SOME QUORA ANSWERS
by David Pearce (2015, 2016)
- 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 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": http://www.reproductive-revolution.com)
"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 the range or the depth of His 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.
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 declining to use 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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?":
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 the philosophical Problem Of Other Minds to rest.
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:
- 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 another sentient being 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 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":
- 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: http://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
("Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch-OR’ theory")
http://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:
- 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:
("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 non-human 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?
- 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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartesian_theater).
- 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 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. http://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:
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, a study of Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka" (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 [non-human 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. http://www.reproductive-revolution.com
- 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:
However, most physicists still balk at what wavefunction monism entails.
- 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":
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):
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:
- 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 rival 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 non-human 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":
For a semi-popular counterblast to timeless physics, perhaps see Lee Smolin's "Time Reborn":
Stillborn, IMO; but I'm not convinced anyone really understands what's going on.
- 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 does 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.
- 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.
The Antispeciesist Revolution
- 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. (http://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.
- 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:
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 artefact 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 technical tricky experiment outlined here:
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, 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:
("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 non-human 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 non-humans 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?”
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”:
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.
- 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 (PC). 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. http://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. http://www.nature.com/news/2002/021003/full/news021001-6.html
"Portrait of a serial killer")
; 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. http://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 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
"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 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: http://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
"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.
"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.
- 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:
However, most physicists still balk at what wavefunction monism entails.
- If one wished to devote their life to it, which occupation would best serve the goal of increasing the human happiness setpoint?
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 our own genetic source code and native reward circuitry.
("First robust genetic links to depression emerge")
("Is Pessimism Genetic? Research Shows Your Outlook Might Be Cloudy By Genetic Design") (ADA2b deletion variant)
("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.
On this analysis, even the admirable Effective Altruist movement
(cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effective_altruism) 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.
- 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 living 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 living 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 is the consequences of their existence after individual waves of a superposition interfere with each other. (cf. the Born rule: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_rule) So why is the environment seen to be 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, than phenomenal binding isn't optional: it's inescapable. Wave function 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: http://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)
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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_binding#Interdisciplinary_correlates) of orthodox neuroscience merely a classical parallelism - or coherent superpositions? The conceptually simple if technically demanding experiment below should tell us: an experimentally testable conjecture: http://www.physicalism.com/#6
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?")
- 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.
- 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.
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: http://www.physicalism.com/quantum-computer.pdf: “Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer”)
Robins may be quantum computers.
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 common-sense 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.
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”.
- 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.
- Does Nozick's experience machine prove anything?
Perhaps consider Nozick's thought-experiment in conjunction with Felipe De Brigard's "inverse experience machine argument",
("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 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, promises 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 ?)
- 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:
- 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,
- ibufofen, 200mg
- blueberry, green tea extract,
- flaxseed oil,
- rice protein isolate,
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA),
- iscreatine, l-carnosine,
- 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.
- 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...
More generally, most sentient beings lack a self concept and can't pass the mirror test:
However, they still have a profound capacity to suffer.
- 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.
- 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?"
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):
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
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:
- How can I explain the factors which determine the fate of the universe?
Cosmology is in flux. So the lame but honest answer is we don't know - especially after the last supermassive black holes evaporate in 10100 years or so. What mature posthuman superintelligence can and can't do on cosmological scale is still an open question too. But physicist Don Page estimates that the Poincaré recurrence time
of our observable universe is around 10^10^10^10^2.08 years. The Poincaré recurrence time of a super-inflationary universe of the kind imagined by theorist Andrei Linde is around 10^10^10^10^10^1.1 years:
If so, it's been quite some time since you last asked this question or will do so again - though still a twinkle in the eye of eternity.
- In Everettian quantum mechanics, under what conditions does a branching occur?
According to Everett, reality consists of a single gigantic superposition - presumably a superposition of all possible space-time geometries. "Branching" within the universal wavefunction occurs continually and essentially everywhere, but precisely when a distinct "branch" has been created is not a well-defined question because interference effects from quasi-classical Everett branches that have decohered ("split") never wholly disappear. Extremely rarely, branches may even recohere ("fuse"). So what explains the comparative robustness of quasi-classical Everett branches? For a nice account of the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics, perhaps see Wojciech Zurek's "Quantum Darwinism":
- Is consciousness possibly a quantum field, just as the gravity can be represented as a quantum field?
