively fitness-enhancing adaptation of Darwinian life whereby the visual cortex of biological minds masquerades as the external world. By the same token, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then the problem of the causal efficacy of consciousness doesn’t arise. For consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical; and only the physical has causal efficacy. Likewise, there is no palette problem because the diverse solutions to the equations of QFT encode the diverse values of experience. And there is no problem of definite outcomes in quantum mechanics for same reason there is no binding problem in neuroscience: the superposition principle of QM is universally valid, not least inside the neocortex. Classical-seeming “observations” disclose the intrinsic nature of quantum states. Compare perceptual naïve realism, the recipe for unphysical ideas like an observer-induced “collapse of the wavefunction”:
    How serious is the measurement problem in quantum mechanics?
    So I’m torn. As a scientific rationalist, should I embrace a plausible theory that’s inconsistent with the empirical evidence? Or an implausible theory that’s consistent with the empirical evidence?
    Weak-mindedly, I vacillate.
    But surprisingly, this isn’t an unanswerable metaphysical mystery. Interferometry should give us the answer:
    If consciousness is fundamental, what predictions does it make?

  • Why does something exist rather than nothing?
  • “The superposition of amplitudes...is only valid if there is no way to know, even in principle, which path the particle took. It is important to realize that this does not imply that an observer actually takes note of what happens. It is sufficient to destroy the interference pattern, if the path information is accessible in principle from the experiment or even if it is dispersed in the environment and beyond any technical possibility to be recovered, but in principle still ‘out there.’ The absence of any such information is the essential criterion for quantum interference to appear.”
    (Anton Zeilinger discussing the Double-slit experiment in ‘Experiment and the foundations of quantum physics’. Rev. Mod. Phys. 71: S288–S297.)

    “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
    (Yogi Berra)

    No one knows why anything exists.
    Yet we may have tantalising clues.
    One clue is our unexpected difficulty in specifying the default condition (“nothing”) from which any departure stands in need of explanation: no objects, no events, no properties, no information. Intuitively, one feels it should be straightforward to spell out one’s pre-theoretic conception of nothing. A rigorous definition is surprisingly hard.

    Another clue lies in a paradox. On the one hand, modern physics hints that something analogous to our naïve conception of nothing is the case. Thus the positive mass-energy of the universe may be exactly balanced by the negative gravitational potential energy: the Zero-energy universe hypothesis. The conserved constants (electric charge, angular momentum, mass-energy) cancel to zero. Information cannot be created or destroyed. On the other hand, modern physics also hints at the opposite: something analogous to our naïve conception of “everything” is the case. The multiverse of unitary-only quantum mechanics says that anything that physically can happen, physically does happen – and not in some wordy, waffly, philosophical sense of “everything”, but quantifiably and testably so, insofar as the sensitivity of today’s tools of interferometry permits. For decoherence (“splitting”) of emergent quasi-classical branches is never complete. Barring a (physically unmotivated) non-unitary collapse of the state vector on measurement, reality is exhaustively encoded by a vast superposition, the universal wavefunction.

    Another clue to existence lies in information theory. The question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” was most famously posed by the librarian and moonlighting philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (cf. On Leibniz as Librarian). Maybe libraries – or at least quantum information theory – hold the key to unravelling the mystery. An ordinary library holds lots of information. Intuitively, adding to a library catalogue adds to its information content. Yet a library with all possible books consisting of all words and letters in all possible combinations has no information. As Quine remarks in Universal Library, “The miracle of the finite but universal library is a mere inflation of the miracle of binary notation: everything worth saying, and everything else as well, can be said with two characters." (Quine, Willard van Orman. Quiddities. Belknap Press, 1989).

    Yet reality is not akin to a classical Library of Babel, nor to a classical digital computer spewing out all possible outputs from all possible programs. Summing two ordinary non-zero probabilities always results in a bigger probability. The quantum version of the Library of Babel is a Hilbert space of complex-valued amplitudes (cf. Mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics). Amplitudes in QM are complex numbers. Summing two amplitudes can yield zero. Hence the conjecture:
    Zero information = a superposition of all possible descriptions = no-collapse quantum mechanics.
    Formalising our pre-theoretic conception of “nothing” has counterintuitive implications, for example, us. Likewise, the most “conspiratorial” aspects of QM make sense if Nature is constrained to balance the books on pain of the creation of information ex nihilo. Necessarily, the information content of reality is always and everywhere zero. In contrast to the absence of any information at all, information-rich explanations, for example God or a Simulator, generate an infinite explanatory regress.

    Or so the story goes.
    What should we make of this argument?
    I don’t know.
    Clearly, a zero ontology is problematic. For a start, experiments apparently have definite outcomes. On the face of it, superpositions can only be inferred, never experienced. Naïvely again, the laboratory apparatus we use to do experiments is classical. And our own consciousness is widely reckoned to be a classical phenomenon, not quantum-theoretic. So an informationless zero ontology might seem dead in the water.

    However, this rebuttal may be too brisk. Such objections assume perceptual direct realism and Copenhagen-style positivism. Controversially – very controversially – your experience of the classical-looking screen-apparatus when doing a double-slit experiment consists of individual superpositions (“cat states”) of neuronal feature-processors in your CNS. The superposition principle doesn’t break down. Perceptual naïve realism is false. The quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument simply trusts what the bare formalism, i.e. a relativistic generalisation of the Schrödinger equation, is telling us, namely that superpositions should be ubiquitous. The seemingly insurmountable measurement problem of quantum physics and the phenomenal binding problem in neuroscience share a solution. If your experience weren’t made up of neuronal superpositions, and if instead you were composed of a pack of decohered classical neurons, then your awake CNS wouldn't be able to run a phenomenally-bound world-simulation, including your subjective experience of a classical-looking screen displaying a bizarre non-classical interference pattern. Rather, you’d be a micro-experiential zombie. And you wouldn’t be able to perceive cats.

    For sure, this inversion of consensus wisdom is extremely unorthodox. I play around with the idea; I don’t know if it’s true. Instead of assuming that superpositions are never experienced, this proposed solution to the measurement problem in QM says that only superpositions are ever experienced by anyone, anywhere. Subjectively classical “observations” in one’s virtual world are neuronal superpositions. For evolutionary reasons, biological minds conflate vehicle and content. By contrast, most wavefunction monists are “materialist” physicalists. Quantum field theory describes fields of insentience. Materialist physicalism is plausible but empirically inadequate (cf. the Hard Problem of consciousness); and leads to e.g. H. Dieter Zeh’s “Many-minds” interpretation of QM that undercuts the austere wavefunction monism that Zeh and other decoherence theorists did so much to elucidate. By contrast, the wavefunction monism of non-materialist physicalism is empirically adequate – just very implausible.

    I think molecular matter-wave interferometry holds the key to progress. Future science may empirically (dis)confirm a zero ontology. The validity of the superposition principle of QM as been directly experimentally tested only up to the level of bacteria (cf. "Schrödinger's Bacterium"). Maybe future experiment will detect some collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger evolution. Maybe black holes will be found to destroy information: physicists don’t yet have a theory of quantum gravity. Or maybe next-generation interferometry will fail to confirm a perfect structural match between our minds (cf. “Schrödinger's neurons”) and the micro-architecture of the CNS, suggesting that dualism is true; phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors is classically impossible. Yet for now, a zero ontology (the term is due to Arthur Witherall) is in my view the most promising explanation-space for cracking the riddle of (in)existence.

    Apologies for what probably feels a frustrating response to your question. Philosophically, we want to understand why anything exists at all, not whether unitarity is violated. But I think what tomorrow's physics can do is rule out this explanation-space. If the information content of reality even trivially exceeds zero (cf. physicist Max Tegmark’s proposal that reality has almost no information), then the conjecture will be falsified. If an informationless zero ontology turns out to be false, then heaven knows where we should start searching for a solution. I’ve not the slightest idea:
    Why does the universe exist instead of nothingness?

  • What if a toaster was sentient?
  • “A person is not the same as a toaster.”
    (David Walton, ‘Superposition’, [2015])
    If toasters were subjects of experience, then scientific materialism would be false. The vindication of pre-scientific animism would lead to an intellectual and ethical revolution whose dimensions are hard to fathom (cf. Toasters deadlier than sharks?). However, the debunking of scientific materialism would also leave modern technological civilisation a miracle – not least, the microelectronics on which toasters depend.

    If toasters were made up of fields of sentience (as distinct from being unified subjects of experience), then scientific materialism would again be false. The upshot of any such discovery would be an intellectual revolution, but not an ethical revolution. For without phenomenal binding and the unity of mind, a toaster made up of fields of sentience would be no more morally significant than your toenail (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and Hard Problem of consciousness?). Less obviously, the falsity of scientific materialism and animism alike would leave the success of modern technological civilisation no less well-explained than today, including the microelectronics of toasters.

    This point needs expanding. Like most scientifically educated rationalists, I have a powerful metaphysical intuition. The formalism of quantum field theory and the Standard Model describes fields of insentience. The only snag with this blindingly obvious truism is that a materialist ontology is inconsistent with the empirical evidence. The empirical evidence is consistent with monistic physicalism but not materialism. Hence non-materialist physicalism:
    What is your take on consciousness, that it is fundamental, universal, emergent or doesn't exist at all? Why?

  • Can a world exist where animals do not eat other animals?
  • “I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
    1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
    2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
    3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

    (Douglas Adams, ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ (2002))
    Technically, yes.
    Eating each other is barbaric.
    Posthumans may look back on Darwinian life as akin to a cannibal holocaust or a snuff movie.
    Cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception, CRISPR genome-editing, and the prospect of synthetic gene drives turn the level of suffering in the biosphere into an adjustable parameter. Imminent revolutions in robotics, nanotech and artificial intelligence, together with the exponential growth of computer power, mean that every cubic metre of the planet will soon be accessible to surveillance and micro-management. Obligate predators can be genetically reprogrammed. Their victims (prey) can be genetically tweaked. Stopgaps are feasible, e.g. catnip-laced in vitro mincemeat in tomorrow’s wildlife parks.

    Veganising the world has many pitfalls, both technical and ethical. So exhaustive risk-benefit analysis, computer modelling, and pilot studies in self-contained biospheres will be prudent – though today’s uncontrolled habitat destruction is even more ecologically hazardous. Critics claim that “policing” Nature will turn life on Earth into a zoo. Yet human and non-human animals flourish best when free-living – neither incarcerated nor wild.

    Retiring genetic malware and reprogramming the biosphere to abolish suffering won’t happen overnight. Human bioconservatism runs deep. Advocates of compassionate stewardship of the living world would normally do well to quote Buddha or Isaiah rather than the Transhumanist Declaration. Status quo bias means that most humans believe that a pain-ridden biosphere is “natural”, therefore good. A world where all sentient beings can flourish unmolested is “unnatural”, therefore bad (cf. Appeal to Nature). Yet unspeakably cruel “Nature, red in tooth and claw” will be superseded, eventually, with a civilised non-violent alternative, post-Darwinian life – a major evolutionary transition in the development of life on Earth.

    Timescales?
    Before intelligent moral agents can start systematically helping non-human animals, archaic humans must first stop systematically harming them. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses will disappear later this century in the wake of the in vitro meat revolution. Shutting and outlawing the death factories should be our ethical priority. But as our circle of compassion widens, what’s next? Designing blueprints for a cruelty-free world might seem wildly premature. Yet we can have a serious ethical debate about the future of sentience only once we appreciate what is – and what isn’t – technically feasible…
    Reprogramming Predators
    A Welfare State For Elephants?
    Genetically Designing a Happy Biosphere

  • What is an as-yet unproven hypothesis you came up with?
  • “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able
    to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

    (Aristotle)
    I explore many weird hypotheses:
    What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?
    For instance, the superposition principle of quantum mechanics explains everything from the properties of our minds to why anything exists.
    Presumably, most or all of these hypotheses are mistaken. The history of human thought suggests one is extraordinarily lucky to have even a single really good idea.

    Exploring unconventional ideas is good, especially if they are testable. But with rare exceptions, if one ends up believing them in defiance of consensus wisdom, one ends up as just another crank.

  • How does the world view of a believer in physicalism differ from one of idealism?
  • “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’ ”
    (Isaac Asimov)
    Physicalism is the view that no “element of reality” (Einstein) is missing from the mathematical equations of physics – more strictly, tomorrow’s physics beyond the Standard Model plus GR.
    Idealism is the view that reality is experiential.
    Most physicalists aren’t idealists, and most idealists aren’t physicalists, but a small minority of researchers are both idealists and physicalists.

    The intrinsic nature of quantum states is disputed. But if quantum mechanics is complete, and if the equations of physics describe fields of sentience rather than insentience, then physicalistic idealism is true. If so, there is no Hard Problem of consciousness as normally framed. Fields of insentience are destined to go the way of luminiferous aether. Formally, physical reality is described by the universal wavefunction. By contrast, consciousness is often said to be ill-defined. Yet if physicalistic idealism is true, then we already possess the mathematical apparatus of a theory of consciousness. All that’s hard is to “read off” the textures of experience from the solutions to the equations. The conjecture that relativistic QFT describes fields of sentience rather than insentience still leaves the mystery of why anything exists for the equations to describe: one big mystery rather than two. Yet even here, the superposition principle of QM hints at an answer.

    Some distinctions are in order.

    1. Physicalistic idealism should be distinguished from property-dualist panpsychism. Panpsychists believe that primordial experience is inseparably attached to all fundamental physical properties, objects, or events. By contrast, physicalistic idealism identifies primordial experience with physical properties. Either view strains credulity. Intuitively, one wants to say, for example, electron spin is non-experiential by definition. But one can’t define anything into (or out of) existence. Sadly, physics is silent on the intrinsic nature of the “fire” in the equations, the essence of the physical. Most physicists share a philosophical belief that the “fire” is non-experiential (e.g. Sabine Hossenfelder’s “Electrons don’t think”). Yet this claim is not an experimentally verified scientific discovery, but a philosophical opinion. Philosophy in the guise of science can lead practising scientists astray.

    2. Physicalistic idealism should be distinguished from the conjecture that the universe is conscious: cosmopsychism. For instance, British scientist Sir James Jeans once observed that "the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine”. Such idealism is hard to reconcile with the mathematical straitjacket of physicalism.

    3. Physicalistic idealism should be distinguished from the belief that reality is observer-dependent, or the conjecture that consciousness collapses the wavefunction (cf. the Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation). A convergence of astrophysical evidence and physical cosmology suggests that the universe is around 13.8 billion years old; and we’ve no reason beyond a naïve positivism to suppose that observers can collapse wavefunctions.

    4. Physicalistic idealism and panpsychism alike should be distinguished from the claim that a rock, or a toaster, or a classical digital computer (etc) are subjects of experience, i.e. animism. Whereas materialists tend to downplay consciousness, or even discount it altogether (cf. Are radical eliminativists about consciousness p-zombies?), idealists tend to overpopulate the world with minds (or one Borg-like Mind). But in the absence of phenomenal unity, there can be no mind(s), although both biological and nonbiological information processing systems may display a semblance of intelligent behaviour.

    5. Physicalistic idealism should be distinguished from dual-aspect monism. According to dual-aspect monism, we perceive only the external aspect of material objects; experience discloses their physical essence. Dual-aspect monism captures how physics (as understood today) describes only the structural-relational properties of matter and energy. Dual-aspect monism may also be right that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Yet one doesn’t “perceive” the external environment. “Observers” belong to folk physics. Rational agents are entitled to infer the existence of an external environment on the basis of their neocortical world-simulations (perception). Everyday objects are autobiographical. Whether one is e.g. an embodied mind, a next-generation lab-grown mini-brain, a Bolzmann brain (etc) is a theoretical assumption, credible or otherwise, not an empirical given. Therefore 6.

    6. Physicalistic idealism presupposes, but should be distinguished from, inferential realism about the external world. Neuroscience confirms that what skull-bound minds subjectively apprehend as the external world is mind-dependent. In common with any other kind of idealism, physicalistic idealism may still be false if mind-independent physical reality is non-experiential. For what its worth, I’m fairly confident that our awake minds run phenomenal world-simulations rather than commune with the extracranial environment. The seemingly distant horizon is an excitation of my neocortex. My nearest and dearest are the zombie avatars of sentient beings whose existence I speculatively infer. I’m a metaphysical realist, yet I’m still deeply uncertain whether the rest of physical reality consists of fields of sentience or insentience. The formalism of QFT doesn’t tell us. Adopting the most natural interpretation makes one a zombie. But the idealist interpretation feels bonkers.

    Early in the twentieth-first century, physicalistic idealism is clearly a fringe view. Laying out the precise tenets of scientific orthodoxy can be challenging, but it’s safe to say most professional physicists (along with virtually everyone else) assume that quantum superpositions aren’t experienced, only inferred. Hence the intellectually scandalous measurement problem of QM. Yet the commonplace notion that quantum superpositions are never experienced, only determinate outcomes in accordance with the Born rule, is not what (a relativistic generalisation of) the Schrödinger equation is telling us. Perhaps see e.g. Scientifically speaking, how serious is the measurement problem? Superpositions (recall Schrödinger's cat) should be ubiquitous. In defiance of commonsense and perhaps sanity, I toy with the idea that superpositions are ubiquitous. According to the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument, only neuronal superpositions allow classically-impossible phenomenal binding and hence observations of classical-looking cats and classical-looking experimental apparatus within one’s world-simulation. Only superpositions allow one’s subjective experience of detecting well-localised particles incident on robustly classical-looking screens within one’s virtual world. The natural objection to “no-collapse” quantum mind is that environmentally-induced decoherence ensures the effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS is less than femtoseconds. But Max Tegmark's “dynamical timescales” objection doesn’t weigh against the intrinsic nature argument. Contrast the intrinsic nature argument with perceptual naïve realism and the allegedly discontinuous, non-unitary, nonlinear, nonlocal, indeterministic collapse of the wavefunction. And contrast the austere wavefunction monism assumed here with the ontological extravagance of “Many Worlds” as conceived by Everett’s populariser, Bryce DeWitt. To the best of our knowledge, there is only one, timeless world, albeit with googols of weakly emergent and sometimes classically inequivalent branches.