Yes. But we don't know. Physical science has no idea what "breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe." Intuitively it's obvious this "fire" is non-experiential. Yet the claim that quantum field theory is about fields of insentience is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific discovery.
Perhaps our best clues to the intrinsic nature of the physical are the properties of the small part of the "fire" in the equations to which one enjoys direct access, namely one's own phenomenal mind. Non-materialist physicalists conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Alternatively, perhaps consciousness "emerges" via mechanisms unknown.
- Is it still possible to obtain a DNA sample of Jeanne Calment?
Yes, sequencing Jeanne Calment's DNA would be trivially cheap and easy: she is buried in Arles. The information should then be placed in the public domain for benefit of researchers world-wide. Aging and age-related disease should be treated as a public emergency. Calment has no relatives, religious or otherwise, whose finer metaphysical sensibilities might be upset by borrowing a lock of her hair. I hope her whole genome sequence can soon be uploaded to the Net.
- David Pearce (philosopher): How does David Pearce (the philosopher) make money?
My role model is Diogenes and his tub:
But if anyone feels I should be emulating pastor Creflo Dollar below to spread the word, please do feel free to get in touch...
("Televangelist asks his congregation for $65M to buy a jet")
- What is the connection between transhumanism and eugenics?
Transhumanism has nothing in common with the coercive eugenics of the twentieth century. Yet if we are to build a "Triple S" civilisation of superhappiness, superlongevity and superintelligence, then humans will need genetically to edit our legacy source code. Every child born today is a unique genetic experiment. The outcome of such reckless genetic experimentation is a world of unimaginable suffering. However, the genetic crapshoot of traditional sexual reproduction will shortly be replaced by the era of "designer babies". What will such control over our own source code entail?
In theory, a "Triple S" civilisation could be created via premeditated design (cf. Qualia Computing) For the most part, such scenarios are not sociologically credible. Perhaps more plausible are scenarios where individual prospective parents take responsibility for loading the genetic dice in their children's favour - first via preimplantation genetic screening and counselling, and eventually via genetic tweaking as the CRISPR genome-editing revolution unfolds. The nature of selection pressure will change in consequence. (cf. The Reproductive Revolution)
The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) expresses our commitment to the well-being of all sentience. (cf. http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/wta/declaration) Such a commitment is inconsistent with conserving Darwinian life in its existing guise.
Potential risks? Ethical dilemmas? Where does one start...
- What are the best non-materialist theories of consciousness?
Perhaps consider non-materialist physicalism. How would the world appear different if the "fire" in the equations of physics is consciousness, and the solutions to the equations are its values?
Monistic idealism, at least in its scientifically literate guises, should not be confused with a pre-scientific animism, i.e. the idea that trees, mountains, and other quasi-classical objects are unitary subjects of experience. Rather, physicalistic idealism is a conjecture about the intrinsic nature of the physical. Intuitively, this is a merely "philosophical" question, not a true scientific conjecture. How could it be tested? Theoretical physics offers a mathematical straitjacket for describing the structural-relational properties of universe. But we are never going to know whether the intrinsic nature of the world’s fundamental fields [or branes, etc] is experiential or non-experiential. However, this dismissive response is too quick. What we can do is attempt to falsify physicalistic idealism by finding some element of our minds the representation of which is absent from the formalism of our best scientific description of the world.
Perhaps one place to look is phenomenal binding. If we were simply a pack of membrane-bound classical neurons, as textbook neuroscience suggests, then such distributed neuronal “pixels” of experience could support neither the binding of these micro-experiences into unitary perceptual objects (“local” binding) nor the unity of perception and the fleeting unity of the self (“global” binding). In short, we'd be what Phil Goff calls micro-experiential zombies.
On the face of it, quantum-theoretic accounts fare no better. For quantum superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the CNS are too ridiculously short-lived to explain phenomenal binding. Therefore physicalistic idealism must be false.
Maybe so; but let’s make sure experimentally. Could instead next-generation molecular matter-wave interferometry discover a perfect structural match between the bound phenomenology of our minds and the formalism of physics, just as physicalistic idealism dictates?
(cf. "an experimentally testable conjecture": http://www.physicalism.com/#6)
Even if one is convinced a priori that the answer must be "no", experimental falsification will still be worthwhile in order to lay one class of theory of consciousness to rest.