    My view?
    Boringly agnostic, and often simply bewildered: I write more lucidly than I think. I don’t know whether physicalistic idealism is true. Perhaps dualism and “strong” emergence is inescapable. Perhaps the quantum fields making up one’s awake CNS are somehow ontologically special: different in their intrinsic nature from the rest of physical reality. Aesthetically, I’m sympathetic to monistic physicalism: biological minds are merely organisationally atypical. But on current evidence, monistic physicalism is a leap of faith. Either way, I don’t trust wordy philosophising from the humanities department or armchair physics from independent researchers on Quora. I don’t even trust expert expositions in physics textbooks. (“Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little; it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover”– Bertrand Russell) I do trust molecular matter-wave interferometry. If physicalistic idealism is true, then novel predictions follow. At temporally fine-grained resolutions, experiment should reveal a perfect structural match between the formalism of physics and the phenomenally-bound world-simulations run by skull-bound minds. The non-classical interference signature should answer what might seem a purely philosophical question about the nature of reality, immune to the methods of science. Today’s temporally coarse-grained neuroscanning shows only a partial structural match. Synchrony or superposition? See e.g. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and Hard Problem of consciousness? In accordance with non-materialist physicalism, I cautiously anticipate that experiment will yield a perfect structural match.
    Alas, I also believe in the principle of mediocrity.
    So I’m probably wrong.

  • Why is there always something rather than nothing?
  • "This is just too much of a coincidence to be coincidence."
    (Geoff Chester)
    Alternatively, why is there something analogous to nothing?
    Yes, this is a different question. Its premise may also be false. We don’t know if we really live in a zero-energy universe. In future, an informationless zero ontology may also be empirically falsified: it assumes unitary-only quantum mechanics. Analogies such as the quantum Library of Babel can hint at something deep or alternatively, lead us astray. Yet suppose it’s true. Why? Of all the countless cosmologies and theories of physics and even interpretations of quantum mechanics that humans have conceived, why does the evidence increasingly hint that the information content of reality may be indistinguishable from zero? IMO, it’s a pretty spooky coincidence: why should reality timelessly conform to something analogous to our pre-theoretic intuitions about what ought to be the default condition, i.e. nothing?

    For more in this vein:
    Why does the universe exist?

  • We find ourselves living in a probabilistic universe. How improbable is that?
  • "Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity."
    (Leucippus, 440 BCE)
    Quantum mechanics suggests that Leucippus was right. The appearance of finding ourselves in a probabilistic universe is an inevitable consequence of the unitary and deterministic evolution of the universal Schrodinger equation. But if you live your life like “The Dice Man”, and instead use quantum dice, then not even Laplace’s demon nor posthuman superintelligence will be able to predict your behaviour – even in principle. Yet the world’s master equation is linear and deterministic.

    This answer assumes that quantum mechanics is complete. We don’t know for sure. Perceptual direct realists use positivist language of “observers”, “observations”, “observables” (etc) – and are apt to believe in a non-unitary and indeterministic collapse of the wavefunction.

    Sentience is seriously weird, but the idea that reality is deterministic except when anyone looks strikes me as a conspiracy theory too far. For what it’s worth, I lean towards wavefunction monism. But even wavefunction monists don’t agree how to solve the measurement problem.

  • Are physicists far from a deep understanding of physics?
  • "Physics advances by accepting absurdities. Its history is one of unbelievable ideas proving to be true."
    (Rivka Galchen, '"Dream Machine' (2011))
    Happy story: Modern science is fabulously successful. All the special sciences reduce to physics: the Standard Model plus General Relativity. QED has been verified to 14 decimal places. Paradoxically, the well-advertised problems of testing string/M-theory, and the failure of particle accelerators to find evidence of supersymmetry (which transmutes fermions into bosons and vice versa), are badges of the success of quantum field theory at all empirically accessible energy regimes. In short, “The Standard Model of particle physics—the absolutely amazing theory of almost everything”.

    Sad story: Modern science is a degenerating research program. Materialism is the ideology of post-empirical science. If the properties of matter and energy were as physicists suppose, then we should be p-zombies. Physics is inconsistent with the existence of phenomenally-bound minds endowed with the causal power to discuss their own existence. Worse, the bedrock of modern physics, quantum mechanics, is doubly inconsistent with the empirical evidence. For quantum physics predicts that superpositions (“cat states”) should be ubiquitous. We experience only definite outcomes. And we shouldn’t experience anything at all. Therefore, we’ve no deep understanding of reality – and maybe not even shallow. In short, the emperor has no clothes.

    My view: On balance, bewilderment. However, the theoretical rationale and empirical evidence for fields of insentience is no stronger than the evidence for luminiferous aether. Transposing the mathematical straitjacket of modern physics onto the idealist ontology of non-materialist physicalism yields an empirically adequate theory with immense explanatory and predictive power. If borne out by molecular-matter wave interferometry, the intrinsic nature argument also solves the binding problem of neuroscience and the measurement problem of quantum mechanics. Superpositions are ubiquitous – for instance, the seemingly decohered, well-localised, subjectively macroscopic objects you’re experiencing within your world-simulation right now.

    The snag? The conjecture that the formalism of QFT or its stringy generalisation describes fields of sentience rather than insentience is unbelievable. The effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS is completely at variance with our folk chronology of consciousness. Femto-minds?! You’re kidding! So I struggle to take seriously such a revolutionary proposal. On the other hand, perhaps we’d do well to recall Daniel Boorstin: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”

  • Do fully sentient AI machines have the same rights as humans?
  • “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”
    (Richard Dawkins, ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976))

    "No thinking thing should be another thing's property, to be turned on and off when it is convenient.”
    (C. Robert Cargill, ‘Sea of Rust’ (2017))

    Our fellow biological robots are sentient. Non-human animals deserve the same rights as humans. Typically, our victims end up on human dinner plates after a lifetime of abuse.

    As far as we know, today’s smart digital software and silicon robots are insentient. AI machines don’t have rights. Information processing systems that aren’t unitary subjects of experience don’t have interests, and they can’t suffer.

    Yet what about the hypothetical conscious non-biological robots of tomorrow? “Substrate chauvinism” sounds immoral. If our machines ever “wake up”, then substrate chauvinism would be immoral. Most futurists are convinced that, sooner or later, digital computers and artificial robots will become sentient; AI researchers just don’t know how. Surely, runs this argument, it makes no difference whether a universal Turing machine (UTM) is implemented in carbon or silicon or gallium arsenide (etc). Functional role, not physical substrate, is what matters in generating sentience. In principle, digital computers and connectionist networks can do anything that humans and nonhuman animals can do – and more. Human and non-human animals are conscious. Therefore, in our more technologically developed future, inorganic robots will be conscious too. And insofar as sentient biological robots have rights, sentient inorganic robots should be granted rights too.

    My view?
    Sentientism. Cautiously, I’m a functionalist and a carbon chauvinist. Let’s extend our circle of compassion to the furthest margins of sentience. But digital zombies don’t matter – even the smart zombies that can outperform us in numerous cognitive domains. Ethical prudence suggests it’s good to err on the side of caution. So legally protecting zombies and micro-experiential zombies is at worst a harmless superstition. Yet IMO what makes biological robots functionally special is phenomenal binding, which is massively adaptive, evolutionarily ancient and classically impossible. Granting physicalism, digital computers and connectionist systems are never going to “wake up” and become subjects of experience. Contra David Chalmers, the classical impossibility of the unified world-simulations run by our minds doesn’t mean that we must embrace dualism. Only monistic physicalism is scientifically credible. It’s fair to say my ideas on the quantum supremacy of biological minds aren’t exactly conventional. But they are not unmotivated; and they are testable via interferometry. If intelligent machines will always be insentient, then non-biological robots exist only to serve us and enhance us. So instead of worrying about the non-existent plight of AI zombies, humans would do well to focus on our fellow sentient beings who are suffering in factory-farms and slaughterhouses – and the wild.