- What is Eliezer Yudkowsky's reputation in academia, especially among other AI researchers?
Yudkowsky's writing on recursively self-improving AI has been a seminal influence on a number of big-name academics. Perhaps see "Superintelligence" (2014) by Oxford University's Nick Bostrom.
- What do Hedonists and Transhumanists think about the negative portrayal of Soma and genetic engineering in Brave New World?
Our genes didn't design us to be happy. So what's the solution? We all tend to shoehorn new ideas into familiar stereotypes. The prospect of designer drugs that let us feel "better than well", let alone a civilisation based on gradients of intelligent bliss, tends to trigger a response of, "Oh, that's just ‘?Brave New World!’" Clearly, Huxley's work is a prophetic masterpiece of literary fiction. The real-life pitfalls to building a world without the biology of involuntary suffering are immense. Yet unless humans are prepared to upgrade our sinister genetic source code - or at least patch the nasty legacy-wetware it spawns - the terrible suffering of Darwinian life will continue indefinitely.
- Are there exceptions to the natural selection theory and to the "survival of the fittest" rule??
Perhaps consider CRISPR-driven "gene drives". Gene drive systems are "selfish" genetic elements that can rapidly spread in sexually reproducing species even if they reduce the fitness of individual organisms. Researchers can now take a gene that has a fitness cost for the individual, for example male sterility, and move ("drive") it through a population in defiance of the usual constraints of Mendelian inheritance. Gene drives achieve this seemingly impossible feat by ensuring that they will be inherited by effectively all (rather than half) of the organism's offspring. (cf. Gene drives)
Unfortunately, risks abound. For example, gene drives might be used by bioterrorists. A bioterrorist could design a small number of mosquitoes powered with a gene drive equipped with a gene for making a deadly toxin. Mosquitoes reproduce rapidly. Soon all the world’s mosquitoes of the modified species would make the toxin. Every mosquito bite would be lethal.
(cf. Bioterrorism - "This could be the next weapon of mass destruction")
Worse, gene drives will be hard to regulate and police. In principle, "gene drives" can be created by gifted amateur biohackers using readily-available materials.
On a brighter note, gene drives may soon be used to eliminate the scourge of e.g. mosquito-borne disease in humans:
("First CRISPR Gene Drive in Mosquitoes Aims to Eradicate Malaria | MIT Technology Review")
Most ambitiously, gene drives could cheaply, sustainably and effectively reduce the burden of suffering across the entire sexually-reproducing vertebrate lineage and beyond. In principle, we could use gene drives to create a happy post-Darwinian biosphere. Are humans really capable of responsible stewardship of the rest of the living world...
Gene drives and the post-Darwinian biosphere
- Are we trying to increase the longevity of any species other than humans?
The selective monoamine oxidase type-b inhibitor selegiline (l-deprenyl) is available under the brand "Anipryl" to treat canine cognitive function in senior dogs. Selegiline may prolong both life-expectancy and maximum lifespan in multiple "animal models", though large well-controlled trials in big vertebrates are lacking.
The Dog Aging Project (cf. http://dogagingproject.com/) is dedicated to defeating ageing in domestic dogs. As reported in “Nature”, the most promising anti-ageing agent currently undergoing trials is rapamycin:
Future radical life-extension technologies will presumably be used by affluent ultra-long-lived humans for their non-human animal companions before they become widely available to the world's poor. But transhumans, humans and nonhuman animals alike should eventually benefit from eliminating the scourge of ageing.
In the meantime, the best way to increase longevity would be to outlaw factory-farms and slaughterhouses.
- How can race influence intelligence?
The ethnic groups with the highest and lowest IQ scores in the USA also record the highest and lowest scores respectively for autism spectrum disorder - as might be predicted if IQ tests measured mind-blind autistic intelligence rather than general intelligence. There is no compelling evidence of innate differences in general intelligence between members of different ethnic groups in any measure of intelligence with ecological validity (cf. the "Machiavellian ape" hypothesis) - though the possibility of such differences can't be ruled out a priori.
- Does the Problem of Evil prove that we are not in a simulation?
The assumption that unitary phenomenal minds can "emerge" at some level of computational abstraction is widely held. However, it rests on contestable metaphysical assumptions. I'm personally sceptical about the prospects of digital sentience. But let's run with your question...