  • What does David Pearce think about John Searle’s account of direct/naïve realism and how scepticism is philosophy’s biggest mistake?
  • “A mistake of nearly as a great a magnitude overwhelmed our tradition in the seventeenth century and after, and it is the mistake of supposing that we never directly perceive objects and states of affairs in the world, but directly perceive only our subjective experiences."
    (John Searle, ‘Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception’ (2015))
    When you are dreaming, the distant horizon lies inside your transcendental skull, and the people you meet are zombies. When you are awake, the distant horizon lies inside your transcendental skull, and the people you meet are zombies. When you are dreaming, you talk of your conscious experience in the guise of a public material world. When you are awake, you talk of your conscious experience in the guise of a public material world. The difference between dreaming and waking consciousness is that when you are awake, the contents of your world-simulation are, in part, indirectly selected by your extra-cranial environment. During waking consciousness, your peripheral sense-transducers don’t add subjective content to your virtual world. Instead, inputs from your optic nerves (etc) sculpt your world-hallucination. By contrast, your dreamworld is nearly autonomous. Unless you have REM sleep disorder, your extra-cranial body is functionally paralysed when you dream. Just as the extra-cranial bodies of people with REM sleep disorder unwittingly “act out” their dreams by night, your extra-cranial body unwittingly “acts out” your waking dramas by day. It’s genetically adaptive.

    Philosophers call this inferential realism. Kant may have said something similar, albeit in impenetrable German. Inferential realism raises tricky issues about the nature of thought and language (cf. How can we explain the shared experience of reality?).

    The idea that you live in a virtual world populated by zombies sounds like a sceptical hypothesis – or solipsism. Not so. The zombies of your waking life are the neuronal avatars of sentient beings.

    The claim that you live in a virtual world populated by zombies also sounds like idealism. Again, this isn’t the case, or at least it needn’t be. We each run skull-bound world-simulations that masquerade as the real world, but mind-independent reality might be wholly non-experiential. I’m agnostic about the intrinsic nature of the mind-independent world, as distinct from the structural-relational properties of matter and energy captured by mathematical physics. I investigate non-materialist physicalism, which is a form of idealism. According to this conjecture, experience discloses the essence of the physical, the “fire” in the equations of relativistic QFT. Non-materialist physicalism should be experimentally falsifiable via next-generation interferometry because the hypothesis makes highly unintuitive predictions about the sub-femtosecond architecture of the CNS. By way of contrast, compare how naïve realism says we perceive cheese-like lumps of neural porridge that somehow secrete consciousness. Naïve realism also encourages the notion that we can observe, under light microscopy, decohered classical neurons. Hence the partial structural mismatch ostensibly revealed by neuroscanning between distributed neuronal feature-processors firing in your CNS and your unified perception of feature-bound objects: the binding problem. In other words, perceptual realism leads to dualism. By contrast, if non-materialist physicalism is true, there exists a perfect structural match between the phenomenally unified world-simulation run by your CNS and the fundamental high-dimensional space required by the dynamics of the wavefunction. The non-classical interference signature of molecular matter-wave interferometry should confirm this structural match and vindicate monistic physicalism. If non-materialist physicalism is true, there is no Hard Problem of consciousness and no binding problem of neuroscience. For now, hedging one’s bets may be wise.

    The falsity of perceptual realism has far-reaching implications for questions as diverse as the future of artificial intelligence, the foundations of quantum physics, and even the dimensionality of reality. Science is often said to be empirically adequate. Again, this isn’t so – or at least, not if perceptual realism is true. Thus the world’s master equation, (a relativistic generalisation of) the universal Schrödinger equation, tells us that quantum superpositions should be ubiquitous. Any attempt to quarantine Schrödinger’s cat is doomed. Yet if perceptual realism is true, then “observations” of one’s surroundings yield definite outcomes. If perceptual realism is taken at face value, then the superposition principle of QM inexplicably breaks down whenever one makes an observation. Otherwise, the superposition principle is universally valid. Most contemporary physicists are more likely to invoke decoherence theory than a discontinuous, nonlinear, nonlocal, non-unitary collapse of the wavefunction, the staple of twentieth-century Copenhagenism. Unitarity is conserved, just very well hidden. But the decoherence program doesn’t solve the measurement problem (cf. Stephen Adler’s "Why Decoherence has not Solved the Measurement Problem)". Likewise, perceptual realism encourages the idea that we live in four-dimensional spacetime rather than in high-dimensional Hilbert space. Recall that quantum states evolve in accordance with a local differential equation, the Schrödinger equation. Most working physicists are perceptual realists who treat Hilbert space or configuration space as just an abstract mathematical tool. Yet if perceptual realism is true, then we live in a Harry Potter universe awash with spooky non-local correlations (cf. Bell test experiments). Perceptual realism isn't the recipe for scientific rationalism, but for magic. “Every time a child says, ‘I don't believe in fairies’, there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead”, said novelist J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. If perceptual realism is true, then the mechanism of nonlocal EPR correlations is equally well-explained. Hilbert space realism is more rational than perceptual realism.

    Philosopher John Searle would disagree with this analysis. Fans of down-to-earth common sense will enjoy Searle’s “Seeing Things as They Are”.
    Not all of us are so blessed.

  • Will human experiments be needed in the future to complete Transhumanism?
  • Ideally, no. In practice, poorly tested, ill-controlled genetic experiments with unknown long-term consequences and a lack of prior consent are unavoidable. Making babies is inherently risky. Compare the genetic experiments conducted by humans who procreate today. The upshot of sexually-driven experimentation is most often malaise-ridden, intellectually and emotionally crippled offspring who crumble and die from the disorder known as aging. A small minority of people, anti-natalists, prefer not to bring more misery into the world. Anti-natalists refuse to participate in such cruel genetic experiments. Oddly, anti-natalists are not widely respected in human culture. In an inversion of Buddhist ethics, people who choose not to have children are sometimes branded as selfish.

    Might a transhumanist civilisation be feasible without recourse to genetic experimentation?
    If so, I don’t see how.
    A civilised world based on superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness is inconsistent with the genetic make-up of Darwinian life. Promoting a child-free society won’t solve the problem of suffering. Selection pressure ensures that most people want to have children, often desperately so, and pass on their proclivities. All that morally serious agents can do is weigh risk-reward ratios and act accordingly. Loading the genetic dice in favour of future humans, transhumans and non-human animals doesn’t guarantee a better outcome. Crude genetic determinism is naïve and simplistic. Even so, traits like pain-sensitivity and hedonic set-points are already amenable to germline interventions. The odds from creating “designer babies” are better than the odds from a blind genetic crapshoot. Prospective parents determined to gamble should at least be helped to gamble “responsibly”. A global revolution in the educational core-curriculum is sorely needed: all future prospective parents should be offered preimplantation genetic screening and counselling (cf. Andrés Gomez Emilsson on Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project). Universal access to gene-editing technologies should follow. All babies should be CRISPR babies. Good health as defined by the World Health Organization (“complete physical, mental and social well-being”) should be our long-term goal for all sentient beings. The well-being of all sentience sounds a utopian dream, but it’s better viewed as a programming challenge.

  • If animals were not killed anymore by humans, and they overpopulated the earth, how would vegans approach the problem?
  • What is the most ethical way to achieve ecologically sustainable population sizes in human and non-human animals?
    (1) Starvation, predation, parasitism and disease?
    or
    (2) Cross-species fertility regulation?

    Option (1) is natural. The natural option entails pointless and horrific suffering.

    Option (2) is “unnatural”, in the popular sense of the term. But then so are clothes, antibiotics and smartphones. “Unnatural” is a “boo” word for novelties that offend us.

    Tools of cross-species fertility regulation range from family planning in humans to immunocontraception in large terrestrial vertebrates (cf. A Welfare State For Elephants) to CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives for small fast-breeders. The CRISPR system can be used as a programmable genome-editor offering a high level of control over the genomes of all living species. Nuclease-based synthetic gene drives permit the super-Mendelian spread of any desired genetic element through any sexually reproducing species of free-living organism. Thus male/female sex ratios can be biased to reduce or amplify population sizes. Programmable, tunable drive systems of varying efficiencies can be used remotely to regulate population sizes of billions of sentient beings. Not just population sizes, but the level of suffering throughout the living world will soon be an adjustable parameter (cf. Genetically designing a happy biosphere). First use computer modelling. Then test in self-contained artificial biospheres. Then deploy in our wildlife parks and habitats as diverse as the deep oceans and tropical rain forests. Complications abound, but the basic principles are straightforward. We won’t run out of computer power. Meticulous planning for a civilised vegan biosphere may be contrasted with the uncontrolled experiment of habitat-destruction unfolding now.

    Compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world will be sociologically realistic only after factory farms and slaughterhouses have been closed in the wake of the in vitro meat revolution. Perhaps the most controversial issue will be the status of today’s obligate carnivores. Most people demonise human predators and lionise non-human predators. So a serious ethical debate is needed. What level of genetic tweaking is ethically desirable? Should we recognise a fundamental “right to harm”? Are violence and terror ethically defensible if the victims belong to a different species or ethnic group from our own? In my view, no:
    Can a world exist where animals do not eat other animals?