The only conceivable ethical reason I can think of for running a simulation with such unspeakable horrors is to prevent or mitigate something even more terrible and even more evil. An analogous problem exists in traditional Christian theodicy. We can choose between imagining a Simulator who is omnipotent and imagining a Simulator who is benevolent - but not a Simulator who is simultaneously omnipotent and benevolent.
So in answer to your question: suggests, yes; proves, no.
- It's a fairly widespread belief that sufficiently intelligent or complex computational processes will result in phenomenal subjective experience. What are the metaphysical assumptions this belief rests on, and are they likely to be true?
Orthodox materialism cannot explain: (1) why or how consciousness exists at all; or (2) how consciousness could have the causal efficacy to allow us to discuss its existence; or (3) how consciousness could be locally or globally phenomenally bound by a pack of discrete membrane-bound classical neurons into unitary perceptual objects that populate a unitary experiential field; or (4) why consciousness has all or any of its countless different textures.
However, most researchers working within the conceptual framework of the computational theory of mind believe that any sufficiently complex information-processing system will be a conscious subject of experience. Why? Barring a capacity to feign anaesthesia, the existence of one's own consciousness is self-intimating. Science rests on the principle of the uniformity of Nature. None of us has grounds for believing that we are ontologically special or privileged. Just as we are entitled, by way of analogy, to infer that other biological robots are subjects of experience, likewise we should infer that their non-biological counterparts are – or will be – conscious as well. The functionally unique properties of carbon and liquid water are, we assume, too low-level to be computationally or phenomenally relevant to the emergence of consciousness. Such implementation details of our minds are no more relevant than whether your PC (or a non-biological robot) uses chips made of silicon or gallium arsenide. Within the next few decades, programmable digital computers will plausibly pass the Turing test and its more sophisticated analogues (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Turing_test#Variations_of_the_Turing_test), thereby satisfying our normal behavioural criteria for the ascription of conscious states to others. A classical digital computer will be able to do anything you can do and more. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church%E2%80%93Turing_thesis) Church–Turing thesis) Moreover, we may imagine replacing one-by-one your biological neurons with silicon counterparts having the same connectivity, functional states and behavioural dispositions as their organic predecessors. You won't notice the difference. As David Chalmers puts it in "A Computational Foundation for the Study of Cognition" (2011):
“If noticing is defined functionally (as it should be), then there is no room for any noticing to take place, and if it is not, any noticing here would seem to be a thin event indeed. There is certainly no room for a thought “Hmm! Something strange just happened!”, unless it is floating free in some Cartesian realm. Even if there were such a thought, it would be utterly impotent; it could lead to no change of processing within the system, which could not even mention it (If the substitution were to yield some change in processing, then the systems would not have the same causal topology after all.”
My view? The exact opposite. Classical information-processing systems will always be insentient zombies: an experimentally testable conjecture.
Fortunately, experiment should settle the issue.
- What is reality made of?
Formally, a gigantic wavefunction. Yet what "breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe" is unknown. Intuitively, the intrinsic nature of the physical is non-experiential. However, the only part of the "fire" in the equations to which one enjoys direct access, namely one's own conscious mind, discloses properties wholly at variance with materialist metaphysics.
Just to clarify Michael's answer, both observer-induced state vector reduction and the Penrose Orch-OR theory entail modifying or supplementing the unitary dynamics. But in Penrose's approach, quantum state reduction is a gravitational phenomenon. However, no departure from the unitary Schrodinger dynamics has ever been experimentally detected. A large minority of theorists now believe that the superposition principle is universally valid: the state vector of the universe evolves deterministically in accordance with the Schrodinger equation. Classicality is an emergent phenomenon. Wojciech Zurek offers a good overview of the decoherence programme e.g. here:
- If you had a magic button that could put an end to all sufferings on earth (psychological, physical, social, etc.), would you press it? And why?
Most people wouldn't press the button. But alternatively, imagine if you had a magic button that could create another Earth identical to ours with all its sufferings (psychological, physical, social, etc), would you press it? And why?
Status quo bias corrupts our judgement and our morals.
In reality, there are no magic buttons. But we can use biotechnology to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering.
- Why don't animal rights activists care more about wild animal suffering?