  • Do IQ tests really measure intelligence or simply your ability to do IQ tests?
  • IQ tests don’t measure general intelligence; they measure proficiency in the “autistic” component of intelligence. The evolution of distinctively human intelligence was driven in large part by our capacity for cooperative problem-solving, higher-order intentionality and mind-reading prowess – so-called Machiavellian intelligence. Therefore, any measure of general intelligence that aspires to ecological validity will include a battery of tests of social cognition. By contrast, IQ tests are mind-blind.

    Traditional IQ-test boosters claim that their puzzles are validated by the eminence of higher IQ scorers in academia, the sciences and economic life. But the testosterone-driven propensity to competitive status-seeking and the stereotypically “male” cognitive style measured by IQ tests are intimately connected. Awards, prizes and measures of financial and academic success are dominated by males. Fields medalists, Nobel laureates and world chess champions tend to be men. Yet there is no credible scientific evidence that low-testosterone (generally female) intelligence is lower than high-testosterone (generally male) intelligence. Testosterone sharpens visuo-spatial and mathematical prowess, but impairs introspective self-analysis, perspective-taking and social cognition (cf. Testosterone administration impairs cognitive reflection). This neurological tradeoff is reinforced by most cultures.

    Some high AQ-IQ males claim that IQ measures cognitive abilities that matter – as distinct from the touchy-feely emotional stuff measured by tests of social cognition. Once again, this judgement expresses a distinctive cognitive style. IQ tests are designed by (usually male) hyper-systematisers. So unsurprisingly, IQ tests measure abilities that (usually male) hyper-systematisers judge are cognitively important (cf. Empathizing–Systemizing theory and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism).

    There is some evidence that the prevalence and severity of autism spectrum disorder varies between ethnic groups. This disparity is reflected in IQ test performance. For instance, Ashkenazi Jews record the highest prevalence of Aspergers and the highest IQ scores. IQ tests don’t control for AQ.

    What kind of intelligence test might a full-spectrum superintelligence devise for humans to replace simple-minded IQ tests? Perhaps see The Biointelligence Explosion, although there is a rather obvious methodological problem with such speculation. Discussion of posthuman superintelligence always reveals more about the preoccupations and intellectual limitations of the writer than it reveals about posthuman superintelligence. Such caveats aside, some truly demanding cognitive skills, such as the ability to navigate different states-spaces of consciousness, are functionally antagonised by testosterone. Just as testing the visual intelligence of the congenitally blind is problematic, testing the cognitive prowess in psychedelia of, say, high-AQ/IQ drug-naïve radical eliminativists is a challenge.

    None of these sceptical remarks about IQ tests should be construed as disrespectful of people with high AQ/IQ. Not least, I think the world needs hyper-systematisers to reprogram the biosphere, eradicate suffering throughout the living world and assume responsibility for our Hubble volume in all accessible Everett branches. But people with a low-AQ/IQ can be just as smart (or stupid) as high-AQ/IQ folk – just in different cognitive domains.

  • Are there any reported harmful side effects of continuous modafinil use (Modvigil, Provigil)?
  • Used responsibly, modafinil seems to be a relatively safe drug. But like most psychostimulants, modafinil may subtly impair empathy. Also, drugs like modafinil (and drinks like strong black coffee) can be used to reinforce or subvert good sleep discipline. Habitual short sleep contributes to toxic tau protein accumulation, long-term cognitive impairment and subsequent risk of dementia, at least in mice (cf. Chronic short sleep and neurodegeneration). Psychostimulants are sometimes touted as “smart drugs” or “nootropics”. Yet the most effective tools of cognitive enhancement are still optimal nutrition, regular aerobic exercise and seven-to-eight hours sleep each night (cf. "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker).

  • Are there possible solutions to the Hard Problem of consciousness? Is there a theory that may explain how the physical characteristics of our brain produce a sense of experience?
  • “We are the universe experiencing itself.”
    (Carl Sagan)
    The Hard Problem of consciousness arises within the conceptual framework of scientific materialism. Plausibly, the mathematical formalism of our best description of the natural world describes fields of insentience. This assumption isn’t explicitly stated in any textbook of organic chemistry or formulation of the axioms of quantum mechanics. Rather, the assumption that the intrinsic nature of the physical is non-experiential is a philosophical intuition treated as too obvious to need stating explicitly. Critically, it’s not a scientific discovery. Dropping the suppressed premise also dissolves the Hard Problem as framed. One may or may not take non-materialist physicalism seriously as a solution to the Hard Problem of consciousness. I struggle. Either way, the track-record of human intuition is spectacularly bad and can’t be trusted at all.

    The second part of your question needs unpacking. What do we mean by “the physical characteristics of the brain”? If perceptual direct realism is true, then the gross characteristics of the physical universe are self-evident. Although the invisible microworld of quantum theory is an enigma even to physicists, the shared public macroworld is a brute fact of our existence. Therefore, we can directly inspect a surgically-exposed lump of neural tissue on a hospital operating table. If the patient is merely locally anaesthetised prior to surgery, stimulation of clusters of neurons with microelectrodes elicits reports of experiences ranging from e.g. fleeting hisses and speckles of colour to complex visual experiences of lifelike persons external to the patient’s body-image (cf. Opening the heads of living patients). How can mere patterns of neuronal firings generate first-person conscious experience? The “explanatory gap” seems unbridgeable. Subjective experience is irreducible to physical facts. And the story gets worse. Perceptual direct realism gives rise to insoluble mysteries such as the binding problem in neuroscience and the measurement problem in quantum mechanics.

    However, the entire conceptual framework of perceptual direct realism is false. Most probably, inferential realism about mind-independent reality is true (cf. “Philosophy’s biggest mistake”). Compare dreaming and waking consciousness. When you examine a surgically-exposed lump of neural porridge on an operating table in a dream, the brain that you see in front of your body-image is internal to the phenomenal world-simulation run by your skull-bound mind. When you are awake and examine a surgically-exposed lump of neural porridge on an operating table, the brain you see in front of your body-image is also internal to the phenomenal world-simulation run by your skull-bound mind. Let’s here discount scepticism or solipsism; they are sterile. Unlike dreamworlds, the properties of your awake world-simulation causally covary with structural-relational properties of matter and energy in the theoretically-inferred external world. Hence inferential realism. Yet “perception” as ordinarily understood is a pre-scientific myth. Indirectly, the local environment partly selects the properties of one’s phenomenal world-simulation, but peripheral nervous inputs don’t create the phenomena they select. In outline, quantum physics explains the emergence of differentially robust, quasi-classical, dynamically stable patterns (“neurons”) from underlying quantum bedrock via environmentally-induced decoherence. Hence the metaphorical hardware on which our phenomenal world-simulations run. But lumps of neural porridge (“brains”) are an artefact of a false theory of perception. Provocatively, what we perceive as “brains” don’t exist outside our consciousness. More soberly expressed, the natural world supports structures partly functionally akin to brains and partly functionally akin to neurons, but the neural porridge of perceptual naïve realism is mind-dependent. Consequently, the only direct evidence one has about the intrinsic nature of the physical is the nature of the tiny part of the physical world one instantiates, namely one’s own conscious mind. On this story, the mathematical apparatus of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Crazy? Yes. But empirically adequate.

    Try telling a physicist or chemist that their conceptual scheme is empirically inadequate, and you’ll get a stony look. Science works. Yet what would leave the technological successes of science a miracle isn’t the falsity of materialism, but rather the falsity of monistic physicalism. Physicalism, not materialism, gives science its explanatory and predictive power. None of the weird ideas explored here are inconsistent with the mathematical formalism of Standard Model. None of the weird ideas explored here add to the formalism of modern physics. Contrast such theoretical conservativism with panpsychism or a consciousness-induced “collapse of the wavefunction”.

    So I think testing physicalism will be the key – not in a high-energy particle accelerator, but the mind-brain. Is the partial “structural mismatch” (David Chalmers) between our minds and the microstructure of the CNS a real structural mismatch – or an artefact of temporally coarse-grained neuroscanning and perceptual naïve realism?
    I’m fairly confident that inferential realism is true, as distinct from direct realism or philosophical scepticism.
    I’m not at all confident non-materialist physicalism is true, though non-materialist physicalism is empirically adequate and potentially falsifiable via interferometry (cf. “Schrödinger's neurons”: If consciousness is fundamental, what predictions does it make?). Alas, it also strains credulity. But then so do eliminativism and dualism. Maybe our entire conceptual scheme is mistaken in ways our minds can’t fathom from within.

  • Will "negative emotion" cease to exist in the future via transhumanism, or do you think these emotions will always be part of us? Think art, media, entertainment, personal growth and experience.
  • Yes. I think experience below “hedonic zero” will be genetically impossible. All sentient beings will be innately happy. Sentient life will be animated entirely by gradients of superhuman bliss. The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) expresses our commitment to the well-being of all sentience.

    The fate of the arts?
    Glorious beyond human imagination. Perhaps compare personalised medicine. Artificial intelligence will soon outperform hard-won human expertise in all medical specialities. Likewise, artificial intelligence promises original, inspiring, soul-stirring personalised music, literature or visual art tailored specifically to your individual psychology: artistic genius that surpasses any human creator. And artistic creation is only half the story. Our neurological capacity for artistic appreciation will be revolutionised too. Compare how neuroscience is poised to decipher the molecular signature of pure bliss; the brain’s ultimate “hedonic hotspot” has been narrowed (in rats) to a cubic millimetre. Neuroscience will also decipher the molecular signature(s) of pure beauty. Armed with such aesthetic knowledge, biohackers may launch the most profound artistic revolution of all time. The neural substrates of beauty-perception can be enriched, purified and amplified at will. If given a glimpse of superhuman beauty, not even the basest philistine would wish to preserve the visual squalor and cultural wasteland of Darwinian life. Everyday post-Darwinian life will be more sublime, and subjectively more meaningful, than anything physiologically feasible today.

    Boundless, for all practical purposes. Not everyone favours an endless expansion of their personality any more than an expanding waistline. However, assume that a perpetual odyssey of emotional, spiritual, psychedelic or intellectual development is desirable. The enemy of personal growth isn't happiness, but emotional stasis – whether uniform bliss or uniform misery. Schematically, let’s say today’s hedonic range is -10 to 0 to +10. Re-engineering our reward circuitry with a high-contrast hedonic range of, say, +70 to +100, or even a low-contrast +90 to +100, promises awesome personal, emotional and intellectual development – just from a richer default-level of well-being. The posthuman counterpart of our dark night of the soul can still be more wonderful than today’s “peak experiences”. Information-sensitive gradients of bliss can preserve critical insight and social responsibility. Transhumanists aren’t hedonists in the vulgar sense. Critically, like radical life-extension, hedonic recalibration is, in a sense, cause-neutral – unless your cause is bioconservatism and the preservation of involuntary suffering. A civilisation based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss doesn’t call for the sacrifice of your values and preferences on the altar of someone else's vision of utopia.

  • Why is monism so controversial?
  • “No matter where you go or what you do, you live your entire life within the confines of your head.”
    (Terry Josephson)
    In the sciences and academic philosophy, monism is orthodox. The falsification of monistic physicalism would shatter the scientific world-picture. For sure, dualism still has able defenders. But the very language we use to frame the contemporary debate, notably the Hard Problem of consciousness, presupposes a monistic metaphysics. The existence of consciousness is problematic only because we plausibly assume that the bedrock of our understanding of physical reality – relativistic quantum field theory – describes fields of insentience rather than sentience. Vitalism in biology is dead, killed by the Modern Synthesis. Biology reduces to chemistry which reduces to physics. If irreducible “strong” emergence were real, then physicists would be not pleading for tens of billions of dollars for a new supercollider to probe presently inaccessible energy regimes. Ultimately, everything supervenes on physics, and (ignoring dark energy and dark matter) all of physics derives from the Standard Model plus General Relativity.

    Or so the scientific story goes. It’s a tale of cumulative success and the unification of knowledge. Yet one of the enduring myths of our age is that science is empirically adequate. Sadly, none of the empirical evidence, namely the phenomenal world-simulations run by our minds, should exist if our understanding of matter and energy as formalised by the Standard Model were correct. Yes, this claim sounds sensationalist, or at least like philosophical hyperbole. If perceptual naïve realism were true, then maybe the Hard Problem of consciousness could be quarantined from the rest of physical science. Direct access of our minds to extra-cranial reality would mean the empirical failure of science could be circumscribed. Unfortunately, naïve realism is a fairytale. Our minds run phenomenal world-simulations that masquerade as the external world. Only inferential realism about external reality is rationally defensible. The mathematical machinery of relativistic QFT describes what may be theoretically inferred, i.e. a mind-independent multiverse. But a materialist ontology takes us no further. Modern science is empirically inadequate even on its own terms. For the world’s master equation, the universal Schrödinger equation, says that quantum superpositions (“cat states”) should be ubiquitous. No theoretical rationale exists for an ad hoc “collapse of the wavefunction”, i.e. the ostensible non-unitary collapse of a quantum system upon measurement to one of the eigenstates of the Hermitian operator associated with the relevant observable in accordance with a probability given by the Born rule. Even the “no-collapse” decoherence program of modern (i.e. unitary-only) quantum mechanics doesn’t solve the mystery of definite outcomes. “We don’t have any really satisfactory theory of quantum mechanics”, laments Steven Weinberg (quoted p. 123 in Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math (2018)). The reason so many investigators pursue a degenerating research program, plagued with anomalies like their minds, is the widespread sense there is no credible alternative. Either we are scientific rationalists who uphold monistic materialism or we surrender to mysticism, superstition and religious obscurantism. Monistic materialism finds its fullest expression in anti-realism about consciousness. Radical eliminativism is perhaps the boldest philosophical position in the history of science. If the empirical evidence is inconsistent with the ontology of our best scientific theory of reality, then the empirical evidence must be mistaken. I find post-empirical science hard to fathom.

    However, the metaphysical framework of materialism should be distinguished from monistic physicalism. The two doctrines are often conflated because most physicalists are also materialists; hence the Hard Problem. Yet maybe 2500 years of failure is enough. Materialism is philosophy in the guise of science; maybe it’s bad philosophy. Tentatively, I work instead within the conceptual framework of non-materialist physicalism: more specifically, wavefunction monism. Quantum mechanics is mathematically complete; the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism doesn’t tamper with the bare formalism of unitary-only QM. So in a sense, wavefunction monism is theoretically conservative. Rather, the superfluous metaphysical baggage of materialism is discarded like the luminiferous aether of classical physics: the mysterious “fire” in the equations of QFT is not what our materialist intuitions suppose. Instead, our conscious minds disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical. Our minds are organizationally atypical, not ontologically special. So there is no “strong” emergence in Nature, and no explanatory gap. Unlike materialism, wavefunction monism is both theoretically and empirically adequate. True or false, wavefunction monism offers answers to the Hard Problem of consciousness, the problem of causal efficacy, the binding problem of neuroscience and the measurement problem of QM. Most critically of all, wavefunction monism is empirically testable: it’s “risky”, in Popper’s sense, insofar as the conjecture makes novel, precise, counterinitiative predictions about the temporally fine-grained microstructure of the CNS. The predictions are counterintuitive because of ultra-rapid, environmentally-induced decoherence: a “Schrödinger's neurons” hypothesis is intuitively crazy in an environment as warm as the brain. Maybe so. But it’s crazy for a reason. The Combination Problem for Panpsychism (2012) isn’t philosopher David Chalmers’ best-written or most accessible paper. Not least, property-dualist panpsychism differs from non-materialist physicalism. Yet Chalmers appreciates better than most of his critics what is entailed if the orthodox neuroscientific story is correct. If our minds are mediated by packs of decohered classical neurons, then not just monistic materialism, but also monistic physicalism, is false. If the apparent “structural mismatch” between our minds and the CNS is real, then dualism follows.

    Is wavefunction monism true?
    I don’t know; I’m tantalised, no more. I’m interested in any theory of consciousness that’s testable, which narrows the field. Experiment, i.e. molecular matter-wave interferometry, should give us the answer:
    If consciousness is fundamental, what predictions does it make?

  • Who was the oldest human to live?
  • “The world is wonderful; it grows more wonderful every day.”
    (Sarah Knauss on her 111th birthday, source: ‘The Morning Call’ (08/26/91))
    Quite possibly the world’s oldest ever human was the chocoholic American seamstress Sarah Knauss (24 Sept. 1880 – 30 Dec. 1999), who lived to the age 119 years, 97 days. Sarah Knauss never drank liquor or smoked tobacco. A devout Christian, she belonged to the Episcopal Church of the Mediator, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Reportedly, very little fazed her; she had a serene and optimistic temperament and smiled a lot. She ate sparingly, but had a sweet tooth. Late in life, she became profoundly deaf. No one else has indisputably lived to be 118 years, let alone 119. Sarah Knauss remained comparatively cognitively intact well into her twelfth decade, though details of the interrelationships between the six living generations of her family sometimes eluded her. On the last of her 43,530 days, she died peacefully in her sleep while sitting in her chair in her room. The world’s second-oldest fully authenticated supercentenarian is the Japanese woman Nabi Tajima (4 Aug. 1900 – 21 Apr. 2018), who died aged 117 years, 260 days.

    Sarah Knauss’s 95-year-old daughter, Kitty, attended her 119th birthday celebrations, which strengthens confidence in the age-validation. Compare the five children born to the Russian claimant, Nanu Shaova, after she allegedly turned 55 years (cf. Woman deemed by Russia to be the world's oldest person dies 'aged 128').