A few do, for example,
Reducing Wild Animal Suffering
("Wild animals endure illness, injury, and starvation. We should help.")
However, until recently the cost, computational complexity and technical obstacles have seemed daunting.
CRISPR-based "gene drives" are a game-changer.
In principle, gene drives could be used - cheaply, rapidly and easily - to "fix" the typical level of suffering undergone by members of entire free-living species.
Consider a concrete example. The lives of countless sentient beings are blighted by physical pain. The pain-modulating SCN9A gene has dozens of different alleles. Rare, maladaptive nonsense mutations abolish the ability to feel pain altogether. But other SCN9A alleles confer unusually high or unusually low pain-sensitivity. Recall how today a small minority of high-functioning people have an exceptionally high pain tolerance. Such abnormally low pain-sensitivity isn’t the same as a dangerous congenital analgesia. For such lucky people, pain is little worse than a useful bodily signalling mechanism in situations where "normal" human and non-humans animals alike would be screaming in agony.
In principle, there's now nothing to stop intelligent moral agents "fixing" the [conditionally-activated level of] subjective physical distress undergone by members of entire free-living species by choosing and propagating benign alleles of SCN9A or its homologs via gene drives, i.e. engineering not a utopian "no pain" biosphere (cf. The Abolitionist Project) but a “low pain” biosphere.
To be sure, pitfalls abound; but no one is proposing compassionate stewardship of ecosystems by philosophers.
Until the CRISPR genome-editing revolution, helping anything but a few large, long-lived vertebrates such as elephants (cf. "A Welfare State for Elephants") was implausible in our lifetime. Aiding small rodents, marine invertebrates or insects (cf. The Importance of Insect Suffering") "The Importance of Insect Suffering") could at best be a task for our grandchildren and mature nanotechnology - or more credibly, for posthuman superintelligence. “Gene drives” turn this intuitive chronology on its head – in theory at any rate. For it's actually easier and quicker to help fast-reproducing r-selected rather than K-selected species
(cf. "Debunking the Idyllic view of Natural Processes" -
Such examples could be multiplied. With humans, we face the thorny issue of consent, whereas it’s hard to talk of the “right” of a mouse to suffer. Even if all prospective human parents were routinely offered preimplantation genetic screening so they could choose the pain-sensitivity and hedonic set-points (etc) of their offspring, millions of traditionally-minded people would still play genetic roulette and choose instead to have kids "naturally”. Therefore hundreds of years of needless human suffering still lie ahead. But unless we subscribe to the Wisdom of Nature, the choice of a "low-pain" living world in the vertebrate lineage and beyond will shortly be a technically feasible policy option – not perhaps a full compassionate pan-species welfare-state, let alone a perfect world, but at least radical conservatism.
And what should we say to religious believers? As ever, this depends on one's audience. Yet if God had wanted His creatures to suffer, then presumably He wouldn’t have given us CRISPR.
"Genetically Engineering Almost Anything - Powerful Genetic Engineering Technique Could Modify Entire Wild Populations")
- What evidence is there for quantum computation in the brain?
Perhaps the strongest empirical evidence that the mind-brain is a quantum computer lies under one's virtual nose, so to speak, in the guise of phenomenally-bound perceptual objects (“local” binding) and the unitary subject who apprehends them (“global” binding). However, independent experimental confirmation of this conjecture will depend on next-generation molecular matter-wave interferometry.
If neurons were discrete, decohered classical objects, as we might naively suppose, then organic minds could at most be patterns of membrane-bound “mind-dust”: so-called micro-experiential zombies. Individual neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, neurons mediating colour, and so forth could not generate phenomenally-bound perceptual objects, nor a quasi-classical world-simulation for those phenomenally-bound dynamical objects to populate, nor a fleetingly unitary phenomenal self who could pose such questions. By way of analogy, compare interconnected but skull-bound American minds communicating over the Internet. Whatever computations these interconnected skull-bound minds might experimentally execute, the collective outcome of the computations is not a pan-continental subject of experience - no sunsets or symphonies or continental migraines, just an information-processing micro-experiential zombie. Neuroscience needs to understand how a waking or dreaming “pack of neurons” is different.