    What about the controversial case of Madame Calment, who apparently outlived Moses?
    After initial shock and outrage in France at recent Russian research suggesting that Yvonne Calment usurped her mother Jeanne’s identity, even sections of the French press have tempered their indignation. In a well-balanced article, Le Monde (cf. Jeanne Calment a-t-elle eu 122 ans ? Enquête sur la folle hypothèse de deux chercheurs russes) quotes one of her doctors,

    "'Docteur Polar' se souvient qu’il arrivait à Jeanne Calment de s’emmêler les pinceaux entre son mari et son père, sa mère et sa grand-mère. Confusion banale, pensait-il alors. Ou bien arnaqueuse rattrapée par ses mensonges?"
    Indeed. I say a little more here:
    Was Jeanne Calment the only person in history to surpass the age of 120 years old?

  • Do you think there will ever be a time when vegetarians comprise more than half of the world’s population? If so, when? (Let’s count lab-grown meat as vegetarian)
  • “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
    Yes. We may be living in the final century of industrialised animal abuse. The precise timescales will depend on when cheap cultured meat products reach the supermarket shelves. Initial suspicion may come from consumers who confuse in vitro products with GMO foods. So good marketing will be vital to swift acceptance. Any temptation genetically to enrich cultured meat is probably best resisted – at least until invitrotarianism becomes the global norm. Once consumers are familiar with the concept and everyday reality of clean, cruelty-free, non-murderous meat, the revolution will be unstoppable. Humans tend to be morally apathetic, but most of us are not systematically malevolent. Almost nobody likes factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Most consumers prefer not to be reminded of their existence (cf. Poll Shows 47% Of Americans 'Agree With Ban On Slaughterhouses'). In addition, humans are prone to virtue-signalling on social media and elsewhere, as billions of Facebook posts and dating profiles attest. As the cultured meat revolution unfolds, what better way to signal one’s fundamental decency and moral integrity without the slightest personal inconvenience? When routinely offered otherwise indistinguishable products in a supermarket or restaurant, how many people will deliberately choose the butchered animal over the cruelty-free option? Most humans like to think of themselves as civilised. The cultured meat revolution will be accompanied by much self-congratulation, and much moral indignation directed at refuseniks.

    Mercifully, none of the world’s major religions ban cultured meat. Without venturing too deeply into theological speculation, it’s hard to see how an All-Merciful God could be opposed to such an innovation. Some scriptural passages may even be co-opted to hint at divine endorsement. Compare Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes, or (more obliquely) Isaiah 66:3: “He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man”.

    Some animal advocates regard in vitro meat development and commercialisation as a distraction from the ethical issues. After all, cheap, palatable and nutritious meat substitutes already exist. Many reformed meat-eaters now consume healthy vegetarian and vegan options. No heroic self-sacrifice is called for: vegetarians and vegans tend to be smarter, slimmer and longer-lived than meat eaters. Compared to the horrors of factory-farming and slaughterhouses, quibbling over the taste and texture of a hamburger versus a veggieburger seems morally frivolous. Surely we don’t need invitroburgers to erase any difference at all. And it’s true: given gastronomic ingenuity, vigorous moral campaigning and enough time (centuries??), maybe vegetarianism would eventually triumph across the globe. I don’t know. But worldwide veganism (in the strict sense) is sociologically far-fetched on any foreseeable timescale. Vegan critics might respond that boosters of cultured meat and animal products are too cynical about human nature. We should just campaign harder. However, critics of the technical solution may overestimate their own powers of persuasion. Most meat-eaters already know the moral arguments against harming non-human animals. Consumers carry on eating meat and animal products regardless. If reproached that a pig is as sentient as a prelinguistic toddler, the average meat-eater will shrug, “But I like the taste!” “They're only animals!” “I need the protein!” “Humans are omnivores!” “Science proves plants feel pain!” “Vegans are so self-righteous!” Et cetera. Yet most often, meat-eaters just shrug. As George Bernard Shaw remarked, “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity.” Moral revolutions that depend on minor personal inconvenience are vastly less credible than moral revolutions that entail zero personal inconvenience. Accelerating the development and commercialisation of in vitro meat and animal products is essential.

    After invitrotarians, vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians become a global majority, factory-farms will be outlawed worldwide. Later this century, slaughterhouses will probably be banned under international law. This prediction might seem unduly optimistic. Won’t a significant minority of conservative consumers hold out indefinitely? Even after numerous well-controlled, double-blind studies have shown no difference in taste and texture between butchered and in vitro meat, won’t some reactionary meat eaters swear that an indefinable je ne sais quoi distinguishes traditional products from the new-fangled synthetic alternative? And aren’t some people just spiteful, perverse, or too entrenched in animal-eating culture?

    Alas, yes. Yet moral revolutions happen. When stripped of all incentives to self-serving bias, the entire debate over the rights of non-human animals will be transformed. In that sense, cultured meat is the ultimate moral-enhancement technology. Later this century, industrialised animal abuse will become not just socially taboo, but unlawful – on a par with cannibalism and child abuse. When the last slaughterhouse finally shuts, humanity will collectively pat itself on the back at what a humane species we are…

  • From an anti-natalist point of view, what prevents life from evolving into sentient beings again and perpetuating suffering? Aren't we closer to eliminating suffering now than the next evolution of sentient life would be at its conception?
  • "You want, if possible – and there is no more insane ‘if possible’ – to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible – that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?"
    (Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (1886))
    I’m going to answer your question as a “soft” anti-natalist who believes that the only long-term solution to the problem of suffering is to reprogram the biosphere. Pro-natalists, religious believers, advocates of suffering-focused ethics, and even (or especially?) ardent life-lovers dedicated to the reduction of existential risk can potentially support the abolitionist project. For sure, centuries of struggle lie ahead; but this kind of time-scale would be true of a “hard” anti-natalist agenda too. “Good health for all” as generously defined by the World Health Organization deserves to be a platitude. Biotechnology in the guise of genome-editing gives us the tools for the job.

    Yet how might a “hard” anti-natalist respond to your question?
    From a technical perspective, there are definitive, apocalyptic solutions to life on Earth. The Death Star belongs to science fiction, and even sterilising the planet would be challenging. But either a pan-continental, multi-gigaton, cobalt-salted thermonuclear “Doomsday device” or multiple, independently-targeted synthetic gene drives could retire multicellular life. In the aftermath of such a major biospheric reduction, unicellular archaea and bacteria living deep inside the Earth wouldn’t have enough time to evolve into pain-ridden animal life before the Sun becomes a red giant in a billion years or so and makes Earth effectively uninhabitable. Arguably, the risks of spelling out in detail what would be needed (rather than sticking to superficial generalities) outweigh any conceivable benefits. In my view, even “hard” anti-natalists would do well to uphold the sanctity of human and non-human life. Suffering rarely ennobles, and compassion for all suffering beings can mutate into nihilism and misanthropy. Even voluntary euthanasia in human society needs to be attended with extensive legal safeguards.

    However, I think the critical objection to “hard” anti-natalism is straightforward, and in my view decisive. “Hard” anti-natalists must show how selection pressure can be overcome. Anti-natalists tend to remove themselves from the gene pool; and anti-natalists of any description are never going to achieve global consensus for universal childlessness. With immense effort, we may achieve global consensus for phasing out the biology of suffering via editing our genetic source code. Even naïvely insurmountable obstacles (like wild animal suffering) are only implementation details. Perhaps compare the once utopian dream of pain-free surgery and early opposition to surgical anaesthesia.

    “But without suffering we wouldn’t be human!”, says the critic.
    Resisting the temptation to tread on his toe, one may politely agree: more than one route can be mapped to human extinction.

    8 Upvotes

  • Can solipsism be scientifically disproved?
  • “We live as we dream – alone.”
    (Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1899))
    The sceptical Problem Of Other Minds will be solved by biotechnology. Compare people born without a corpus callosum to connect their cerebral hemispheres, or “split brain” patients who’ve had their corpus callosum surgically severed to treat epilepsy. If one hemisphere entertains doubts whether the other hemisphere is really conscious (aka the Problem Of Other Hemispheres), then currently the sceptical hemisphere can’t prove the sentience of its twin. However, advanced biotech promises corpora callosa grown to order, laying sceptical doubts to rest. More radically, artificially-grown corpora callosa and reversible thalamic bridges will let neurotypical humans partially “mind-meld” like the conjoined Hogan sisters today. So yes, solipsism can, in principle, be scientifically disproved.