Clues? There is no theoretical or experimental evidence that the unitary Schrödinger dynamics breaks down in the CNS. So let us provisionally assume that unmodified and unsupplemented quantum theory is correct. If so, then neuronal superpositions (“Schrödinger's cat states”) of edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-detectors must occur: you instantiate such neuronal superpositions right now. Naively, sub-femtosecond quantum superpositions in the warm wet CNS are computationally and phenomenally too short-lived to underpin our minds – ludicrously prolonged by twenty-five orders of magnitude or so compared to Planck-scale physics, but still orders of magnitude shorter than the normal millisecond dynamical time-frames over which everyday common-sense says that consciousness “emerges”.
Thankfully, scientific experiment rather than philosophical speculation should resolve the issue. Thermally-induced decoherence in living subjects is too strong for the tell-tale non-classical interference effects diagnostic of neuronal superpositions to be readily detected in the laboratory. However, trained-up in vitro neuronal networks (cf. http://www.physicalism.com/#6) should suffice to confirm or experimentally falsify the conjecture to the satisfaction of proponents and critics alike.
For some background reading:
(“The Cognitive Binding Problem: From Kant to Quantum Neurodynamics”)
(“Toward Quantum Superposition of Living Organisms”)
(“Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer”)
- What do Peter Singer and David Pearce think of each other?
Talk of moral progress can make one sound naive. But even the darkest cynic should salute the extraordinary work of Peter Singer to promote the interests of all sentient beings:
- Should humans wipe out all carnivorous animals so the succeeding generations of herbivores can live in peace?
Sentient beings shouldn't hurt, harm, and kill each other. This isn't an argument for mass genocide against cannibals or carnivores, but for dietary reform. Humans are prone to status quo bias. So let's do a thought-experiment. Imagine we stumble across an advanced civilisation that has abolished predation, disease, famine, and all the horrors of primitive Darwinian life. The descendants of archaic lifeforms flourish unmolested in their wildlife parks - free living but not "wild". Should we urge scrapping their regime of compassionate stewardship of the living world - and a return to asphyxiation, disembowelling and being eaten alive? Or is a happy biosphere best conserved intact?
Back here on Earth, the exponential growth of computer power entails that every cubic metre of the planet will shortly be accessible to surveillance and micro-management. In consequence, which life-forms and states of consciousness exist in tomorrow's wildlife parks will be up to us. Mass-produced in vitro meat, the CRISPR revolution in biotechnology, and fertility regulation via cross-species immunocontraception mean there is no need to re-enact the traditional Darwinian horror story indefinitely. On some fairly modest assumptions, fertility regulation is ethically preferable to Malthusian methods of population control in humans and nonhuman alike.
Critics might claim that a genetically tweaked vegetarian lion isn't "truly" a lion. But this is like saying non-Caucasians who lack the 1% to 3% Neanderthal DNA typical of Caucasians aren't "truly" human. Or vice versa. In short, beware naive species essentialism.
For now this debate is fanciful. Before humans can start systematically helping sentient beings, we must stop systematically harming them. Thankfully, the in vitro meat revolution promises a world where factory-farms and slaughterhouses have been outlawed. Before seriously contemplating high-tech Jainism, let's shut the death factories.
- Why does 'anything' exist?
Intuitively, there shouldn't be anything to explain. Bizarrely, this doesn't seem to be the case. One clue to the answer may be our difficulty in rigorously specifying a default state of "nothingness" from which any departure stands in need of an explanation. A dimensionless point? A timeless void? A quantum vacuum? All attempts to specify an alternative reified "nothingness" - an absence of laws, properties, objects, or events - just end up smuggling in something else instead. Specifying anything at all, including the truth-conditions for our sense of "nothingness”, requires information. Information is fundamental in physics. Information is physical. Information, physics tells us, cannot be created or destroyed. Thus wave functions in quantum mechanics don't really collapse to yield single definite classical outcomes. (cf. Wigner's friend: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wigner%27s_friend). Decoherence - the scrambling of phase angles between the components of a quantum superposition - doesn't literally destroy superpositions. Not even black holes really destroy information. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_hole_information_paradox)
So naturally we may ask: where did information come from in the first place?
Perhaps the answer is that it didn’t. The total information content of reality is necessarily zero: the superposition principle of QM formalises inexistence.