    Mind-melding won’t be technically easy. Are there other objective tests of consciousness?
    This is a contentious issue. On standard materialist assumptions, i.e. the formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, there is no scientific touchstone of consciousness. If physicists and chemists are correct about the fundamental properties of energy and matter, then we should all be p-zombies. First-person facts shouldn’t exist. One’s own mind is the anomaly. Eliminative materialists bite the bullet and claim that humans are p-zombies – although eliminativists disbelieve in their own minds, too, so they aren't solipsists. Here let’s assume that science should be empirically adequate; most of us struggle to feign anaesthesia. A monistic materialist ontology – as distinct from monistic physicalist ontology – can’t be reconciled with the empirical evidence, i.e. one’s own experience. Dualism and mysterianism lead nowhere. By contrast, non-materialist physicalism is not just empirically adequate, but also has explanatory and predictive power. I don’t know whether non-materialist physicalism is true – it feels absurd. But speculatively, futuristic cerebroscopes could use molecular matter-wave interferometry to demonstrate the insentience of silicon robots and the sentience of biological nervous systems. On this story, scrambled phase coherence is the hallmark of the zombie. The non-classical interference signature diagnostic of phenomenally-bound minds will disclose a perfect structural match between minds and the formalism of physics. Or rather, I predict a perfect structural match. It’s easy to delude oneself. Yet dualism is crazy too.

    Will mind-melding technologies or futuristic neuroscanning (eventually) vindicate common sense?
    Not entirely, IMO. Solipsism, i.e. the conjecture one is the only sentient being, should be distinguished from the theory that one inhabits a virtual world populated by zombies. Perceptual direct realists conflate these two theories, so the distinction needs elaboration. Everyone you meet when you’re dreaming is a zombie. Ascribing consciousness to other organisms on the basis of their similar behaviour is systematically misleading; the argument from analogy fails in dreamworlds. Unless you’re having a lucid dream, you are deceived by phantoms. Dreaming is evolutionarily ancient, so life on Earth supports countless zombie-ridden virtual dreamworlds. What’s more controversial is the nature of waking worlds. The perceptual direct realist believes that waking consciousness confers an ability directly to perceive the local environment, including other people’s bodies – and occasionally their exposed brains, too, in a surgical operating theatre. According to the perceptual direct realist, the observable bodies of other organisms are brute facts about our public macroscopic world; only the consciousness of other organisms in this shared arena is a challenge to prove. By contrast, the inferential realist about the external world believes that awake and dreaming world-simulations alike are populated by zombies. The difference between dreaming and perceptual consciousness is that during waking life the zombies of one’s acquaintance are the avatars of sentient beings whose existence one may infer on theoretical grounds, together with the rest of the cosmos. So the argument from analogy may be invoked with justification, but only to hypothesise other zombie-ridden world-simulations run by minds akin to one’s own, not to anthropomorphise the zombies populating one’s own mind. Kant said as much, though he didn’t talk about zombies. The inferred external world sculpts and partly selects the waking world-simulations run by one’s skull-bound mind. Yet even the seemingly faraway horizon is an intrinsic property of the neocortical matter and energy within one’s transcendental skull. Whereas dreamworlds are autonomous, waking up from sleep reboots one’s world-simulation and brings world-making under tight external control via peripheral nerve inputs. Yet the skull is a windowless prison. “Waking up” doesn’t allow feats of remote viewing or confer any other kinds of psi power. In other words, the solipsist is right to believe that his perceived reality is autobiographical; but he’s wrong to believe he is special. Disposable world-simulations in the guise of external reality are an adaptation of animal life. Does this diagnosis matter?

    Typically, the waking psychosis of perceptual direct realism is better for one’s mental health than inferential realism. In common with e.g. Roko’s Basilisk, the Simulation Argument, Bolzmann Brains and Everettian Quantum Mechanics, the world-simulation model of the human predicament is a meme-hazard. In everyday life, perceptual realism is a healthy psychosis to be encouraged in everyone but the most psychologically robust.

    However, intellectually speaking, the conceptual framework of perceptual realism also leads to unfathomable mysteries such as (1) the Hard Problem of consciousness, i.e. how does a lump of neural porridge generate first-person facts? (2) the phenomenal Binding Problem in neuroscience, i.e. why aren’t we micro-experiential zombies composed of membrane-bound pixels of “mind-dust”? and (3) the Measurement Problem in quantum mechanics, i.e. why does the otherwise universally valid superposition principle of QM break down on measurement to yield definite outcomes in accordance with the Born rule? Such mysteries proliferate: they are unanswerable within the conceptual framework of perceptual realism. In my view, scientists should trust the formalism of unmodified and unsupplemented (i.e. unitary-only) quantum mechanics, not folk-realism about perception. Our minds exemplify the superposition principle, not its breakdown. In fairness, this is a controversial position. But when saying anything about consciousness, what isn’t?

    Ethically speaking, whether we adopt the conceptual framework of inferential realism or common sense perceptual realism wouldn’t matter if natural selection had optimised our waking world-simulations to mirror things as they are. In some ways, the world-simulations run by scientific rationalists are faithful to the structural-relational properties of inferred extra-cranial reality; hence technological civilisation. In other respects, our world-simulations are egocentric cartoons. Some dark Darwinian minds are probably best left entombed in their skulls. Yet in my view, the reason we should favour the development of mind-melding technologies to breach our solipsistic island-universes isn’t their potential to banish philosophical doubt, or even to overcome semantic solipsism. Rather, the tools of inter-personal and cross-species mind-melding will bring about a revolution in both ethics and decision-theoretic rationality – an artificial distinction born of the skull-bound prison of Darwinian life.

  • Does every person have the thought of “I think, therefore I am”?
  • Some philosophers have Cartesian doubts about an external world. Radical eliminativists have materialist doubts about an internal world. Metaphysical nihilists don’t believe in either an internal world or an external world. The spirit of Cicero lives on.

    Rather boringly, I believe in both an internal and external world – although an informationless zero ontology has superficial affinities with nihilism. However, the existence of a conscious thought-episode (such as this self-intimating indexical thought) does not entail the existence of an enduring self. Enduring metaphysical egos are problematic for many reasons.

    Who is right?
    My sympathies lie with the Cartesians, though not everyone who has conscious thoughts recognises them as such, or acknowledges ownership (cf. thought insertion). The consciousness realist may be tempted to put the inverted Cogito of eliminativist materialism on the same level of absurdity as metaphysical nihilism. But eliminativists recognise what most of their critics don’t, namely the gravity of the Hard Problem of consciousness for monistic physicalism and the unity of science.

    Fortunately, there is another route to saving monistic physicalism. I’d rather entertain a crazy theory consistent with the empirical evidence than a crazy theory based on its denial.

  • How do you conceptualize the entities many individuals describe encountering when they’ve consumed DMT?
  • “To fathom hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.”
    (Dr Humphry Osmond)
    Most of psychedelia is weird beyond words. Writing a lucid analysis risks giving the drug-naïve reader a false impression, namely the writer understands what he is talking about.
    With this disclaimer in mind, here goes:

    In everyday life, most folk are perceptual direct realists. Reflective people believe that appearances can deceive, and material objects may appear to us distorted in multiple ways by the mind. Scientifically-educated people may distinguish the primary properties of material objects from mind-dependent secondary qualities like phenomenal colour, possibly with a nod to quantum physics and how the superposition principle of QM makes classical primary properties problematic. Yet most folk don’t think of their minds as running a world-simulation that masquerades as the external world – an idea that evokes solipsism, scepticism or Berkeleyan idealism rather than scientific rationalism. Even to draw a distinction between one’s empirical skull and transcendental skull, or to distinguish between one’s mind-dependent virtual body and theoretically-inferred extracranial body, or more generally to contrast inferential realism with perceptual direct realism (etc) invites suspicions of philosophical self-indulgence. A shared, public, macroscopic world is a basic, cross-cultural assumption of our conceptual scheme.

    So what happens when a drug-naïve perceptual realist takes a psychedelic like N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and gains access to inter-dimensional beings, machine elves and the like?

    Typically, the psychonaut doesn’t marvel at hitherto unsuspected properties of the mind-brain. Instead, his scientific world-picture disintegrates.

    Are these alien entities real?
    In one sense, yes. The alien entities can appear more real than ordinary humans. But contra Terence McKenna, they are not sentient (cf. The Case Against DMT Elves). And unlike the virtual humans of one’s waking world-simulation, their behaviour does not causally co-vary with sentient beings in the (theoretically-inferred) external world. So whatever these exotic beings say to the DMT user – if they deign to communicate at all – is to be trusted even less than the scepticism of scientific rationalists. Yes, intense drug-induced experiences seem more real than everyday sleepwalking. But reality does not admit of degrees. Truth and intensity can’t be equated. Compare, say, the vivid hallucinations in all sensory modalities of a mystic like Emanuel Swedenborg, whose waking world-simulation was less tightly constrained by peripheral inputs than neurotypical humans (cf. Talking back to the spirits: the voices and visions of Emanuel Swedenborg). Strictly speaking, we all hallucinate throughout our lives. With the exception of the congenitally deaf, we all hear voices; and we all engage in dialogues with imaginary beings in virtual worlds. Around a tenth of our lives are completel