On this story, one timeless logico-physical principle explains everything, including itself. The superposition principle of quantum mechanics formalises an informationless zero ontology - the default condition from which any notional departure would need to be explained. In 2002, Physics World readers voted Young's double-slit experiment with single electrons as the "most beautiful experiment in physics". (cf. http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2013/mar/14/feynmans-double-slit-experiment-gets-a-makeover) Richard Feynman liked to remark that all of quantum mechanics can be understood by carefully thinking through the implications of the double-slit experiment. Quite so; only maybe Feynman could have gone further. If Everettian QM (cf. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-everett/) is correct, reality consists of a single vast quantum-coherent superposition. Each element in the superposition, each orthogonal relative state, each "world", is equally real. (cf. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/universe-splitter/id329233299?mt=8 - "Universe splitter" app.) Most recently, the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics explains the emergence of quasi-classical branches ("worlds") like ours from the underlying quantum field-theoretic formalism. (cf. Wojciech Zurek: http://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082v1.pdf) The universal validity of the superposition principle in post-Everett QM suggests that the mystery of our existence has a scientific rather than theological explanation.
What does it mean to say that the information content of reality may turn out to be zero? Informally, perhaps consider the (classical) Library of Babel. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Library_of_Babel)
The Library of Babel contains all possible books with all possible words and letters in all possible combinations. The Library of Babel has zero information content. Yet somewhere amid the nonsense lies the complete works of Shakespeare - and you and me. However, the Library of Babel is classical. Withdrawing a book from the Library of Babel yields a single definite classical outcome - thereby creating information. Withdrawing more books creates more information. If we sum two ordinary non-zero probabilities, then we always get a bigger probability. All analogies break down somewhere. Evidently, we aren't literally living in Borges’ Library of Babel. So instead of the classical Library of Babel, let us tighten the analogy. Imagine the quantum Library of Babel. Just as in standard probability theory, if there are two ways in QM that something can happen, then we get the total amplitude for something by summing the amplitudes for each of the two ways. If we sum two ordinary non-zero probabilities, then we always get a bigger probability. Yet because amplitudes in QM are complex numbers, summing two amplitudes can yield zero. Having two ways to do something in quantum mechanics can make it not happen. Recall again the double-slit experiment. Adding a slit to the apparatus can make particles less likely to arrive somewhere despite there being more ways to get there. Now scale up the double-slit experiment to the whole of reality. The information content of the universal state vector is zero. (cf. Jan-Markus Schwindt, "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation": http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf) The quantum Library of Babel has no information.
Caveats? Loose ends? The superposition principle has been experimentally tested only up to the level of fullerenes, though more ambitious experiments are planned (cf. http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090910/full/news.2009.903.html) Some scientists still expect the unitary Schrödinger dynamics will need to be supplemented or modified for larger systems - violating the information-less zero ontology that we're exploring here.
Consciousness? Does the superposition principle break down in our minds? After all, we see live or dead cats, not live-and-dead-cat superpositions. Yet this assumption of classical outcomes - even non-unique classical outcomes - presupposes that we have direct perceptual access to the mind-independent world. Controversially (cf. http://www.physicalism.com/quantum-computer.pdf), perhaps the existence of our phenomenally-bound classical world-simulations itself depends on ultra-rapid quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS. For if the superposition principle really broke down in the mind-brain, as classical neuroscience assumes, then we'd at most be so-called "micro-experiential zombies” - just patterns of discrete, decohered Jamesian neuronal “mind-dust” incapable of phenomenally simulating a live or a dead classical cat. (cf. http://www.physicalism.com/#6 This solution to the phenomenal binding problem awaits experimental falsification - or implausible vindication! - with tomorrow's tools of molecular matter-wave interferometry. (cf. Non-materialist Physicalism)
What about the countless different values of consciousness? How can an informationless zero ontology possibly explain the teeming diversity of our experience? Well, just as the conserved constants in physics cancel out to zero, and just as all of mathematics can in principle be derived from the properties of the empty set, perhaps the solutions to the field-theoretic equations of QFT mathematically encode the textures of consciousness. If we had a cosmic analogue of the Rosetta stone, then we'd see that these values inescapably "cancel out" to zero too. Unfortunately, it's hard to think of any experimental tests for this highly speculative conjecture.
"A theory that explains everything explains nothing", protests the critic of Everettian QM. To which we may reply, rather tentatively: yes, precisely.
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